Light in The Darkness - Christmas 2008 audio
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined." Not many of us today have any real concept of darkness. We probably think of it as dark right now, but in fact we live in a world where even in the dead of night light is everywhere. So much so that we tend to take light for granted. You get up in the middle of the night and your bedside clock is glowing, the streetlights are shining in the window, your neighbours have their lights on. You can see where you're going quite clearly. But it wasn't always the case. I remember when I was growing up, which wasn't that long ago, can I say, we regularly had blackouts: usually during electrical storms. So there was always a supply of candles and matches nearby and a hurricane lamp in the garage to light so you could see again, because when you have a blackout in the middle of a storm it really does get dark. Most of you are old enough to remember those days I think. If you are, do you also remember what a relief it was when the candle was first lit. That tiny light made such a difference didn't it? And when the power came back on it was even better.
Well that's the feeling God is trying to convey, only more so, as Isaiah presents this prophecy of a salvation that will reach to all people. He says God is planning a salvation that will reach to the farthest ends of the earth, a great light to shine on people who live in deep darkness.
People used to think of those who lived in darkness as being the people of Africa. They even talked about darkest Africa. But these days I think we're realising that darkness is a thing of the heart rather than geography. In fact this has always been the case. Listen to what Romans 1 says about this: "19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools;" (Rom 1:19-22 NRSV)
You may have seen the article in the Sunday age the week before last about a group of humanists who are trying to have humanist philosophy taught as part of the Religious Education program in schools. They want to remove the concept of God from social education. Instead they want to teach humanist ethics, whatever that is. Well leaving aside the question of whether you can claim it's religious education at all if you deny that God exists, what you're left with, if you take God out of the discussion, is a social ethic that has no foundation. The only argument you can put forward then for ethical behaviour is the common good, the good of the majority. But if you think about it, there's actually no basis, other than perhaps fear, on which to claim that the good of the majority matters. Unless we have some external grounds for judging our behaviour, anything will do, anything goes. Whatever I feel like must be right.
I saw a cartoon the other day where Santa was saying he's given up making up a naughty and nice list because these days no-one can agree on what's naughty.
These humanists who want to remove God from the equation may claim to be wise but in fact they're fools, because they've removed God's standards as the criteria for behaviour and put a hollow, groundless ethic in their place. Yet notice that it's to just such people that our gracious God has sent Jesus to bring light to overcome their darkness.
Well let's spend just a few minutes thinking about this prophecy to see what God has promised through his son Jesus.
He says "The yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian". Again, most of us have no real concept of oppression. Our idea of oppression is having to deal with Telstra or a Bank or some government department; waiting for hours in a queue while they assure us that 'our business is important to them'. But here he's talking about real oppression, a real burden. The nation of Israel had suffered for generations under the assault of foreign nations, culminating in the siege of Jerusalem by Assyria, then a few years later their defeat by Babylon. So the promise of release from this burden must have been a much longed for hope.
But in fact the oppression that God is going to free people from is far more than just freedom from our enemies. If that were the case he'd have nothing to offer us here in Australia would he? But in fact we do need to be freed from oppression. We need to be freed from the bondage to sin and decay. Again from Romans: (Rom 8:19-24 NRSV) "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God ... we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved." Whenever I feel another pain in my joints or an aching muscle from doing some physical exercise I haven't done for a while, I'm reminded that I'm part of this creation that's under bondage to decay, under bondage to sin. In fact every person on earth is under bondage to sin and decay, to a life that moves inexorably towards death. And Jesus has come to deliver us from that bondage, to give us the sure hope of eternal life.
Next he promises the end of war. In Isaiah's day the end of war would have been welcomed with great joy by both the fighting men and their families. "5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire." Again, few of us have any real concept of war. Certainly not the sort of war that involves garments rolled in blood. We may see images of war from Iraq or Afghanistan; we see the Christmas messages from the soldiers in their desert camouflage outfits, but the images we see are sanitised by television. We can't really know what it feels like to be in a place like that. And we certainly can't imagine what it was like in Isaiah's day to be drenched in blood from fighting hand to hand with swords and knives.
If you've ever had to help someone who's bleeding you'll know what a graphic image that is. There's the smell of iron; the stickiness of it as you feel it on your fingers, the way it stains first red and then brown as it oxidises. It's not a pretty picture is it? War is an ugly thing. But all of this, all the reminders of war are to be burnt in the fire. Boots and battle garments will no longer be required. They'll be put to better use - to warm people's houses perhaps as they're burnt in the fire.
And what is it that will bring about this change? "6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us." God is going to send a child who will be king. He'll be born to us as a fellow human being, yet at the same time he'll be given to us as a gift from God. There'll be something about this child that will set him apart, almost as though his heritage is more than human! And if you wonder about that just look at the sort of king he'll be! Authority will rest upon his shoulders. It's almost as if he's saying that this king will epitomise authority. If you want to know what kingly authority is, just look at him. This is how a king should be. And here is the dream of a king who will bring true peace on earth - a dream that people continue to have still. And who is this king? In the words of Psalm 24 that we'll be listening to in moment, "Who is the king of Glory?" He's a child who is named "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Wonderful counsellor here has the idea of a supernatural, God-given counsel. Solomon was a 'wonderful counsellor'. His wisdom came as a direct gift from God. And this child to be born would continue in that heritage as a son of David. But he'd be far greater than Solomon because the second name he's given is Mighty God. This is not just a great human leader. This is God himself. When Isaiah announced in ch7 the coming of a child who would be called Immanuel, God with us, that's exactly, literally, what he meant. And this second prophecy of his coming makes it even more explicit.
He's also the 'Everlasting Father'. In the Old Testament the phrase heavenly Father generally refers to God's concern for the helpless or the care and discipline of his people and their loving response to him. Now this concern and care will be everlasting. No longer are they reliant on a King whose life span is limited by mortality. Now a King is coming who'll live for eternity. And finally he's described as the 'Prince of Peace'. Again, in the Old Testament peace is more than just cessation of war. It's far fuller than that. Peace, shalom, is the state of being fulfilled, of being at rest, complete, whole, with nothing more to do to feel satisfied.
Finally, notice that this king will establish his authority but that the range of that authority will grow as time goes on. His peace will spread until it reaches the entire earth. This of course is the task Jesus gave to the Church: to go into all the world and preach the gospel: the gospel of peace, bringing more and more people into the realm of Christ's peace. And in case you thought this was too hard, look at the final sentence in our passage: "The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this." God hates the brokenness of our world. He hates warfare and bloodshed. He hates the way people bicker and fight with each other. And he especially hates the way people turn their back on him. So he's determined to bring as many as possible into his kingdom, to share in the peace that this child, born to be King, will bring about.
Some of you will go home tonight to difficult situations. Some will celebrate Christmas without family members because of some sort of family breakdown. Others will be worried about some member of their family or one of their friends. Others will be bearing guilt and regret over some incident during the year. But here's the amazing message of Christmas: Christ has come to remove that guilt. Christ has come to bring peace to our troubled world, to our troubled lives, peace of mind, peace with one another, even peace towards our enemies.
So tonight I pray that you might know that Peace of God in your life, in your relationships, in your family, - tonight and tomorrow and in the year to come.
We're going to spend a few minutes now listening to the words of Psalm 24 sung by Sons of Korah and as we listen I hope you'll think about whether the King of Glory has been invited to your celebrations this year.