January 22, 2023

“The Power of Light!”

Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23

This morning’s two passages have much in common. They both have something to say about light. The Isaiah passage says, “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.” The Matthew passage uses Isaiah’s same passage in speaking about Jesus and his relocating to Capernaum.

What exactly is Isaiah prophesying about? It is the 8th century B.C. The kingdom of Israel has suffered and struggled to remain faithful to God. The powerful Assyrian army is on Israel’s doorstep, demanding the kingdom be assimilated into the Assyrian Empire, as so many other nations have already done. Ahaz, one of David’s sons, is king, and he was not faithful to God. He worshipped the Assyrian gods, did not listen to Isaiah’s counsel, and even befriended the Assyrians to help him wipe out minor threats to the north-the Zebulun and Naphtali. For the Assyrian’s help, Ahaz finds himself in great debt. Resistance is futile. He and Israel will be assimilated. Prior to the passage in chapter 8, Isaiah prophesied of a time of gloom and darkness until a king from David’s line ascends the throne to replace King Ahaz. Then we come to today’s passage, which in connection with chapter 7, tells of the hope of a Messiah, a true son of God, to be a light in the darkness, “Immanuel, God with us.” Historically, King Hezekiah, who would rule Israel some 40 years later, is possibly whom Isaiah prophecies in part about - a son of God - for Kings were believed to be direct representatives of God back then. Hezekiah was a good king. That time of light was still a few decades away.

For now, Israel remains in a land of deep darkness. In Verse 4, Isaiah mentions a yoke. The Assyrian army oppresses the people with this yoke. In addition, the bar of servitude and the rod of punishment are all part of what Assyria brings to Israel. Eventually, the Assyrians sack Israel, and many of the population are taken into Assyria as slaves. By the time of Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter nine, Israel has suffered for more than ten years, is no longer its own nation, times are dark, and God seems absent.

 There is hope in the future, however. The people will be freed from the yoke. The rod will be broken, as when Gideon defeated Midian in a battle mentioned in the book of Judges (7:15-25). There is hope in a future Messiah who will bring light to the darkness.

Fast forward some 700+ years to when Jesus walked among the people of Israel. Hezekiah was a good king but was long gone. The people still waited for a Messiah. As we pick up the story in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been baptized by John and has struggled through the temptations of the Evil One, wandering and going without food for 40 days in the wilderness. After being waited upon by angels, we come to today’s section of Matthew, chapter 4. Jesus hears John has been arrested, and he withdraws, perhaps to regroup and get ready to do his ministry. He left Judea and traveled to Capernaum by the sea, which just so happens to be the same area where the minor enemies of Israel, the Zebulun and Naphtali, were many centuries before. His actions connect to this ancient prophecy from the prophet, and Matthew uses Isaiah’s prophecy of a coming messiah to proclaim Jesus as a great light. He is the Messiah hoped for all these centuries.

His light attracts a following as he preaches repentance. His light causes two brothers who were lifelong fishermen to drop everything on the shore, to leave the only trade they knew and follow his light. He then encounters two other brothers, James and John. Their father’s name, Zebedee, means “Thunder.” I don’t imagine their decision to drop their nets and follow Jesus went over very well with Thunder, but still they followed. These four fishermen were just the beginning. Jesus’ light has caused many to drop everything and follow. Millions over the centuries have followed his light.

We are living in dark and difficult times and could really use some light. We seem to be on the other side of the pandemic. Yet it appears Covid will be part of the future landscape. Our nation seems fractured, and democracy hangs in the balance. It feels to me as if we are living in a land of deep darkness, unable to have polite conversations with people on the other side of the political aisle, and are in need of some light.

Last week, Paula and I had the blessed opportunity to go on a brief four-night vacation to Florence, Oregon. It was pretty stormy and dark most of the time we were there, which was just fine for the most part. Listening to the storms coming in and hearing the waves roar while the rain pounded on the roof was so beautiful and powerful to listen to. We did enjoy one sunny morning and enjoyed a day at the beach. But the storms came back the next morning, and it was dark once again. The last night we were there, we went to a nice restaurant down at the marina and had a wonderful Italian dinner. On the way back, we got into a dark section of the roadway where there were no streetlights. Both Paula and I suddenly wondered if the lights on our Subaru had turned off. It was really disconcerting going through all that darkness. But, as we focused ahead, we did see that the headlights were indeed working, and those lights guided us through the darkness back to our cabin by the beach.

Light is so important amid darkness. It can show us the way ahead. The light of Christ, first mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah almost 2,800 years ago, shines for us as well and can show us the way ahead, encouraging us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to love God, and to serve others. We who follow that great light reflect that light as well with every act of love, caring, and service we perform. The following story illustrates that point.

When we were in Florence, we decided to attend the local Presbyterian church there, the Church of the Siuslaw (The name of the river that runs through the town). The guest minister that Sunday saw that there was one child in the congregation and decided to have a children’s moment. It just so happened that this young girl who came up was a perfect illustration for the children’s sermon, which was all about shining Christ’s light to others. She wore a multicolored sequin sweater. It looked almost like a jacket Elton John would have worn on tour! Or perhaps to frame it more biblically, it was a shiny coat of many colors, an updated coat of Joseph. The pastor’s point was that we who follow Jesus needed to be like the young girl, to reflect Christ’s light by what we say and do in a world that often seems to be in deep darkness.

Here is this message from the prophet and from Mathew. God wants us to shine, to reflect Messiah’s light to a dark, frustrated, and fearful world. People are looking for light all over this world right now, and more specifically, here in the Rogue Valley. They too, are frustrated and afraid. Many are depressed and hopeless. We are called to reflect God’s light during these dark times.  It is the same light Isaiah prophesied about as the people longed for a Messiah. It is the same light that shone over Bethlehem and attracted wise men and shepherds, and others to Jesus. It is the same light Matthew proclaimed emanating from the Messiah. It is the same light that shines on people’s computer screens when we broadcast our service to others on YouTube. It is the same light that shines every time we have a Covid/Flu vaccine clinic. It is the same light that shines when someone who is hungry can have something to eat through our Little Free Pantry. It is the same light that shines when someone with no place to call home finds a place of grace and welcome through our Safe parking program. It is the same light that shines on the corner of Walker and Siskiyou, proclaiming hope in the birth of Christ through our lit manger scene during the Christmas season. It is the same light that shined on Christmas Eve as we lit candles from the Christ candle. It is the same light that shined yesterday as I spoke words of hope and life eternal to the Binder family and friends as we honored Bernie’s life and faith. It is the same light that was present in the deacon’s hard work to bring about a wonderful reception after the service, complete with German Polka. It is the same light that shines every time you or I speak words of love and hope to someone in need or reach out to share God’s mercy or justice-the light of our Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The world has come into darkness, especially these past three years. Yet God is doing something about it, still blessing people with help and hope, still calling the people of God to shine. God has given us gifts through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ- gifts of faith, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and healing. When we use those gifts, we shine. Light of the world, shine on. Help us to carry on. You are the Son of God. Shine on us, light of the world. Help us to shine before others. Alleluia. Amen.

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