Light Dawns on a Weary World

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

Nov 19, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-7

We often hear this text on Christmas Eve. I’m aware we haven’t gotten to a Christmas season yet, even if stores have been decorated for Christmas since August. Yet this is the assigned reading today in the Narrative Lectionary, and it is a helpful reminder that Isaiah is not some sort of prophet “elf on a shelf” we haul only at Christmas to talk about Jesus.

He was a different kind of prophet than Amos, who we heard last week, standing on the street corner—a thorn in the side of political and religious leaders. Isaiah was inside the palace, in the middle of the 8th century BCE speaking to his own people about where God was in the midst of their lives.  It’s not a surprise we might prefer the words of Isaiah to the words of Amos. Most days, I want “Comfort, comfort my people” more than I want to be reminded that I’ve sold the poor for a pair of sandals.

We hear “for unto us a child is born” from today’s reading and we think of Jesus, or at least Handel’s Messiah.

And it is fine for us as followers of Jesus to hear Isaiah’s prophecy this way. Isaiah didn’t know about Jesus when he wrote this. He didn’t know Jesus would be born 700 years or so later. Isaiah might even be surprised, if flattered, to find we’re talking about him in Boise in 2017.

It’s interesting the way we interact with Biblical texts, isn’t it? Isaiah wrote 2700 years ago, and yet I still find his words resonate with my life.  His words also blur the line between past and future. He writes:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.

Whether the “son” Isaiah references was one of the contemporary Kings of Israel or Judah—Hezekiah, or maybe Josiah—or whether it is Jesus, as we understand it, the fact remains that Isaiah speaks of it in the past tense. Hebrew doesn’t have tenses quite the same way English does, but it he doesn’t say “a son will show up 700 years in the future.”

The son has been given already. 

There is also a future directed sense of some of the passage. “He will establish and uphold (the kingdom) with justice and righteousness from this time on, forevermore.”

Time in this passage moves in weird ways. And it’s got me thinking about the way we interact with time. We experience time in a linear way—past, present, future. I’m not suggesting we can somehow overturn that, but I do think we interact with the past and the future in ways we might not usually be aware.

As many of you know, I’ve been meeting my birth family the past few years. This past week on my birthday, I ended up on the phone with my birth mother. It wasn’t a call to share birthday greetings. I called her because a cousin let me know my birth mother was in the hospital. It was a perfectly nice conversation, and I am forever grateful I can at least call her when she’s ill.

I got off the phone and felt weird. It was the first time in 49 years that my birth mother and I had ever spoken on my birthday. I’m not telling you  this because I wish things had been different. I’m well celebrated by my family and friends on my birthday. I remain abundantly thankful to have been adopted.

What the conversation triggered for me, though, is a realization about why my birthday has been a conflicted day for me. I often feel depressed on my birthday, which never made conscious sense to me. Why would one be depressed on the day everyone celebrates you? Talking to my birth mother on my birthday made me realize why. My birthday is an anniversary of a day when mother and child were separated from each other without ever seeing each other or saying a word to the other.

On this birthday, even though we didn’t talk about my birthday, we spoke to each other.  I heard her voice. And that short conversation started to heal my past.  The me of 49 years ago finally got something she needed—her birth mother’s voice.

In chapter 49 of Isaiah, when I was looking for another verse, I read this:

“Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
 or show no compassion for the child of her womb?”

Sorry to get all weird and time traveler on you here, but when else have you seen something in the present start to heal a wound of the past?

I saw a photo this weekend of President Obama when he was in office. Here’s what White House photographer Pete Souza said about the photo;

Afternoon meetings Friday, May 8, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“You have this young African-American boy touching the head of the President of the United States, who looks like him,” Souza says. “And I think for hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, this was a powerful moment to see this.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The story of Race in America is not one of our better stories. From slavery, to the Civil War and reconstruction, to Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and Ferguson—there is a deep wound in our nation. And yet I think for this young African American boy to realize that the President of the United States looked like him—I trust that moment somehow participated in healing some of the wounds in our country.

Are our problems with race fixed yet? No. 

Does it still matter for this boy, and maybe for all who see the photo?  Yes.

Or I think of a story I heard on Story Corps, about a woman who received an organ transplant from a young man who died of a heroin overdose. Did you know nearly 1 out of every 10 organ donors this year in America died because of drug overdoses? We have a problem in in this country. 

The organ recipient spoke to the young man’s, the organ donor’s mother, and I got a sense of the way the mother’s pain from the past was slowly being healed by the gift of his organs bringing life to someone else. When the mother received a letter from her, she said:

“It was this gentle reassurance that came over me that this was going to be okay. Thank you”.

Is her grief all past and done? No.  Is the past slowly being healed? Yes.

Healing the past is also an act of healing the future.

I confess when I heard this passage at Bible study this week, it depressed me a bit. It speaks of light—

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.

Yet, I’ve heard many of my friends recently commenting on the darkness they feel. And at this particular time of the year—maybe it’s because the days are getting shorter, perhaps it stressful expectations of what the perfect holidays should be, and anxiety about how we won’t measure up, maybe it’s the news—the darkness seems oppressive some days.

So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light

—Mumford and Sons “Ghosts that we knew”

At various times, we experience darkness in our personal, and in our collective, lives. We gather together at the darkest time of the year to proclaim that on us a light has shined and it gives us hope that we’ll find that perfect balance of light and dark.

Because of our dependence on seeing time flow from past to present to future, we get perhaps more depressed because we don’t seem to be improving. We’ve bought into the story that the future is supposed to be better than the past, that we’re supposed to learn from our mistakes. We look around and we don’t see much of that. We hear:

His authority shall grow continually,
 and there shall be endless peace
f
or the throne of David and his kingdom.

   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
 from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

And we look around and we don’t see endless peace. We don’t see justice and righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.  Yes, there are moments of all of those things, light shining in the darkness.

I want more.

We’d like the bad guys to lose.

We’d like children to not get cancer or be shot at school, or at church, or at the theater…

We’d prefer diagnoses and illness would become extinct.

We want peace in our relationships and in our community.

And if we’re being honest, we’d like God to show up in force and with great strength and bright sunlight that never sets.

God chose not to do that, however.

God became one of us, a helpless infant, subject to the darkness in the world.

If God chose to shine light by being born in a stable in the midst of political unrest, maybe we need to reconsider how we see the darkness.  Maybe we need to worry less about banishing all of the darkness, which can seem an endless task.

Maybe all we’re called to do is shine light, and trust it is enough.

Shining light on the issues and troubles of the past has increased the light in the present for me, and for our nation.

Shining a light on what we hope the future holds can help us chart the path toward our hope.

Perhaps it is when we are in the midst of darkness that we appreciate our need for light the most.

Isaiah would likely not be surprised, if he were here this morning, to discover we are still wrestling with darkness and light. In his day, the throne of David was on somewhat shaky ground. For every advance, there was a retreat. Two steps forward with a united kingdom, one step back into exile.

For Isaiah, God has shined a light on us so that we can, in turn, bear that light into the world.

Hear his words, from chapter 49:

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him….
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’

As we move toward the darkest time of the year, with the fewest hours of daylight and with that dreaded inversion we know will be coming, remember the simple power of light.  On us a light has shined. Remember that we are the light, offered to a weary world.

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.

Go, be the light in the darkness.

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