Light in the darkness

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Heavenly Father, thank you that you have spoken through your prophets. Thank you that in these last days you have spoken in your Son. We know that we are deaf to your word unless you open our ears by your Spirit. So, heavenly Father, please give us ears to hear, and hearts to obey. And we pray in the precious name of Jesus, your Son, our Lord and saviour. Amen.

I suppose I’ve been going to carol services from the very first year of my life. But the first that I was remember was a school carol service when I was a young boy. I was in the choir as a treble – my voice was a bit higher then! I was also doing one of the Bible readings. I remember being very nervous and rehearsing it over and over. I also remember that the Bible passage I read made a very deep impression on me. God spoke to me through it. The reading was Isaiah 9.1-7, and I think of that boyhood carol service every time I hear it – as we’ve been doing through all of our Carols by Candlelight services. Maybe we usually let it wash over us. This morning we’ll take a closer look. Isaiah 9.1-7 is on page 573 in the Bibles. Please have that open in front of you. We know, of course, that this prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Isaiah 9.6:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…

How do we know that this is Jesus? Well, there’s a restatement in these verses of promises of the coming eternal King that point unmistakeably towards the coming of Christ. And that’s confirmed when Matthew in his Gospel explicitly says that this is about Jesus (Matthew 4.12-17):

Now when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darknesshave seen a great light,and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,on them a light has dawned.”From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

But what lies behind this prophecy? It’s all too easy for us to hear these familiar Christmas readings and skate over them. So it’s good to stop and take a step back, and dig deeper. That helps us to wonder afresh at this astonishing thing that happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, and to grasp the staggering significance of it for our lives today. You’ll see that Isaiah 9.1 begins with a:

But…

And that draws attention to the fact that these famous verses are the culmination of a section of the prophecy of Isaiah that begins in 7.1 and goes through to 9.7. And Isaiah 7-8 show us a people and their king in darkness. So look at Isaiah 8.22:

And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.

So what’s going on? We’re back about 750 years before the birth of Jesus. God’s people have long been split into two kingdoms – Israel in the north, otherwise known as Ephraim, and Judah in the south. Like siblings who hate each other, there is great hostility between them. And they’re as bad as each other. Ahaz is the King of Judah in the line of David, in the south. Ahaz gets bad news. He hears that Israel in the north has got together with Syria to go to war against him. Two nations against one. They’ve mobilised and are waiting for the moment when they can attack. As Ahaz sees it, he and Judah, his nation, are in danger of being wiped off the map. That’s all there at the beginning of Isaiah 7. You can read about it in 2 Kings 16 as well. So what happens when Ahaz and Judah hear of this existential threat? Take a look at Isaiah 7.2:

When the house of David was told, “Syria is in league with Ephraim,” the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.

Their hearts began to shake. Why? Because they were scared. Why? Because there was a real and present danger facing them, which was too strong for them to overcome. What about us? Maybe you know that feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach. You wake up in the morning, remember again what you have to deal with that day, and your heart shakes within you. God’s people are afraid because they’re under attack. That’s the situation here. It’s not hard to identify with that. There is hope, if only they will listen to God’s word. But king Ahaz and his people didn’t listen, and Isaiah made it clear that as a result, before the promised boy to be called Immanuel came it wouldn’t just be Israel and Syria that would be laid waste, but Judah, the kingdom of Ahaz, as well. It would become fly-ridden, shaved bare with a razor. It would become just a land of brier and thorns. A picture, in other words, of judgement.

The lesson for us is obvious. We must not be like Ahaz and most of the people of Judah back then. We must listen to God’s word, and trust, and obey. But the people of Judah don’t do that. And as a result they are plunged into a pit of dark and angry despair. It’s graphically described in Isaiah 8.21-22, just before our passage:

They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upwards. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.

So that’s where the people of God have got to as the astonishing prophecy of Isaiah 9.1-7 opens; thick darkness. But dawn is coming. Thick darkness will be dispelled by a great and blazing light. It lies in the future. For them, the coming of Christ, the light of the world, would be after a wait of over 700 years. But so certain was its coming that Isaiah speaks as if it’s already happened. For us, we have seen the light in the face of Christ. But we too wait. We live between the first and second comings of Christ. For now, for us there is light in the darkness, but the darkness still presses in. We wait for the day when Christ will return, and the darkness will be dispelled forever. Because of Christmas, that is our certain and glorious hope. The day will come when there will only be the blazing light of the glory of God in the face of Christ. So what is the message of this prophecy? It has four aspects. Let’s go through it.

1. Light shines on God’s people in the darkness

This is Isaiah 9.1-2:

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.The people who walked in darknesshave seen a great light;those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,on them has light shined.

The land which was home to God’s people is named in three ways. It is the land of Zebulun and Naphtali – which is the area in the north of Israel around the Sea of Galilee. Then it is the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan – or the land from the river to the sea, to use a phrase that is so explosively contentious and in the news to this very day. Thousands of years later it is so tragic that the deep darkness of violence and war still ravages this region. And it is Galilee of the nations, with its reference presumably to the mix of Israelites and those from other peoples who populated that area. But there’s also a hint here of the significance of what’s going to happen here for all the nations of the world. It is this land once contemptible that the Lord will make glorious. As Matthew makes so explicit, it was here in this very region that Jesus began his public ministry – a great light in a dark world. Or as John 1.4 says:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Without Christ, we too are lost in darkness, and no less contemptible than those desperate Israelites. But praise God Christ has come, and we have seen his glory, and it shines into our lives and changes us forever. Light shines on God’s people in the darkness.

2. The lord brings joy from the growth of God’s people

This is Isaiah 9.3:

You have multiplied the nation;you have increased its joy;they rejoice before youas with joy at the harvest,as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

There are echoes here of the multiplication of God’s people that was promised by God to Abraham. God told him that his offspring would be like the dust of the earth or the stars in the sky – beyond counting. And God said to Abraham:

…you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.

That’s Genesis 17.4. In New Testament terms, that’s church growth. And that expansion of the Kingdom of God and of the numbers of God’s people generates joy. It does for me! I’ve long had a passion for church growth. I suppose I think all Christians should have in one way or another. We should rejoice when we see more and more people repenting and believing and finding forgiveness and eternal life. We should rejoice at what we could call macro growth as we see the global church expanding. We can rejoice too at the micro level, down to the speck of dust which is JPC. Every speck counts! So it’s great that we now have more people in this church family than before the pandemic. And it’s great that the numbers at our Carols by Candlelight services were over 30% higher than last year. And it’s a joyful thing to see the way the Lord provides for our financial needs year after year. It’s like joy when the harvest comes in, or when the spoils of victory are shared. In their own way, these signs of growth that we see here at JPC are in the direct fulfilment of this promise made over 700 years before the first Christmas day. The Lord brings joy from the growth of God’s people.

3. The power of the enemies of God’s people is broken

The warfare is ended. Isaiah 9.4-5:

For the yoke of his burden,and the staff for his shoulder,the rod of his oppressor,you have broken as on the day of Midian.For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumultand every garment rolled in bloodwill be burned as fuel for the fire.

The yoke of his burden speaks of suffering being endured by God’s people. The rod of his oppressor speaks of suffering being inflicted on God’s people. All such suffering will be brought to an end. And all the battle dress and all the weapons of war will be incinerated in a blood-soaked bonfire. Self-evidently that hasn’t happened yet. That is an aspect of this prophecy that we’re still waiting to see. But that day is coming, and what a day it will be. The reference to the day of Midian in Isaiah 9.4 relates to the amazing victory that God gave to Gideon over the Midianites. Here’s Judges 7.19-21:

So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. And they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. Then the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars. They held in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow. And they cried out, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” Every man stood in his place around the camp, and all the army ran. They cried out and fled.

So this victory over the enemies of God will be entirely God’s doing. Our part will be to obey him, and to watch him at work. Or as the apostle Paul puts it in Colossians 2.15:

[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Christ Jesus]

…through his cross. Then:

4. God gives his son to rule forever over his people

The Son of God who broke the power of the enemies of God’s people once and for all at the cross is raised to God’s right hand to reign as his eternal King. All the messianic prophecies of a King in the line of David who will rule forever are fulfilled in him. All the promises of a Good Shepherd who will be both God’s anointed King and God himself will be fulfilled in him. Isaiah 9.6-7:

For to us a child is born,to us a son is given;and the government shall be upon his shoulder,and his name shall be calledWonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,on the throne of David and over his kingdom,to establish it and to uphold itwith justice and with righteousnessfrom this time forth and for evermore.

Or as the apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1.30:

[Christ Jesus] became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

It’s a striking thing that the picture here is of an endless increase of the Kingdom of Christ and the blessing of peace that it brings. That reminds me of a famous passage in the writings of C. S. Lewis. The Fenwick’s Christmas Windows this year have prompted me to fetch off our bookshelf Vivienne’s old boxset of the Narnia books from her childhood. My New Year project is to re-read them all. I’ve just gone through the back of the wardrobe again with Lucy, into the wintry forest. The final volume is The Last Battle. It ends with Aslan the lion (the Christ-figure) talking to the children:

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Or as the Lord says to us through Isaiah:

… to us a child is born,to us a son is given …Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.

Every chapter will be better than the one before. Is all this too good to be true? Will it really happen? It will. How do we know? Because of the end of Isaiah 9.7:

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

And as far as I can see, here in this glorious prophecy there is really only one thing that is asked of us. And that’s joy. Isaiah 9.3 again:

You have multiplied the nation;you have increased its joy;they rejoice before youas with joy at the harvest,as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

Joy, rejoicing, joy, gladness. All in the space of one verse. That’s what we’re called to, this Christmas and always. Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, thank you for Jesus. The light in our darkness. The victor over sin, Satan and death. Our eternal King. Even as we rejoice at his first coming, and rejoice in hope of his coming again, please grow in us an ever deeper joy in Him. In his name we pray. Amen.
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