A Light Through the Darkness
Light Splits the Night • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 23:04
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Today begins a new series for Advent called Light Splits the Night. There is a companion study book for this series written by Diane Averill and Amy Brown if you wish to take the passages of this series and dig a little more deeply into those scriptures during your devotion times in the week. Today we begin our first Sunday of Advent in Isaiah 9.
1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan— 2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. 3 You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. 5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
There are a few board games in my house that not everybody likes to play. Maybe it’s because the games take too long, but I think there’s more to it than that. Monopoly and Risk are two board games that I have that don’t get played very often. And here’s what I think about that. These are both games that end in complete annihilation. There’s no close second place in Monopoly or Risk. The way to win is to absolutely wipe out the opponents. It’s winner-takes-all and losers get nothing.
And so, it seems you reach a point in the game where the winner is all but assured, and the progression of the game becomes a methodical process towards the inevitable outcome. It’s usually at this point that we just stop playing the game. We all know what’s going to happen anyway, so why go on. Effectively it’s the “Mercy Rule” for board games. It all has to do with hope. As long as there is hope, the game can go on. In the moment where the entire game becomes completely hopeless for all the players but one, everyone walks away.
This passage from Isaiah begins with a glimpse of what that kind of hopelessness feels like. We shouldn’t rush over that. We always want to get to the good news and look for the happy ending. But for this passage from Isaiah to make sense we need to take a few moments today and remember what it feels like to be completely hopeless.
Let’s start with a little history lesson. Isaiah mentions two tribes in particular by name in this passage. He is addressing the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. The way in which the tribes of ancient Israel plotted out on a map places these two tribes with territory towards the northern-most border of Israel.
These two tribes run along the western bank of the Jordan River up to the northern shore of the sea of Galilee. This territory formed the main passage from Egypt and Arabia across to the far east nations of Assyria and Babylon—a trade route that was called the Way of the Sea. That meant these two tribes lived on pretty strategic land for controlling the passage of trade or blocking an advancing army. It also meant that these two tribes in particular faced more than their share of conflict coming their way. Zebulun and Naphtali were often targeted by foreign invasion, and these two tribes would be the first to fall in an attack.
And they knew that. They knew that they would be the first to go whenever the fighting starts.
So, when the nation of Assyria—just over the other side of Mount Hermon—emerges as the next global superpower, Zebulun and Naphtali know perfectly well what’s going to happen next. They are rounding the corner from Marvin Gardens to Pacific Avenue, and Assyria has hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. It’s time to call in the “Mercy Rule” and throw in the towel.
What does hopelessness feel like?
Hopeless. Do you know what that feels like? It feels stuck. Hopelessness feels like you just cannot make any winning moves to get yourself out of the jam that you’re in, so the only move you have is to not move anywhere and wait for the inevitable. People who live in chronic cycle of poverty know this. Poverty leaves people stuck. Poverty leaves lives frozen in place with no possible moves that can help anything break ahead. Illness leaves people stuck. Constant battles with poor health leave people with fewer and fewer options till they feel as if there are no options left at all. Abuse leaves people stuck. Living under the constant threat of emotional or physical violence from another leaves people too afraid and too ashamed to see beyond the trap they are in.
Hopelessness paralyzes our lives. Hopeless people are paralyzed physically—we no longer want to get up or go out or do things. hopeless people are paralyzed emotionally—we no longer want to connect with other people or engage activities we might enjoy. Hopeless people are paralyzed spiritually—we no longer live in ways that worship God or grow in faith. Nobody wants to be there. Nobody wants to live in hopelessness. Nobody chooses to stay in a place of hopelessness. It’s just something that keeps people stuck and it can become so hard to break free, especially for those who have only known hopeless places for year after year.
Walking in darkness
Isaiah puts it this way: that these are people walking in darkness. To be without hope is to be in the dark. I’m not sure we understand what that’s like because we live in a world of electricity. Even at night when I turn out all the lamps in my house there is still light coming from places. The digital clock makes light. The little LED indicators on various household electronics make light—the cell phone charger, the blu-ray player, the coffee maker. Even in the dark, my house is never actually completely dark. And there are always streetlamps sneaking through the windows. Parking lot lights from nearby retail stores always glow across the horizon. We really have no idea what it means to be complete lost in the dark.
But this is the language Isaiah uses. People without hope are people who walk in the dark. I picture it as aimless wandering without any direction or any bearings. There is no orientation to where you are or where you are going. This is how Isaiah pictures people who have no hope. But beyond the immediate audience of Israel, this is Isaiah’s prophetic description of a larger world wandering in the dark away from God.
And apart from God we see a world fumbling in the dark for hope in all sorts of places.
This starts to move us towards the hope of Christmas. But it is only a movement towards hope. Because we still live in a world that desperately reaches out for hope wherever we can find it. We hope for all sorts of things. And that’s where we go next—it is a hope for something.
A hope that depends on conditions and circumstances
Hope for is a hope to get something or to see something. It is a hope placed upon circumstances. It is a hope that bargains for certain conditions or results. Kids have Christmas lists of things that they hope for—it is the hope for what might be inside those wrapped presents under the tree.
We all try to carry hope like that from time-to-time. We hope for a better job. We hope for a good report. We hope our kids will make good choices. We hope mom and dad will let me go on the spring break trip with my friends. We hope to make the cut and get on the varsity team. We hope for all sorts of things. But these are all hopes that are still built upon conditions and circumstances. In order for any of these hopes to make it to reality, there has to be something that transpires according to my desires and my wishes. A hope for something is a hope that is built upon me and what I want.
Something that I want to happen
Maybe this doesn’t have to sound all that bad. I mean, what if the hope is some sort of Miss America speech about a hope for world peace? What if my hope is not for myself but a hope for other people? This doesn’t necessarily have to be a self-centered desire, maybe it can be a good thing flowing from a genuine love. Yet none of that changes the foundation that a hope for is a hope that seeks to bend conditions and circumstances towards my desires—towards something that I want to have or to see happen.
Let’s take this back to the words of Isaiah and see if there is something about hope we are missing.
6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
This isn’t hope for something, this is hope in something—or better yet, hope in someone. Maybe you think: oh big deal, what’s the difference? But Isaiah is expressing a hope for God’s people that is placed in a promised Messiah. This is a hope that lets go of all my own ambitions and my own desires. This is a hope that does not center around a focus of what I want. Rather, this is a hope that surrenders to the will of God. This is a hope that strives to see beyond myself in order to embrace the larger picture of God’s kingdom—a kingdom that is being transformed and restored right in this world.
This is a hope that is in Jesus.
A hope placed IN the promised Messiah
Not about my own ambitions or desires
A hope that is in Jesus is a hope that does not carry a primary concern about what I get out of the deal or what’s in it for me. A hope that is in Jesus is not consumed by whatever I think my benefits ought to be. No, a hope that is in Jesus is a hope that boldly declares that Jesus is king.
Jesus carries unshakable authority
Isaiah says that the government is on his shoulders. This is not government as maybe we think about it with legislative branches and court systems and elected officials. This is not a reference to some kind of civic institution within society. It is simply a reference to authority. Isaiah is saying that the promised Messiah will carry authority which cannot be overpowered.
"Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace"
Jesus is a good king, and he came to be with us
And he is a good king. The Messiah is called a Wonderful Counselor, a Prince of Peace. Our God carries an authority which reaches out in love and extends to those in need with grace. The birth of Jesus is our reminder every year at Christmas of just how far our God is willing to go in order to be with the people he created and loves so much. A hope in Jesus is a hope that confidently declares that I am and always will be a forgiven child of God. Nothing can ever challenge or take away the love God has for me. Nothing can ever shake or loosen his grip on my life. This king of the universe has come to be with us. And my hope is in him.
And so, in this season of Advent, whenever you may find yourself struggling with feelings of hopelessness; whenever you may find yourself disappointed because the things you were hoping for did not take shape; whenever you find yourself stuck in a place where you just don’t know if you will ever come out to a better place. Remember that the hope we have is a hope that reaches beyond all of that. Our hope is in Jesus. And this is a hope that will never fail.