Light in the Darkness


Isaiah 9:2-7   Christmas Eve, 2018  

 

Tomorrow afternoon, after all the presents are opened, will you feel a letdown?  Many will.  Is that because so many of us try to play pretend at Christmas?

I remember one Christmas Day when I was a child.  A radio news report was on about fighting in the Middle East, and I objected to my mother.  I said, “I don’t think they should tell us any bad news on Christmas.”  She replied, “You think we should pretend there is no bad news for one day?”

Yes!  I do want to play pretend!  But then, what happens when we’ve been playing pretend tonight and tomorrow morning and, oh, by late afternoon tomorrow, we realize nothing has changed?  When it turns out that we are the same people as we were?  Our family dynamics are the same (for better or for worse).  Our health and mobility issues haven’t miraculously cleared up.  We look for the day to come, when there will be no more crying and no more dying!  But, by tomorrow afternoon (unless God does something significant), we will realize that that day hasn’t come yet.

Here is what I suggest.  Instead of playing pretend, which means thinking of this holy night as something disconnected from what we have experienced in the past and what we will experience in the future, let’s situate the gospel of this night into our ongoing faith formation.  How does it comment on what we experience?

Here’s what made me think of this: it was the Daily Lectionary reading of one week ago.  We were in the final days leading up to Christmas, and we were reading in the gospel of Luke – about Jesus’ arrest!  What was up with that?!  But here’s how the reading ended, with Jesus’ words: “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”[1]  And the connection clicked in my mind as the Bible formed my thinking.  We were preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ, who was born into our darkness.  Indeed, it is because of our intractable human darkness that our saving God needed to be born into our flesh and blood!  It was the only way God could bring light into our darkness.

I don’t have to spend much time citing examples of the darkness.  From global climate change to war around the globe; to our poisoned national politics, with our Russian enemy influencing our last presidential election; to our personal struggles with what would cause us to despair: illness and disability, family conflict or grief over lost family members, work that is not fulfilling, a yearning for a sense of purpose; all of that is part of the human condition.  The good news tonight is the birth of Jesus the Christ who is light in the darkness.

In our reading from the prophet Isaiah tonight, words spoken 730 years before the birth of Christ, God is speaking to God’s people who are suffering deep national darkness.  Their ruler, King Ahaz, has disobeyed God.  Syria is threatening to annihilate the small nation of God’s people.[2]  God had promised to provide the means for victory in the face of Syrian aggression.  But King Ahaz did not trust in God’s promises.  Ahaz turned to Assyria for help, which turned out to be the ruin of the nation.  Now, as the prophet speaks God’s words, the nation of Judah is a vassal of Assyria.  They are no longer an independent nation.

In what we read tonight, the prophet is proclaiming a great light[A] child has been born to us, Isaiah declares.  This child will be a new inheritor of the throne of [King] David and his kingdom.  He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.  And, indeed, the new royal leadership of Hezekiah does make peace and prosperity possible – for a while, about a century.  But in the year 587, God is sick and tired of the people’s continuing disobedience, and God allows the Babylonians to utterly destroy Jerusalem and Judah, and send the people into exile.[3]  All is lost.  By the time of the birth of Jesus, Israel has been occupied and oppressed by a series of world superpowers for more than 700 years.

And, during that time, the people have continued to look for what Isaiah’s words proclaim: “a radical and decisive break in the fortunes of Judah, when all that is ‘dark’ will be overcome by ‘a great light,’ namely a new David.”[4]  And, as the first Jewish believers are making sense of Jesus, Isaiah’s words are “re-heard,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it.[5]  Now, Jesus is the “great light!”  The great reversal, the liberation from oppression, will be led by Jesus!  And what a parable tonight’s good news is: “God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace is made flesh in the weakest of human creatures, a little baby.”[6]

We read in Isaiah: 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.  We still wait for the day to come when we can use those past tenses!  We are God’s people who still walk in darkness; who still live in a land of deep darkness.  But it is true that we have seen a great light – in Jesus, the Christ!  On us, light has shined – in Jesus, the Christ!  On this night we celebrate the coming of the light of Christ, born in the weakest of human creatures, a little baby!

We can’t play pretend.  The darkness is deep, even on this holy night.  We still pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

But still, even as we walk in our human darkness, we light candles.  We celebrate the birth of “the light of Christ!”[7]  We know that the kingdom is coming.  We know that God’s will is being done.  We know that God gives us our roles to play in all of that.

In the name of that God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] Luke 22:53

[2] In fact, Syria and Israel are threatening the small nation of Judah.  Here’s the background.  King David ruled over the nation of Israel, followed by his son, King Solomon.  When Solomon died, the one nation of Israel split into two nations: Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south, including the city of Jerusalem).  God is speaking to the people through Isaiah about 200 years after the death of King Solomon.  Ahaz is the king of Judah.  All of this is too complicated to include in the sermon, but if you’ve picked up a copy of this, you may be interested in doing some historical Bible study!

[3] By this time, Babylon had defeated Assyria and was the world’s superpower.  You may be interested to know that, after 597 BCE, the next time Israel became an independent nation was in 1947!

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1 – 39 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), page 82.

[5] Ibid., page 85.

[6] Gene M. Tucker, “Isaiah” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 124.

[7] Words we use to begin the Easter Vigil.


About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine loves being a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!