In the Name…
One of my Dad's favourite comic strips was "Hagar the Horrible", the Viking guy. I remember one in which Hagar is addressed by a monk. The monk, Bible tucked under his arm and with a pious expression on his face, says to Hagar, "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness." In the next frame, the monk is walking away over the horizon and we see Hagar reflecting, "But I enjoy cursing the darkness."
We had an interesting Old Testament lesson this morning. In fact, we might be forgiven for thinking we’ve gone back in time because this was the Old Testament lesson from just a few weeks ago on Christmas. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” So, why are we hearing it again so soon? Come to think of it, what did it have to do with Christmas in the first place? Let’s consider the background.
Darkness is associated with unpleasant things. We’ve all stumbled around during a power outage and when we bang into the coffee table we don’t feel much like saying “Hello, darkness my old friend” as the song goes. No, when we’re in the dark, we tend to get disoriented and be a bit scared.
The prophet Isaiah wrote this passage during a time in the life of Israel when everybody was disoriented and more than a little scared. War was raging with the Assyrians, who were winning. The northern provinces of Zebulun and Naphtali were devastated. Throw in a crop failure and a breakdown in the supply chain to distribute what little food was available and the result was a very bleak situation. The people had even resorted to, as the preceding chapter 8 described, consulting ghosts and familiar spirits. No wonder Isaiah calls Israel, “a land of deep darkness.”
For Isaiah, the answer to this crisis was recognizing God’s ability to intervene in history as a shining light. This great light of hope would make his people more abundant, increase their joy and break the rods of their oppressors.
And, this light does not come from the people's efforts. God alone is the deliverer here. "You have multiplied the nation," "You have increased its joy." That is, the people have not multiplied themselves nor increased their own joy. And, to reinforce this point, the prophet reaches back into Israel’s own history by invoking the memory and image of "the day of Midian." This refers to the defeat of the huge Midianite army by Gideon who won the battle with only three hundred men. Such a victory could only be attributed to the intervention of God and, so famous was it, that it is even referenced in several of the Psalms.
The active presence of God on behalf of his people, then, is recalled. Instead of placing confidence in navel-gazing, the people must turn to God as the only one who can save them.
That’s why we hear these verses at Christmas. Christmas is about the ultimate intervention of God in the affairs of men as revealed in Jesus’ birth in that humble Bethlehem manger. His birth is the cosmic dividing line between the age of darkness and the age of light; between the world without Christ and the world with a new beginning in Christ; a light which, as the Christmas Gospel reminded us, shines in the darkness and the darkness, even two thousand years later, has not overcome it.
In Isaiah’s time, Galilee was regarded as the back of beyond, but Isaiah said that this area experiencing humiliation at the hands of the Assyrians would be the very place where the light of salvation would break forth. And, when Jesus made his home and began his ministry in Galilee, as St. Matthew was at pains to point out in today’s Gospel text, the fulfilment of this prophecy was set in motion.
So, that explains Christmas, and that was all very cheerful, but why do we hear this passage again, now? Because it also fits the theme of the Epiphany season. In Epiphany, we celebrate the implications of Christmas, and those begin with the gentiles who followed the light of a star to the manger and thereby recognized the Christ Child as the Saviour of all peoples.
The message of the prophet and the appearing of Christ was not just for one people in one place at one time, but for all and forever, everywhere. We are all the people who have walked in darkness and the great light has shined on all of us. But, there is always the temptation to avoid that light.
Perhaps, we do not want to admit all the truth of our lives to ourselves and we do not want others to see the truth about us. The shadows, we tell ourselves, will hide us. Other times we live in the darkness because of fear, not knowing what will come next or how we will handle it. There are also times when sorrow and grief suck the life and light out of us and we seem unable to escape the darkness. And sometimes we experience the darkness of ignorance and confusion. We become lost on the path of life, seemingly without meaning or direction.
But hide or be lost as we might, the shadowy places are always uncomfortable. For, no matter how large the shadows or how dark the night, the true light is still present and there is no escaping it. For that light reveals mercy and forgiveness in the shadows of guilt and shame, presence and courage in the night of fear, compassion and hope in the black holes of sorrow and loss, and a way forward in the blindness of ignorance and confusion.
You see, this passage is about more than just days long past. It is really about living today in a world that is beyond our control, a world in which darkness can seem to be the norm.
As a reading in the Christmas season, this text comforts us. As a reading in the Epiphany season, this text challenges us. For it calls us, not to passively accept the present realities around us but to embrace the God of new possibilities, who can bring peace into warfare, who can bring security into instability, who can bring justice into injustice, and actively work with God to make those things happen. It is really a call for us to live in what we might call the reality of the expectation. The reality of the expectation.
The challenge of the prophet is whether we will choose to walk in the light that God has brought us. Will we live as his people for the future that he is working to completion, and which we have a part in shaping. Or will we simply sit back and curse the darkness? It is all about how we choose to live.
God is with us, here and now. He gives us light. Epiphany.
In the Name…