Walking in God’s Light
Lights play a huge role in our decorating for and celebration of Christmas, don’t they. In church we have the Advent candles, which we light every week. Most of us have at least a small Christmas tree with a few lights on it. That’s like the bare minimum, right? But most of us add a few more. We add candles, and lighted decorations. Some of us put lights up outside too. And outside displays have gotten more and more substantial. Used to be lights in a few trees and maybe some on the house. Then we started making lights that hang down like icicles. Then people started adding these light up plastic things to enhance their displays. Have you been by the house on 4 Mile Rd. right at the bay? They fill their yard and cover their house with these little plastic figures. You can’t miss it. It’s so tacky its cool. And people add wooden cutouts with lights on them, like my friend the Grinch here. The latest trend has been these huge inflated light up decorations. Some of them are 8-10 feet tall and bigger.
Light plays a significant role in our celebration of Christmas. And that’s because Christ’s coming into the world is pictured in the Bible as a light coming into the darkness. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we read, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (V. 9). And “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” (Vv. 4-5). In Matthew’s Gospel, we read, “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (4:16). Matthew is quoting from the prophet Isaiah there, and applying Isaiah’s words directly to Christ. Christ fulfills the words of Isaiah.
During this Advent season, as we prepare to wrap up 2020, which has GOT to be one of the weirdest years we’ve experienced in quite a while – It’s certainly been one of the most challenging and difficult for many people as we’ve dealt with medical challenges from Covid and the financial fallout of businesses being closed, plus the frustration and annoyance of having our way of life temporarily altered – during this Advent season, we’re going to be looking briefly at the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, and some of the things he said about God, about the people of God, and about the coming of one from God who would bring light into the world. We’re calling this series “Christmas Lights.” Today, I want to invite you to turn with me to Isaiah 2:1-5.
In order to really understand what Isaiah is saying, we have to understand the context in which he was saying it. As Dr. Ben Witherington, a doctoral professor at Asbury Theological Seminary says, “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” During the Christmas season we celebrate the incarnation, God in the flesh in Jesus, the Christ. But the Word of God, the Bible, is incarnational too. God spoke his Word through real human beings living in the real world in real contexts, and the words God spoke through them had meaning not just for us today, but for them and the people to whom they wrote too. And that context serves as an anchor for us as we seek to apply the timeless truth of the Word of God correctly and effectively today. Without that anchor, we’re in danger of running wild with what the text of Scripture means and how to apply it. We wind up with problems.
The nice thing about Isaiah is that he gives us some pretty clear clues as to the context in which he ministered. Look back at 1:1. The things recorded in the book of Isaiah are the things God communicated to Isaiah with words and visions concerning the nation of Judah and her capitol city of Jerusalem, during the reigns of four kings. Isaiah’s prophetic ministry began near the end of Uzziah’s reign. Uzziah was the last truly good king in Judah. He wasn’t perfect, but under Uzziah, Judah had prospered. It was in the last year of his reign, the year that he died, that Isaiah began his ministry, and it lasted through the reigns of Jotham, the evil Ahaz, and then Hezekiah.
The Bible tells us that Isaiah was man of “royal blood.” He wasn’t king, but he had access to the king. And the combination of his family position and the call of God on his life led to his serving as a prophet and advisor to three kings of Judah at a time when the nation of Judah, the people of God, Isaiah’s people, stood on a precipice. Their world was crumbling. Their peace and prosperity threatened by the encroaching superpower to the east and political unrest on every side as the tiny east Mediterranean nation-states jockeyed for position and sought to hold off the might Assyrian Empire who sought to swallow them all.
The northern Kingdom of Israel was already under Assyrian control, and the kings of the other tiny nation-states in the area were making and breaking treaties with one another in an attempt to withstand the Assyrian onslaught. And they were all looking south to Egypt to help, but Egypt was in no condition to help anyone. She consistently offered help, but no help ever came. In fact, when some kings fled to Egypt for asylum the Egyptians handed them over to Assyria. Now, when I say that these were tiny nations, I mean it.
At its height under Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel, as a single united kingdom, Israel was roughly the size of France, but that includes territory that she controlled as well as Israel herself. Israel herself was just slightly larger than the state of New Jersey, and that was when she was a united nation. After Solomon, she divided into two kingdoms, with the northern ten tribes making up Israel, and the southern two tribes making up Judah, with her capitol city of Jerusalem. So we’re talking about a fraction of a piece of New Jersey here. Not big at all. Certainly nothing to stand up to Assyria with.
The one thing these people WEREN’T was secure. A once proud people wasn’t yet reduced to rubble, but the writing was on the wall. Assyria was coming. Everyone knew it. Kings were desperately seeking a solution. Should they befriend Assyria, hoping that Assyria’s king would see no reason to invade the land of a friend? Should they join forces and try to stand against Assyria? Can we find support in Egypt? We are, after all, the last buffer between Assyria and Egypt. Where is our help coming from?
For his part, Isaiah, under the guidance of God, spoke out against these human solutions to the region’s problems. The one place the people weren’t turning for help was to him. They were running around madly devising schemes to survive as a people, but they refused to seek God in the matter.
And maybe it’s because everything happening around them had them thinking that God either wouldn’t or couldn’t help them. Where is God in all of this? We are his people. If Assyria overruns us, what does that say about our God compared to the gods of the Assyrians? Is our God really the one true God? Does God even exist? If God is real, and loves us, and we are his people, why are these things happening?
Those questions have been asked in abundance in America and around the world over the past two decades. Do you remember the hope that filled human hearts everywhere as we rang in 2000, once we realized computer systems weren’t collapsing as countries around the world welcomed the new millennium. And then, a year and a half later, planes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. We might have the most powerful, well-equipped, and best trained military in the world, but we suddenly realized we were susceptible to a different kind of attack … a smaller scale but just as deadly terrorist attack from within. And the world seemed less safe.
Terror attacks in other countries added to our sense of vulnerability. Security in airports was ramped up. Anti-terrorism efforts at home and abroad were expanded. And then a few years later the economy went through a significant downturn. People lost homes and businesses. Assets that survived weren’t as valuable as they once were. Financial institutions that seems “too big to fail” failed. And we felt both physically and financially vulnerable. And then Covid 19 happened, and we realized that our medical infrastructure wasn’t prepared for a global pandemic. If we’ve learned anything in the first 2 decades of the 21st Century and the 2nd millennium, it’s that we aren’t as secure as we thought we were. We feel physically and financially vulnerable, and that isn’t a good feeling. We’re unsettled. In many ways these are dark times.
And what Isaiah wants us to understand that it is into the darkness that God sends his Son. No matter how difficult our present, our good future is in God’s hands. Look at V. 2. It was typical in the ancient world for people to view their gods as dwelling on high mountains – Mt. Olympus for the Greeks and Mt. Cassius for the Phoenicians. By those standards, the temple mount on Mt. Zion is nothing to really shake a stick at. And remember, the united kingdom of Israel, roughly the size of New Jersey, was really nothing to shake a stick at. And Judah? Just the southern two tribes out of twelve? Really nothing. Tiny little Mt. Zion. In Deuteronomy 7:7 Moses reminds the people of Israel, then a fledgling nation, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” It isn’t to human greatness and power and might that God turns but to weakness and insignificance. St. Paul echoes the same truth in the New Testament when he says, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).
Nowhere in Scripture do we encounter the greatness and the majesty and the grandeur of God like we do in Isaiah. And yet, this greatness and grandeur and majesty is focused on little, insignificant Judah. Why? Because in his greatness, God is the God who stoops. In Christ, God empties himself of all of that and becomes one of us. In his greatness, God joins us in our weakness, in our suffering, in our despair, and having experienced all of this world’s darkness, he lights the way out of the dark for us. In Christ, the God who stoops will reveal himself and his love and grace to the world not from the greatness of Mt. Olympus or through the greatness of the powerful peoples of the world, but on little, seemingly insignificant Mt. Zion in tiny little Judah. It is from there that the world is struck to its core. It is there that the eyes of the world turn. It is from there that the goodness of God emanates.
And it is only through God that this goodness flows. Look again at V. 2 and also V. 3. Through insignificant Judah, from insignificant Mt. Zion, the goodness of God will flow. And the sense of this is that it is from there ALONE that God’s goodness will flow. To a people wondering if the gods of the other nations were stronger, more real, more relevant and more significant than Yahweh, than the one they believed was the one true God, God speaks, saying “I alone am the source of all good things. There is no other.” Regardless of the might of the nations around you, regardless of the depth of the chaos that surrounds you, no matter how vulnerable and small and weak you feel, God ALONE is the source of all that is good.
Years ago, there was an ad in the New York Times that said, “The meaning of Christmas is that love will triumph and that we will be able to put together a world of unity and peace.” In other words, we have the light within us, and so we are the ones who can dispel the darkness of the world. We can overcome poverty, injustice, violence, and evil. If we work together, we can create a “world of unity and peace.”
Can we? One of the most thoughtful world leaders of the late 20th century was Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic. He had a unique vantage point from which to peer deeply into both socialism and capitalism, and he was not optimistic that either would, by itself, solve the greatest human problems. He knew that science unguided by moral principles had given us the Holocaust. He concluded that neither technology not the state nor the market alone could save us from nuclear degradation. “Pursuit of the good life will not help humanity save itself, nor is democracy alone enough,” Havel said. “A turning to and seeing of … God is needed.” The human race constantly forgets, he added, that “he is not God.”[i]
And when we submit our needs and our destiny to God’s judgment, we find peace. Look at Vv. 4-5. When we learn his way and walk his path, when we submit ourselves to him and his good judgment, we know peace. Well-being. In the midst of the craziness of life in this world. Assyria was still coming. Political intrigue was still rampant. In human terms, the people of God were still weak and vulnerable and sinful, facing darkness. But their future was in God’s hands. Our future is ultimately in God’s hands.
Now, when Jesus in John 14:6 says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” he is saying to us, “I AM God’s way, I AM God’s path. If we want to learn God’s ways and walk God’s path through this life, we do it following Christ. There is no other way. There will come a day when Christ himself sits in authority over the nations of the world. The Prince of Peace will decide disputes between nations and peoples. Which I find interesting. There will still sometimes be disputes, but it will be Christ himself deciding the case, the Prince of Peace settling the issue. And we, as the people of God, followers of Christ, are called to walk in God’s light in Christ now.
There are two mistakes we often make in doing this. One is to try to create a utopia now. When we can’t. When people still fall prey to addiction, when we can’t stamp out disease, when we can’t end poverty and homelessness and hunger, we get frustrated and wonder where God is in all of this mess. The other mistake, is the other extreme, is to do nothing, assuming that God will bring all of this about when Christ returns and there’s nothing that we can do about any of it now. Neither one does justice to what God has done and is doing in Christ, the light for this world.
This makes me think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She’s one of those people we point to as an example of true goodness in the world. She spent her life living among the poorest of the poor, starting in Calcutta, where she ministered, and from there extending to 133 countries in 2012. Mother Teresa and her charity, Missionaries of Charity, run homes for people dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis. They run soup kitchens, mobile medical clinics, children’s and family counseling programs, orphanages, and schools.
In addition to their vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, the 4,500 nuns serving take a fourth vow to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” They haven’t ended hunger and homelessness. They haven’t eliminated AIDS and tuberculosis and leprosy. They haven’t solved the worlds family problems. But they’ve eased the suffering of many. And they view all and treat all with dignity, regardless of what they have down or how they live.
As followers of Christ, we are called to let his light shine in the darkness of this world, no matter how dark and oppressive that darkness gets. We will never completely solve the problems the people we minister with and to face, but we are called to keep serving. To not give up. And no matter how bleak and insecure our own lives may seem, we are to always remember that our good future as the people of God rests securely in the palm of his hand, and death itself cannot end that truth, that reality. So come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.
[i] Tim Keller, Hidden Christmas (Viking, 2016), pages 7-8