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.Isaiah 9:2
I want to tell you the story behind the cross-stitch that serves as the featured picture on this blog post. It says: “I hope the light will come soon.” Back when I was serving my first congregation in Florida, I shared a children’s sermon on the passage from Isaiah that we heard in today’s first reading. It is the passage where we hear those wonderful words that we also hear every Christmas Eve: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
We hear these words today, a month after Christmas, because Matthew quotes them in his gospel. Matthew is pointing out that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy from Isaiah. I talked to the children that day about how the light of the world that we acknowledge to be Jesus. But also about how wonderful it will be when Jesus returns to us. The light that we have caught a glimpse of in the stories of Jesus, and through our fellow Christians, will be shining brightly, and forevermore, when Jesus returns.
Toward the end of my children’s sermon, one of the children, after thinking about this, said very sincerely, “I hope the light will come soon.” I smiled and said, “I hope so, too.” And to the adults in the congregation, I said, I’d like a cross-stitch of that statement. And sure enough, a couple of weeks later, Emily, a dear member of that congregation, brought me this cross-stitch. We do hope the light comes soon, don’t we?
Acknowledging the Darkness
We should hope for this. Because there is still too much darkness in our world: There is tension between countries. Division in our own country. Terrorism around our globe. In many countries, there is persecution of our brothers and sisters in Christ, simply because of their Christian faith. For too many people around the world, there is, still, hunger, poverty, and homelessness. The truth is that the darkness we see in our country pales in comparison to many places around the world.
But even in our own personal lives, we face darkness. It might be a health concern that we have, for our self or a loved one. It might be a relationship that is struggling. It might be frustrations at work or school. It might be financial concerns that seem insurmountable. It might just be a general restlessness with life. It might be depression or addiction.
It might be many other things, too, because darkness has many shades. And it affects us all. There is still darkness in our world. And unless we acknowledge that, there is no need for light.
The prophet, Isaiah, was not afraid to acknowledge the darkness. He admits to living in a time of deep darkness, as he himself describes it. A time when Israel was split in two by civil war. A time when his own country of Judah was strong and wealthy, but had grown complacent. There weren’t concerned about the poor in their midst. In their arrogance, they didn’t fear the countries threatening their borders. And they didn’t believe that they needed the Lord’s help to face their challenges. Today’s passage from Isaiah is one of promise and hope, but it’s important to remember that much of Isaiah’s book is about judgment and warning.
700 or 800 years after Isaiah, Jesus came into a world that was also clearly filled with darkness. Our Gospel Reading for today begins with the news that John the Baptist has been arrested. He will stay in jail until he is finally beheaded. He will be one of many thousands killed by the leaders of the day. When John is arrested, Jesus, we learn, withdraws to Galilee. Perhaps out of concern for his own safety, we might think. But not so. Because in Galilee, Jesus begins to proclaim exactly what John the Baptist had been proclaiming – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And if this got John the Baptist arrested, Jesus must have known it would bring him trouble, too. The rulers of his day did not want to hear about another kingdom coming and threatening their power.
Darkness filled Jesus’ world, just as it fills ours. And if we close our eyes, and refuse to acknowledge the darkness, then we see no need for the light, and we have no reason for hope.
Seeing the Light
But there is reason for hope. And there is reason for joy. Today. Because we who walk in darkness have seen a great light. And that great light has a name. And his name is Jesus. God’s Son. Our Savior. The light of the world. Into our darkness – ours – into our turmoil and conflict and chaos and despair, comes a great light. And he shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Jesus’ time on earth gave us a glimpse of this light. He taught us that his presence on earth meant that the kingdom of heaven had come near. And he promised that when he returned, the light would shine fully and completely.
So, yes, I do hope that the light comes soon. And so should we all. But in the meantime, Jesus gave us some clues in this reading, for how to find the light, and even how to help reflect the light. That’s what I like about this reading. It paints a picture for us of what it means that the kingdom of heaven has come near.
So, what does it mean? After Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven has come near, he goes throughout Galilee doing three things: teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease. That is what it means that the light has come into the world, that the kingdom of heaven has come near. The kingdom of heaven comes near when Jesus teaches, and proclaims, and heals.
The kingdom comes near when Jesus teaches the good news of God: That we who have sinned and fallen short of God’s expectations – that we who have filled our own little worlds with darkness – we have been rescued from that darkness and brought into the light of God’s forgiveness. When we are taught this good news, when we encounter it in worship, and in Sunday School, and in our personal devotions, the kingdom of heaven is coming near to us, the light is shining on us.
The kingdom of heaven also comes near when Jesus proclaims the gospel, the good news. When we are told at the beginning of worship that all of our sins are forgiven; when we hear God’s Word proclaimed to us; when we are told that this is the body of Christ given for you, the blood of Christ shed for you; when these things happen, and the good news is proclaimed to us in this way, the kingdom of heaven comes near to us, and the light shines on us.
And finally, we learn that the kingdom of heaven comes near when Jesus heals every disease. We wish that this would literally happen today. That all of our diseases would be miraculously cured. And sometimes it does happen. But not always. What is surely cured is the disease of sin. And because that disease is cured, we are given the priceless gift of eternal life. When the light returns, every disease will be cured. And when Jesus cures disease in his earthly ministry, he is simply giving us a glimpse of what is to come.
Being the Light
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven has come near, and then he shows us what that means, by teaching and proclaiming and healing throughout Galilee. But that’s not all that he does in today’s gospel reading. He also invites us to come into the light: to repent, and to follow him.
Today’s gospel reading is not just a nice story for us to hear. It is also a very real invitation to us to enter into the story, to come into the light, by repenting and following Jesus. When Jesus enters Galilee, he proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And then, almost immediately, he invites his first disciples to follow him. That’s what it means.
And then, just a few chapters later, in Matthew 5, Jesus makes an incredible statement, when he says that as his followers, we are now the light of the world. To all who follow him, you and I, Jesus says:
You are the light of the world. a city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:14-16
Until Jesus returns, in other words, the light that people will see shining in the darkness, is the light of our good works. It is the light we shine by teaching God’s word, by proclaiming the gospel, and by healing the sick. It is the light we shine by feeding the hungry. It is the light we shine by being peacemakers in our community. It is the light we shine by loving and serving and proclaiming God’s eternal grace to all people.
If people are going to get a glimpse of the light that Jesus shines on this world, they are going to get it through us. There are too many people still dwelling darkness. There are too many people who are still in anguish. And it is up to us to show them the light. To be the light of the world. To let our good works – our lives, our love for Jesus – so shine that they may see the light that came into the world through Jesus. The light that we hope will come soon.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
We have seen a great light. At Christmas, we gave thanks for this light, who lay in a manger because there was no place for him in the inn. Today, we give thanks for this light who went around Galilee, teaching and proclaiming and healing, and inviting others to follow.
We give thanks for all those who have let their light shine before us, who brought us into the light of Christ, and who helped us to put our hope in the light of Christ. And today, we resolve once again: to let our light so shine before others, that they, too, may join us in giving glory to God. Amen