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First Light

Sermon
Sermons On The First Readings
Series I, Cycle B
Have you ever seen the aurora borealis? That may not be a familiar term to you, and you may be asking yourself, "Is that a country?" "Is it some kind of strange animal that is nearly extinct that I have somehow missed?" Some of you already know what the aurora borealis is; for those who don't, they are called the northern lights. The northern lights occur in the far northern regions. Recently, while driving in an isolated northern area of the United States, I saw a brilliant display of colored lights that were lighting up the far north and extending for what seemed hundreds of miles. At first I had no idea what the brilliant display of lights was, but residents of a community I was visiting informed me that these lights were the aurora borealis, or northern lights. They illuminated the darkness of the vast northland for miles. It was indeed a spectacular sight.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of a "great light" which would illuminate the darkness of Galilee when the righteous reign of a coming King would begin. When Isaiah wrote to these people who were walking in darkness, they had not yet seen this light, but the coming of this light was so vivid and fixed in Isaiah's mind that he describes it as if this light had already dawned. Because of this light, the people will experience peace and blessing and a complete reversal of their present condition.

The question for us on this "holy night" is a simple one. Do we still see Isaiah's great light illuminating our dark, frightened, crippled world?

Let us examine this Old Testament prophecy to see if we can find our way from the darkness to the "light of Christmas." First of all, let us examine ...

The Significance Of This First Light

Isaiah writes about the "deep darkness" in which the people are living. This darkness was the darkness of anguish and spiritual death. However, there will come a great light that they will suddenly see which will shine upon them.

Why is this light significant? It is the light of a new life, the light of glorious hope. As we celebrate the Spirit of Christ, the United States is still grappling with the dismay and anguish of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It seems as if we have found ourselves as a nation in deep darkness. This darkness is the darkness of shock, of horror, and of questions. Why did nearly 3,500 people have to die? What was in the minds of those who were on their suicide mission? How could such evil be conceived in the minds of humankind?

Yet, in the midst of the darkness of grief and questioning, we are reminded, like Isaiah's audience, that the "light has come." Like people to whom he ministered, we can experience the increased joy, which is glorious and spontaneous. For Isaiah, this joy was like the rejoicing of people when the harvest was finished or like the joy experienced when they followed a retreating, defeated army who left behind essential supplies in their haste to find safety. This joy which we can know at this Christmas is a joy before our Lord which we have because God still showers his grace upon us.

On this night of light, we must remember that light permeates the whole of biblical revelation. In the creation account, light is described as victory over darkness. God himself is revealed as the "Light of light," who is the source of all life. Isaiah 10:17, describes him as the "Light of Israel." The whole idea of the coming of Jesus Christ is connected with light because Jesus is revealed as the light of the world (John 1:4; 8:12; 12:35). Paul writes that as believers our walk must be in the light of Jesus Christ so that all who confess Christ as Lord become a light for the world (Ephesians 5:8; Philippians 2:15).

The significance of Isaiah's light for us is that it has shined into our darkness and the greatness of this light has brought us "new life." In the Gospel of John 1:3-4, "... the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

There is a custom among some of the people of Indonesia to place pearls, as symbolic of life, into the eyelids of deceased loved ones and friends to ensure that in the life beyond this world the departed person would "walk in the light." Christmas comes to remind us that "we can walk in light" now. For those of us in Christ, the light never goes out.

From the significance of this light Isaiah reveals ...

The Source Of This First Light

The source of this great light for Isaiah is the birth of a king. Scholars have divided opinions as to whether this is an earthly wise ruler or a messianic prophecy. The Church has seen in this ancient prophecy a messianic note that this future King of Isaiah would be the Messiah, the Christ.

Isaiah expresses the grace of the salvation to come in different ways. The people receive this grace with joy. Why? The burden of oppression by the Assyrians will be lifted. Israel no longer will be like an ox bearing the yoke of oppression. How will this come to be? This liberation will be the Lord's doing. At this Christmastime the Lord is still the great liberator who wants to lift the yoke of all that encumbers people and keeps them from knowing the true freedom which he came to provide on that first Christmas.

The prophet then gives a beautiful picture of what can happen when the true source of light is discovered. The weapons of war will be destroyed, but also the desire to use weapons of terror and mass destruction will be taken away. Oh, that this would happen!

How will this light come to the world? It will come through the birth of a baby who will establish the government of the Kingdom of God.

Years ago Bret Harte wrote a short story titled "The Luck of Roaring Camp." It is a story about a baby who made a difference.

Roaring Camp was supposedly the roughest mining camp in the West. It was notorious for its murderous fights, thefts, and drunkenness. The miners of Roaring Creek were a tough bunch. The only woman there was a Native American, Cherokee Sal, and she died in childbirth.

The baby survived and was quite healthy. The miners, however, were faced with quite a dilemma. What were they going to do with a baby? They made a crib out of an old box lined with dirty rags. The box was not good enough or clean enough to hold a baby. A cradle was purchased from a town 80 miles away, and they placed the baby in it. Beautiful blankets were brought in from Sacramento and placed in the cradle. The miners noticed that the shack where the baby was kept was filthy, so they washed the floor, walls, and ceiling. Nice curtains were installed on the windows. Life began to change in Roaring Creek. The brutality ceased. Every day the baby was taken to the entrance of the mine so that all the miners could watch the baby's growth. The miners decided the entrance to the mine was ugly, so they planted a beautiful garden there. These hardened men loved to pet and touch the baby, but their hands were dirty. Soon the general store sold out of soap. Life in Roaring Camp had completely changed because of a baby. These hardened miners had given up their nasty, profane ways -- all for the love of a baby!

The good news of Christmas is that in a baby there is life-changing, redemptive power. Isaiah gives this child four titles and each title is comprised of two words.

1. Wonderful Counselor: In the original Hebrew "wonderful" means, "not of this world." A counselor was one who applied wisdom to all situations, even the government of the people. This son would apply the wisdom of God to the human situation. The Church has seen the wonderful counselor as Jesus, the Messiah. There is no counsel or counselor as great as he is.

2. Mighty One: This son whom Isaiah saw was a victorious hero who had defeated all enemies. The title Mighty God expresses his divine nature. He is truly "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." It is this Mighty God who came in human form at Christmas in Jesus that we celebrate.

3. Everlasting Father: The term "father" has suffered in modern times because of many negative connotations brought on by abuse and abandonment. Isaiah's light is the "Everlasting Father," over all of his children, and his rule will be based on divine love and care.

4. Prince of Peace: Isaiah's concept of peace is so different from the frivolous way the word is thrown around today. It meant for Isaiah "wholeness, harmony, completion" and was not confined to the absence of hostility. For Isaiah "peace" offered people the hope that they could live in harmony with God, each other, and nature. In Jesus we can find true "shalom." He is the Prince of Peace.

The source of Isaiah's light was God himself. Isaiah however, moves to ...

The Song Of This First Light

Isaiah closes his depiction of "first light" with a song about this king. It is a song about the "True light."

First, Isaiah sings about an eternal king whose kingdom will not increase via the vehicles of war, but will grow through peace and the working of the Spirit of God in the hearts of humankind.

Second, this king, who is the "true light," will establish his kingdom through righteousness. The tyrants and dictators of the world have made their nations and kingdoms by oppression, brutality, fear, and tyranny. Isaiah's king will bring a righteous rule which people will joyfully obey forever.

Third, how will all of this be accomplished? Is this mere fantasy or wishful thinking? This vision is too wonderful to grasp. Is it possible that Isaiah's "first light" can fulfill everything Isaiah attributes to him? Yes, because the "zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this." Zeal expresses the thought of urgency, passion, jealousy. Has this happened? Yes, in Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate on this night. John writes of Jesus the Messiah, "His disciples remembered that it was written, Zeal for your house will consume me" (John 2:17).

In Isaiah's view, God's good rule has been made flesh in the weakest of human creation, a baby. It is his birth and his Kingdom we celebrate on this eve of Christmas.

The story is told of an aspiring young author who was given the opportunity to read a fiction story he had written before a famous author. The plot of the young aspiring writer's story involved the only son of a poor widow who lived in a little cabin in Pennsylvania. The story went something like this: One day the son decided to go to New York to make his way in life. As he got ready to leave, his mother hugged him and said to him: "Son, if you ever get into trouble, come home, and as you come over the hill, look toward home. You will always find a light burning in the window, and I will be waiting to welcome you."

The young writer described what happened to the young man with words that produced images of the dark side of humanity. The young man went to prison, and upon his release decided to head home.

The boy hitchhiked his way back to Pennsylvania. As he climbed the final hill and started toward home, he saw the outline of a small cottage in the distance. He was filled with hope. But something was wrong, there was no light burning in the window! At this point, the renowned author jumped to his feet and shouted at the aspiring author, "You young upstart! Put that light back."1

The "light" which Isaiah wrote about has not and will not ever go out. For it is the light of God's glory, revealed in Jesus Christ. It is this "light" that we celebrate tonight! He is Isaiah's first light and our "Everlasting Light." Amen!

____________

1. David H. C. Read, I Am Persuaded (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961).
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