Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
With today’s first reading we flash back to Christmas Eve as this reading from Isaiah is always the first reading on that night. The line, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” is familiar. Fans of Handel’s Messiah would recognize it as part of that great oratorio. Today we get the phrase twice, first in revisiting the text from Isaiah contrasting the former times and the latter times, and then, in the gospel, Matthew quotes Isaiah as he describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry including his account of Jesus calling the first disciples.
The image created by “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” is powerful and compelling, capturing as it does both the fear of finding one’s way in the dark as well as the hope and relief that comes from the appearance of light. “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” It’s an image that works especially well because all of us have been there in some fashion, in the darkness, longing for light literally or figuratively or both.
There is a historical context for the Isaiah reading, a historical context for the “former times” and the “latter times” mentioned in the first verse. Most likely the former times refers to the time of King Ahaz, who had been the king of Judah. The various biblical references to King Ahaz are not entirely consistent in their assessment of him, but in Isaiah the assessment is negative. He symbolizes the darkness of a lack of faith and trust in the Lord, Ahaz’ reign being seen as a time of failure and oppression due to reliance on foreign powers rather than reliance on the Lord.
The latter times then refer to the reign of King Hezekiah, the king who followed Ahaz, one of the good kings who “did right in the eyes of the Lord.” He trusted in the Lord and instituted religious reform particularly in restoring the Jerusalem temple to its rightful place as the center of worship. What we have represented here then is a decisive break in the well being of Judah with the darkness of the former times being overcome by the light of the latter times. That light would ultimately be seen in the anointing of a king like David who, in the memory and imagination of the people was the quintessential good king.
The historical specifics of a text like this are worth noting but they only scratch the surface of things. The power and possibilities of the imagery of former times and latter times, along with light shining in darkness goes much further. Even in Isaiah it goes further. In addition to the Ahaz/Hezekiah dynamic, the former times would have to do with the time before and during the various periods of exile when the people of Israel and Judah were defeated and scattered in foreign lands, separated from all that was familiar including their God and their religious life.
Historically there were probably a variety of reasons for defeat and exile, but according to the prophets it was always because of straying from the ways of the Lord. In this layer of interpretation, the latter times then would be about a return to the Lord resulting in a time of homecoming and restoration to the land, another radical and hopeful break in the fortunes of the people.
In Christian tradition though, we of course see this Isaiah text as being about Jesus, even more so when the verses that follow are included, verses that are read on Christmas Eve, but not today: “For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders,” and that followed by the familiar titles, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. So in this gospel layer of interpretation the former times would be the time before Christ, the latter times the time after Christ.
In this case, the coming of Christ, the Messiah represents another break, like the one’s imagined in Isaiah, a new and decisive turn toward well being, another light shining on people walking in darkness. The way Matthew tells it, the reason for Jesus relocating from Nazareth to Galilee, the land of Zebulon and Naphtali, was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy thus making Jesus the previously imagined great light that will transform the world.
Poetic texts like this one from Isaiah do invite further layers of interpretation which is what Matthew does with it, but it would also be wrong to limit it and stop there. The hope for deliverance contained in this imagery is pregnant with possibility, open ended in a way that invites us to imagine more. For Isaiah, writing this text was an act of inspired imagination. Our task is to read the text with the same kind of imagination in order to move it beyond its original context. That’s exactly what Matthew did as he identified Jesus as one who would be light shining in darkness thus moving the world from former times into latter times.
It can feel like we’re trapped in time and a land of deep darkness. For such a long time the prevailing 24 hour news cycle narrative has been about hatred, violence, terrorism, war, fear, lack of respect, name calling, lack of civility, the list could go on. The years go by, the names of the bad guys and bad groups change, the places change, presidents and administrations change as happened on Friday, but it just seems to get worse instead of better; the cycle goes on, the drum beat narrative of fear and hopelessness that we’ve been hearing for years continues.
For some, that steady drumbeat is all they hear. But you come to church and you hear, “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 imagined and envisioned the end of the cycle, a radical and unexpected break in what seemed unchangeable. He provided an image of light while it was still dark, joy when there was no apparent reason for it, freedom in the face of oppression, peace while war continued. At a different time, under different circumstances, Matthew did the same thing in announcing Jesus as a new embodiment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
I see no more important role for the church today than to continue along with people like Isaiah and Matthew to imagine and proclaim the good news of light overcoming darkness. As has been said, unless we can imagine it, it will never happen so drawing from the imagination of Isaiah and the imagination of Matthew, we too are called to imagine light overcoming darkness; that’s the first step. Making use of these images then has the power to change moods and feelings, moving us from resignation and despair to promise and hope. That changed perspective can in turn change the conversation, challenging the dominant voices of fear that are out there; that’s the next step.
Focusing the conversation on hope and new possibilities doesn’t ensure the arrival of Isaiah’s day of peace and justice, but it will not happen without conversation around a compelling image that enables people to see something different, something beyond that which we are offered every day, something beyond that which seems unchangeable.
In the church, we have that compelling image not just in today’s reading but throughout the year and throughout the Bible. The Bible is layer upon layer of stories and interpretation of the power of light shining in darkness. For us it culminates in Jesus as the light with his vision of forgiveness and new life, an upside down world where blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, but that’s next week’s reading.
This week the focus is still on discipleship as Matthew uses this prophecy from Isaiah to lead into Jesus calling disciples, specifically Peter and his brother Andrew along with James and John, all of them fishermen, telling them that now they will fish for people. There’s no one way to be a disciple, no one way to fish for people but it starts with imagining and believing that in and through Jesus there is light shining in the darkness, that by his death and resurrection we have moved into the already but not yet of the latter times. We have the vision and while we’re not there yet, we know that the future is in God’s hands. As disciples of Christ, that is the good news that we have to share.
As disciples we are also called to be light shining in darkness. Rather than obsessing over the darkness we find ways to shine through it and bring light to a world in desperate need of it. It’s another way that we fish for people. Through the words and witness of those who have come before us, we have seen a great light; we know the truth of the light of Jesus. Let us then be about the work of proclaiming this good news and helping others to see!
Rev. Warren Geier