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Over the Christmas holidays a high school friend of Sarah's stopped by the house. I asked her what she was doing these days and where she was living. She said she was living and working in Fairbanks, Alaska. I asked her what it was like living there. She said that it's great once you get used to the long periods of darkness and light. I looked it up on the Internet. During the month of January, the average number of hours of daylight per day is 4. In July, they average 21:45 hours of daylight per day. Up north in Barrow, Alaska, the average hours of daylight per day during the months of December and January is 0.00. And in June, July and August, the average hours of daylight per day is 24.0.
I asked her what that was like, especially the darkness. She said, 'once you get used to it, it's okay. After awhile it just becomes normal.
The thought struck me. You can get used so to continual the darkness so that continual darkness seems normal. If we're talking about darkness in terms of light from the sun that's one thing. If that's where you live, then I guess it's a good thing to get used to living in the darkness. But if you're talking about 'darkness' the way the prophet Isaiah talks about 'darkness,' then the idea of getting so used to it that it seems normal is certainly not a good thing. In fact, it's a frightening thing.
For Isaiah, 'darkness' is a code word that stands for life in a world where sin and evil rule over daily life. "Darkness" is a figurative way of describing life lived without regard to God's Word to the point that what is contrary to God's Word becomes the accepted and normal way of life. Things that people used to say were 'intolerable' are not normal and perfectly acceptable.
So, "darkness" and "blindness" have a lot in common. If you live too long in the "darkness," that is, apart from God's Word, you become "blinded" to the fact that you're living in darkness and you don't see it. When it seems as though sin and evil have completely replaced God's Word and His way, and a whole society and culture get so used to this that they call it "normal" and "natural," then Isaiah calls this, "thick darkness" or "deep darkness." And when "thick darkness" or "deep darkness" takes hold, that's real, because that's really hard to change.
This morning, Isaiah gives us an example of people who were living in darkness, but first, I think we may be wondering just how 'blind' we have become to the 'darkness' that surrounds us.
There's a pretty easy test to take if you want to see if you've gotten used to the darkness and get a rough measurement on how much you've adjusted to what is contrary to God's Word. Go rent a couple of movies from the 50s or 60s or even the scandalous 70s. Deb and I are making our way through the early episodes of the Bob Newhart show. It's really surprising is just how good the dialog and the comedy was without all of those words that we hear on the TV today and without touching on any of those subjects that it seems that every program has to touch on today. And it's shocking to see how much times have changed. So many things that were 'unacceptable' or 'inappropriate' just 50 years ago are considered to be perfectly acceptable and normal today. In fact, we've gotten so used to the violence and sexuality and profanity that unless it's all there, the movie doesn't sell and no body watches it.
How much that is contrary to God's Word in our society and culture and individual lives have we gotten so used to that we not only call it normal but we even say, 'its okay'? Homosexuality, same-sex marriage, living together before marriage or with no intention of marriage, abortion, profanity, disrespect for authorities, stupid men, etc., etc., etc. We live in a world of 'darkness' and we have become 'blinded' by the 'darkness.'
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali and the land of Galilee were covered in 'spiritual darkness' for a long period of time. The Assyrians conquered the land and forced their false gods and idolatrous practices on the people. They imposed their "darkness" on the people. Isaiah describes their lives with words like "gloom," "distress," "anguish," "death." And who knows how much these Israelites adjusted to the darkness and after awhile, didn't even find themselves saying things like, 'it's not too bad once you get used to it.'
So, I wonder how the Zebulites and the Naphtalites and the Galileans reacted to Isaiah's announcement, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a GREAT LIGHT; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined."
I wonder because eyes that have gotten used to darkness, light can be a painful thing. And for people who have gotten used to what is contrary to God's Word and will, the dawning of a GREAT LIGHT is not necessarily good news.
But the light does what light does. It shatters the darkness. It doesn't ask permission and it doesn't negotiate with the darkness. It OVERCOMES IT. The rule of sin and evil over men and women is EXPOSED by God's holy and just Word.
The light opens eyes that were blinded by darkness. Some hate the light and refuse to come into it because they don't like what the light shows them. They love the darkness and choose to continue to live in it.
For others, the light of God's Word opens eyes that were blinded by the darkness and they see how blind they have become and they repent and turn away from the darkness and 'walk in the light.' And for those who repent and turn from the darkness and 'walk in the light,' Isaiah says, it's like having a yoke lifted from your shoulders. It's as though the rod and staff that were used by slave-masters to beat their slaves with are broken in two. Formerly, words like "gloom," "distress," "anguish," and "death" described their life. But now, words like "peace," and "rest," and "life" describe their life.
So, just what is this 'great light' that shines on those who live in the deep darkness and transforms their lives from darkness to light and from blindness to sight? Better put, the question should read, 'who is this 'great light' that shatters the darkness and the lifts the yoke of oppression and breaks the rod and staff of oppression'? The "great light" is Jesus Christ.
St. Matthew wants to make sure that we make the connection between Isaiah's prophecy about a "great light" that "shines" on sinful men and women, and Jesus Christ how liberates them. Just listen to the places where Jesus goes. "He withdrew into GALILEE. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of ZEBULUN and NAPHTALI, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled. 'The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people walking in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, a light has dawned."
Jesus announces for all who live in the darkness to hear, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12). And again He says, "I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness." (John 12:46)
Isaiah said that it would be "IN THE LATTER TIME that he has made glorious the way of the sea, Galilee of the Gentiles." Now, Matthew is declaring that the time has fully come. "The latter time" has arrived. The 'great light' has dawned in the person of Jesus Christ who says, "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Jesus Christ, the light of the world, overcame the darkness of this sinful and evil world by entering into the darkness on our behalf. When He had taken all of the sin and evil of the world upon Himself and it was nailed to the cross in His body, the light of the world went out and thick darkness covered the earth in the middle of the day. But on the third day, the "great light" rose and shattered the darkness, "and the darkness has not overcome it."
Sadly, the 'great light' is not welcomed, as it should be. John sums it up this way, "the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For every one who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed." (John 3:19).
But thankfully, others leave their nets and their boats and follow Him.
And the challenge put forward by this marvelous duet of Isaiah and Matthew to you and me this morning is, which will it be for us? Will we continue to walk in the darkness or will we walk in the light?
St. John has a word of caution for us here. "If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." (1 John 1:6-7)
Matthew wants us to see that the darkness that surrounds us is both a spiritual and a physical darkness. Jesus invites the four fishermen to follow Him because He will transform the meaning and the purpose of their life from fishers of fish to fishers of men.
But just as important as this spiritual renewal that He brings, Jesus also invites great crowds to follow Him so that He might renew their physical bodies that have been ravaged by the effects of life in the darkness. "He went about healing every disease and affliction among the people."
How great is this "great light" of Jesus Christ, Who shines on our body and our soul and delivers the whole person from the "gloom," "anguish," "distress" and "death" that the 'darkness' imposes on us, and brings us, body and soul, into His marvelous light.
The people in Isaiah's day looked forward to their liberation from darkness by this promised 'great light' that would come into the world. Today, that light has come. And on this very day, this light has shined on Norah June Kopecky. Today, through Holy Baptism, God has called her out of darkness and into His marvelous light.
He has done the same for each of us in our baptism. Yet for now, we live as children of the light in the midst of darkness and side by side with lots of children of the darkness. And our faith is weak, and we are easily influenced. We are constantly faced with the temptation of becoming far more comfortable with the darkness that we should be. Therefore, we will constantly be faced with the desire to confess our sins and repent and return again, and again and again to our own baptism, where we were called out of darkness and into His marvelous light.
There will come a day when the struggle between the darkness and the light will be over forever. St. John describes heaven like this, "It has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By it's light the nations will… and there will be no night there." (Rev. 21:23-25).
Until then, Jesus calls you and me to leave the darkness behind and follow Him. We are to walk in the light that we too may become fishers of men. "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, 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 who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)