LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

 

Light in the Darkness

Isaiah 9:1-7

1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

 

What is the meaning of Christmas?  I’m sure you have been hearing a lot of options.  Ads and little jingles are saying that Christmas is all about gifts, presents, decorations, food, parties, yada…yada…yada.  Your Spotify or iTunes playlists are singing about reindeer, a fat-bellied, jolly, man in a red jump suit, a snowman, and on and on.   And how about all the Christmas movies?  A few weeks ago, I went with my 5 year-old daughter 3 year-old son to see the new Grinch movie.  It was a fresh take but similar to the one I grew up with.  The Grinch hates Christmas, so he steals everything from the Whos down in Whoville.  But to his surprise, they still wake up on Christmas Day and gather together to sing.  Do you remember the song from the Dr. Seuss version?  “Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze! Christmas Day is in our grasp! So long as we have hands to clasp!”  …and later “Fah who rahmus! Dah who dahmus! Christmas Day will always be! Just as long as we have we!” Seeing and hearing that completely changes the Grinch forever.  His heart grew three sizes that day. The meaning of Christmas is you don’t need presents, decorations, and food; you just need hands to hold.

That pretty much sums up the way our culture talks about the meaning of Christmas.  It’s sappy, sentimental, and tugs at your emotions.  It says as long as we have compassion and kindness with family, friends, and those around us, then the world will be a better, brighter place.   That sounds so warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?  The meaning of Christmas.

And then we hear these classic words of Isaiah 9 that always come up at Christmas time: “For to us a child is born , to us a son is given…” and everything seems right in the world.  But this section of the Bible is so common at Christmas, maybe sometimes we don’t even concentrate on what it’s saying and the meaning of it.  For example, did you notice how Isaiah chapter 9 begins with the word “nevertheless?” That means to understand Isaiah chapter 9, you have to look at what comes before it.

And here’s the situation surrounding Isaiah and his beautiful Christmas prophecy.  Judah is the land where he is living, and it’s an ugly mess.  The people were threatened by a foreign nation that specialized in terrorism.  The Assyrians loved to send a message by chopping off heads of conquered foes and piling them up in pyramids to let everyone know who was in control.  Isaiah tells us that the world was full of racism, mostly against the Jews because there was something different about them, their religion and laws.  Isaiah says there was a problem with elitism.  That means the rich had no mercy and compassion for the poor and destitute, even taking advantage of them.  People didn’t care for one another but were always fighting “neighbor against neighbor.”  Divorce was on the rise.  Immorality was the norm. People struggled with addiction as some were known as “heroes of drinking wine.”

Terrorism, racism, elitism, moral decline, political chaos, addiction – does this sound familiar?  The truth is the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Isaiah described the gloomy scene as he saw it more than 2,700 years ago, and it’s still pretty accurate now.   Turns out God know us really well.  This world doesn’t look much like the one he made.  This is the result of what we have done to it.

And so, Isaiah says that we are people “walking in darkness.”  The word “walking” there means to “walk in the way of;” it can be translated “to follow.”  And the word “darkness” is the common word that refers to something that is not filled with light.  Symbolically, it can mean the parts of my heart and life that aren’t bright, like “distress” or “dread.”  So, Isaiah is saying this is not something that we were forced into, against our will.  Darkness is often something we choose to walk around in, like taking a casual stroll.

Jesus said the same thing in one of our earlier lessons from John 3.  He says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light…”  And if we examine our own heart, we have to admit it’s true.  When someone wrongs us deeply, we have this urge to hold onto the grudge or seek revenge, rather than forgive them.  When we have a juicy bit of gossip, there’s a part of us that would love to share it a few times.  We say that honesty is the best policy, but if being dishonest will get you ahead – like a free meal at a restaurant, a better grade on a test, a better perk at work – then we prefer the self-serving dishonesty.  My friends, why would you think that humanity can rid the world of darkness, when I can’t even begin to rid my own heart of darkness?

And then, there’s the other word for darkness that Isaiah uses.  He says we are “living in the land of deep darkness.”  This is the Hebrew word, “zalmavet.”  It’s the more poetical word that means “death shadow.”  You might be familiar with this word from another place in Scripture. The Good Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, is where the psalmist says, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”  Maybe you can look around this world and say, “Yeah, there’s some darkness, but it’s not completely corrupted.”  But the darkness is not just something that we walk around in, it is also coming for us, looming like this death shadow over everything.

That’s the mother of all dark problems that not one of us can solve.  You can run 5 miles a day, eat healthy, and use products that counteract signs of aging, but the shadow of death is chasing you.  We can cure cancer.    We can crack down on gun violence.  We can stop abuse.  All we’ve done is put off the inevitable. We haven’t really made the world a brighter place.

Like I said, we live 2,700 years after Isaiah.  All these advances in technology, sociology, and in governments – the invention of democracy – s0 now we don’t have terrorism, we don’t have racism, we don’t have political chaos, now we don’t have economic problems, we don’t have people struggling with addictions, or do we?  The world is a dark place, and everything that mankind does to try and rid the world of darkness fails.  Merry Christmas!

It’s a pretty gloomy message, if that’s all that Isaiah tells us.  But he goes on; chapter 9 starts with “nevertheless.”  And Isaiah reveals these two brilliant conclusions to the phrases in verse 2:  people have “seen a great light…a light has dawned.”   I hope you notice that this light is not something the people produced by holding hands and singing around a tree.  This light is not a program or policy. It just appeared; it “dawned.”  What is the light?  It’s a person.  “To us a child is born, to us a son is given.”  The light is a human baby boy, but he’s no ordinary baby boy, because Isaiah continues “the government will be on his shoulders.”  It’s not a government.  His job is not to be a king for just Jews.  The administration of the entire universe is his responsibility.  That is something no human being can handle.  So, Isaiah tells us this human baby boy is also God.  He emphasizes that fact with these four titles.  He is the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  We don’t have time to dig into the beauty of these divine titles, but each one can only be applied to God.

Wonderful Counselor – he is the one who gives perfect advice because he knows absolutely everything.  That doesn’t apply to Oprah or Doctor Phil or anyone else.  Only God knows everything.

Mighty God – this little baby will accomplish things only God can do.

Everlasting Father – the author and source of all life, and he has been doing it for all eternity with the love and compassion of the perfect Father.

Prince of Peace – he is able to create perfect harmony, even between the Holy God who hates sin and the people who sin every day.  This Hebrew word for “peace” is “shalom.”  It also has the idea of making everything whole and complete.  He can take any and everything that is broken in your life and put it back together forever.  This is what the angels sang about that first Christmas.  Only God can do this.

The Light of the world is God in human flesh to free us from the darkness of sin.  That is who lies in the manger.  The Light had to be both God and human.  He had to be man to deal with the darkness of the mankind.  If God wanted to tell us how to think about darkness and sin, he could have used a normal person to give us his laws, which show us how to live a bright, beautiful life.  But then again, he did that with all those prophets and we still choose the darkness.  If God wanted to give us an example of how to live a bright life, he could have sent us an angel to show people how compassionate, thoughtful, and selfless we need to be.  An angel would show us how to use our entire existence to give God glory.

No, that wasn’t going to be enough. We needed all the darkness to be snuffed out completely.  Normally, we think of a light being snuffed, but we needed the darkness – sin and that death shadow – to be snuffed out and removed.  That required the Light to be God and man.  The Light needed to be man so that he could be pay for sins.  The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death.”  The Light needed a human heart, so that it could stop beating.  The child needed blood in his veins, because the Bible says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

The Light also needed to be God for the payment to have enough value for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived.  We all understand that a trade needs to be two things of equal value.  You can’t get away with trading a Christian Yelich card (great baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers and MVP of the NL) for a T206 Honus Wagner from 1909.  One is maybe 5 bucks and the other is over 3 million.  If the one who died on the cross was just a man, then an equal trade is one other person.  But if the one who died on the cross is not just a man but the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace that is a sacrifice that is extremely valuable.  It’s so valuable, in fact, that the Apostle John wrote in one of the lessons that we read, “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

My friends, the only gift that matters for us at Christmas is this Light, God and man to free us from the darkness.  Christmas was not given to us to be sappy and sentimental.  It’s not supposed to be a distraction from the darkness.  It’s not just nostalgia with all the lights, cookies, carols, and parties.  See, here’s the facts. I cannot save myself.  I cannot overcome temptation enough.  I cannot fix the relationships I have fractured, including the one with my Creator.  I cannot outrun the shadow of death, even if I fulfill a New Year’s resolution to get in shape.  There’s too much darkness in here.  And you have it, too.  We are in desperate need of the Savior from all the darkness.  That is what Jesus came to be.  Christmas is Jesus saying to us, “You all are so broken, so utterly incapable of cleaning yourselves up, that I had to come into this world to save you.  The situation was so dire and hopeless, that I not only was born for you but I will die to completely remove all darkness from you forever.” That is what Christmas is about.  The angels said so: “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you.”

But this Light of Jesus Christ does not just save me from the darkness.  Isaiah says the Light is going to build people into a new nation. “You have enlarged the nation…” he says, which, from the context, is a reference to believers.  In using that terminology, Jesus intends that the relationship we have with him will create relationships with each other.  Do you remember hearing that already tonight?  The Apostle John wrote, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”  God doesn’t want his people walking in his light alone.  If you consider yourself a Christmas and Easter type of person, God’s gift of this Light in the darkness is for you, so that you can walk in his light with others.  Believers need the encouragement of fellow Christians as we roam through a world that is still covered in darkness.  One of the main places that happens is here, in this place of God’s light.

So, are you still looking for the meaning of Christmas?  You’re not going to find it from the pen of Dr. Seuss, from your playlists on Spotify, from a TV special, a movie or a shopping mall. The meaning of Christmas comes from God. It isn’t sappy nor sentimental.  It is his honest truth from the one who loves you more than anyone, because he was willing to do more for you than anyone could.  The world is full of darkness, and we contribute to it without any way of piercing the darkness.  Nevertheless… NEVERTHELESS! A light has dawned.  Christ was born to you.   Walking in his light gives you peace, joy, hope and love this world cannot give. It’s your free gift now and forever.  Merry Christmas!

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FEELING LIKE FOREIGNERS NOW, BUT NOT FOREVER

Week 9 – 8.6.17

LL pic 2

1 Peter 2:11-25

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

 

You are a foreigner and exile.  You look different.  Talk different. Think different.  Act different.  Sure, you celebrate the 4th of July and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every kind of ballgame, but you are living as an alien in this land.  Do you know how I know that?  Here’s what God says: you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

See, brothers and sisters, when Jesus called us to faith, he gave us a new life that encompasses all of life, not just certain days or select portions of days.  You aren’t just a child of God on Sunday morning or at home, but he made you his child all of the time.  That’s what we want to review todays and we listen to what Peter has to say about Christian life in society.

In order to talk about our life in society, we first need to address the way we view humanity as a whole. To do that, we need only go to the well-known passage, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son…” Jesus lived a holy life for all. Jesus shed his lifeblood for all. He did not die for some more than for others. The umbrella of his redeeming work did not leave some out in the rain.

Jesus gave his life for all humans because God made mankind in his image, perfect and in holy harmony with God.  He intended that to continue for eternity. So when mankind ruined that harmony, God sent his Son to restore that harmony for all humans. If Jesus gave his life for all, that means that God has imposed the same value on all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, language, ability, age, or any other qualifier. That value, that price tag is this: worth the expenditure of the precious blood of his own Son.

You have never encountered anyone – I don’t care how much they rub you the wrong way or how curmudgeonly they conduct themselves – you have never encountered anyone worth less than you. You have never encountered anyone for whom Jesus did not shed his blood, anyone whom God does not love with an all-surpassing love.

So if God loves everyone, what should be our attitude toward everyone? We should love them too. The most basic command when considering God’s will for our life in society is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving them does not mean we have to feel good about them; it means that we regard them as people for whom Christ died and that we always seek to do what is best for them, regardless of how we feel about them. Help and befriend them in their bodily needs. Help them improve and protect their property and means of income. Defend them, speak well of them, and take their words and actions in the kindest possible way. Set a good example for them in the way you act and speak. Honor, serve, and obey them if they are in authority over you.

Also remember that your goal in doing all these things isn’t just to make the world a better place, or even just to make Christ happy. Peter told us what our goal is: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Your goal is to win souls for heaven. People can and do argue with doctrine and slander organized religion, but it is extremely difficult to argue with love. It is extremely difficult for someone to say to you, “Your religion is worthless,” when you consistently treat them in a fundamentally different way than most, treating them in a way that reflects the value and worth God has given them as souls for whom Christ shed his blood. Little else so attracts people, especially skeptics, to the Christian Church and the gospel of Christ like Christian love does. That’s why God made you a foreigner, living with this selflessness and loving servant heart

Secondly, in order to talk about our life in society, we need to realize what holds sway in society, what makes it go, so to speak. Here we need to talk about the doctrine of the two kingdoms of God. First, there is the  kingdom of the word.  That’s the kingdom that cares primarily for souls, the kingdom of the Church.  And there’s the kingdom of the sword.  That’s the kingdom that cares primarily for bodies, the kingdom of the State. In the Church, the gospel holds sway, but in the State or civil government, the law holds sway, because society is also made up of unbelievers and people who care nothing for God. Thus, if there is to be any good accomplished in society, society needs to be forced and compelled to do it by reward on the one hand and threat of punishment on the other.

The godless employee does his job well not because he cares about others, but because he gets money if he does it well, and fired if he doesn’t. The godless politician supports beneficial legislation because the voters are watching. Rape, robbery, and murder are restrained because people don’t want to get fined, imprisoned, or the death penalty. Some have been swayed from divorce because of the legal and financial ramifications.

Here we should note, before going on, that this is precisely why your Christian love in society has such a huge impact. In a world where most are doing the right thing because they have to, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter Christians doing the right thing because they want to. In a world where mechanics are fixing your car because they want to feed their family and not get sued, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter a Christian who fixes cars because he is genuinely concerned about your possessions and your transportation ability. In a world where employers give their employees fair pay and benefits because it’s mandated by law, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter a Christian employer who gives his employees fair pay and benefits, perhaps even more than what is mandated, because he is generous and genuinely cares about their lives and their families outside of work.

Nevertheless, civil government with its law-based system is a valid institution of God. Here’s our God-given attitude toward civil government: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  It’s makes us look like foreigners to be willing subjects of the government no matter who is ruling, but it’s a good thing.

One application of this, that I need to remember just as much as anyone else, is the way we speak about our president and other elected officials. We often equate conservatism with Christianity. While there are certainly elements of conservatism that are Christian, the two need to be distinguished. Conservatism is a political ideology; Christianity is a religion. Fox News is conservative, but when they disrespectfully rail against our elected officials, that is not Christian. If we have a problem with our elected officials, there are better, godly ways to address those problems than simply railing against them over a cup of coffee. We can call them. We can write to them. And ultimately, we can go to the voting booth or run for office ourselves.

While we’re on the topic of voting, let me say a brief word about that.  We just heard that God has established every government. Ours happens to be a government by the people. To vote, then, is to uphold the government that God has established in our country. So voting is a good thing, but remember that every vote is always going to be a choice for sinful human beings.  Elected leaders can never change the real problem that plagues this world.  They will do their best to keep peace and prosperity, to help our nation on earth. So do your research and use your conscience.

When you are researching the candidates, it is good to look for those who will, as much as possible, uphold God’s moral standards. We heard last week that marriage should be honored by all. We heard in the First Lesson that righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. Our first concern should not be, “How will this candidate’s ideology affect my wallet?” Our first concern should be, “How will this candidate’s ideology uphold the standards of God’s law and benefit the country at large?”

After doing all of this, pray that God would bless your vote and the outcome for his purposes. And then remember that Jesus still reigns on the throne of heaven, no matter who gets elected.  His kingdom operates with the power of his Word and that shall be our chief endeavor.   That makes us look like foreigners and that’s a good thing, a godly thing, a heavenly thing.

We should also say something about serving in the military here. Since we do uphold the civil government and its rule by law, that means that we also uphold its God-given right to have an army, to wage war, and to execute criminals. Peter said the authorities punish those who do wrong, and when the soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do, he did not say, “Leave the army.” Not all killing is hateful murder. If God has given authority to kill within a legitimate government and you are working for that government in the armed forces, then you may kill within your sphere of responsibility to the glory of God.  War is a part of a sinful world, not God’s design, so governments will have to make those tough decisions and God has given them the job of making those decisions.  As Christians, we honor those decisions. We need to give our Christian soldiers the benefit of the doubt. Even if we ourselves do not think a war is just, we have the benefit of looking in from the outside. Once a soldier is enrolled in the armed forces, he does not have that benefit to the same extent. Once he is enrolled, it is his job to trust his superiors and follow their orders, because if he does not, he is putting the lives of his fellow soldiers at risk.

The last thing we need to say about God’s other kingdom, the civil government, is what Peter says in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men.” If the government explicitly mandates something that is contrary to God’s will as clearly expressed in his Word, then we not only may, but also should disobey it. That doesn’t mean we riot and rebel. It means we simply disobey. If we know it will mean consequences, we have two choices – humbly accept the consequences or move to a different country.

In closing, thank God that we not only live in the kingdom of the law, like all people do, but that we also live in the kingdom of the gospel. Thank God that he has given us the motivation through Christ to want to do what others must be forced to do. Thank God that we have the good news of life eternal beyond this earthly life of sweat, tears, and death. Thank God that he has placed us in a kingdom of the law that, up to the present, has protected our right to promote the kingdom of the gospel and preach the full and free forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. Thank God that he has equipped us not just with the ability to make our society better, but also to save the souls within that society by telling them of our ultimate king, Jesus, who gave his life for you and for me and for the whole world.

A Christian life in this society makes you look like a foreigner now, but not forever.

To God be the Glory.   Amen.