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Light in the Darkness

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

January 22, 2023

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Isaiah 9:1–4 (ESV)

1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. 3 You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. 4 For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

There will be no gloom for her. This week’s passage is obviously connected directly to the previous chapter, but we are not going to read it. If you want to know everything that is going on I encourage you to read it for yourself.  But the simplified version is, Israel has really messed up and things are going to get really bad really quick. And yet even though Isaiah has given this dire proclamation, he then says this. “But there will be no gloom for her who is in anguish.”

When we look at this I wonder if Isaiah understands what anguish is? I extensively researched this one word. I poured into it to better understand and in my google search I found that anguish means, “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” Or  “[to] be extremely distressed about something.” I have to admit I did not extensively research the word. I just googled the definition and that was the first thing that came up, but the reality is that I do not need to look it up because anguish is something we all feel. We do not need a dictionary to tell us what anguish means. We just have to think about how we are going to afford college for our children. I feel it whenever my gas tank is nearly empty. Anguish is that feeling we have when we are at the end of ourselves and we have nowhere else to turn. It is extreme mental or physical pain or suffering. It is distress. It is the uncertainty of life.

I admit that most of my anguish seems superficial to the anguish that people face in other places. A few years back the running joke was, “this is a first world problem.” Which basically means that it is ridiculous to be distressed about this when there are wars, famines,  and diseases raging throughout this world. But that does not change the emotions of the situation. To a toddler the fact that chicken nuggets and dino nuggets are of the same substance, the fact that dino nuggets are not on their plate is a tragedy that they may never recover from. We have goals, we have expectations, we have ideas and desires that we want to be fulfilled, and when those things do not turn out our world seemingly falls apart.

The Northern Kingdom, Israel, was going to fall. Not only would it fall but it would fall to one of the most notoriously vile empires of the ancient world. There is a reason Jonah jumped on a ship for Spain instead of going to  Nineveh. Nineveh one of the prominent cities in Assyria was the complete opposite of everything Israel stood for. You would be counted lucky if you died in the battle, because to be taken captive was dehumanizing. Torture, genocide, and the eradication of culture was what they took pride in. When the northern kingdom fell under the dominion of Assyria, Israel disappeared. To this day we speak of the ten lost tribes of Israel. We speak of them because even in the days of Jesus, even though the people of Judah lived in the land promised to their fore fathers, many believed that they were still in exile because those lost tribes had not yet returned.

This is something that I believe we in our globalized world are losing. I know that this is one of those triggering words, globalization, but the real problem is not that China is taking our jobs. The real problem is that we  lose home.

Globalization did not do this. This has been happening throughout human existence. Humanity in urbanization is losing connection to the land they were created to steward. What drove people west in America? It was not that there were jobs in the west, but land. They had an opportunity to have a place that they could call home. Land that they could tame to provide for their family. And something of lasting value that they could pass on to those that came after them. It is not globalization that is the problem, we have lost our home. We, myself included, have left the farms seeking opportunity in the shining cities. We leave the places that we once knew. We uproot ourselves, and we lose our identity. This is the anguish that Isaiah speaks of, homelessness. Not in the sense of not having shelter, but uprootedness. We are unanchored, adrift. Who are we?

I have thought a great deal about these things, because I guess I do not have enough to worry about so I contemplate weird stuff. There are times when I will look at scripture and think. What was the real reason for the flood during the days of Noah? If you read the first half of Genesis, not as a science text book but as a story of the human condition, something quite amazing happens. After the fall Adam and Eve have two children, Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer, someone that tilled the ground and raised produce and Abel was a shepherd he domesticated livestock. Historically speaking this is a story of the start of civilization. The domestication of grains and livestock is what allowed civilization to emerge. We no longer had to chase after wild animals and forage for berries. Instead, we could raise our own food. But the story is not happy, jealousy quickly overtook our first siblings. Cain was envious of Abel, and killed him. Cain wanted the something that Abel had, favor. Cain was not content and he desired more, and he was willing to kill to obtain what he wanted. It was Cain’s descendants that built the first city. It was through Cain that urbanization began and the quest for more territory, more wealth, more and more took root.

Cain was unhinged, set to drift, and wander throughout the world. He feared for his life because of this. It was this fear that drove Cain to establish the cities where he could control and order life. We look down on Cain but so often that is who we most resemble. We want more, and we fear that someone else will take what we have. We are adrift, unhinged, living in discontent, homeless even though we have everything.

Israel lost their land. They, like Cain, were cast out to wander without a place to call home. They lost their identity. There is anguish there. I experienced this. As much as I love where I live, I am a simple farm boy. How can I become content in a foreign land? How can I live in a culture that is so different from what I once knew? Some of you are looking at me thinking that I do not truly know this feeling and you are right, the anguish I feel may not be as extreme as yours, but the emotions are the same. And yet Isaiah says to these people “there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. “How can we have no gloom through the anguish we feel?

When Assyria conquered Israel, they came from the north east. We may know of a geological region within the Middle East called the fertile crescent. This crescent of land encompasses all of Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to just beyond the Jordan River, north to the Taurus Mountains in Southern Turkey, and along the  Zagros Mountains just east of the Tigris river until the river empties into the Persian gulf.  The Assyrians followed this crescent west. They conquered the land south of the Taurus Mountain range and pushed their way into Israel. And Naphtali and Zebulun were the first tribes to meet this invading force.

“In the former time he brought into contempt the land.” Isaiah tells us, “but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”

Israel was a nation situated between the empires of the known ancient world. Egypt to the west and Mesopotamia to the east. Assyria was one of the great empires of Mesopotamia. We think globalization is bad today, but the reality is that what we know as globalization has been occurring  as long as humans have existed. There was a trade route between these empires that followed the fertile crescent through Israel connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt. This route was known throughout ancient cultures as the way of the sea. This portion of this ancient trade route followed the Jordan River from the Dead Sea, past the sea of Galilee, and along the mountain range beyond the Jordan. The land beyond the Jordan that Isaiah is speaking of is what Israel knew as East Manasseh, because half of the tribe of Manasseh settled on the east bank of the Jordan. All this geography is important, even though it is dry because it speaks to the history of faith in the ancient world.

The Jordan we know is a sacred river to the people of Israel, like the Nile is important to Egypt, and the Tigris is to Assyria. Water is life. And the source of this water is often regarded as the mountain of God. It is in the land beyond the Jordan, from one particular mountain called Hermon that Israel’s sacred river began its journey to the sea.

I have spoken often about this particular mountain. It is believed that Mount Hermon is the very mountain that Jesus climbed to pray and while he prayed that day, his disciples saw his glory as he was transfigured before them. There is more to this one mountain. Jesus, on one of his journeys through Galilee traveled to Caesarea Philippi. This city was built at the base of Mt Hermon, and near this city is a cave that is referred to as the Grotto of Pan.

Pan according to Greek Mythology is god of the wild. But this cave was not only associated with the Greeks. Other religions throughout the ancient world found this one cave as being important. Even the religion of Israel. When we think of anguish and gloom, we often associate it with the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, but if we continue to read Genesis, we see that there was a second fall so to speak. Cain’s descendants wandered in the wilderness and eventually established cities. While Adam and Eve’s third son Seth followed his father and remained tending the flocks. Eventually we are told that the Sons of God found delight in the daughters of Men and had offspring with them. The children of these unions were called Nephilim, the mighty men who were of old, the  men of renown.

If we were to study the writings of the Ancient Near East most cultures have a similar story. Babylon might say that their god’s and their kings were the men of renown that we read about in scripture. And the book of Enoch would tell us that the Watchers or the sons of God that found the daughters of man beautiful taught their offspring forbidden knowledge of war, and various forms of magic. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth…and the Lord regretted that he had made man .. . and it grieved his heart.” This is where Noah comes into the story and the flood. Noah was the only man that walked blameless in his generation. I bring this up because Enoch says that it was on the mountain known as Hermon that this second fall occurred. And Enoch goes on to say that God sent the Watchers to Tartarus, or hell, The Grotto of Pan to many in the ancient world was the gate to Hell. And it was in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus said, “upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”

Isaiah is reminding Israel of where the anguish originates. It is the fall of humanity. It is the wild chaos of jealousy and greed of our ancestors who sought forbidden knowledge to gain undeserved profits and power that causes our sorrows. But if we turn, if we remain faithful to the ways of our fathers there will not be gloom even in this chaos. Because in the later time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

Isaiah then breaks out in song. The poem that begins in verse 2 through verse 7 is a hymn of praise, and hope.

Isaiah 9:2–7 (ESV)

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. 3 You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. 4 For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Today, on this third Sunday of Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation of this hope. We see this hope as fulfilled in Jesus, but the people that lived through the anguish that Isaiah described also found hope in these words.

Darkness often refers to hopelessness and despair. People that walk in darkness are those that cannot see hope. We live in dark times. We often look out at the world in which we live, and all we see is pain and suffering. There is pain. There is suffering. Some of us experience it, and we want to find someone to blame for this suffering. That is why words like globalism trigger many of us. We dwell in the darkness, we wallow in despair, but is this the life that Christ calls us to? The people who walked in darkness. Notice the past tense of the verb, walked. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Light is also a symbolic word. Fear lives in the darkness, the unknown. But when light enters it casts out all fear and what was once hidden is now revealed. In John’s gospel we are told:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything  made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word, became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

I want us to consider John’s introduction to his gospel in light of Isaiah’s hymn of praise. I want us to consider what it means as we walk through our times of anguish and darkness. Where is our attention? Cain walked in fear, in jealousy, and in greed. He built a civilization on fear which led to the proliferation of tools of war to protect him against those that might take from him the things he did not deserve. It is not just history, but a story of our own life.

Two weeks ago we spent some time in reflection on the first Query within our faith and practice. In that query, one statement stands out, “Are you watchful not to be unduly absorbed by temporal affairs?” Unduly absorbed speaks to our attention. Where are we focusing our attention? Is our attention being directed by the twenty-four-hour news cycle? Is our attention focused solely on our budgets or our grades, or our work? What happens when those things fail us? Where do we stand? We are left like Cain wandering in fear and anguish, but “those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has a light shone.”

What do we do when the bottom falls out from under us? What do we do when our dreams deteriorate, and we are uprooted and live as strangers in a foreign land? We seek the light. We build a community around that light, and we establish roots. We focus on what we have instead of what we do not have. We praise God for the blessings instead of complaining about our lack. And we sow seeds of hope.

I am a farm boy living in exile. I am displaced but not in despair because I have a home. I have a community. I have friends with whom I can share life. I have a community that accepts me to be who I am and that encourages me to become a man loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. I have a home, and I pray that as you walk in a land of deep darkness you too will have a great light shone on you, and that you too will know God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the true light, the true Word, and our true hope.


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Wednesday:
Meal at 6pm
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