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Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Light of Hope (Isaiah 9.1-7, Matthew 4.12-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 2, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "I Wonder As I Wander" (Niles;arr. Hayes)
Hymn of Praise: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (Wesley, HYFRYDOL; Refrain. Youngblood)
Song of Praise: "Of the Father's Love Begotten" (Prudentius, DIVINUM MYSTERIUM arr. Austell)
The Word in Music: "Comfort, Comfort Now My People" (15th c./arr. Youngblood)
Offering of Music: "Silent Night" (Rick Bean, jazz piano) (arr. Bean)
Hymn of Sending: "Lift Up Your Heads" (TRURO) 
Postlude: "Lift Up Your Heads" (Ernst Pepping)

"The Light of Hope"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Isaiah 9:1-7; Matthew 4:12-17

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we begin the period of Advent, coming up to Christmas. We begin today by looking at a text in Isaiah that speaks of hope in God’s promises.  Not only is it a great text because it is hopeful, but because it is grounded in reality, in the challenges, struggles, and disappointments of this life.  And yet, God holds out light in the darkness, something in which we can find hope.  That hope is grounded in the promises of God.  Let’s look first at Isaiah 9.

I Have Seen Your Sorrow

Darkness. It may seem a strange place to start our season of coming to Christmas.  Or it may be right where you are.  That’s part of our reality as human beings; in this world there is darkness.  And that darkness often seems to be a lot harder to bear at Christmas time.  It may be because you lost a loved one at Christmas time.  Or it may be the contrast between the happiness you THINK you are supposed to feel and the struggles that you face.  But this whole season can be a very difficult and even lonely time.

It is an unfair and untruthful characterization of God to say that God is distant from all that.  Now I know God may FEEL distant; but He is not.  Generations before the text in Isaiah God’s chosen people had known all the blessings of a prosperous nation, a powerful government, and a strong economy.  But they had run afoul of the powers of their day.  The Assyrians had risen up as a mighty empire and conquered most of the Middle East and known world at the time.  God’s people had lost their independence, prosperity, and perhaps even more crushing, had seemed to lose the blessing of God.

Did you hear some of the language used in this passage?  - gloom, anguish, contempt, darkness, and more.  But God sees and God knows.  God knows of the “yoke of their burden” and the “staff on their shoulders.”  God has seen the “rod of their oppressor,” the “boot of the booted warrior” and the “cloak rolled in blood.”  Does that seem possible to you? …that God has seen your gloom and anguish, your oppression, your suffering and loss?  God has seen all that has been lost, stolen, wasted, and crushed.

Sometimes, it is simply enough to know that you are not alone, that someone sees and someone knows.  God is not aloof, but has seen every bit of what they and we have faced.  But that is just part of what is said here.  Isaiah has another hopeful word from the Lord for His people.

Remember the Past!

Isaiah lifted up the past to give God’s struggling people hope for the present and future.  His words tapped into the cultural history of every Jewish man, woman, boy, and girl.  First was the promise to Father Abraham.  In the language of restoring the land taken from Zebulun and Naphtali (v. 1), multiplying the nation and their gladness (v. 3), and waiting on the birth of a promised child (v. 6), Isaiah reminded the people that God had been faithful to Abraham to provide land, children, and blessing, and God would not give up on these covenant promises.  God would again restore the land, the people, and the blessing.  God’s name and ‘zeal’ stood behind this promise (v. 7).

Second, as Isaiah spoke of God breaking the yoke of their oppressors, he tapped into the story of the Exodus, of God setting His people free from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  God had done it before, in a big way; God could do it again.

Third, when he mentioned the “throne of David” and a kingdom established forever (v. 7), Isaiah called to mind another great covenant.  This one was a promise God made to King David, the greatest of the Kings of Israel, to maintain his kingly line forever.  This, too, seemed to have been lost when Assyria came in, but God reassures His people through Isaiah that this great promise had not been forgotten.

All of these promises and hopes would be a great light in the darkness, perhaps still far off as a point of light at this point, but nonetheless promise and hope to a struggling people.  And the hope, as with Abraham, was wrapped up in the birth of a child who would sit on the throne and who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (v. 6)  He would rule with peace, justice, and righteousness, and do so forever, with God’s blessing and power.

Jesus the Promise-Keeper

Hopefully your mind has already jumped to Jesus.  We understand him to be, and rightly so, this child born to us and the son (of God) given to us.  What we may miss is just how completely and amazingly Jesus matched up to what was promised some 700 years before his birth.  That’s one reason I included the passage from Matthew, but even it just scratches the surface.  Listen to it again and listen for the points of connection to Isaiah:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— “The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, And those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, Upon them a Light dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:12-17)
At the beginning of his earthly ministry, after John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus settled in Capernaum.  This region of Galilee, near the land of the ancient Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, had been taken by the Assyrians, but would one day, so Isaiah said, be the site of something glorious.  It was where Jesus conducted most of his ministry until the end, when he went to Jerusalem. It was literally “by the way of the sea” in the very area Isaiah described.  Matthew notes that when Jesus moved to this area, that’s when his public ministry began, with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  There is even a reference in Matthew to the “shadow of death” of Psalm 23.

Matthew is only one example of an explicit connection to Isaiah, saying that Jesus’ living and ministering in that location fulfilled the prophecy. It was another disciple, John, who made connection with the language of darkness and light:
He was in the beginning with God… in Him was life and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (John 1:2,4-5)
There are many other passages.  Have you ever wondered why those long genealogies are at the beginning of Matthew?  It was explicitly to trace Jesus' ancestry back to Abraham and King David.  God did keep His promise to Abraham and to David – He kept it perfectly in Jesus.  Would a descendant of King David sit on an eternal throne?  Indeed, Jesus was a descendant and would, as we discussed last week, sit on the throne of Heaven as the King of kings, greater even than David.  In fact, the whole reason Joseph and Mary were going to Bethlehem was for the census, because that was the “city of David” – and you had to go back to sign the census in the place your ancestors called home.  That and many other details about Jesus’ life connect him with the centuries’ old story and promises of God and His people.

Promises to You

And that’s the real connection point to you and me.  Jesus is the real connection point.  We aren’t suffering under the oppression of the ancient Assyrian Empire.  It would be easy to see only a disconnect with ourselves and Isaiah’s “light in the darkness.”  But that light was the Light of the World, the same Jesus who is our Savior and Lord.

That means that in our darkness – whether that is depression, loneliness, sickness, disobedience, or the evil or oppression of others – God has something to say.  Not only is God there with you, seeing the very rod of oppression and the blood-stained clothes of your struggles; but God has words and a promise of hope, of light in YOUR darkness, and that is through Jesus Christ.

What help is Jesus to my stuff or your stuff? 

As the “Wonderful Counselor” he sees, hears, listens, understands, and offers wisdom and discernment in our confusion and lostness.

As the “Mighty God” he is as bigger than, stronger than, whatever challenge you or I may face.  If he was bigger than the most powerful world empire of the time, he is bigger than a lost job, a medical diagnosis, a storm of depression, or any other darkness we face, big or small.

As the “Eternal Father” he is wise, present, and loving.  He’s not going anywhere.  Even when God’s people were at their worst in terms of disobedience, lack of faith, and outright rebellion, God did not leave or abandon them, but continued to pursue them in love.  Jesus pointed us to God as “Abba” Father: personal, close, compassionate, and not afraid to come running after us like the Father of the Prodigal.

As the “Prince of Peace” Jesus proves to be both warrior-king and gentle mediator.  He is strong enough to face anything, but wise and merciful enough to bring peace where we need it most.

Hear the Good News in God’s Word today. It is not a promise for a quick-fix, but all the hope of a steady light in the darkest of places: through Jesus, joy will replace anguish and gloom, the oppressed will find freedom, and we will come to know the strong but peaceful reign of Christ in our lives.

Cling to hope; cling to this Great Light; cling to the promise of God in Jesus.  Amen.

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