Light Shines When We Turn to God to Help . . . and For Help

A sermon based on Isaiah 9:1-4
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 26, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A couple of weeks ago I watched a film called “The Two Popes” a historical biography based on events immediately leading up to the 2013 retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the selection of his successor Pope Francis. The acting in the movie is exceptional and the script and story are remarkable. And for me the most compelling scenes involved both men holding high and lofty offices behaving so very human, eating pizza, cheering on a soccer match and most especially when they talk about difficulties and darknesses in their lives.
I do not think it spoils the movie to point out that complicated separate events in history presented them each with a choice, and what they chose weighed heavy on their souls. So heavy was the weight of their choices that they doubted their qualifications to be pope, and their connections to God. That popes are human is obvious, but we tend not to hear or see them or treat them as anything but lofty leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.
The story line in the movie, while based on general historic events, contains fictionalized dialog and scenes. But the long shadows cast over the popes appear to be real. The scenes with the discussions of their choices and shadows are particularly poignant. During those scenes, and the related flash backs and the confessions made by these men that the world puts on a pedestal, reveals them as deeply human and earth bound–like all the rest of us. The full church regalia they don as a pope or cardinal somehow actually accentuates their humanity, as their sins and sorrows and situations are revealed.
I found it particularly powerful as each man responded to the prayers and absolution of sin that they receive from the other. In the darkness of their human situations they provided to one another a soft and gentle, yet very great light. And they do it as earth bound humans not lofty superstars of the church. These moments are tender and love filled. The light that emanates forth is no less than Christ, and it emanates not just as they offer forgiveness and absolution, but as they receive it. As they turn to God as sinners . . . Christ is in them. As they turn to God to minister . . . Christ is in them. None of this is written in the dialog or stated per se. It is just present as they tend to the well being of self and other and the church. It is quite remarkable.
When I sat down to go over the lesson to prepare for this sermon the famous words from Isaiah 9: 2 reminded me of the moments in the movie that I have outlined. Verse 2 provides: “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.”
Those words from the lesson are a part of a prophesy that Isaiah offered describing a leader. Bible scholars go back and forth about whether Isaiah was describing a leader being born, a leader being crowned, a leader being honored or a leader being predicted. Christians famously claim the latter and place Jesus into the prophesy, claiming it speaks about him, to them. Handel’s Messiah famously portrays Isaiah 9 in such a way through beloved music and lyrics.
Although that 18th century masterpiece may be how modern people best connect Isaiah 9 to Jesus, the author of Matthew predates Handel’s connecting Jesus to the text. Matthew tells us in Chapter 4 that after Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan Jesus started his ministry to fulfill the prophesy from Isaiah 9. The Book of Matthew Chapter 4 verses 12-16:
When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali (naph-tall-i),— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
I understand both that quote from Matthew and today’s lesson from Isaiah to be poetic in the sense that their meaning transcends the time and place of writing allowing readers to tease out meaning in their time and place. Matthew did just that with Isaiah. Handel and his lyricist Charles Jennens followed Matthew’s lead placing texts from Isaiah in the the Messiah with the prophesies and pronouncements that build up to the arrival of Christ in that composition.
This poetic licence approach to verses allows humans to find meaning in ancient Scripture. It lets us make the words relevant. The Bible’s words become more than declarations of rules and dry depiction of history, they become full of meaning. And they were meant to have meaning and remain relevant.
All of this Scripture as meaning stuff sometimes surprises people and some even get upset when it is suggested that Old Testament verses were not literally written by the author to apply to Jesus. Like it or not, believe it or not, application of the Old Testament to Jesus requires poetic like license. Isaiah 9 is a good example, it is very unlikely the text was originally written by the author with Jesus in mind. Yes, we can look back and fit Jesus into the prophesy, and I am not saying that is unfair or wrong to do. But to do so is to read it non-literally, because in the context of the whole of Isaiah, Jesus does not literally fit what was unfolding in history. But Jesus sure does poetically fit and he does so for Christians in a powerful way that transcends not only the time and place of Isaiah, but all times and places in history so that the words become relevant and dynamic to each new generation.
It is the poetic nature of the writing that allows Isaiah to be heard in ways that brings Jesus to mind. He acts “like” a light in the darkness. He acts – even after ascending to heaven– “as” a leader freeing people from burdens and oppressions. “Like ” and “as” comparisons are the language of parable, metaphor, and poetry. For the disciples, Matthew, Handel, popes, and billions of Christians, Jesus has been experienced like a great light for people who walked in darkness . . . [as] “ those who lived in a land of deep darkness . . .”
Many of us here this morning, maybe all of us, have experienced Jesus like that. I certainly have. Like the last two popes in their very humanness, we in our humanness face all kinds of darkness.
And not just from questionable choices we make but from all manner of burdens and oppressions that natural and human made circumstances create. The light of Christ appears in those shadowy places when we turn to God FOR help; and when we turn TO God to help those in the shadows. Jesus showed us that two Way Light shine. Christians experience Light in darkness through him.
And it’s not just that we have experienced Jesus like that in the past tense, we also can experience Jesus like that right now in this moment. Indeed we can claim that it IS true Jesus can be experienced like that in any given moment. That truth adds a promise of future experiences, which is a prophetic assertion in both the Word of God sense and the portending sense that Matthew, Handel and many Christians give to Isaiah 9 verse 2.
And the poetic application of the lesson can be heard to go beyond verse 2. Christ is not just like a great light for people in darkness, but also acts as one who unburdens, and removes oppression and has caused an increase in followers. Verse 3 asserts that last part
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest . . .
Experiences of Jesus have multiplied the number of Jesus followers far beyond the original twelve. Right? And that growth has brought, still brings, and promises to bring, joy. Growth sustains religions and religions done right bring joy to its people and to others. Peace on earth good will to all can only unfold through Christians if Christianity continues to exist and we multiply through generations with strength enough to make good on that promise. The light in the darkness provides us relief, but it is only sustained if it causes us to continue to serve to bring the incarnation of the light of Christ into darkness. All of this means our lesson can be heard to apply to Christians experiences of Christ as a light in darkness and leading Christianity to multiply.
Our Lectionary Lesson ends with verse 4 which tells us that both experiences of the light in darkness and the multiplying are caused because burdens and oppressions are overcome. Isaiah 9:4 states they occur because
the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
Midian oppressed Israel until Gideon and a small army defeated them in the darkness with lights that made the enemy run because they appear to signal a much larger army was attacking. The words in the Lectionary lesson were written to convey that a leader (who is unnamed) would be a savior like a great light in darkness and multiply the nation by lifting burdens and oppression.
In the movie “The Two Popes” the burden of sin and deep troubles over choices were broken and the men experience light in the darkness through one another conveying Christ in their lives, both as sinner receiving the light; and as the voice of God bringing the light into being. And it was not because they held lofty positions of the church, but because they turned to God FOR help and turned to God TO help.
That is actually a good summation of the good news in the lesson for every human, not just those who become popes. Light as in darkness shines when humans turn to God TO help, and turn to God FOR help. Burdens and oppression can be overcome when humans do both types of turning to God. This works at the communal level and – thank goodness– at the individual level. It worked for the two popes. It works for us. It has worked in the past. It is working in this given moment. It is promised to work in every moment.
Isaiah 9’s unnamed leader and savior can provide light for everyone in any darkness. As the opening line of our lesson puts it, “there will be no gloom for those in anguish.” Christians have a name for the one they consider the leader and savior in Isaiah. The name is Jesus the Christ. We use that name because we find Jesus Christ to be the decisive revelation of God. It is our experience that in the darkness Jesus brings great light. Christians have experienced that as true whether the darkness is long or short, great or small, or of our making, of the making of another or of the making of natural circumstances. Whenever we are burdened or we are oppressed there is the promise, that Christ will shine great light in the dark to remove burdens, oppressions . . . and the darkness. That a light shines in any darkness when humans turn to God TO help, and turn to God FOR help. We understand and name the incarnation of God as Christ.
May we turn to Christ TO help and turn to Christ FOR help. The very Light of God shines in the dark when we do. AMEN!