December 22, 2002

Isaiah 9:1-7
I traveled a great deal when I was a child—in bed. Unlike my older sister and brother, who slept in single beds, I had a double bed. It was so big. I could stretch and turn without ever running out of room, and I never knew for sure what position I would be in when I woke up the next morning. My arms might be hanging over the side of the bed, my feet on the pillow, and my head buried somewhere in the covers. I traveled a great deal when I was a child—in bed.

When my grandfather moved in with us in 1967, my brother and I were sent to the basement. Mom and dad asked Harold Gauer to build a bedroom down there for each of us, and mine, unfortunately, ended up without a window. My new bedroom was as dark at 2:00 in the afternoon as it was at 2:00 in the morning. This, as you might very well imagine, created considerable difficulty for a nighttime traveler such as myself. If, for example, I woke up in some awkward position and got out of bed, I rarely had a clue exactly where I was in the room. Disoriented and confused, I often groped along, feeling the walls in search of clues that would help me determine my position. Stumbling into a chair or identifying a closet door could be helpful in regaining my sense of awareness, but locating the light switch was best of all. With a flip of that switch, absolutely everything around me changed. After rubbing my eyes—the change from darkness to light was rather abrupt and shocking—I could see the room clearly. I knew precisely where I was, and I knew how to move about and even leave the room if I needed to. Turning on the light in my otherwise pitch-black bedroom opened up an entirely new world of possibilities for me.

Most of us here this morning are familiar with this wonderful oracle in Isaiah 9:1-7. We’ve read it often, and we have heard it sung by choirs performing Handel’s Messiah: “For unto us a child is born. Unto us, a son is given….” Like that light switch in my bedroom so many years again, this oracle offered the people of Isaiah’s day a new perspective, a new opportunity, a new world. These people, as the preceding chapters make so evident, lived in thick and overwhelming darkness. Here, they are invited to put an end to their stumbling and move into the light.

The contrast between this passage in Isaiah and those immediately before it is striking, to say the least. It requires us as readers to stop and rub our eyes. It is a contrast, as Walter Brueggemann describes it, between “the former time” and “the latter time.” The former time, depicted in Isaiah 6-8, was very much a time of disappointment, oppression, and defeat. Jerusalem was under military attack by its closest neighbors, and Assyria—the world’s one true superpower at that time—was flexing her muscles off to the east. Judah’s king, Ahaz, was a dismal failure who paid no attention to either God or his true prophets. Faced with almost certain calamity, Ahaz stubbornly refused to heed Isaiah’s counsel to trust God and ran instead for Assyrian aid in his fight against his neighbors. The end result, Isaiah predicts, will be devastating:
Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt
in fear before Rezin and the son of Remaliah; therefore, the Lord is bringing up
against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above its channels and overflow all its banks; it will sweep
on into Judah as a flood, and pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its
outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land…(8:5-8).
King Ahaz is rotten, and Judah is desperate. They are walking in darkness, wavering on the brink of total disaster. They are lost, and they simply cannot find their way. Don’t you see them, groping along the walls, trying to find something that will help them discover where they are and where they are going? But it is too dark! The people just cannot see.

Suddenly—the shift here in Isaiah 9 is genuinely that abrupt—someone flips on the light switch for them. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” the prophet announces. And notice the images that he uses to describe this remarkable shift from the former time to the latter time. He likens the latter time—this new period made possible by the dawning of light—to the joy surrounding the ingathering of an extremely successful harvest. Do you remember how Charles Ingalls and his family waited time and time again on Little House on the Prairie for an excessive crop that would totally alter their fortunes? But it never quite came. A hail storm here, and a plague of grasshoppers there, and the Ingalls remained poor. Not here for the people of Judah. The light has come on, the crop is safely in the barns, and people are rejoicing.

Similarly, Isaiah compares the latter time to a military victory. The fear of defeat has passed, the threat of annihilation has evaporated. Scenes of nervous parents and worried siblings fretting the welfare of young men off at war are here replaced by images of shattered weapons and conquered foes. People are celebrating. They are excited. They have moved from the former time—darkness—into the latter time—light. The entire world has changed, right before their very eyes.

But what is it that has brought about such hope? To what might we attribute this remarkable transition? Who turned on the light? “For a child has been born for us,” the prophet declares:
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Who turned on the light? A child. An unnamed child. For the people living in Isaiah’s day, this child might very well have been Hezekiah, Ahaz’ son and apparent heir. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to picture in our minds a group of people, sick and tired of a corrupt and unresponsive leader, seeing in his successor the hope of change and transformation. I remember well the excitement that surrounded the Zambian people in 1991when, after years of turmoil, Frederick Chiluba replaced the despotic tyrant Kenneth Kaunda as President. “A child has been born,” the people of Judah are told—“the crown prince and heir to the throne”—and he will lead us from darkness into light.
And, as history reveals, Hezekiah did in fact change Judah’s situation significantly. He was an able and God-honoring leader who brought both religious and political renewal to Judah.

We must be very careful, however, not to freeze this wonderful text in time. This stunning contrast between darkness and light and the accompanying transition from the former time to the latter time that is so vividly portrayed here in Isaiah 9:1-7 has come over the years to be a model of sorts. When we look at the entire book of Isaiah, for example, we see the prophet depicting a similar contrast and transition later with respect to Judah’s exile in Babylon. Judah moved from the darkness of exile into the light of her return to Jerusalem. Hundreds of years later, the Gospel writers imagine a similar and even more astounding contrast and transition, brought about again by a child. In this case, a baby in a manger in Bethlehem serves as the catalyst for the most remarkable transition in all of human history. Gone are the former times, times of longing and weeping and groping and searching and crying and hurting and falling and dying. Ushered in by this baby are the latter times of rejoicing and building and growing and jumping and laughing and finding and living. “For unto us a child has been born,” Isaiah again announces. Not Hezekiah or any other earthly ruler. This time, God himself has taken on flesh in order to lead every nation and every tribe and every person from darkness into light. Every person, including you and me.

Try, for just a moment, to imagine this contrast and transition coming to pass in our own hearts and lives. It is a transition from brokenness to wholeness. From law to grace. From violence to peace. From rejection to acceptance. From emptiness to fulfillment. From loneliness to fellowship. From sadness to joy.

Try again to imagine this contrast and transition made possible by the birth of the Lord Jesus. It is a transition from guilt to forgiveness. From oppression to freedom. From selfcenteredness to compassion. From greed to generosity. From sickness to health. From despair to hope.

Try yet again to imagine this contrast and transition made possible by the birth of the Lord Jesus. You and I, along with the rest of humanity, are stumbling in a dark room, reaching this way and then that in our attempts to find the light switch. Suddenly, a child is born. God has come to live among us. To change us. To help us. To welcome us. To forgive us. To love us. What a transition this is! This child healed lepers, raised the dead, forgave the worst of sinners, and threw his arms around the outcasts. This child ate lunch with the lonely, corrected the scholars, and carried the weary. And this child, if we receive him, offers hope this very morning to ruined lives, broken relationships, lifeless churches, and corrupt governments. Again, what a remarkable, eye-rubbing transition this is. A transition from hatred to love. From darkness to light. From death to life.

Come with me into my office for just a moment before we close. I found it hard this week being a preacher. I struggled thinking about and praying through this remarkable text. “How can I convey the life-changing power of this image—this child who has been given to us—without at the same time setting these good people up for failure?” I prayed. Some of you have called out to Jesus before, only to walk away disappointed. Some of you have at some point cast your cares and struggles at his feet, only to feel unchanged. Some of you have never received this child in any way before, and I don’t want for one minute to lead you to believe that Jesus—this child—comes into our lives and immediately rids us of every pain and problem. This image of moving from darkness into light, this image of a child changing everything, will not free us today of being human.

What it can do, however, is open up new possibilities for all of us. Images like this quicken the mind and stir the heart. Images like this provide a beginning point for a new future. Images like this call us to “imagine” what we can become as the Lord works in us and through us in the days, weeks, and years ahead. Just think of Thomas Edison, walking around the streets of Menlo Park, New Jersey, lamenting yet another failure in his attempt to invent the light bulb. Suddenly, an idea springs into his mind, and Tom is back in the laboratory on his way to success. The idea—the image—invigorated Tom and gave him hope and a sense of direction.

The power of these images came through to me again just this past Friday morning. We held a memorial service here at the church for Dick Kershner, a service that many of you attended. I did not know Dick as well as some of you did. I had come to know him better during the last year or so, and I very much appreciated spending a bit of time with him just before he died. Many of the stories that I heard Friday morning, however, were new to me. I heard that Dick first received Jesus—this child—into his life when he was 40 years of age. I heard stories of Dick’s “former times”—what his son, Tom, called the “B.C.” Dick. Those stories were not pretty. But I also heard stories about the “latter times”—the “A.C.” Dick. Times of dramatic transformation. Times of ministering to prison inmates and mentoring marginalized young people. Times of joy and gladness, even in the face of bodily pain. Times of light and love. After the memorial service Friday morning, one of Dick’s former co-workers walked up to M.J. in the lobby and simply said, “I could tell you a lot of stories about the former Dick Kershner, but something really happened to that man.” Dick had been groping in darkness, but he encountered the light.

What brought it all about? A child. Not just any child. God in the flesh. Whether for the first time or the hundredth time, will you receive him today? Will you allow his grace and presence to bring new light into your life?