The 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
In the Name of the one who is our light and our salvation, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For my sermon this morning I am going to focus on our Old Testament first reading from Isaiah. I was intrigued by it because it is the very same passage that we used for our “Dialogue” at our Christmas Eve services four weeks ago – and yet it has a subtle but important difference in its emphasis. On Christmas Eve, the first part of the passage was the same as this morning’s, but it then continued with verses 5 through 7 which are NOT included today – the verses which proclaim that “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
The focus of Isaiah’s passage as read on Christmas Eve was about the birth of a special CHILD – but now today the focus is about a new beginning for a LAND which has known overwhelming sorrow, hardship, and despair.
This land has been swamped in “deep darkness”. The Hebrew word is tsalmaweth, the “shade” or the “shadow of death” – which is the very same word used in the 23rd Psalm. It is the strongest possible word in the Hebrew language used to describe utter hopelessness and dejection.
This “darkness” – this “tsalmaweth” – had come about because of the destruction wrought by Assyrian military forces upon the land of Zebulun and Naphtali in the northern part of the kingdom of Israel (modern day Galilee) around 700 B.C. The Assyrians were notorious for their cruelty and brutality. During their raids and occupation, they would rape, kill, and plunder. Often they would completely destroy every standing building and then sow the farming fields with salt so that nothing could grow there again. The people of the land of Zebulun and Naphtali lived in constant fear of the Assyrians and what they would do next.
And yet, as Isaiah prophesies, upon this land God would shine the GREAT LIGHT of his salvation. Not just gradually, but suddenly and all at once!
It had happened before, as the prophet reminded people. In the last part of today’s passage, he refers to “the day of Midian.” Isaiah is referring to a time when Gideon in the period of the Judges, with a force of only 300 volunteer recruits from – guess where? – Zebulun and Naphtali – had routed a vastly superior force of Midianite occupiers with a surprise nighttime attack. Actually, they had not even attacked. All that they did was to surround the Midianite camp in the darkness – each of them having a candle hidden in a clay jar – and then at a prearranged signal they broke the jars to let the candles shine out and started to yell and blow horns. The confused Midianites, thinking that a vastly superior force was attacking them, started to fight with each other – and those who survived the carnage soon fled in terror. It was one of the greatest Israelite victories ever, and it was one that had obviously been inspired and wrought by God! The people of the land of Zebulun and Naphtali had been filled with fear of those Midianite plunderers, but then suddenly – in an instant! – they were filled with joy!!
Isaiah prophesies that something like that will happen again. He of course is thinking about victory over the Assyrian oppressors. But, like many divinely inspired prophets, there is much more to his prophecy than even he is aware of! Matthew in today’s gospel sees this prophecy as being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. And also, this prophecy refers to the timeless truth that God is full of joyful surprises. That in the midst of tsalmaweth – the deepest and most foreboding darkness – God can suddenly shine the great light of his salvation – that he can and will turn sorrow and despair into incredible JOY!!
Sermon writer John Jewell describes an experience he once had while working in a mine deep under the earth – when his headlamp went out. As he put it, you have not seen dark until you have been without light in the middle of a rock a quarter of a mile under the earth! It was “thick” and it was absolutely terrifying! Jewell says that he literally inched and felt his way back toward the main shaft for about an hour (and that it felt like days) to finally reach a bend where a tiny beam of light from the main shaft penetrated the darkness. And when he saw that light, he then let out a great shout of joy! I can certainly visualize that scene, can’t you?
As Jewell goes on to write, there is an emotional and spiritual equivalent to this darkness – and if you have ever been through a dark night of the soul, you know how oppressive the darkness can be. And when the darkness finally lifts – even when it is but a tiny beam of light – you experience a joy that you had not known for a long time.
Have you have ever experienced that kind of tsalmaweth darkness in your lives? The tsalmaweth of going through the death of a marriage, the death of a loved one, trying to live and cope with an illness or handicap that never seems to get better, being in the throes of addiction to gambling or alcohol, being in financial distress, or feeling overwhelming guilt for sins that we have done, or remorse for what we have failed to do – and I can go on and on. Most of us have experienced that kind of darkness in some ways, and that certainly includes me.
But in the midst of whatever failings, discouragements, hurts, and guilts that we may have, God through Jesus can suddenly shine the great light of his salvation and fill us with joy! He will often do this in unexpected and surprising ways – just as he has done time and time before in the past, and will continue to do in the future. This is the faith that we have as Christian people – and it is what can keep us going even when we sometimes might feel that we are near the end of our rope. That somewhere, somehow, God is going to act and turn all of our tsalmaweth into joy and gladness! And that at the end of our life’s journey, God has a place prepared for us that is so utterly wonderful that we can hardly conceive of it right now!
This faith is much more than just a fairy tale. It is something that is very, very real. That is what Jesus came to show in his ministry. Through his teaching, and by his love and compassion, Jesus brought unexpected joy to the lives of people in Galilee – the ancient land of Zebulun and Naphtali. Emotionally and spiritually, as well as by physical healing, Jesus brought the GOOD NEWS of God’s kingdom to all who were discouraged and broken hearted.
And Jesus continues to do this for people today. He even does it through us. Yes, through us as well as for us, God through Jesus still shines the great light of his salvation into discouraged and hurting lives. The light of his healing power. The light of his forgiveness. The light of hope. And the light of his everlasting love.
For “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.” (Is. 9:2) Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen!
Pastor George Karres
418 W. Main St.
Sidney, MT 59270