Light in the Land of Deep Darkness

Pastor Kyle McIver

Light in the Land of Deep Darkness
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Advent is a season of waiting. You’ve heard that these last couple Sundays and it may well be familiar to you from years past. But whether familiar or brand new to you, I don’t want us to glaze over the importance of waiting. And not really just during this Advent season, but as an ever-present reality we need year round. “Waiting” in part, means we are looking forward. We’re anticipating something that is yet to come. And while there is a measure of wisdom in adages like “be present” or “be mindful” or “live in the moment”, our present doesn’t exist in a way that’s disconnected from our future. In fact our future should have a significant impact on the present. Our future, the things we look forward to and wait for, shapes what we do with our present. And this reality pervades our passage this morning.

We need to do a little background work first to make sure we understand the setting, and that will transition us into our main points. I’ll give them to you now so you know where we’re headed:

Out of Deep Darkness, Light! (9:1-2)

Spreading Light, Resounding Joy (9:3-6a)

The Everlasting King (9:6b-7)

So let’s set the stage and then we’ll walk through these seven verses in Isaiah chapter 9.

Israel is in a time of unfaithfulness. They are wayward and far from God because of their disobedience as a nation. Many of the prophecies in the book of Isaiah speak to a nation in rebellion. They contain warnings, rebukes, pronouncements of judgement, and specific details about how God is going to deal with his people. But there are also many moments of grace. Isaiah is a book that soars to the heights of God’s glory and digs down deep to show us the bottomless depths of God’s mercy.

Now to properly orient ourselves to Isaiah 9, I want to do a quick flyover of Isaiah 7 and 8. Chapter 7 opens with Isaiah being sent to Ahaz, the king of Judah, who finds himself under attack from Israel and Syria. God’s main purpose in sending Isaiah to Ahaz is reassurance that Syria and Israel will not prosper in their attempted conquest. Now Dan is going to be preaching much more in depth on chapter seven in the coming weeks, so I’m going to leave the rest of it alone. For our purposes though, we have Judah under the threat of attack from Israel and Syria in chapter 7.

Chapter 8 opens with the Lord calling Isaiah to witness for him through the naming of a son. He names this son “Maher-shalal-hash-baz”- and as odd as that sounds to us, this name means something. The words used to string this name together would translate roughly as “Speed-Spoil-Haste-Booty/Treasure”. And if you look at verse four, God says that before this boy knows how to cry for his parents, the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria. So the naming of this child witnesses to the promise that God’s deliverance is coming. But as the rest of chapter 8 unfolds, we still have the problem of a rebellious nation, an unfaithful people. So within this larger reality for the nation, Isaiah is going to explore the concept of a remnant of God’s people. On the large scale, God’s people don’t trust in and worship their God. So what will God do? He will preserve a portion, a remnant, of his people. Look at 8:14-15: And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. God is pictured here both as sanctuary and snare. He is either a refuge or a trap. He is a refuge to this remnant that is preserved through faith in him, but those who do not trust in the Lord will stumble over him - they will fall and be broken.

The division between the remnant of the rest of the nation is pushed further in the conclusion of chapter 8 with the contrast of those who hold fast to God’s words in faith, and those who abandon God’s word and seek other means of guidance and authority. The remnant waits on the Lord and holds fast to the teaching and to the testimony[.] Isaiah says of those who do not hold to God’s word, that if they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. And as chapter 8 closes, we are left in darkness - look at verse 22: And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.

So the current condition of God’s people as a nation is dark. Gloomy. Anguish. Thick darkness. And now comes chapter 9, along our first point, that out of this deep darkness, light will shine!

The first thing we see in chapter 9 are geographical details - and the geography here actually reinforces the theme of darkness that was developed in chapter 8. The areas Zebulun and Naphtali along with, “Galilee of the nations” were the first places to fall when this region was invaded by a foreign power. They knew darkness, slavery, and oppression. But we see hints of light in verse 1, and our inclination right now might be to keep reading so we can run into the light that will shine in verse 2 - but we need to stop and actually linger in this darkness for a few minutes. The idea of darkness here isn’t merely a bad day, a tough week at work, or a few sleepless nights with a sick child. Those things are hard, but the darkness here is much deeper. It’s an all-encompassing reality. It’s trouble to the degree that it casts a death-like shadow over everything. This is the strongest kind of language for life’s calamities.

As we consider this darkness, think about someone like Joseph. Sold by his brothers into slavery, wrongly accused of sexual immorality, suffering in prison, and forgotten about by the cupbearer after he interprets his dream. Years of prison and suffering and physical distress when he was innocent the entire time. Joseph was sitting in darkness.

Or think about Hannah in 1 Samuel. The barren wife of Elkanah. She watched his other wife experience the joys of pregnancy and childbirth. And while she pleaded and prayed and asked for a child, she remained barren. And this other woman would provoke her grievously to irritate her to the point where all she could do was weep. She couldn’t even eat. And this went on year after year, of intense suffering. Hannah knew a deep darkness.

Or consider Job, a man blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil. A man who lost everything. His oxen and donkeys, his sheep, his camels and his servants. And his children. Seven sons and three beautiful daughters. All gone in a single afternoon. And then his health - wracking physical pain and suffering, with the added injury of foolish friends and poor counsel. Job was under the weight of thick darkness.

The kind of darkness that Joseph and Hannah and Job and countless others have experienced is a kind of darkness that is felt. It’s thick darkness. There’s substance to it. It’s oppressive. It’s the kind of darkness that spirals people into depression and anxiety and suicidal thoughts. And we could go on and on, because God’s people are not strangers to darkness. These three faithful individuals felt the darkness, and we’re also seeing that right now, in this passage, unfaithful Israel dwelling in darkness. Belonging to the God who is himself light does not exempt us from the dark. So it’s this kind of darkness that shrouds God’s people here in Isaiah chapter 9. Thick, darkness.

But. But God. God sees the darkness, and he will use the depth of this darkness to show the brilliance of His light. 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. Did you feel it? Did you feel the relief? The thrill? We just spent time in the dark so that we would feel the wonder, the rush of joy that comes with the light. And this verse, verse 2, probably sounds familiar to you. If you want to, look quickly with me at Luke 1:76-79. This is Zechariah prophesying after the birth of his son John, later known as John the Baptist. And he quotes Isaiah 9 - listen for the darkness and the light near the end here:

And you, child, will be called the priest of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The light that will dawn, is the Lord himself. It is the knowledge of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, the tender mercies of God bound up in the Savior who will shine on those who sit in darkness and dwell in the very shadow of death. And notice something with me here - back in Isaiah here, verse 2, Isaiah talks about this like it’s already happened. He says that the people have seen a great light, that on them light has shone. But when Isaiah writes these words, Jesus isn’t there yet! This is one of those moments in the Bible when grammar displays glory. So confident is Isaiah in the midst of a land of deep darkness that he changes into past tense to show the certainty of the light that will shine. God said it, which means it’s as good as done.

So the light will shine, and now we get to see what happens next. This is our second point, Spreading Light, Resounding Joy. We’ll be looking at verse three up through the verse five.

Listen to verse three: 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. So the light shines, then what’s the dominant theme of the following verse? It’s joy, happiness, gladness. Let’s read it again: 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. Now as you’ll notice in your Bible, there are different words used here to convey the same basic idea. We tend to think of joy, rejoice, and glad as synonyms for the same idea. But the variety in language used to describe the same emotion of gladness actually tells us something really significant. It’s like we’re examining something from every angle so that we fully understand what we’re looking at. So we’re meant to get a composite picture here - a robust, fully-formed image. When we layer these different words together, “joy”, “rejoice”, “glad”, we’re supposed to hear something to the effect of: every possible kind of joy. Not just a few good things, not just one joyous moment. Every possible kind of joy. The light shines, and along with it comes every possible kind of joy.

Now here’s where this gets really good: remember where we just came from? We were in the dark. The thick darkness. The darkness so heavy and so real that it feels like death’s shadow. But then the light explodes through! And what happens? Every possible kind of joy. This is unfathomably good news. Because we are waiting right now; we’re still in the land of deep darkness. We don’t have to look very hard to see that. Some of us don’t even need to get out of bed in the morning before we know it, before we feel the panic of pressing darkness. But light has shone on us. Jesus Christ burst onto the scene 2,000 years ago bringing with him a cascade of light carrying the foretaste of every possible kind of joy.

So if you are in darkness right now, if you feel the death-like shadow hanging over you, you need to hear this. You need to know that there is no darkness too dark for Jesus to walk through with us. He’s faced the darkest darkness and come through victorious. He is an invader - he is the light that invades and overcomes the dark. And He is with you. He will always be with you. His light will shine on you. Consider God’s redemptive work in the lives of Joseph, Hannah, and Job. The knew great darkness, but God did not leave them there. So as you wait in the land of deep darkness this advent, take heart, and find rest in these rays of hope, because the light has shone on the land of deep darkness. And the True Light, Jesus Christ, will return to forever banish darkness from every corner of every dark place that exists. He will obliterate the death-like shadow and wipe away every tear from your eyes. And there will be every possible kind of joy, in fuller measure than you can even imagine.

Now, it feels like we could end there. Isaiah just took us to the top of the mountain, to the heights of gladness. But there’s more. He’s going to bring even more clarity and greater detail to the brilliant light and resounding joy ushered in by Jesus. Look at verse four with me.

What we have here are two allusions, and these allusions are setting us up for something, so hang on to these for a minute. For the yoke of his burden and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, he has broken as on the day of Midian. If we’re steeped well enough in the Old Testament, what we’re being reminded of here are two events: the Exodus, and one of the judges, Gideon. The work of God in the Exodus and through Gideon on behalf of his people have a common theme: unexpected deliverance. And in both of these unexpected acts of deliverance, there was a great victory for God’s people. And victory is what we see in verse five. Trampling boots and garments rolled in blood and burning military implements are all images of a victorious army. So Isaiah has set us up now with the appropriate categories for what he’s about to declare: the most unexpected deliverance producing the greatest victory. Unexpected deliverance producing great victory. And even though he’s just told us that we should expect the unexpected from God, what we get next still shocks us. The great deliverance, the mighty victory, comes from a child. This brings us to the third point, The Everlasting King.

For unto you a child is born, to us a son is given… The Bible often surprises us, doesn’t it? We’ve just been given images of victorious armies and the spoils of war and the glory of a great battle, and what comes next? A baby. And lest we think this is just any baby, Isaiah prepared us by declaring that this will be yet another unexpected deliverance, yet another great victory. God’s means of deliverance from all of our sin, suffering, and darkness, is a child - and now we find out what this child will be like. Who he will be.

For unto you 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. 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.

He will be a ruler like no other. He will be the wisest of counselors. He will be God himself, the everlasting one. He will reign in peace and will sit on the throne of David to fulfill the great promise of a king whose kingdom will never end. He will bring justice and righteousness forever. This child will be incomparably great. And this child, of course, is Jesus. And as you look at the way he is described here, we are meant to see that this child, who we now know to be Jesus, is utterly unique. He is completely compelling. There is no one else like him! Slow down and savor this. Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, perfect in his life, who died condemned in our place and rose from the dead to accomplish our salvation, is unparalleled. But there’s a disconnect here. Not with Jesus, but with us. Have you ever felt shy about knowing Jesus? Embarrassed to tell someone that you’re a Christian? Most of us probably have. But how backwards is that! We’re so quick to identify ourselves with our favorite sports team or TV shows or restaurants, but we find ourselves ashamed of Jesus! The one who is infinitely worthy, utterly unique, incomparably great, inexplicably merciful and kind and forgiving. I mean, if we had this right, we’d realize that the best thing about us is that we know him! “I know Jesus!! I know him!” And if we really think about this, shouldn’t Jesus be ashamed to know us? Honestly, we have nothing to commend ourselves with. Our best attempts at righteousness before Jesus are soiled garments. But Jesus, the book of Hebrews says, is not ashamed to call us brothers - to identify with us, his family. How wonderful is Jesus? He is so highly exalted and at the same time so meek and humble, that he identifies with us. He showers mercy on his enemies, and calls us brothers and sisters who were once alienated and hostile. How wonderful is Jesus?

If you look back at our text, we’ve got one sentence left. One sentence, and this is where I want to close. This last sentence says the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Do what? What will the zeal of the Lord of hosts do? All of the good we’ve just seen. Planning the future? The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Vanquishing our foes and banishing the darkness? The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Keeping His promises, bringing the knowledge of salvation to his people, administering the tender mercies of God, visiting those who dwell in the land of deep darkness? The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

God is zealous for his glory. He’s zealous for your good. It is impossible for God to be indifferent towards you; to be disinterested in you while the darkness closes in. It is impossible for him to be anything less than fully and infinitely committed to the joy of his people, to every possible kind of joy.

Which brings us here to the table. Jesus, for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. This meal is where we remember the body and blood of Jesus, who came for us as a baby, and will come for us again as the conquering, justice-bringing, exalted King of the entire universe. This is a joyous meal that we eat together this advent season.