Darkness and Light - Isaiah 49:1-7

Second Sunday After Epiphany - January 15, 2016

Isaiah 49:1-7 -

Listen to me, O coastlands,

pay attention, you peoples from far away!

The Lord called me before I was born,

while I was in my mother's womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,

in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me a polished arrow,

in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, "You are my servant,

Israel, in whom I will be glorified."

But I said, "I have labored in vain,

I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my cause is with the Lord,

and my reward with my God."

And now the Lord says,

who formed me in the womb to be his servant

to bring Jacob back to him,

and that Israel might be gathered to him,

for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,

and my God has become my strength -

he says,

"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

Thus says the Lord,

the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,

to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,

the slave of rulers,

"Kings shall see and stand up,

princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,

because of the Lord, who is faithful,

the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

This morning, Mary & Clay updated our church sign with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.

The sign committee chose this quote for several reasons:

  • The fact that today is Dr. King’s birthday is part of it of course.

  • The fact that we are in the season of Epiphany – the season of recognizing the light in the darkness – made that particular quote appropriate.

What I hadn’t realized when we chose this quote was how relevant it would be to today’s first reading, from the 49th chapter of Isaiah – a text that kept drawing me in this week, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.

Now, I realize that I did not give you any notice that I would be preaching on Isaiah, rather than John before we heard the readings, so you might not have the details in the front of you mind. In light of that possibility – let me offer an upadated reprisal of the reading… my own take on the themes and shifts in the passage’s dialogue between the prophet and God.

(feel free to follow along with the text of the reading and see if you agree with my version).

(The Prophet declares to the congregation)

"Listen everyone – and I do mean everyone, even people far, far away! Pay attention to what I have to say.

Because God made me for a purpose – from conception God had a plan for me!

God made me to speak words that are as powerful as weapons.

And God has held me close, so you know where those words come from.

And God said to me:

(stepping to one side, turning and looking down)

“You are doing my work. People see and honor ME because of you.”

But… I said to God:

(stepping to other side, turning and looking up)

“This work is too hard. I do everything I can, and I don’t see the results…

But… I guess there’s more to it than that… I know that I am doing Your work… and, after all, You are what I do it for.

(turning to congregation)

Well… NOW, God –

… The God who made me and gave me this work, this work to bring God’s people together

… The God who has said to me “good job”, and whom I do know is the source of my strength –

Now God says to me:

(stepping to the other side, turning and looking down)

“That work you thought was too hard – the work of bringing together all the people you identify with – that’s actually too easy.

I am going to give you much bigger work! You actually need to reach out to the entire world – to the people you have always thought of as being on the outside.

My light is going to shine through you to all of them.

(stepping back into prophet’s position – look at congregation; take deep breath)

And then God

The God who has already acted as a Savior –

God makes this promise to me

When I feel trampled down and hopeless …

because the people in power don’t just ignore me, they treat me like scum and take everything away from me –

God promises to me:

(stepping to other side, turning and looking down)

“All those people in power… they are going to bow down to you.

Not because you are great – but because I AM.

And I am the one who chose you for this work.”

(End Scene)

So… there’s a whole lot packed into these seven verses – including really fascinating relationship dynamics in the dialogue – but I want to focus on the light and the darkness, because that is what opened up this passage for me. The quote from Dr. King about only light driving out darkness helps us to understand the way this text actually invites us into that process.

But before I get to that – a note about the darkness.

There are really endless examples of darkness we could identify in our world. There’s the global darkness that relates most directly to the context of this passage – of oppressed people being forced from their homes, subjected to violence, and exiled in foreign lands.

There is personal darkness. Many of you are facing personal traumas – in health, or finances, or relationships, or … any number of things.

If the word “darkness” immediately triggers for you a particular focus of attention – let this sermon speak to that experience, because that is real.

If not, I want to offer one of the questions that members of this congregation wrote down during Advent. The question is this:

“What can we do to stop hatred throughout the world?”

Hatred is certainly a distressing manifestation of darkness. And the question “what do we do?” helps us to really dig into this text, because these seven verses say a lot about what we are to do – but they do so in a way that makes it very clear what really drives out the darkness; and what DOESN'T. The text shows us at least four ways that we experience our darkness as incapable of driving out darkness – but in response, we see the way that God’s light not only drives out the darkness, but also pulls us into its brightness.

  1. The first kind of darkness: Self-Satisfaction.

The prophet starts this scene in high spirits, which might not sound like darkness, but pay attention to arch of the story:

The prophet calls for attention, and then launches into an exaltation about how God has made HIM, the prophet, so great. And this goes on for a couple of verses until we hear from God, who offers this not so subtle reminder: “You are my servant… in whom I will be glorified.” (Is. 49:3)

Oh right! That’s the point – God is supposed to be glorified. It’s not about how great WE are.

And I do mean we, because I am implicated in this kind of darkness. I love to be right, and to do a good job, and to get praise. But when I get confused and start to think that it is really my light that is shining so bright… I can hurt people, or distract them from the true light.

The point is always that God’s light shines through me, and us. Because – we can’t cast out the darkness on our own.

2. Which brings us to the second kind of darkness: hopelessness.

It’s interesting to see that God’s little nudge of reminder about who is supposed to be getting the glory triggers a total reversal in the prophet’s attitude. Suddenly the voice that was enthusiastically signing its own praises starts to wail: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing, and vanity.”

And we feel this wailing echoing in our hearts because we all know that feeling of defeat. When we tried our hardest… and it didn’t seem to make a difference.

We did everything the doctor said, but we aren’t well.

We sent our donations to Aleppo, and children still died.

We called our representatives, and they voted the other way.

Our strength is spent, and it feels like it was all pointless. We just aren’t powerful enough to cast out the darkness.

And that’s true – we aren’t. No matter how hard we try to push out the darkness, eventually we will run up against the limits of our strength, and face the hopelessness of defeat. We get caught in the darkness.

Until, again, we remember the source of the light. It’s not about our strength, or even our success. If “our cause is with the Lord,” as Isaiah writes, that cause is a whole lot bigger than whatever it is that we are focused on accomplishing. Pushing out the darkness can’t be defined by one finite goal, no matter how good the goal. God’s plan is bigger, and our reward is ultimately with God (Is. 49:4).

But that can be hard to accept, so sometimes we try to limit the goal to something more achievable.

3. Which brings us to the third kind of darkness in this text: tribalism – the instinct to draw boundaries that limit the people we have to care about or take responsibility for.

The prophet wants to limit his call – to that of gathering together the people of Israel.

And that makes sense. The people of Israel have been exiled into Babylon – their land has been taken, their temple destroyed, and their bodies enslaved. They are without resources, and in great need of a prophet to bring them together, and build them back into a people as they return to their decimated homeland. They have enough problems of their own – they can’t worry about anyone else.

… But to the prophet who just said “I have spent my strength” God says this is “too light a thing.”

We don’t get to set limits on who we have to care about. We don’t get say “its my job to protect my own.” It’s too easy to just take care of ourselves.

And the thing is, it is too easy! If God’s light is driving out the darkness how can we possibly draw our boundaries lines, and think those have any validity? Does God have limited resources, or are some people more worthy of God’s light and love than others?

And if our job, my job, your job is to be given as a light to the nations, what does that mean for the limits we might want to place on what we have to do?

We are certainly finite, but it it’s not really about us, then maybe there are no limits.

4. Which means, of course that if we shine with God’s light… we might suffer the consequences. That’s the fourth kind of darkness – the darkness that feels like it drives out the light.

This passage offers a promise, but that promise comes after the prophet is despised, abhorred, and enslaved…

Pastor Kimberly Vaughn, who is on Synod staff, reminded me this week that on the day of his assassination, Dr. King was not the venerated leader he is remembered as… in fact he was despised.

Why? He was reaching his light beyond the sphere where people thought he belonged.

He was reaching beyond “his people” and talking about HUMAN rights – he was saying the message of freedom needed to apply in every situation where power held some in subjugation for the benefit of others. – he was saying there is no boundary that limits the light.

And he was hated for it. Not just by those who had always fought against him, but also by many on “his side,” who didn’t want to threaten their own interest by reaching too far, or helping people they saw as “other.” Dr. King was leading a social movement, but my point is the pattern of connection to this prophetic promise from Isaiah.

Being given as the light to the nations doesn’t mean everyone will want you to shine…. But that is not the end of the story. There is honor in the end “because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (49:7).

So, after all of this. How do we answer the question we asked at the beginning – “What can we do to stop hatred throughout the world?” Or to drive out whatever darkness is holding you captive?

Well, we can’t rely on our own strength.

Nor can we give up to defeat.

We can’t draw the limits of our task small enough to be manageable, or to make us feel safe, or to save our resources for just for our group.

And we can’t expect it will be easy.

But we CAN trust the Lord, who is faithful. The Lord who has chosen YOU. The Lord who is the source of the light, and who has said “I will give you as a light to the nations.”

“Only light can drive out darkness.” Thanks be to the God of Light. AMEN

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