The following is not precisely what I said in my sermon on Sunday, 21 Dec 2008. But it’s the basic gist. Check the Scripture text here: Isaiah 9:1-7 TNIV. As usual, Bishop Will Willimon is helpful at getting us to see the scandal of Scripture that is right under our noses (the same Scriptures we have an incredible propensity to sanitize). In this case, this sermon of his was a helpful conversation partner.
One of the most obnoxious truths of the Christian faith is that we prefer darkness to light. This is true even for good Christian folks like us. John, in his gospel and his letters, makes that point well. Isaiah announces it in our text: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” We prefer darkness to light because we don’t want what we’ve done or are doing or are thinking about to be known to others.
When I was sixteen years old, I worked for a summer at my local Boy Scout camp teaching the first-year boys basic scouting skills. I had a 1965 Ford Mustang–my father’s toy to tinker with, mine to drive. One evening after wrapping up the activities for the night, a friend and I on staff drove into the nearest town to go to the late movies. After the show it was raining so hard that I couldn’t see out of the front windshield. I would have sworn I was right in front of the driveway leading out of the parking lot and into the highway. Instead, when I hit the gas the car jolted forward and took a forty-five degree dive into the ditch! This was in small town East Texas (Carthage, if you’re interested), which meant that my buddy and I were barely out of the vehicle before at least three cowboys with their pick-up trucks were spontaneously strategizing about how to get my car out of the ditch. I don’t even remember them speaking to me. In some ways it was as if I had presented them this gift of a project, they were so enthralled. But it didn’t take them long to hook up a rope or a tow-cable or something and yank my Mustang out of the muddy ditch. By this time the rain had let up and I drove it back to the camp without incident.
My buddy was actually just substituting for that one week in the middle of the summer. One of the activities he had to work around was (if I remember correctly) an SAT prep course one afternoon, so I arranged to get the half-day off to take him back to our hometown (Tyler, if you’re interested) during which time I went to my house to visit with my parents for the couple hours he’d be in class. While I spoke with my mom, my dad went outside to take a look around the car. I had, of course–being a teenager, completely forgotten about the events of a couple nights previous. So I was taken quite by surprise when my father returned and asked me why mud was caked all over the underside of the car. I preferred darkness to the light!
That’s a relatively harmless example, one that’s humorous in hindsight. I don’t need to name our true secrets, our lusts, our jealouses, our deeds or desires that testify to this business of preferring darkness to light because we know Scripture has us nailed on this.
We’re not much into confession. Whenever I see a religious scene on TV or in the movies that involves a confessional, I know the characters are Catholic because we Protestants don’t do that sort of thing. That’s something we have been thankful for over the years–not having to confess what we’ve been doing to anyone.
The message on the gospel that Christmas announces afresh is that we need the light of God’s salvation. And we can’t get it anywhere else. Making the right grades doesn’t save us. Making the right career choice doesn’t save us. Making the right purchases doesn’t save us. Making the right choices of persons to network with doesn’t save us. Only Jesus saves us.
About Jesus… I love these words in verse 6: “he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” But the trouble is, I’ve been reading Luke’s Gospel this fall with some guys every Wednesday morning. I wonder if Isaiah would reconsider if he had been exposed to some of the things Jesus actually said and did.
Wonderful Counselor–really??? “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, then you’ll be ready to follow me.” Teaching women to train as students under a rabbi just like the men. Telling Zaccheus, the cheif tax-collector—the guy who skims off the top of the regular tax-collectors who are skimming off the top of the folks they are collecting taxes from—“Today salvation has come to your house!” I wonder if any of us would really have come up with “wonderful counselor” after reading the gospels. Unexpected.
And I love the last sentence in verse seven: “The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” Zeal. As in, zealot–extremist, crazy person. Is that really the image we are to attach to God’s salvation through the gift of a child? God, so intent on saving us he’s acting just like a crazy extremist zealot, hunting us down, wildly intent on getting us back, on shining light into our darkness. And doing so by giving the world a little baby.
In context, Isaiah is speaking to King Ahaz, who is trying to stave off political trouble from foreign enemies through political alliances and shrewd manuvering of that sort. But God has something different in mind, something we would never think of and could never do for ourselves—a baby. “To us a child is born…” God’s ways are not our ways.
I like in John’s Gospel at the beginning when it says that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. In most translations, there is a footnote with an alternate rendering: “and the darkness has not understood it.” I’m coming to prefer “understood” rather than “overcome.” “Overcome” is sort of obvious—flip the switch, the darkness is overcome by the light. No problem. But it seems to me that as true as that is, it is at least equally true that the darkness simply does not understand the light. Darkness just doesn’t get it. We don’t get the light, even good Christian folks like us have a hard time getting the light. God’s ways are not our ways.
Several years ago I went on a youth mission trip to Juarez, Mexico across from El Paso to spend a week building a house. One of the kids who went with us stuck out. He was enjoyable enough, but not much of a worker and a little awkward socially. But he came away from that week with a testimony. He recounted later: “I was born with half an arm on one side with a couple of stubby fingers on the end; kids teased me endlessly and I was mad at God. My parents died in a murder-suicide when I was a small child and I’ve been mad at God. But this week, I was holding a little baby…”
[See–not working! A neighbor of our clients had a baby…]
“…I was holding this little baby and I was overcome with the knowledge that God loved me and that Jesus could save me.”
Hunting us down like some crazy zealot with… a baby.
With all the darkness in the world, with all the darkness in our lives, the light of God’s salvation is a vulnerable, helpless baby. The light shines in our darkness, and the darkness has not understood it, but it has not overcome it either.