the people who have walked in darkness
The First Sunday After Christmas
Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 145, Luke 2:1-20
I went to the Ferghana Valley to learn what God was doing there. The first lesson I learned was that I must first learn what man was doing there.
We fail, I think, to comprehend the light until we have seen the darkness . . . until we venture out into the Ferghana Valley, or some such hell.
In a place called Andijon, on the old Silk Road in the east of what is now Uzbekistan, I watched the nightly news. Some Westerners resident there translated for me.
First, let me tell you what I had seen that needed no translation. When the Soviet Union crumbled, the subjugated peoples of Central Asia had thronged the streets in celebration, toppling statues of those ogres of old.
And then, in no time at all, other old ogres resumed their places. Lenin and Stalin had finally, mercifully been exorcised, but the apparatchiks who had represented their ghosts so ably hardly hiccupped. They resurfaced in the new national bureaucracies, with conveniently rearranged initials.
Who needs the KGB? The GKB or BGK will do just as well. In those giddy days just after the Iron Curtain melted, the same old thugs replaced themselves in the places of privilege, answering no longer to Moscow but only to themselves.
Everywhere I turned, I saw a billboard featuring the forbidding face of the local strongman, known as “president.”
He had statues of his own and motorcades that held up traffic for an eternity. And so it was that I was hardly unbelieving, if still amazed, at what I heard on the TV news. Andijon occupies the center, there in the Ferghana Valley, of one of the most fertile cotton-producing regions on the planet.
You’ve heard of banana republics? This is a cotton republic. In October, all the schools, including the universities, shut down so all the students can bend their backs to the harvest.
And because Uzbekistan possesses precious little other than cotton to sell outside its borders, for a month each year the harvest is the lead story on the nightly newscast of the state-controlled television network night after night after night. All cotton, all the time.
In a good year, the stolid anchorman reports in an approving tone the progress of the harvest. In a bad year, he proceeds in a scolding tone to lament the failures of the farm managers to achieve the president’s lofty goals.
But of course, there’s always a story behind the story. The Westerners filled me in. Each year, before the harvest, the president establishes a quota for that year’s crop. He bases it on his reckoning of what the nation’s coffers must reap from the fields to sustain his agenda for the year.
Considerations such as weather are irrelevant. The dictator’s need is paramount. And so it is that in a bad year the BGK or GKB or whatever it is now called rounds up farm managers and throws them into the slammer to let the nation know what happens to those who disappoint its revered leader.
Of course, such is the way of tyrants in all places in all times. Here there is a flip side, and this is the image that sticks in my head almost two decades later.
Occasionally, in a very good year, when the rains are plentiful and growing conditions ideal, the harvesters meet the quota early. And when they do, the students return to school and the farm managers pick up a bonus.
And the crop that remains rots in the field. The quota has been met. Picking more cotton would be to no purpose. The dictator’s appetite has been sated; like Raggedy Andy, he is stuffed with cotton.
To the west of Uzbekistan, in Turkmenistan, the president anointed himself “Turkmenbashi” – Father of All Turkmen. He renamed the days of the week after his nearest and dearest, beginning with Mom.
But before we dismiss him as a cartoon character . . . He had a passion for chess, and spent millions on a glistening chess palace to attract the world’s grand masters to his tournaments – while his people went hungry.
To the south, in Afghanistan, the ancient ethnic strife went on in one bloodbath after another. One tribe gained the upper hand and herded scores of people from the rival group into a railway boxcar in the sizzling summer, locked them inside and cooked them to death.
I multiply examples to make the point that in America our prosperity creates a veneer of civilization that masks our depravity. If not for the grace of God we, like them, would be destitute of both money and morals.
But God, but God, but God – praise His holy name! – is full of grace. And as long as the people of Central Asia draw breath they, like us, may turn unto Him, beg His forgiveness and receive His pardon. He is the hope of the world, every sin-soaked square inch of it.
Just before our passage for today from Isaiah 9, the prophet tells of those in Israel who will respond to the coming Assyrian invasion by seeking God through mediums and wizards rather than in His law that reveals His character. These will “see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness.”
Those who sow darkness reap an even blacker gloom which has no end. This was Israel in Isaiah’s day. Just before him, his prophetic colleague Amos denounced God’s people because, “They sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals” (2:6).
But God . . . As long as a faithful remnant remains, as long as two or three wretched sinners hold out hope for illumination that will overcome the black anguish of their transgressions, our longsuffering and merciful Father will send light into His world.
We come in chapter 9 to His promise that one day, in His time, that light will saturate His kingdom, never to contend again with darkness. Satan is vanquished, his minions annihilated . . . the creation radiates a golden glow of holiness.
Beloved, as we continue to celebrate the coming of our Savior, we look ahead through the prophet’s eyes to His second coming, to that glorious day when our victory is finally and fully realized. Both comings loom in our passage and Isaiah describes the two future events in the past tense, for God has willed them to be:
“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.”
This is now, for despite the darkness that tries to suffocate us, the light has entered the world, and the light will prevail. And this is the end of days, the Sabbath that will never cease, the final day of everlasting rest and peace, of unbroken communion with our God.
All who dwell there with Him will know the joy of justice: an end of tyrants, of poverty, of oppression, of sin.
Who will accomplish these things? President John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”
He gave us, in a sentence, the grand delusion. By his might, man will make all things new. Not so long ago, a more humble world knew better. Samuel Johnson wrote, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”
Our Lord put it this way, “The poor you have with you always” (St. John 12:8). Until that glorious day of His return. And then, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.”
He is the Ruler – the only Ruler – whose justice does not poison His mercy, whose mercy does not curdle His justice. In Him there is no conflict and in His kingdom there will be no contention, only peace.
The prophet pronounces, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.” The Child can be born; the Son can only be given. The Son is eternal, begotten, not born.
“And the government will be upon His shoulder.” Many among the church fathers found in this phrase a reference to the cross our Lord bore on the way to Calvary. “By it,” wrote Caesarius, “the devil is conquered.”
The One the prophet foretells will bear the weight of worldwide government as a trifle, for His yoke is easy and His burden light (St. Matthew 11:30). With the government upon His shoulder, the yoke on His subjects will be as light as love.
What shall His name be called? His names shall be many.
“Wonderful.” In Hebrew, this word is a noun. When used of God, it refers to One who does supernatural things . . . sometimes called miracles. It evokes an image of God’s wondrous acts in delivering His people from slavery in Egypt, and now in deliverance from bondage in sin.
“Counselor.” He is the repository of all true wisdom – in contrast to the wisdom of man. The wisest man, Solomon, in the end acted so foolishly that the nation was torn asunder upon his death. This One is so wise as to turn humiliation into exaltation, surrender into victory, death into life.
“Mighty God.” Israel once had God as their Ruler. A rebellious people demanded a human king. Be careful what you ask for. Both North and South endured a succession of tyrants as wicked as those who rule many nations today.
But God’s chosen people will see their King restored to His throne, and He will be so mighty as to absorb all evil in Himself.
Wearing a crown of thorns on the cross He will cry out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Taking our sin upon Himself He will make us holy as He is holy, and finally fit to be governed by Him. God is showing us sovereignty deified and humanity purified. No human ruler can summon the power to bring about a government that establishes everlasting peace grounded in perfect justice.
“Everlasting Father.” An eternal kingdom requires an everlasting King, and this One will rule not as a despot who oppresses His subjects but as a Father who sacrifices for His children. Our heavenly Father, who delights to perfect strength in weakness, has sent a Child, meek and mild, into the world over which He will reign.
This name refers not to Yahweh but to Christ, who as our forever Sovereign will be the Father of the coming age.
“Prince of Peace.” The final name comprises all the others. Peace – shalom – in the Bible is not what breaks out when everyone stops to reload but the consummation of all of God’s promises to His people. In this context it is the eternal Sabbath – Shabbat – in which lion and lamb trill in sweet harmony.
How man has strained to bring about this renovation of God’s creation – and not only presidents whose bloated egos tell them they can stamp out poverty or control the rising of the seas.
God gave Israel the human king she wanted. David subdued her enemies and established peace, and God decreed that a descendant of David would occupy his throne forever. The warrior David, however, would not erect the temple in which God would dwell among His people. Hands stained with blood would not build the earthly home of the God of peace.
After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, David made his peace with God. And when God gave him another son by Bathsheba after her first died at birth, David named him “Solomon” – in Hebrew “Shlomo” from shalom. This royal heir was named “Man of Peace.”
Solomon built the temple and God moved in. The Shekinah glory took up residence in the midst of His chosen people on the holy mountain Zion. The kingdom expanded to its greatest expanse ever before or since.
Israel stood poised to claim all of the territory God had promised to Abraham, that vast land that stretches from the Nile to the great river, the Euphrates.
Peace spread like the Nile overflowing its banks in springtime. Royalty traveled from far countries to pay homage to King Solomon, the man of peace, and to drink of his great wisdom. The king’s coffers bulged with gold. The God of Israel must indeed be the one Mighty God.
But Solomon would be not only the first son to sit on David’s throne but also the last – among mortal men. Waging his campaign of peace, he conquered not on the battlefield but in the wedding chapel. He formed political alliances through marriages with foreign women.
They toted their gods along and worshiped them and, ere long, others in Israel joined in. Now they exalted Yahweh as one god among many. The kingdom split in two like a rotten log at Solomon’s death, never to be reunited.
But what does Isaiah say? Isaiah declares that a son of David will reign on that throne over a kingdom that is one. He will “order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.”
Man has had his day. God allowed him to play king, and we can survey the wreckage that is the history of the kingdom of man. Man will not bring about this enthronement the prophet promises and the ordered world that will be its fruit. “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
The word underlying “zeal” sounds a throbbing chord of jealousy. The Lord your God is a jealous God. He says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Solomon, he of the 700 wives and 300 concubines, chose God’s very first commandment to trample. Of course, fatigue can fray a man’s faculties.
The Prince of Peace will remain ever faithful. Royalty will make the arduous journey to bow before Him as well, even when a wee King, but His head will not be turned. David’s incorruptible Son will not falter in His zeal for His mission. He will suffer no idol worship in the temple of His kingdom. He is the temple, for the glory of God dwells in Him.
He will populate His realm with those who have made their bodies temples of His Holy Spirit. And this kingdom will span all the territory from the Nile to the Euphrates and far beyond until His glory penetrates and hallows every crevice of His creation.
He came as a Child.
He came to conquer the world.
He came armed with the invincible gospel of peace.
He came to teach us to perfect our strength in weakness.
He came to establish an everlasting domain He will rule as King of kings.
He came to impose a government that allows us to find ourselves in Him, a government that will endure for ever and ever, world without end. Amen.