As a child, I had a pretty big imagination. I enjoyed science fiction and fantasy and the more I read, the more my imagination seemed to grow. As a result, I was afraid of the dark, probably well past the age when that particular fear is considered normal. Any time there was a lack of light, my imagination began to go wild. What is that shadow in the corner? Did something just move over there? Did the closet door just open a bit? What was that noise? Did *that* come from the closet?
There’s something anxiety-inducing about the lack of light. Without the ability to see, we can’t prepare. We don’t know where to go, what to do. Dangers could be hidden around any corner. Lack of light brings uncertainty, disquiet and angst. This seems to be an element of the human condition. Think of the role a lack of light plays in scary or sad stories and the role light plays in happy, safe scenes.
We see this imagery in the lectionary text for this week as well. When Isaiah speaks of people walking in darkness and living in a land of great darkness, he is using imagery that is common to humanity. Not only that; Isaiah is also using imagery that we find across Israel’s history.
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning-the creation story. In the beginning, there was a formless void, chaos and lack of light. The Spirit of God hovers over the face of the waters to bring substance to the void and order to the chaos. What is the first thing God does to accomplish those goals? God creates light.
Flash forward to God’s children wandering in the desert. Though they were saved by God, they did not believe God was able to bring them into the promised land, so they wandered the desert. Rather than abandon them, God continued to lead them. How did God lead them? With a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The people of God were lead through the dangers of the wilderness by following a pillar of light.
Indeed, light is used to indicate God’s very presence throughout Scripture. Psalms 27:1 speaks of fearlessness because of the presence of God who is our “light and salvation”. When Moses has been in God’s presence, his face is radiant with light. The examples go on and on.
When Isaiah says that a light has shined on the people, he is drawing both from common human experience and the specific history of Israel. Isaiah pulls on another bit of Israel’s history to make another point: the hope of the coming king and kingdom will arrive in ways we don’t expect.
Isaiah says that the yoke of the people will be broken “as on the day of Midian”. Back in Judges 6, we hear the story of Gideon and his defeat of the Midianites. Though Gideon begins with an army of 32,000, God pares the number down to a mere 300. Gideon and his army of 300 go into battle as God leads them, not with swords but with trumpets and empty jars. In the midst of the cacophony, the Midianites turn their swords on each other and they are defeated.
If I were a general leading an army, this isn’t how I would lead it. It seems unwise to pare down an army of 32,000 to only 300. It seems inadvisable to arm soldiers with trumpets and jars rather than swords and shield. Yet this is exactly how God works.
Isaiah says that the yoke of the people will be shattered “as on the day of Midian”. “God is doing it again”, Isaiah tells the people. The rod of the oppressor will be broken. The oppressed will be delivered, but it will happen in a way nobody would’ve imagined.
When we look beyond our text into verses 5 & 6, we see this even more clearly. In vs 5, warrior’s boots and garments are to be burned up. That’s not normal. You don’t burn boots and garments after a battle. You wash them and repair them. You prepare them for the next battle. Burning them? That’s unheard of. Could it be that this coming hope would not come through warrior’s boots and bloodstained garments? Might it be that those tools of war are being destroyed because they won’t be needed anymore?
Then the big turn in vs. 6: “For a child has been born to us”. Now, on the face of it, it makes sense that the birth of a child might bring hope. The birth of a baby still brings hope of new life, a new start, etc.
Still, in the midst of political and military turmoil, it’s not exactly encouraging to hear that hope is coming…in a decade or two when this child is old enough to make a difference. Give us a strong general now. Give us a good king now. Our problems are immediate. A child doesn’t seem to be much of an answer in the present day.
Yet that is precisely how God works-through unpredictable means. Not with war boots and blood-soaked garments but with trumpets and empty jars. Not only with four-star generals and famous kings but with wandering nomads and little babies. God’s kingdom comes in unexpected ways.
So in the season of epiphany, God reveals Godself to us. God is the one who brings light where there was no light before, in order to bring order from chaos. Not only that, God does it in ways we would never imagine. This is the Good News, thanks be to God.