Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Coming of the Light (Isa. 9:1-5)

This sermon was preached on 25/12/2011

The background to this passage in Isaiah is twofold, as we can see in the preceding chapters: first, there was the reality of divine judgement on Israel by the foreign power of Assyria; secondly, there was the promise of the coming child who would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), and we can another reference to him in Isaiah 9:6-7. In the ninth chapter of Isaiah, those two features or themes continue as Isaiah looks ahead to the coming of Jesus. We can read about the effects of the judgement in the opening verses and then read about the child in verses 6 and 7.

The prophet focuses on the geographical area in the north of Israel that was allotted to the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon and mentions that they have been in great darkness. The initial reference may be the fact that they were the first areas of Israel to be taken captive by the Assyrian invaders in about 733 BC. Perhaps the rest of the country wondered what the future was for those geographical areas. Or it may be the case that in Judah, which was Isaiah’s home area, there was concern about further invasions. Whether they did or not, Isaiah is given a message from the Lord concerning that territory in the north of Israel. In these areas a light is going to shine. Matthew reminds us that this prophecy of future divine presence was fulfilled when Jesus appeared (Matt. 4:15-16). We know that it was in these areas that Jesus lived as a child in Nazareth and later preached and performed miracles during his public ministry. It is important to note that even in the Old Testament, when God’s name was normally confined to Israel, the way of comfort in times of trouble was to focus on the coming of the Lord Jesus.

Six lessons from this prophecy
There are some applications that are worth noting at this stage. The first is that the prophet puts God at the centre of events, whether it is in judgment or restoration. Isaiah does not say that the troubles that this geographical area experienced were the results of political decisions by enemy regimes. Instead, he says that God caused it. Similarly, the restoration would not happen because these enemies grew weak, but because God would do it. This is an outlook that we all should have. Often we are tempted to assess things through secondary causes, and in doing so we leave God out of the painting he has begun to create and which he will complete.

Second, God often gives encouragement to his church when it is going through dark times. This has been the case from the beginning because he gave words of comfort in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve sinned. Throughout Israel’s history when the nation turned away from God, he sent prophets such as Isaiah and Hosea with a message that included both judgement and hope. The reality is that the church in all ages has only had one hope, and he is the Deliverer that was promised by God. As Spurgeon put it, ‘In the worst of times we are to preach Christ and look to Christ. In Jesus there is a remedy for the direst of diseases, and a rescue from the darkest of despairs.’

Third, places that have known the Lord’s judgement can become places that know his blessing. Naphtali and Zebulon were the first areas of the country to experience the fury of the Assyrian invasion (2 Kings 15:29: ‘In the days of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and he carried the people captive to Assyria). Yet they would be the first area to see the display of light that would dispel the great darkness that would result from that judgement (‘Matthew 4:13-17: ‘And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”’).

Our hope is not to avoid the God of judgement, but to look for him to come in grace. It is obvious that we are under God’s judgement today to a certain degree, and it seems to be increasing because there is little evidence of repentance, either in church or state.

Fourth, God can begin a great work in a surprising place, in an obscure place. Often we are tempted to think that if something important is going to happen in our nation, it must begin in London or Edinburgh. Yet, the history of the church reminds us that often God bypasses the places of earthly influence. God often shuns earthly limelight, and we know that Jesus, in growing up in Nazareth and later moving to Capernaum, chose to live in communities that was out on the edge and not in the centre of power.

Fifth, this recovery promised by God is a reminder that his grace is undeserved. The people of Israel had turned their back on God and ignored his word. They deserved the punishment that they had received, and did not merit this promise of restoration. The same is the case with all the promises of God. This is very encouraging: if what we will get is what we deserve, then we will get nothing good from God; if what we will get is undeserved, then the range of blessings is limitless.

Sixth, we should note the wonder of fulfilled prophecy. Hundreds of predictions are found in the Old Testament concerning the coming of Jesus, whether his first or second comings. Here Isaiah predicts the location where Jesus would begin his public ministry, round the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Five blessings from the Messiah
The effects of the coming of Jesus are described in verses 1 to 5. There will be recovery of light, growth, great joy, liberation from bondage and the experience of peace.

First, he will give recovery of light; that is knowledge. The situation in which the people were was one of darkness, spiritual darkness, because of their sins. They lived in realm where the Sun of Righteousness did not shine, and what little perception they had only guaranteed the inevitability of their death. What was needed to change this world of horror was to see the Light of the World who would reveal to them what God was like. And that is what they discovered in Galilee.

Jesus said of himself that any who saw him in action and heard his words saw and heard God. In Galilee, lepers discovered that God would touch them in compassion and mercy. Cripples discovered that God could not only cure their disabilities but also pardon their sins, as was the case of the man let through the roof in the house in Capernaum. And they heard about the compassion of God as Jesus spoke to them in parables describing how God was a shepherd seeking the lost, that he had sent his Son to be the bread of life who could give them eternal life. Truly, ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.’

The second blessing is that of growth: ‘You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy.’ This was said initially to a people going into captivity, whose numbers were going to decrease. Of course, the prophet is using the limits of geographical Israel to illustrate this consequence of the coming of Jesus. He is saying that in the land that was about to be depopulated, there would yet be a population explosion.

A similar announcement was made by Hosea: ‘Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God”’ (Hos. 1:10). This verse is taken up by Paul in Romans 9 to describe the ingathering of the Gentiles.

Growth was going to happen in a locality that had so many Gentiles that it was called ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’. And when Jesus came to Galilee, we read about the inclusion of the Roman centurion in Capernaum as well as the blessings that were given to the Syro-Phoenician woman. They were samples of the great harvest that was to come.

The third blessing is that of joy: ‘they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.’ The people that Isaiah preached about had gone to a place where there was no joy, but instead they were in captivity. Here we have a vivid picture of the ones who Jesus came to rescue. They were captives, but not merely captives of Assyria. That great empire had disappeared into the footnotes of history by the time Jesus was born. Yet the people, although back in their own land, were still in captivity, and not just the captivity of Rome but that of sin and Satan. Such a captivity produces despair because there does not seem to be any hope of recovery. But into this world of despair came Jesus and gave great joy. There were many reasons for joy, and we have already mentioned some of them: forgiveness of sins, assurance of the future, increase of numbers. Isaiah 12:3 says that those who followed the Messiah would draw water with joy from the wells of salvation. When that day comes, when the Lord comforts Zion, he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song’ (Isa. 51:3). This is the joy of restoration known by a repentant people who have discovered that the Lord keeps his promises.

The fourth blessing is that of deliverance from slavery, as we have just mentioned: ‘For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian’ (9:4). The inhabitants of Naphtali and Zebulon had gone into captivity. But when Jesus came, people would be released from the chains. This deliverance would be greater than the ones their ancestors had known from the Midianites through the leadership of Gideon (Judg. 6–8). Listen to what Jesus announced in Nazareth about himself when he quoted another passage from Isaiah (61:3): ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.’ The bondage from which they would be delivered was not that of an enemy nation but that of a spiritual foe. In Galilee, Jesus delivered hundreds, if not thousands, from Satanic bondage. Before the eyes of multitudes, Jesus liberated sinners from the devil’s grip. And this liberation was another means of joy, enabling his followers to experience ‘a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit’ (Isa. 61:4).

The fifth blessing is that of peace, described in 9:5 by the removal of enemy power: ‘For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.’ These conquering armies seemed so powerful to the inhabitants of Galilee. Yet when Jesus would come, he would defeat the spiritual powers that opposed his people and give unto them great peace. In Galilee, near Capernaum, he said to the lady with the issue of blood, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease’ (Mark 5:34). And he gave peace to many others as well.

What about us?
These five blessings of light (knowledge of God), growth, joy, freedom and peace are available to us. What will happen to us if we reject the Saviour that offers them to us? The same as happened to those in Galilee who rejected him when he was there. Remember what Jesus said to those who lived in the areas in which Isaiah had predicted the Light would be seen.

‘Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you’ (Matt. 11:20-24).

We look back to the inhabitants of Galilee and say that they were spiritual fools. What will be said about us if we refuse the Saviour’s mercy?

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