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January 6, 2019

Sermon Isaiah 60:1-3 . . .“Bible places:  Darkness”

“Bible places:  Darkness”

Isaiah 60:1-3

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

It all started with a lightning strike, at right about 8:37 in the evening, on Wednesday, July 13, 1977.  And when that lightning struck, it tripped two circuit breakers in an electrical substation in Buchanan, New York.

There was just one problem.  Apparently, a locking nut was a little loose, so the breakers didn’t close like they were supposed to, to allow power to flow again.  

Then, to make matters worse, a few minutes later, there was a second lightning strike and then a third, which caused even more major transmission lines to shut down.  And with one failure after another, finally New York City’s biggest generator of all, the one they call “Big Allis,” shut down.  And with that, everything suddenly went dark.

You can imagine what happened next.  Elevators stalled, lights went out, and subways ground to a halt.  LaGuardia and Kennedy airports were shut down, automobile tunnels were closed because there was no ventilation, and four thousand people had to be evacuated from the subway.  Even the Mets and Cubs had to end their game at Shea Stadium in the bottom of the sixth inning.

And that’s when the looting began.  In all, more than sixteen hundred stores were damaged, one thousand fires were started, five hundred police officers were injured, and four thousand-five hundred people were arrested (the largest mass arrest in the city’s history).  In today’s money, it cost the city of New York $1.2 billion.

The mayor, Abe Beame, later described it as a “night of terror.”  He said:  “Thousands of looters, emboldened by darkness and confusion, ranged through the city last night and early today in a wave of lawlessness.  Amid shattering glass, wailing sirens, and the clang of trash cans used to demolish metal storefront barricades, thieves and vandals ravaged store after store.”

The Bible often talks about darkness.  Remember the words of Genesis chapter 1?  It says:  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Then it says:  “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.”  Paul wrote to the Ephesians:  “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light.”  Though Satan often masquerades as an “angel of light,” (II Corinthians 11:14), the Bible calls him the “Prince of Darkness.”  And Jesus said in the book of John:  “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Darkness is dangerous.  Darkness is frightening.  Darkness is terrifying.

So it was in our first reading today, from the book of Isaiah, chapter 60.  Please turn in your Bible to page 787 as I read the words of our text.  Isaiah chapter 60, starting at verse 1:  “Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you.  And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

These words from the book of Isaiah take us to one of the darkest times in the life of the people of Israel, to the land of Babylon some seven hundred years before Christ.  

As one author put it:  “They thought they knew better than what the prophets were preaching.  They became like all the other nations around them, thinking they could go it on their own, without listening to God’s Word.  As a result, they were driven out of the land and taken into exile.”  And he wrote:  “The depressing darkness of the Babylonian Captivity fell upon the people, and they suffered from their own foolishness.”

That’s why the prophet Isaiah couldn’t help but write in chapter 13:  “Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger.”  And he wrote:  “The heavens will tremble, and the earth will be shaken, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts, in the day of His fierce anger.”

Yet here in chapter 60, even they were privileged to hear wonderful words of gospel:  “Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you...and nations shall come to your light.”

We live in a world full of darkness.  This past year, for example, had more than its share.  It began with wildfires and mudslides in southern California.  As some four million acres burned, destroying more than a thousand homes, twenty-six people lost their lives.  In February, earthquakes hit first on the coast of Taiwan, then Mexico City, then Papua New Guinea.  In all, close to a thousand people died.  In March, New England suffered from what was called, a “bomb cyclone.”  Two million people were suddenly without power, and four thousand flights were cancelled.  Then a pedestrian bridge near a college in Florida collapsed, killing six, and a gunman at a Nashville Waffle House shot four.

Then came the hurricanes--first, Hurricane Florence in September, claiming forty-two lives, then Hurricane Michael in October, claiming six.  Also in September, Indonesia suffered a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, killing nine hundred, then, in December, a tsunami took the lives of four hundred more.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, closer to home, back in early October, failed brakes on a limousine in rural New York took the lives of twenty, most of whom were in their early thirties.  Four of the dead were sisters.  Even Barron, Wisconsin was in the national spotlight, as a husband and wife were killed in their own home, and their daughter, Jayme Closs, is yet to be found.

You remember the actor Heath Ledger?  Back in 2008, he played the Joker in the movie, The Dark Knight.  Movie reviewers called his performance “electrifying” and “a vivid, compelling picture of evil.”  Even Michael Caine, who played Batman’s butler, Alfred, said his performance was so terrifying, he sometimes forgot his lines.

But playing that character took a toll on Ledger’s health.  For weeks, he said, he slept only two hours a night.  He said, “I couldn’t stop thinking.  My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” 

It’s no wonder.  He spent a month in a hotel room, perfecting his character and voice.  

So it was no surprise that, one morning, his housekeeper found him dead, at the age of twenty-eight, from a drug overdose.

As a German author once wrote:  “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that, in the process, he does not become a monster.”  And he wrote:  “And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

We live in a world full of darkness, both inside and outside.  That’s why it’s good for us to hear, in the words of the prophet Isaiah:  “Arise, shine, for your light has come.”

So where’s the gospel in all of this for us?

Today, we celebrate Epiphany.  It’s a word that means, “to appear,” “to reveal,” and even “to shine upon.”  It’s the day we remember the journey of the wise men, who came through the darkness, following that star, to meet their newborn King.

That’s what they said in Matthew chapter 2:  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.”

As John wrote in the words of his gospel:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...in Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

And as Jesus lived and worked among us, He brought that light to a tax collector named Zacchaeus, reforming his thieving heart.  He brought it to a thief dying on a cross, and the hope of heaven became a reality.  He even let it shine on a persecutor and a murderer named Saul, and transformed him into a mighty apostle.

Even today, when that Light comes into your heart, your life is different, your world is different, even you are different.

No matter how dark the day might be on our calendar, when you have Jesus, you have forgiveness, life, and hope.  He is the Light.

One more thing.  In February of 1954, navy pilot and future astronaut Jim Lovell set out on a night-training mission from a carrier off the coast of Japan.  But it was dark, the weather was stormy, and his directional compass malfunctioned.  That’s when he mistakenly headed in the wrong direction.  Then to make matters worse, his instrument panel suddenly short-circuited, burning out all the lights in his cockpit.

And as he looked around, he couldn’t see anything, just miles and miles of deep, dark sky overhead and deep, dark water down below.  For a moment, he really didn’t know what to do.  He said, “The blackness outside the plane had suddenly come inside.”  

But when he looked down, he saw a faint blue-green glow trailing along in the ocean’s depths.  And in that moment, he knew what he was seeing--a cloud of phosphorescent algae, “bioluminescent dinoflagellates,” he called them, glowing in the sea, because they had been stirred up by the engines of his ship.  And though it was the least reliable and most desperate way to pilot a plane back onto a ship, he knew that was precisely what he had to do.

And so he found his way home.

What will light our journey through this world’s deep darkness?  Only Jesus can.  Only Jesus will.  

As John wrote in his first epistle:  “This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”


Holy Jesus, ev’ry day keep us in the narrow way; and when earthly things are past, bring our ransomed souls at last, where they need no star to guide, where no clouds Thy glory hide.  This we ask in Your name.  Amen

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