Summary: It is dark and scary living in our sinful world. But Christ lights it by: 1. Chasing the darkness out of guilty consciences, and 2. Chasing the darkness from the problems sin causes.
If I were teaching a class called “Scary Story Writing – 101,” the very first thing my students would learn is how to write the beginning sentence of a scary story. I would have them use the classic line: “it was a dark and stormy night.” You see, darkness sets the tone for a creepy account. Maybe horror movies aren’t really your thing, but we all know enough about that kind of movie to be able to see the connection between darkness and fear. The scariest parts of horror movies almost always take place at night. The most chilling time in one of those movies is when the character is walking though a darkened house, not knowing who is around the next corner, not able to see the danger hidden in the darkness.
We learn from an early age to be fearful of darkness. That’s why nightlights are so popular in little children’s bedrooms: because that little 4-watt bulb is able to chase away just some of the darkness and bring a huge measure of comfort to a little one afraid of the dark. And even as we grow up, there is still an inborn fear of the dark. If you hear a strange noise in your house while it is the middle of the afternoon, you might think, “that’s a little odd,” and not even give it a second thought. But if you hear a strange sound in your totally darkened house at 3:00 in the morning, there is going to be considerably more fear. Darkness is uncomfortable. Darkness is confusing. Darkness is terrifying.
Our text begins with a land that was living in a scary darkness. “In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali…” and then a little later Isaiah describes these lands as “walking in darkness.” That leads us to two questions: 1. What were the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali? and 2. How were they in darkness? Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the 12 sons of Jacob, a.k.a. “Israel.” Zebulun and Naphtali were brothers of more well-known sons like Judah, Rueben, or Benjamin. When the Israelites conquered the Land of Canaan, each of these 12 tribes received part of the former Land of Canaan. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali got their land way to the North. And that’s why they were in darkness, not because they didn’t get as much sunlight as the southern tribes, but because danger often came from the North. When the Israelites would sin, God would let foreign armies attack Israel, and the weakest point in Israel’s defenses was to the North, in these lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. If someone like the Assyrians would try to get to Jerusalem, they would have to go through Zebulun and Naphtali first. These two tribes were the first to be attacked, they would be the last to be rid of an invader, and they would suffer longer than any other tribe. Even the personality of these two tribes contributed to their reputation of being pushovers. Zebulun and Naphtali never had powerful armies; pretty much anyone who wanted to conquer them could.
It was a dark and stormy night living in Zebulun and Naphtali. In fact, often it was scary living under a gloomy cloud of uncertainty. The people in these lands must have constantly worried, “Am I going to actually harvest these fields I have planted, or will an army come and strip away my crops and leave me to starve to death? Will my family be safe, or will some invader come someday and murder us or carry us off into slavery?” I don’t think we in the US can even imagine that stress and apprehension of living in a land that could be invaded at any time. What if your house could be destroyed at any time? What if your work and employment and savings could just be gone one day? What if your family could be taken hostage at any time?
The underlying reason why these lands were so dark and scary had little to do with geography and much to do with their spiritual condition. It was a dark and stormy night, not just in the political scene, but mostly it was a dark and stormy night in their hearts. Gold had left no place for God. Pleasurable living had crowded out the Lord. The political darkness was only a symptom of the spiritual darkness that had gobbled up and light in their hearts. Our text begins with the idea that God had humbled these lands, literally, God “made them nothing.” God took everything away from Zebulun and Naphtali, their honor, their dignity, their treasures, their freedom, their lives.
But after this dark and stormy night, God was going to once again give them light. Isaiah wrote about these humbled lands, “in the future, [God] will honor Galilee of the Gentiles…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” What these people had done was to exchange the light of God for the darkness of the world, and so God had taken everything away from these lands: all the honor, all the joy and pleasure, and left it in total humiliation and darkness. But the Lord took all this away because he had in mind to replace it: replace it with the brightest light the world had ever seen: the Savior, Jesus Christ. We read in the Gospel for today that this region with its dark and stormy past was honored: honored to be the home of Jesus Christ for a great part of his ministry. The people who lived in war-torn Zebulun and Naphtali were going to be the first to receive the everlasting peace and rest.