“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of darkness,
a light has dawned”(Isa. 9:2, CSB).
“With a bound, the sun of a molten fiery red came above the horizon, and immediately thousands of little birds sang out for joy, and a soft chorus of mysterious, glad murmurs came forth from the earth; the low whispering wind left its hiding-place among the clefts and hollows of the hills, and wandered among the rustling herbs and trees, waking the flower-buds to the life of another day” (Elizabeth Gaskell, “Ruth”).
Light is necessary for life. Darkness, at best, can sustain a sort-of-hibernation. Up here in the frozen tundra this time of year, the sun sets around 4:30 in the afternoon, and doesn’t rise until close to 8 am in the morning. Morning and evening chores outside are done in the dark. As we go deeper into winter, neighbors will remind each other to take Vitamin D pills. Some people have light machines, medical devices you just sit in front of so your body gets the simple light that it needs to function properly. Trying to survive in the dark is a tricky business.
This is not the growing season for the farm. The fields are put to rest for months, the trees lose their leaves and look like frayed black threads silhouetted against the snow, everything lays barren.
One of the most beautiful parts of winter is the sunrises, as the light moving over the horizon produces brilliant pinks, blues, and purples, and everything gets reflected and bounced over the sparkle of the snow. The light plays with color and beauty, and makes everything look different. The sunrise is a moment of relief and hope. A reminder that it’s going to be ok and everything is actually beautiful.
“Let there be light.” When God does a new thing, he always calls forth the light.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of darkness, a light has dawned”(Isa. 9:2, CSB).
This prophecy of the coming Messiah is given a regional context. The previous verse says “he will bring honor to the way of the sea, to the land east of the Jordan, and to Galilee of the nations” (Isa. 9:1).
Matthew 4:5-17 quotes this prophecy when Jesus moves his ministry to Capernaum. John the Baptist had just prepared the way for Jesus, and Jesus was baptized. Jesus was then tempted by the devil in the wilderness. After that, he heard of the arrest of John the Baptist and decided to move from Nazareth to Capernaum. That move led Matthew to give a reminder of the prophecy of Isaiah 9:2.
To live in darkness is to live in a barren land with no food and no life. Farmers control as much of the growing cycle as they can, but there’s one enormous variable they have no control over: the weather, or anything involving light, temperature, warmth—basically any of the conditions of the growth. Good weather is a gift. The sun shining on our face is a gift. We can not will or manipulate any way for it to happen. Light is quite literally the farthest thing out of reach for us to control.
And yet, since the fall, humans have been running to darkness for cover from our sin: dark alleys, sketchy corners of the room, and eerie dark closets where there’s who knows how many spiders and all other things that don’t want to be seen. Adam and Eve ran to the shade of the bushes, out of sight. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the light is where our sins are exposed.
There’s not much more terrifying than your sins being exposed. I still think about times as a child when a big lie was revealed, or something I tried to keep hidden was found out. “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. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:7-8)
Because of Christ, we don’t have to run to the darkness, we can run to the light. With the light comes the exposure of sin. The light described in Isaiah 9 is a dawning, not a flashlight flicking on. It speaks to the patience and gentleness of God as he acclimates us to the light as he redeems us. We forget that the nature of the light is also to clean us, warm us, and bring us life. Because of Christ, we find safety and healing in the light. Because of Christ, we do not have to be afraid of the truth that his light reveals. We get to hide in the truth instead of hiding with lies.
Biblical Scholar R.C.H. Lenski writes of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 9: “The figure is that of a glorious sunrise after a black and deadly night. In both the prophecy and its fulfillment we must not miss the strong note of undeserved grace. The people were at their lowest ebb, all spiritual light was gone, there was absolutely no hope or help in themselves: then God stepped in and in pure grace sent them a heavenly gift, the help of salvation in Christ Jesus.”
In literary symbolism, a sunrise is a symbol of hope. Every battle scene that goes through the night is full of exhaustion, death, and loss. But then—over the horizon—a light dawns. A new day, and with it new hope.
In a world of instant everything, when we expect instant healing and instant answers, we serve the God who made the sunrise. We serve a God who incarnated as a baby to save us—not a full grown man, not an instant teacher—a baby. Our God is a storyteller and an artist. He is with us, and yet has never left us. The sunrise is the time of already and not yet. It’s a time of rising action as we are filled with hope. His very presence shines truth on our sin, both revealing and cleaning it. He is the way. He is the truth. He is the life.