Josie Laures and Antoine Senni sat in darkness. Not just darkness, but deep in the belly of a cave. The two did not huddle together. They sat far apart, each in their own cave alone, in sheer silence. No lights. No windows. No friends. The experiment tested the effects of isolation, loneliness, and darkness on the human body. Josie lasted 88 days; Antoine stayed 126 days. (http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/isolation-dark-drives-humans-brink-insanity-studies-find)
The study reveals how darkness affects the human body. For starters, Josie and Antoine physically adjusted to the darkness that when they walked out into beaming sun, they needed dark goggles to protect their eyes. Maybe more astounding is that they lost all track of time. Since neither knew when the sun rose and when it set, they did not know when one day ended and another started. What Antoine thought a ‘quick nap’ was actually a straight thirty-hour marathon of sleep. Josie left the cave March 12th, but she felt it was February 25th. Antoine came out April 5th, but thought it was February 4th. Time was months off. Then, feeling forsaken, both smeared jelly all over the floor, hoping to attract mice for pets.
Can you imagine living in completely isolated in absolute darkness? Cut off from care and communication? Completely clueless to the length of life, to what happens to your life? To feel forsaken, forgotten? Darkness prevents seeing life as it truly is.
Even though you (and I) live above ground under the sun’s brilliant light, darkness can enter— and it can keep us from seeing life as God intends it to be. So, God shines through the unknown. His brilliant word eradicates questions and fears. He makes clear constant care. The Light has Dawned shining on those in darkness and rejuvenating burdened hearts.
After all, that is what light does, right? Rejuvenates! The sun does not shine much during winter. Clouds block out dazzling sunbeams, leaving this whitish-gray landscape of nature’s dormant death. When the sunbeams break through the clouds, you whip open the curtains, pull a chair up to the window, and sit in that light sucking in energy and cheer.
That’s what people in Isaiah’s day needed. In the two verses right before our reading, Isaiah describe dreary state of northern Israel: Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness (Isaiah 8:21-22).
Not really a heart-warming picture, is it? Israel’s northern tribes are collapsing. The Assyrian Empire camps just outside the northern tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. This Empire dominates the ancient world. Assyrian generals marched troops right up to the city wall. Those soldiers piled up earth, making this enormous ramp. The, they wheeled massive towers up that earth-ramp. Archers on the top shot down at people on the other side of the wall. The middle of that tower had a battering-ramp. So, while archers shoot at you, you hear a *thud,* *thud,* *thud* — the enemy will soon break in (https://www.ancient.eu/Assyrian_Warfare/).
So the name ‘Assyrian’ ignites heart-stopping, stomach-dropping fear. (Ready for the grizzly reason why?) The Assyrians had a reputation for impaling captives— like, stick a pole up through you and out your mouth and plant that pole into the ground. If done right, you would die— days later. They also could skin you— and so perfected the technique that they could keep you alive to the end. That’s pretty horrifying. Now that terrifying army stands just outside your city wall— and you know your puny army cannot stop them.
Are you beginning to understand why Isaiah uses words like ‘gloom’ and ‘distress’ and ‘darkness?’ Stand in darkness and you cannot see danger or obstacles or even a path out of that room. Darkness robs the known. Israel’s future is unknown. How can you stop an unstoppable force? How can you escape such horrifying torture? How can you stay safe? You do not know.
Where do they turn? To darkness. Assyria marches closer and Israel turns to its gods. Not ‘God’ but ‘gods.’ Some pray to stones. Others bow down to telephone [Asherah] poles. Still others take their toddlers to a furnace, drop them in, and hope for protection, safety, and peace (2 Kings 17:16-17). The Israelites do not know how to escape destruction, but they also did not see that sticks and stones and fires cannot save them! The people God rescue from Egypt, the people he led through a desert and into this Promised Land, the people who could see God fill the temple with his presence turned away. Hearts refused to see God’s mighty power.
Do you wander in that same darkness? Do you know what ‘worry’ is? Doubting God’s ability to act. You worry about Christianity’s future because you question God’s power to change hearts. Sadness relies on inspirational sayings instead of memorizing a Bible verse and keeping it close to the heart. How often you do feel ‘empty’ and ‘unfulfilled’ because you search for lasting happiness in all the things that fade away and die? How much heartache do you suffer because you digest the world’s selfish advice? ‘Hold grudges! Don’t forgive!’ ‘You deserve money! Don’t give it away!’ ‘Make yourself happy! Don’t listen to what you Pastor (or Bible) says! Do what you want!’ That’s darkness! Complete, utter darkness! The heart can wander away from what please God, supposing that somehow all will be better! The truth is, it is not! Listening to the world’s godless advice might put a smile on your face, but it will not put a smile on God’s face— and it certainly cannot keep the smile on your face. Trusting yourself gets you nowhere because you (and I) are not all-powerful; we have limitations. A darkened claims that you can live without God.
If that sounds harmless, then study closely what happens to northern Israel. The Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence (2 Kings 17:18). Spiritual darkness cut us off from God’s care and communication. Spiritual darkness makes us completely clueless to what happens to your life. Spiritual makes leaves us forsaken. Spiritual darkness prevents us from seeing life as it truly is.
So God takes action. That darkness is so dark that we can never find God. We do not sense a need for a Savior, we do not figure out how to accept God (read Ephesians 2:1-8; Romans 3:9-24). In the thick, gloomy darkest darkness of unbelief blasts a piercing light. The people [walking] in darkness have seen a great light; those [living] in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Did you catch that? People walking, but a light ignites! People living, but a light shines! People do nothing! No one asks for light. No one chooses light. The light chooses to shine.
In world of pain and shattered dreams God blasts a beam onto Bethlehem. God’s glorious angels shine in a brilliant song: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy… in the town of David a Savior has been born to you’ (Luke 2:10-11). God’s radiant star leads wise men to an even greater Star (Matthew 2:1-12). God shatters darkness by sending Jesus. Just like the beaming sun brightens gloomy hearts, Jesus cheers gloomy hearts. The very first words he ever preaches echo throughout Zebulun and Naphtali. Lands once decimated, seemingly forgotten hear God’s good news of restoration (Matthew 4:15-16).
God kept the promise Isaiah told. The Light has Dawned and it shines on those in darkness. Light has an effect. Light rejuvenates burdened hearts.
Jesus does not arrive as some rally-figure. Remember, he is ‘anointed,’ ‘set aside’ for a purpose, to complete a mission. Isaiah reveals that mission: You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. 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.
People rejoice just like they rejoice when God dominated Midian. Centuries before the Assyrians, the Midianites plopped down in central Israel. They camp in your backyard. Their cattle eat your crops, leaving you nothing. They push you away from water, your roads, your property. No one can stop them! God used Gideon and 300-fighting men to rout that smothering army (Judges 6-7). God brought victory. He restored freedom— and the Israelites rejoiced.
Jesus breaks the stranglehold sin had on us. Self-reliance condemned us. Like a heavy yoke set put on your back, judgment crushes body and soul. Turning from God reaps eternal punishment. Like a short rod, regret strikes us. Guilt hits us. Failure preaches death. Yet, Jesus lifts that burdensome yoke of guilt and regret and frustration and sets it on his shoulders. He allows God’s judgment crush his body and soul. God’s rod strikes Jesus dead. Jesus marches into the darkness of our grave, into our death, and out with our new life. Easter Sunday shines with this awesome truth: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12).
That’s what you have: life. Life with God forever in heaven. Life with God now— him beside you. The Light has Dawned to rejuvenate burdened hearts. That is why we confess our sins right at the beginning of each worship service. Any fear that God turns from us vanishes with God’s burden-shattering words: ‘I forgive you.’ What a gem you carry: The certainty of God pardoning guilt! Those words prepare you for what comes next. You can listen to Scripture knowing God speaks comfort to you. You can hear a sermon that does not condemn you, but reveals the Savior. You can sing hymns, thanking God for sticking his Word to your life. The Light has Dawned to rejuvenate burdened hearts.
With that light, life becomes clearer. Just last week the news mentioned impeachment rules and trial, and Second Amendment Gun Rights. Prince Harry (can we legally call him that?) and Meghan targeted the nagging paparazzi. Every single headline tries to draw you in, get your opinion, and then suggests that your opinion can change things for the better. Maybe you can stop harsh words and protect rights— but it will not end those things for good. Many still wander in sin’s darkness.
You see the life as God makes it to be. A life where you forgive others, even those do not ask forgiveness, because God forgave you (Ephesians 4:32). A life where you cling to God’s promises, because unlike the world, God actually keeps his word. A life where you find comfort and strength because Jesus conquered death, because Jesus works in you patience and wisdom in conflict (Romans 8:31-39). The Light has Dawned and Jesus (and his Word) shines in you. Jesus rejuvenate burdened hearts.
Even scientific studies reveal the harsh effects of darkness. God’s Word reveals the deadly effects of spiritual darkness. So, God shines through the unknown. His brilliant word eradicates questions and fears. He makes clear constant care. The Light has Dawned shining on those in darkness and rejuvenating burdened hearts.