January 23, 2005

Text: Isaiah 9:1-4

A young man was quite literally whistling while he worked. The first verse of his carefree tune began, “I’m so happy and here’s the reason why, Jesus took my burden all away.” Even without the words, the joy was evident prompting a co-worker to ask, “What are you so happy about?” This young man was expressing one of the great truths of this Epiphany season.


Oh, it isn’t always a “whistle-while-you-work” kind of joy. But it is a real joy. The Holy Spirit produces this joy (Galatians 5:22). Jesus promises that no one can take it away from you (John 16:22). Would you like a little more joy in your life? God promises increased joy for His people in our text today, the kind of joy that farmers get when the harvest is good and the bins are overflowing or the kind of joy we have when we win a great victory in sports or on the job (v 3). Tune in with me as God speaks to us today about the joy of forgiveness.

The Dark and Joyless Past
It is the darkness that makes the light so bright. We have all experienced that. The darker the room the brighter the light seems to be when it is turned on. God increases the joy of His people in our text by reminding them of their dark and joyless past, of just how much He has forgiven them. “In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” (v 1). God’s people in this northern part of Israel had suffered under the hands of the Assyrians. God used the Assyrians to punish His people for they had rejected him (8:6-7). They had turned to “mediums and spiritists” instead of to Him (8:19). There was no joy but “only distress and darkness and fearful gloom” (8:22).

Do you have past sins that still distress you and bring you gloom? “Forgive and forget” the saying goes. Sometimes that is easier to do with others’ sins than with our own. It is especially true of those so-called “big” sins. We have probably forgotten the many times we have been unjustly angry with someone or the times we told that “little white lie.” But sins like divorce or abuse or adultery or huge mistakes we parents have made in raising our children, these can bring gloom and distress even when we know they have been forgiven.

Sanctity of Human Life Sunday reminds us of another “big” sin, the sin of abortion. If you want to really understand the burden of past sin, if you want to get some idea of what it is like to “see only distress and darkness,” talk with someone who is struggling with a past abortion. A counselor in a pregnancy center put it this way. “When I began this work, I was mostly concerned about the unborn. But after working with so many young girls who have had abortions, what saddens me most is how abortion destroys the joy of their youth and strips away every last shred of their innocence. Nothing can make a young girl feel more worthless and despicable than having killed her own child.” (1) Can you imagine that kind of burden? Perhaps there are some of you who do not need to imagine. Maybe you are carrying that particular burden. If so, God is reminding you of some good news today-joyful news! He has good news for all who have their joy robbed because the burden of past sin can seem so great.

But before we get to that good news, what about the rest of us? What about those whose burden because of past sin does not seem too great? We obviously have another problem. Our knowledge of the greatness of sin is too small. It wasn’t the sin of idolatry or the sin of consulting spiritists that brought God’s wrath upon His people. It was sin! It is not the sin of abortion or the sin of adultery or the sin of abuse that brings God’s wrath upon each and every one of us. It is sin! It is sin that breaks our relationship with God not the “size” of that sin. Everyone here deserves the judgment God pronounces on His people just prior to our text, “They will be thrust into utter darkness” (8:22). It is not pleasant to acknowledge the joyless past and what we deserve because of our sins. It is not pleasant, but it is necessary. Remember, it is the darkness that makes the light so bright. The joy of forgiveness increases when we acknowledge the depth of the darkness of our sin. It is to the good news of that joy we now turn.

The Bright and Joyful Future
“Nevertheless”! There is the joyful good news in one word right at the beginning of our text! God’s people deserved darkness and distress and gloom, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress” (v 1). God’s people, who were humbled in the darkness of the past, are going to be honored. God promised them a bright and joyful future. “In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan” (v 1). In today’s Gospel, we saw that promise fulfilled. “Leaving Nazareth [Jesus] went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali-to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah” (Matthew 4:13-14). In spite of the humility and shame of the past, God would forgive His people and promised them joy and honor in the future through Jesus Christ. 

We have the same promise. The joy of forgiveness comes not only from realizing how much God has forgiven but also from anticipating the honor and glory that await us because we are forgiven. Paul says, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). In spite of our past, in spite of our troubles or the burden of past sins there is a bright and joyful future awaiting us in eternity. It will be so joyful that it will make all our troubles and burdens seem “light and momentary.”

How can we be sure of the forgiveness that promises this future joy? We can be sure because forgiveness does not depend upon the size of our sin or the number of our sins. Forgiveness comes through faith in our God who honored us by humiliating Himself, who honored us by walking in the “land of Zebulun and Naphtali” in the person of Jesus. Jesus walked the roads of Galilee and beyond teaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin (Matthew 4:17). Jesus walked and stumbled along the path to Gogatha so that we might have a place to turn when we are burdened with the sorrow of our sins-His cross. The Father thrust Jesus “into utter darkness” and forsook Him to the darkness and Hell we deserve because of our sin. God then raised Jesus from the dead assuring us that the price paid for our forgiveness has been accepted and verified. Having suffered and died to forgive our sins, God sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts as a guarantee of what is to come (2 Corinthians 1:22). Let your joy increase because of your forgiveness! It guarantees you a bright and joyful future with God in Heaven!

Walking in the Joyful Light of the Present
That is all well and good, but what about the present? The feeling of guilt and the burden of sin do not necessarily go away because we know we are going to Heaven. This is especially true of those who are dealing with a past abortion. One woman wrote that the thoughts of her abortion “pounded through my mind.” (2) Dr. David Reardon, who has done extensive study on the problems following an abortion, writes that many women “struggle to avoid thoughts of their abortion; they get all up-tight seeing articles about abortion in the newspaper; they hate the sound of vacuum cleaners because it reminds them of the suction aspirator . . . They may have unexplained feelings of depression every year, during the month when the abortion took place, or during the month when the child should have been born, or on Mother’s Day or at Christmas.” (3) Whether it is the sin of abortion or some other sin, often there are reminders all around. Even though we know we are forgiven, it is hard to forget, hard to get out from under the burden.

What is interesting about our text is that beginning at verse 2 the words of the prophet are spoken as if they have already happened! “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” (emphasis added). In verse 4, he speaks as if the yoke and burden of their oppressors has already been shattered. Yet the Assyrians who were oppressing them would not be defeated until chapter 37! The news of that yoke being shattered, however, is so certain that it is as if they are already walking in the joyful light of that victory.

The certainty of our forgiveness is not just something that will give us joy in the future. It gives us joy right now. We, who used to walk in the “darkness of sin,” now walk in the light of this joy. The certainty of forgiveness brings with it a constant light of joy. It is constant because it does not depend upon us. This joy does not depend upon us “feeling happy” or “feeling forgiven.” It is a joy we have because we know that in spite of how we feel, in spite of how things may seem, God’s forgiveness is as certain as Assyria’s defeat was in our text. The burden of sin, its guilt and shame, has been shattered like the yoke of Israel’s oppressors. Jesus not only took the punishment for our sin but its shame as well. Every day of our lives we walk in that forgiveness. When we stumble, we stumble in that forgiveness. When we fall, we fall in that forgiveness. God does not abandon us or withdraw His forgiveness just because we are having a bad day. As one post-abortive woman put it, “God never falls off his throne because you have a problem.” (4) Let your joy increase. You never walk alone.

Would you like more joy in your life? The sins of our past can make things seem so dark and joyless. That is not all bad. It is good to recognize the seriousness of sin and what we deserve. It increases the joy of forgiveness. “Nevertheless”! In spite of our past, God has promised His people a bright and joyful future. Our joy is increased because forgiveness assures that there is an eternal glory that awaits us. In the meantime, our joy is increased every day because we walk in the certainty of God’s forgiveness in Christ.  Oh the joy the light of forgiveness brings! Amen.

(1)  David C. Reardon, The Jericho Plan – Breaking Down the Walls Which Prevent Post-Abortion Healing (Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 1996) 14.

(2)  Nancy Michels, Helping Women Recover From Abortion (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1988) 15.

(3)  Reardon, 49-50.

(4)  From a letter received at the National Office of Lutherans For Life, Nevada, Iowa.