People of Light in the Arena of Darkness

January 15, 2023

Sermon Series: People of Light

Sermon Title: Light Response

Text: Isaiah 49:1-7

Preacher: Todd Nelson

Sermon Podcast:


The prophet Isaiah had an amazing calling by God which begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the Temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him.”[1] Let me just say that if this is the way God gets your attention, something major is up! And it was for Isaiah. He was the mouthpiece of God to kings and nations. He was the voice of impending judgment to Israel and the hope to exiles in Babylon.

Isaiah’s call and his role are what make Isaiah 49:4 seem so out of place. The one who was so powerfully called, so well equipped, so powerfully received says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Here is a king maker. A nation mover. A writer of  moving verse. A confidant of the most high. And he is on record that he feels as if his labor has been in vain. That he has spent his strength for nothing.

If Isaiah could feel as if his life’s work wasn’t counting, I wonder how many of us could be comforted because we feel the same way. What difference can I make? What difference am I making? Things don’t seem to be getting better! No one listens to me!

What do we, as people of light, do when the wheels fall off unfairly or as a result of our own actions?

I dare say that as people who illuminate God’s way for others, this is one of the most important questions we wrestle with. Difficult times which are handled well can do more for the brightness of our lives than any of the high moments. High moments can actually have a divisive effect. Others may have never had a mountain top experience quite like ours and discount the fact that they too may be so blessed. Low moments, however, can have a unifying effect because everyone, it seems, identifies with a valley. People watch us closely when we are in a valley. Let me be honest, they may watch because it brings a sense of “look how much better I am”. Still others may have pity and carry a sense of “there for the grace of God” about them. Therefore, how we navigate the valleys in life that either are handed to us unfairly or we have created ourselves will define the light and do so to an interested audience.

But all of that is easier said than done. What are the options we are left with when we enter a valley? Embarrassment. So we retreat from the people and the places so that we don’t have to face the glances and the gossip. Blame. We find others to blame and situations to blame in order to distance ourselves from the place we find ourselves. Compare. It is usually easy to find someone who has crashed more badly and created more chaos.

But we have plenty of examples of what it looks like to go another direction.

Two of those examples are saints Perpetua and Felicitas of Carthage during the “Games” on May 7, 203.[2] Felicitas was pregnant and in jail awaiting her time in the arena with the wild animals and gladiators. Her charge? Jesus is Lord…not Caesar. Her friend Perpetua was also there in the same prison, awaiting the same fate. The Christians prayed fervently for Felicitas to give birth early so that the child would be saved and that Felicitas could join them in the honor of suffering. Prayers were answered and she gave birth two days prior to being ushered into the arena with her friend Perpetua and the other Christians. Standing naked in the arena being attacked by cattle, both Perpetua and Felicitas were knocked unconscious. As Perpetua came to she saw her friend still lying, her breast milk leaking from her body as a reminder of the horror upon horrors she was suffering. Perpetua staggers over to Felicitas and picks her friend up on her arms. It was recorded that these two faithful showed by their bodies the sign of a cross, demonstrated for all what cruciform living looks like as they loved God and loved their neighbor. After some time both were released because the crowd saw something in them that struck a deep nerve that demanded compassion not execution. It was the light of the cross bearing witness in their bodies intertwined as Perpetua stood upright and carried Felicites in her arms horizontally that brought this about.

Another example more close to home for me took place sometime in 2009 when a man walked into the Andover community of First UMC where I was serving. He was tall, dark headed, strikingly handsome, and obviously pained. I would come to know him as Mike and consider him a friend as he allowed us to walk with him after his very public failing as head of the Lexington Airport. Mike’s interview in 2012 after his conviction and sentencing for his role in a scandal at the Lexington Airport was telling in what he thought could be the upside of his mistakes and public humiliation. Mike lost a 19-year marriage, a 20 year successful career, along with all his credibility in the community. And in the middle of these tragic events that he quite frankly owned as his own doing he makes the following statement about why give an interview after this failure?

I did not want to miss this opportunity to bring attention to the path back from major life setbacks. This interview is not about making excuses or to rationalize behavior; it is about my decision to change and to make amends. There are lessons to be learned from the situation at the airport, hard and soft. [3]

I have never known anyone who has lost so much and gained so much. I have never known anyone who had hurt so much and yet shined a bright light on what Christ can do when the hurting meets the healer.

So, what do we do when in a valley? What do we need to keep in mind that gives us perspective we need to be a person of light?

First, we remember that we are ultimately on this earth to glorify God not to be successful, have notoriety, make a difference.[4] Glorifying God is more than what we do, it is who we are. God says about the prophet Isaiah that “You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified.”[5] Our glorifying of God is seen in how we respond to the best of times and in the worst of them as well. It is, after all, not about us. But it is also not without us. Realizing that God does not need us but rather chooses to work with us is the great perspective that brings relief when in valleys. The weight you are feeling is of your own doing. God is carrying it all and you are along for the ride. Deep breaths. God’s will is perfect. His power complete. His victory assured.[6] And you are an indelible part of all of it.

Have you ever been out to dinner with someone treating you? Maybe that is the best way to understand our relationship with God. It is his idea. His doing. And he will pick up the check. You get to participate and enjoy fully without feeling the weight of ultimate responsibility. But have you noticed…we feel weird when others pay for us…we reach for the check and argue over it (even when we secretly hope we lose!). I believe we do the same thing with God. We feel that we need to pay our own way, show that we can handle our business, make sure we aren’t a drag on the purse strings. And so we continue to carry a weight that we can’t and even we shouldn’t. Willingly receiving from God is the key to being a person of light. Only then are we capable and contain the necessary ingredients producing true illumination. Not only that, it sets us up well when things don’t go well.

Second, we remember that we are sowers. Sowers throw seed and then are dependent on the soil conditions, the amount of water and sunlight, the natural predators of the plant, among many other factors out of our control.[7] Sowers are not in control. Let me say it this way to make sure I am clear. We are not in control. There. I said it.

We cannot fix. We cannot change minds. We cannot make something happen. This may be the most difficult truth to hear for those of us in the western culture raised on boot strap pulling and you can be whatever you want if you work hard enough and me it and claim in theologies infiltrating the church’s consciousness.

Often we hear “we can’t” and we simply turn off the messenger along with the message. Please don’t do that today.  Let me assure you there are aspects we can and we need and we should work even if we cannot control the outcomes.

We can…do our job as sowers of grace. We can…forgive. Every time you forgive someone you can bring the kingdom of God near. We can refuse to gossip. Every time you refuse to gossip you can bring the kingdom of God near. We can…share. Every time we share the blessings we receive we bring the kingdom of God near. Every time we share encouragement we can bring the kingdom of God near.  “Instruction does much but encouragement does everything.”[8] Every time we persevere and not lose hope we shine a light on God’s kingdom.[9] Every time we are grateful a little piece of heaven is planted in the hearts of those we are grateful for.[10] There is so much we can do even if the ultimate outcome is out of our control.

Thirdly, we remember that the kingdom moves in a certain rhythm. That rhythm is not up and up and up. It is rather first down and then down before turning up and up. Think about it in this manner. Jesus leaves heaven (downward) takes up residence in a body with parents (more down) and then dies on a cross (lowest point) before he is raised (upward) and returns to heaven (upward). And…then he will return (downward) and makes all things right (upward for a final time). If we look closely, we see that this kingdom movement is found almost universally in Scripture. The last shall be first is especially helpful in understanding the way the kingdom of God moves.[11]

You may be assured then that upward moves are preceded by downward. So, if you are on a downward trajectory you can rest assured that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”[12]

When the prophet Isaiah was saying these words and expressing these doubts, I want us to notice what God does not do. No condemnation! No judgment! No come on pull out of it! Instead, Isaiah is reminded that he was chosen by God, equipped by God, and will one day see the results of God. Until then he was given the gift of God’s presence by the wonders of this prophecy to hold him over.

[1] Is. 6

[2] Patient Ferment by Alan Kreider, pgs. 44-51.


[4] Eccl. 12:13-14

[5] Is. 49:3

[6] Rev. 21

[7] Matt. 13

[8] Quote attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe​

[9] Gal. 6:9

[10] Phil 4:6-7

[11] Matt. 20:16

[12] Rom. 8:28