Connections 01.22.2017: The Speed of Light

Isaiah 9:1-7

Light travels at 186 thousand miles per second. That means it travels about six trillion miles in a year, so that’s the distance in a light year.

The sun is “only” about 0.000016 of a light year (93 million miles) from Earth; its light reaches us in about eight minutes twenty seconds. After the sun, the next nearest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri, which is about four light years away, so its light takes about four years to reach us.

Light from Polaris (the North Star) travels 680 years before reaching Earth.

That’s about how many years passed between the times in which Isaiah and Jesus preached. Isaiah lived in a time when the darkness of empire—the Assyrian empire, in the case of eighth-century Judah—was creeping into the land. He looked forward to a time when the Lord’s light would drive the darkness away.

Isaiah said,

In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined (9:1b-2).

In this week’s lectionary Gospel reading, Matthew says about Jesus,

He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:14-17).

Isaiah’s hopes for the coming light were fulfilled in other ways through the years—the people returning from Babylonian exile in the late sixth century no doubt saw that event as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, for example—but for Matthew and the early church, Jesus’ ministry was their most complete fulfillment. In Jesus, the light for which Isaiah looked had come.

Some stars that are visible to the naked eye are as far as two thousand light years away, so it’s taken two thousand years for their light to get to us. Here we are, living two thousand years after Jesus. Do you ever wonder how much of Jesus’ light has made it to us? How can we let our lives be more open to the light of Jesus’ love and grace so it will drive away the darkness of pride and power that sows dissension and disunity?

It didn’t take two thousand years for such issues to develop. Jesus’ original disciples dealt with the darkness that accompanies the quest for power with its accompanying pride and jealousy. And it was only about twenty years after Jesus lived that Paul was imploring the church at Corinth to overcome its divisions (1 Cor 1:10-18, the lectionary second reading). So it’s not surprising that we still have trouble letting the light drive away our darkness.

But light is stubborn. It keeps going. It keeps coming.

Today’s powerful telescopes can detect the light from objects as far as 10-15 billion light years away. When scientists see the light from those objects, they see light that has been traveling for ten to fifteen billion years.

If humans still exist somewhere ten to fifteen billion years from now (it’ll have to be somewhere other than Earth, since our sun will die in around five billion years), God’s light of love and grace, which is most fully revealed in Jesus, will still be trying to reach us.

Discussion

1. Where do we look for light when darkness threatens to overcome us?
2. Isaiah connects the coming of God’s light with the coming of peace. How would you describe that connection?
3. Matthew sees Isaiah’s words about the coming of God’s light being fulfilled in Jesus. How do Isaiah’s other words in this passage point to Jesus?
4. According to Isaiah, what does the Lord want to do among God’s people? How can we be involved in doing what God wants done?

Reference Shelf

Isaiah 9:1-4 … occurs in Year A on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, along with Matthew 4:12-23 where its first portion is quoted …, and Psalm 27, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Here the emphasis lies not on birth but liberation: Isaiah proclaims, “The rod of their oppressors you have broken as on the day of Midian”; Matthew announces that Jesus went “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness.” Matthew employs the Isaiah passage primarily because of its mention of the Galilee region, which is otherwise hardly mentioned in the Old Testament.

In both testaments as well as today, the Galilee is geographically marginal: 1 Kings 9:11 describes Solomon giving King Hiram of Tyre twenty cities in the land of the Galilee; Isaiah describes at least a portion of it as Galilee of the nations (gôyim, a word that in later usage came to mean non-Israelite nations, that is, Gentiles). First Maccabees 5 recounts battles fought against Galilean Gentiles to liberate Jews from persecution. In the first century and for many generations thereafter, the Galilee’s population consisted not only of Jews and Roman military but also of civilian Gentiles, its mixed population at worst enduring misunderstanding and violence, but at best enjoying intercultural exchange and helping propel the gospel into the surrounding Gentile world.

After Rome expelled the Jews from Jerusalem (early second century), the mild-mannered and eclectic Galilee became a liberating refuge for Jews who in succeeding centuries developed there the Talmud, biblical commentary, the Bible’s Masoretic text, and the Kabbalah.

Patricia K. Tull, Isaiah 1–39, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 208-09.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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