by Daniel Harrell
So far in our survey of light this fall we’ve looked at creation’s first burst, Noah’s rainbow, the Lord’s pillar of fiery cloud that led Israel out of Egypt, the tree-of-life lamp stand that lit up the Tabernacle, as well as last Sunday’s walk in the dark as we considered the righteous suffering of Job.
Due to the severity of Job’s suffering, especially unsettling since it was all God’s doing, I noted how not single child born in the annals of Judaism or Christianity has ever been named after him. It’s just not worth the risk. However, Mustafa Omar who hails from Afghanistan, and who along with his wife Jen joined our church this morning, informed me afterwards how among Arabic speakers, Job is in fact a very common name. Taking for granted that most Arabic speakers weren’t Bible-believers (at least not in the Jewish or Christian sense), I decided to see how the Quran depicted Job, since many of the Bible’s characters appear in Islam too. You might be glad to hear that the Quran provides a much shorter version of Job: a mere six verses compared to the Old Testament’s 42 chapters. And moreover, when Job complained about his suffering to Allah (having blamed it all on Satan), Job immediately received a miraculous fresh wellspring of water from which to wash and drink, and was then verily praised for coming to Allah the ever-merciful with all his troubles. So sure, Job should be a popular name among Arabic-speakers.
Arriving several centuries after the close of the Christian Bible, Muslims view the Quran as a welcome improvement. Christians don’t regard the Quran as the word of God, though many of us would probably welcome a few improvements. Take the Christmas Story. (Only 72 shopping days left). Greeting cards and carols polish it up as round yon virgin and imperturbable child peacefully sleeping while snow falls, cattle low and bells jingle. But if you actually read the story, what you get is a very sordid tale of an engaged young woman apparently cheating on her fiancée. She says that God did it, adding blasphemy to the infidelity. The ancient laws allowed for the betrayed Joseph to stone Mary, but preferring to keep the scandal out of the papers, he decided to break it off quietly so to save everybody any further embarrassment.
The whole thing was a miserable mess. And as Joseph would eventually discover, as with Job, it was all God’s doing. We’re taught that the virgin birth was necessary for the Son of God to possess no original sin. So why make everything look so sinful? Why all the secrecy? Why not a blaze of public, visible Holy Spirit glory and then a pregnant Mary? That way her neighbors could have thrown her a baby shower with swaddling clothes from Baby Gap. Somebody could have made sure there was room at the Bethlehem Hilton so that Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a barn. Better yet, why not just skip the whole birth process entirely? Spare Joseph the painful humiliation. Spare Mary the painful labor. Spare Jesus the hazardous temptations of adolescence. It’s not like he did anything for his first thirty years anyway. Just show up on Good Friday and be done by Sunday.
However the church has always insisted that the death and resurrection of Jesus was contingent on his obedient life. Jesus takes away our sins to be sure. But he also gives us his well-earned righteousness, a righteousness won despite the best that Satan could throw at him. Like Job, Jesus took all the devil dished out, yielded to the sacrificial will of his Father, but then topped it all off by shouldering the miserable mess of human sin—something only Jesus could do because he had no sin of his own, having lived a perfectly obedient life.
Christian’s insist on Jesus’ obedient life, though we’ve had to rely on some troubling equations to pull it off. We believe that Jesus was totally human, but also totally God. It’s hard to say with a straight face. As the Nicene Creed famously affirms: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven:by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man for our sake…”
The Nicene Creed wasn’t crafted at some church committee meeting over coffee and donuts. It emerged after centuries of infighting, some of it bloody, over how to do the math of the incarnation. How can any real person really be God? You’re either human or divine, the creature or the Creator, but not both. This is definitely a place where the Bible could have used some improving, if only to minimize the dissonance. On the one hand, Jesus walked on water, rose from the dead and read people’s minds. But on the other hand, Jesus had no idea when he’d come back on earth, couldn’t tell who touched him after some healing power went out of his body, was surprised by the faith of a Roman Centurion and got talked into changing his mind by a Gentile woman, of all people, who needed a demon cast out of her daughter. What kind of a God acts so unpredictably?
The Nicene Creed does provide an unintentional hint, apropos to our theme for this fall. “Light from light.” Unbeknown to our forefathers of faith, light behaves as unpredictably as God himself, and with the same sort of dual nature as Jesus. Take an example from your bathroom mirror. Did you know that every morning when you get up and look in the mirror, you only see 95% of your reflection. Praise the Lord. Where is the other 5% of the light? It goes through the mirror. How is this possible? Because light behaves both as a true wave—bouncing back from solid surfaces that reflect it—and as a true particle—bouncing off but also breaching those same reflective surfaces. How do we know which will bounce and which will breach? We don’t. Fire a photon at a mirror and there’s literally no way to predict whether it will bounce back or pass through. Photons are by their very nature predictably unpredictable.
The discovery of light’s quirky behavior—or maybe I should say quarky behavior—made a miserable mess of classical physics. Remember the picture of Sir Isaac Newton under a tree getting bonked on the head by an apple? Newtonian mechanics and its predictable dependence on gravity ruled the scientific realm for the next 300 years. A devout believer, Newton viewed the predictability of nature as a testimony to the reliability of God. But then along came Albert Einstein, and with him the quantum mechanics—Messrs. Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and others—whose discoveries of life at the subatomic level of particles and quarks meant that in some cases that same apple would not bonk but hover in an unstable state only to fall at some unpredictable moment calculated only in terms of probability. There may be a high probability that the apple will fall within a very short time, but there is also a small probability that the apple will suspend above the ground for hours, just as a photon of light flies through a mirror.
Not only that, but according to quantum mechanics, any one photon or quark can exist in multiple places simultaneously. It’d be like having your umbrella in your car, in your house and at work all at the same time, available whenever you need it. This unnerving reality drove Einstein, no real believer himself, to contend that God could never behave is such dicey fashion.
But inasmuch as “God is light,” this is precisely how he operates. He’s everywhere at once and wherever you need him. Mystery is woven into the system. In fact, the more precise the scientific instruments and the more accurate the scientific measurements, the more we're certain of light’s indeterminate and double nature. In accordance with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (the closest thing to a law in quantum theory), any attempt to pinpoint a quark’s behavior is doomed.
The Nobel Prize for Physics this week went to two scientists who confirmed light’s murky behavior. Normally, to detect light is to destroy it, since photons are absorbed into our retinas or into the chips in our cameras. But these physicists figured out how to isolate light without destroying it so as to more precisely observe its erratic behavior. Paradoxically, tapping into the unpredictable nature of quarks can actually lead to perfectly predictable applications—from the orbit of planets to the tick-tock of clocks. Among the practical applications of this year’s Nobel research is a practically perfect clock, one that would be off by only five seconds over the whole course of cosmic time—that’s five seconds for every 13.7 billion years. In Galatians we read how “God sent his Son, born of a woman, … to redeem … at just the right time.” Jesus Christ, as the author of nature, the light of the world and God in the flesh, unconventionally operates, but he does so right on schedule.
OK, so I’m getting a little carried away here. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was born of a woman only that the “Scripture might be fulfilled.” The same with our passage this morning. Jesus “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.” Matthew is very deliberate about fulfilling Scripture. Our passage marks the fifth of ten times he mentions it. Chances are that Jesus was deliberate too. We read that he moved to Galilee of the Gentiles after hearing of John the Baptist’s arrest so that the prophecy might be fulfilled. John had made straight the way for Jesus’ coming and made clear that suffering would be part of the gospel. “Galilee of the Gentiles” indicated the gospel’s eventual scope.
Jesus moving to Galilee and the Christmas Story both rely on the same section of Isaiah, chapters 7-9. In Isaiah 7, the prophet says, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” However, given Isaiah’s context, it’s highly unlikely that the prophet was talking about the virgin Mary giving birth since the birth Isaiah predicted occurred in his own lifetime. Israel’s King Ahaz was in dire straits and needed divine help to fight his Assyrian enemies. Eager to help, God pressed Ahaz to ask for a sign. But Ahaz, feigning modesty, demurs. He wanted to do things his own way. So God gave him a sign of his own. “A young woman (a more accurate translation than the King James virgin) will have a baby and name it Emmanuel (which means God with us).” Big deal. Women have babies everyday. Which may have been the point: God being with Ahaz meant God letting nature takes its course. Assyria was strong enough to take down Israel any day of the week. So God lets them do it.
However Isaiah 7 in only the beginning of a whole string of events about a child and the name Emmanuel. In chapter 8, Emmanuel applies to the entire people of God coming under Assyrian attack. God not only lets Assyria run them over, but by being with his people, he gets run over too. But then in Isaiah 9, Emmanuel resurfaces, this time as a child born of redemption: “a son is given on whose name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his dominion and peace there will be no end.” With the arrival of Jesus, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; on those in the land of the shadow of death, light has dawned.” The ordinary child born in Isaiah 7 as a sign of failure unexpectedly gives way to the extraordinary child prophesied in chapter 9 as a sign of salvation. Matthew had Isaiah’s whole unpredictable pattern in mind when he spoke of Christ fulfilling it. Defeat turns out to be the pathway to victory. Failure the welcome mat for grace. Suffering, surprisingly, leads to gratitude and new life. And somehow, Jesus said while on earth, the Kingdom of Heaven is here.
How is this possible? How can heaven be in two places, already here but not yet come? How can Jesus be both fully man and fully God? How can light behave as both particle and wave? How can a particle of matter exist everywhere at the same time, but then in only one place once you look at it? According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, “to observe is to disturb.” This is disturbing. Physically speaking, you need light to see but to shine light disturbs what you look at because the photons of light bump into the particles of matter and moves them. You can never see where something actually is. You can only see where you’ve moved it. What you see isn’t ever what you were looking for. Mystery is woven into the system. Applied to psychology, to observe is to disturb your perspective. Like it or not, whenever we look at something we can only see it from a relative viewpoint. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to psychology means we must adjust our perspective to truly understand. You have to look at things differently to find what you’re looking for. Applied to theology then, to observe is to be disturbed by God. It is to have your eyes opened, your heart transformed, you spirit moved, your mind changed. It is, in a word, to repent.
Normally, the focal component of repentance is sorrow or contrition due to sin. But the emphasis in Scripture is more on the change of mind and behavior due to a new reality. If the kingdom is here, you have to think about the world and your place in it differently. You have to adjust your perspective to reflect the reality of Jesus for whom lost is found and least is great. Repent and you understand Jesus as fully human and fully God, and are grateful that he is with you in suffering and for you in resurrection. Repent and see defeat as the pathway to victory. Repent and see failure as the welcome mat for grace. Repent and see suffering lead you to gratitude and new life. Repent, and by the light of Christ, you’ll see the kingdom of heaven everywhere.