The Christmas story begins in darkness: the darkness of oppression, for God’s people were a conquered, beaten, and defeated people; the darkness of Roman occupation — it was a despised universal Roman taxation that brought the participants in the story together in Bethlehem of Judea; the darkness of disillusionment — an ever-increasing number felt that violence, not faith, was the most effective path; the darkness of fear — fear cast its darkness deep into the lives of people. On that first Christmas, the mood for many was one of despair and resignation.
Isaiah — in describing people who need the presence of God in their lives — uses the image of walking in the darkness and his image is a powerful one. Think about it. Walking in the darkness. Think about how that feels: arms outstretched, feeling your way along, wondering if you’re alone or if there’s some unwanted company lurking somewhere in the shadows; not knowing what is ahead — what (or who!) you may run into or what you may step on or trip over; It’s dark! There’s at least a little fear inside as you walk along. There’s uncertainty. Can you feel that? Walking in darkness. It’s difficult.
I don’t have to tell you that there is darkness today. You know what darkness is. I doubt that there is anyone who does not resonate with the image of darkness: Sometimes, it is being afraid to die. Sometimes, it is being afraid to live. Sometimes, darkness is the feeling of despair that seems to have no hope of going away. It is experiencing the death of one you love. It is loneliness. It is grief. It is lostness. It threatens to rob us of life. The darkness is menacing and threatening.
You know what darkness is: the pandemic, violence, illiteracy, hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, hatred, injustice, and war. It’s all darkness and it is all SO threatening. And we so often feel powerless in the face of it all.
Imagine groping along in the darkness and someone turns on the lights. Surprise! There is light in the darkness! The surprise is a wonderfully life-giving and comforting light. It is like inching along, walking in the darkness afraid of falling, afraid of running into something or stepping on something sharp and having someone turn on a light so the way becomes clear. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “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.” Imagine the power of the image in antiquity when it was really dark at night. Really dark. And the night seemed dangerous and menacing — especially a cloudy, moonless night. Then, suddenly there is light shining!
Christians have read Isaiah’s words and seen in them the prophecy of the coming of Christ. The light that comes in the darkness is the one born to us — whom the gospel of John calls “the light of the world.”
The good news is that light has penetrated the darkness and the light that penetrates darkness is the light of love.
If we read with fresh eyes the words of the prophets and the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, we will see surprise after surprise:
Mary and Joseph were surprised by the turn of events in their lives.
The shepherds out in the fields were surprised by the tidings of great joy.
King Herod was surprised by this odd threat to his power and security.
The people were surprised by Jesus’ Messiahship — not at all the kind of Messiah they were looking for.
The whole idea of God incarnate in a human being, a little baby, is a surprise.
Emmanuel, God with us, working slowly and silently in and through human concerns and events is a surprise. That is the way God works — quietly and steadily.
So, Darkness, Difficulty, even Tragedy is Surprised by Kindness, Love, and Hope. The stories of love and sacrifice abound. There is light in the darkness and it is the light of love.
It is, in fact, that self-giving love that stands at the heart of Christmas. God sent a baby into the world. And that baby grew to adulthood and he gathered around him men and women that he called out to be his Christmas light to the world. And friends, you and I are those men and women today. We are the ones Christ has called to love the world as he loved the world. We are to be God’s Christmas surprise to our families, to our friends, to our community, to our world. Can’t you imagine how surprised our community would be if each of us determined to live out the love and joy of Christmas throughout the year?
A few years ago I read a devotional in which the writer shared an experience he had that gave him an image for what he was to do with his life. He said that some potatoes had begun to sprout in his basement, even though they were in the darkest corner of the room. How had they obtained enough light? He wondered. Then he noticed a copper kettle hanging on a wall opposite a small window. Soon he deduced that sunshine coming in the window reflected just enough light over into the dark corner where the potatoes lay to allow them to sprout. That’s my job as a Christian, he thought. I may not be a great light in the world, but at least I can reflect enough of the light of God’s love that I can bring some love, hope, peace, and joy into the darkest corner.
Grace and peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
Isaiah 9:2-7 (New Revised Standard Version)
2 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.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.