Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
I know that many of us are itching today to hear about shepherds and mangers and wise men but I’m going to have to ask you to be patient for just a while longer. It’s not time yet. We have to wait. More than anything, the Advent season, this time leading up to Christmas, is about waiting. Which means this morning we won’t read from Luke. Instead, we’ll read from Isaiah. Isaiah, as much as anybody else in scripture, knows about waiting.
Isaiah was a prophet who spoke on God’s behalf long before that first Christmas to the people ofIsraelduring a very dark time. Because of their rebellion against God, God had allowed them to be taken into exile. Their great city,Jerusalem, was in ruins. TheTemple, the center of their life with God, was destroyed. They found themselves captive to an oppressive ruler facing a hopeless future away from a home they wondered if they would ever see again.
This is the context into which God sends Isaiah to speak the truth, the truth of God’s judgment and the truth of God’s comfort and hope. As I hope you’ll see, it’s exactly the sort of message we still need to hear today.
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.
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.
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.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
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, xxxxxx xxxxxEverlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
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 onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7, NRSV)
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People walk in darkness.
Isaiah begins with this simple statement of fact. The world is blanketed in darkness. And not just regular, old darkness, Isaiah says people live in a land of deep darkness. Some translations say, “a land consumed by the shadow of death”. That gets at the heart of it. Death overshadows this world. It did back then. It still does today. Even the best things in life don’t last forever. People die, even good people, even people we love, even people who are too young to die. Beauty fades. Peace is fragile. Health diminishes. Pleasure is fleeting.
You know those rare moments when everything in your life seems to be humming on all cylinders? What happens to those moments? They disappear, just like that.
I don’t go around thinking about this every day, but I do understand that so many good things in my life will, in time, be taken away from me. My wife. My family. My health. My work. My mind. My friendships. My very life itself. When Isaiah says people walk in the darkness of the shadow of death, he’s talking about me. He’s talking about you.
Why? Why is it that we live under this dark shadow of death? Well, there are really good theological answers to that question, answers that have to do with sin, and free will, and justice, and evil. In short, the answer is that darkness exists in this world as a direct result of human sin and rebellion against God. This answer explains the darkness in our world and, in a general sense, it’s an answer that can be of some help to us.
In the particular, however, this same answer, though still true, is of little or no help. You don’t go intoNewtown,Connecticuttoday and try to explain to a heartbroken community that the reason this massacre happened is because we live in world made dark by human rebellion and sin. While in a general sense that may be the truth, these sorts of reasons never bring comfort to people in particular hospitals or graveyards or prisons or lonely motel rooms who find themselves crushed by the weight of darkness.
That’s how darkness feels. Heavy. In verse 4 Isaiah speaks of the yoke of burden, the bar across your shoulders, the rod of your oppressor. Darkness is heavy and we all, to some extent, know its weight. You don’t have to lose your child in a school shooting to know the weight of darkness. Sin and shame and failure and addiction feel heavy like this. So do grief and despair. Sickness and pain can be crushing. So can loneliness. The darkness, in whatever form it comes, always weighs heavy on our lives. And all the explanations in the world which people might offer, true as they may be, don’t seem to ever lighten the load.
Wisely, Isaiah doesn’t try to explain the darkness. He simply acknowledges that it exists. But then, he adds, the darkness is not all that exists. There is also a light. The people walking in darkness, he says, have seen a great light. On them a light has dawned.
This is tremendous news. For what is the great enemy of darkness? Light, of course! Light always overcomes darkness and darkness can never overcome light. You can bring a bit of light into a dark room; you cannot bring bit of darkness into a lighted room. There is a light which has come into the world, Isaiah declares, to lift the weight of the darkness up off of our shoulders.
Where does this light come from? Who brings this light? The answer ought to surprise us as much as it would have surprised those who first read these words. The light comes from a child. “A child has been born for us,” Isaiah says. “A son has been given.”
The language which follows leaves no doubt that this child is from God. This child is God. The one who brings the light is God himself. But God comes, according to Isaiah, as a child. He comes as a human, in other words, and not only a human but a human in infancy. He shows up as a baby, a slobbering, crying, helpless baby.
When you are shopping for Christmas presents for your kids, what are the three words you try your best to avoid? Some assembly required. Right? Whenever I have bought presents for my kids, I keep a sharp eye out for those three words. Because we all know what Some Assembly Required means, don’t we? It means dad is going to be up until 2:00 in the morning trying to put that stupid bike together. No thank you. The three words I’m looking for on the package are – and these are beautiful words – No Assembly Required. Those three words mean dad is going to get a full night’s sleep.
I have to say, however, that there is one downside to No Assembly Required. When you buy the bike fully assembled, it’s easy. Stick a bow on it and you’re done. But you don’t really know the bike. If the bike breaks, you probably have no idea how to fix it. If there is a part missing, or if it wasn’t put together right in the first place, how are you going to know? The one advantage of Some Assembly Required (or even, Full Assembly Required!) is that by the time that sucker gets under the tree, you know that bike. Every screw, every bolt, every piece, you know that bike from reflector to reflector.
When God comes into our world he comes with Some Assembly Required. When he comes into our world he comes all the way into our world. I mean, how did you show up in this world? As a full grown adult? No. Neither does God. God shows up like we show up, as a child – small, fragile and helpless – prepared to go through everything that we go through from square one.
You see, God didn’t come to simply observe the human experience and then put a bow on it; God came to immerse himself into the human experience. God didn’t come to see our vulnerability. God came to be vulnerable. God didn’t come close to watch our pain. God takes on our pain. God doesn’t stand by as we endure betrayal and suffering. God allows himself to be betrayed. God endures human suffering. God didn’t come simply to learn about death. God came to die.
Who is this God? What is his name? How should we address Him? Well, according to Isaiah, he has many names. One name alone is not nearly enough to describe this God among us.
His name is Wonderful Counselor. The depth of his wisdom goes way beyond anything ever known to us before. He sees what troubles us. He knows what makes us afraid. He stands with us when we are alone. In his presence we no longer have to figure things out by ourselves. He knows the way forward. He knows the way home.
His name is Mighty God. He is powerful beyond belief, a warrior beyond comparison. No enemy is his equal. He is, after all, God. He holds the universe in his hand. Who can oppose him? When he is on your side you have nothing to fear. Whatever enemies you face in life – even sin, even death – cannot stand against him.
His name is Everlasting Father. Not only is he eternal and enduring, we are eternally and enduringly his children. He is our Father forever. And not a father who neglects or abuses, but a Father who comforts and provides. Not a father who imposes himself on us, but one who sacrifices himself for us.
His name is Prince of Peace. The word “peace” here is the Hebrew word “shalom.” This is not simply the absence of war. Shalom is wholeness, well-being, prosperity, security. Shalom is when all things are made right again. Relationships are reconciled. Sin is forgiven. Justice is exercised. Health is restored. This is the sort of peace over which he is Prince. He is the Master and Ruler of this sort of peace.
Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace. He is known by many names. We know him best, of course, as Jesus, the only Son of God, the Light who came all the way from heaven at Christmas and became one of us, fully one of us, to set us free from darkness.
We may never be able to explain the darkness. We certainly can’t ever explain the massacre of kindergarteners. And it’s not much easier to explain the cancer that comes out of nowhere and cuts short the life of a friend, or the hurricane that leaves a trail of terrible destruction in its wake, or the ache inside which no prayers seem to ever be able to numb. There are no satisfactory answers to explain the darkness of this world to those who find themselves in the midst of it. Isaiah doesn’t offer explanations. Not even God can be counted on to offer explanations.
Instead, what God offers is Himself. Instead of explaining the darkness to us, God enters into the darkness with us. And not only that, God promises, in time, to lead us out of the darkness. He promises that he will not allow the darkness to consume us. One day the shadow of death will be lifted for good. Even now, the shadow is being lifted away.
Isaiah reminds us that all authority to do these things rests on the shoulders of this child. And that authority, as he points out in verse 7, will grow continuously. In time he will bring endless peace. There will be no limit to the wholeness he will eventually establish one day.
This, of course, highlights the tension we feel every year at Christmas. On one hand, Christ has already come. What are we waiting for? The baby was already born. The shepherds and wise men have already come and gone. Christ has already come and yet, we still wait for Christ to come again. His Kingdom is already here and yet his Kingdom is not yet fully established. All authority over the darkness already belongs to Christ and at the same time that authority has not yet been fully worked out.
The wheat is already growing in the field but not yet ready for harvest. The yeast is already worked into the dough but the bread has not yet fully risen in the oven. The fruit is already on the vine but it is not yet ripe enough to make into wine. The bride has already received the marriage proposal but the groom has not yet arrived to take her home.
My wife and I recently saw the movie Lincoln. For both of us, it was a powerful experience. Even if you didn’t see the movie, you remember from your study of history that when Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on January 31, 1865, the slavery of African Americans was made illegal in theUnited States of America. The moment following that one single majority vote, a person could rightly say that the institution of slavery inAmerica had already been forever defeated.
That did not mean, however, that on February 1st of that same year, a day after the amendment was ratified, that an African-American man living in South Carolina could now claim that in the United States of America he was now going to be forever treated as the equal of his former slave master. That didn’t happen. Not even close. In fact, it would be many years after it was ratified before the implications of the 13th Amendment would be realized. In many ways, we are still working out the vision put forth by those who first believed that all people in this country should be regarded as equals.
In a similar way, a child has been born who has come to put an eternal end to the darkness of this world. That darkness, however, though already conquered, has yet to be completely extinguished. And we don’t need a national tragedy to remind us of this. The struggles of ordinary life, the temptations and doubts and failures we all face every day, are a constant reminder that shalom in this world has not yet been fully realized.
This, of course, is where hope comes in.
Mark Buchannan is a pastor in Vancouver, Canada. In his wonderful book, The Rest of God, he talks about one of the many times he has met with people in his church who are weighed down by heavy darkness. In this particular instance it was a young woman who, in his words, “had a desolate past, a blighted landscape of childhood neglect and sexual abuse and, stemming from this, the many broken pieces of her own bad choices.” As she poured out her heartbreaking story in his office, he sat speechless, not knowing what in the world to say to her in response.
He admits that as a young pastor he would have dove head first into the mess. He’d put on his therapist hat and dredge up all the darkness of her past, looking for reasons to explain the things she had gone through and hoping that these explanations might lead to healing. Experience had taught him, however, this was not what he now was supposed to do.
To be fair, Buchannan acknowledges that there are trained professionals who are really good at this sort of thing and their work with people can lead to wonderful healing. But experience had taught him that he is not a very good therapist himself. For him, whenever he tried to do this it felt like he was in one of those old silent horror movies where the mad scientist creates or awakens something, something green and gooey and fanged, and then loses control of it. Then the monster would wreak havoc, smashing all the glass in the laboratory, assaulting his assistant, and finally escaping into the surrounding countryside to terrorize the local village.
Buchannan writes that it was in that moment when he realized that the darkness of this woman’s past and present was beyond repair, at least on his watch. At the same time, however, God helped him to see that her future, on the other hand, was still up for grabs. In fact, her future was still vast, and unbroken, and pristine, and radiant. She needed to know that in the midst of the darkness of her life, there was a light shining. He needed to tell her that not far off there was a Counselor, a Wonderful Counselor, who knew the way home. There was a Mighty God more powerful than any enemy she had ever faced. There was an Everlasting Father who would never neglect or abuse her. There was a Prince of Peace who had come to make her life whole again.
Again, Buchannan acknowledges the critical role therapists play in helping people look into the past and sort through the darkness. But as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he has come to see he has a different role. In his own words he describes it this way: “Since [that day], this is mostly what I do when I counsel: I help people anticipate…What I do best is describe, as much as human words allow, the hope to which they have been called, the glory we are to receive. I describe how Jesus has power to bring everything under his control, and how he exerts that control on our behalf, to take us at our lowest and change us into people who resemble him.”
Brothers and sisters, is this not what we are called to do for and with one another in the church? There is no denying that we are a people who live in a land of deep darkness. All of us feel the weight of that darkness every day. And yet we know that there is a light shining in the darkness. And we also know that this light which is already chasing away the darkness will, one day, consume it completely.
What this means is that there are times when you don’t need me to try to explain the darkness in your life. Instead, you simply need me to remind you that you are not alone in it and that it will not remain forever. Constantly we need to remind each other that, as Mark Buchannan puts it, “the future shapes [us] as much as the past or the present, maybe more. Destiny, every bit as much as history, determines identity.” Our past and present may be consumed by darkness. Our future in Christ, however, will be consumed by light. Increasingly, day by day, it will be consumed by light.
I found it telling that President Obama opened his remarks at the vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, last Sunday night with the words of scripture, choosing not to try and explain or downplay the darkness of the present hour but, instead, to speak of the growing light which will overcome in the final hour. Specifically, he read from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Whatever your political leaning, I hope you can appreciate his choice of words.
Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day. For 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, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Normally the politics of our day do not allow our leaders to rely so heavily and so directly on the scriptures and the message of the Gospel presented therein. However, in times when the darkness we face is so unexplainable and so undeniable, where else are we going to turn? On our own, we have no hope of escaping the weight of this present darkness which blankets our land and infects our lives.
Our hope, our only hope, is in the light. Our hope this Christmas is the light of a child. A child born to us. A child who did not come to explain the darkness but who came, instead, to enter into it with us and ultimately lead us out of it.
A Wonderful Counselor. A Mighty God. An Everlasting Father. A Prince of Peace.
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The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
- Read Isaiah 9:2-7. What do you notice here?
- When Isaiah says that people walk in a land of great darkness, what do you think he means?
- Of the four names given to Christ in this passage, which means the most to you? Which best fits Jesus as you know him: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father or Prince of Peace?
- Have you ever experienced the presence of Christ with you in the darkness of this life? How so?
- What is a darkness in your life or in this world which you are especially longing for Jesus to take away?
- Mark Buchannan writes, “The future shapes you as much as the past or the present, maybe more. Destiny, every bit as much as history, determines identity.” What does he mean? Do you agree?
- Can you think of a person you know who is being crushed by the weight of darkness in their life? What can you do to point them to the Light?
- What does the birth of Jesus Christ into our world mean to you this Christmas?
Further Scripture Readings for the Week:
Monday: Psalm 96 ~ Matthew 1:18-25
Tuesday: Psalm 97 ~ Luke 2:1-14
Wednesday: Psalm 98 ~ John 1:1-5
Thursday: Psalm 99 ~ John 1:9-14, 16-18
Friday: Psalm 100 ~ Luke 2:15-20
Saturday: Psalm 101 ~ Luke 2:25-35
Sunday: Psalm 148 ~ Luke 2:36-40