This is the time of year when many of us find our mailboxes filled with Christmas cards. Many of those include family photographs. These pictures always show a beautiful, well-dressed family with everybody looking straight at the camera while smiling, and capturing just the right angle of the Christmas tree behind them. But, what those pictures don’t show is the chaos that surrounds many of those photographic sessions.
We’ve all experienced those moments while trying to get the perfect picture. There’s a dog that darts off, or a baby that crawls away, or a toddler that refuses to look at the camera, or kids that won’t stop crying. Then there’s the teenager who is absolutely bored with the whole process. All in all, the entire photographic session is filled with tension and chaos.
Occasionally, we get to see some of the awkward photos that get taken, and those are my favorites. These are families that seem to have given up and decided to capture reality instead of a canned moment. In fact, there are some websites that are dedicated to showcasing some of those awkward family photos.
My favorite one, though, is this:
But these aren’t the kind of pictures that most of us want to share with others. We want the picture that hides the chaos and the anxiety and presents a picture that suggests that everything in our family is calm and peaceful.
But there’s a story behind just about every Christmas picture.
You could say the same thing about the nativity scene. You’re familiar with the picture. There’s always a calm mother, a sleeping baby, peaceful livestock — it’s the snapshot that history has captured, and it appears on a lot of Christmas cards. But the truth of what was going on behind that peace-filled picture involved a lot of tension, anxiety and chaos.
In fact, I want to share with you what may be the most realistic nativity scene I’ve ever seen. You may have seen this on the news this past week.
OK, it may not have looked exactly like that, but it certainly wasn’t as calm as we usually picture it. Because Jesus was born into a dark, chaotic, war-torn, impoverished, and politically tense time in history. The world at that time was in turmoil. In many ways, the scene was not all that different from the world we live in today. There were racial tensions that divided the people. There were terrorists trying to rebel against the government. There were wars and rumors of war. There were the haves and the have nots. There was abuse of power and politicians who were corrupt.
And, in the midst of all this chaos, an unmarried teenage girl and her fiancé had their world turned upside down when they discovered that she was pregnant. Even though they knew this child was from God, they likely had to endure nine months of finger-pointing and whispering behind their backs. And then, this couple was ordered to show up in Bethlehem to be counted for a national census.
Despite the fact that Mary was far along in her pregnancy, she was still required to travel. And so, with very little money and nowhere to stay, Joseph and Mary made the 80-mile trip to Bethlehem. And then, this unwed, pregnant teenager gave birth with no one but her fiancé Joseph at her side. Without healthcare and with no medical system, Mary gave birth in a barn in the middle of nowhere.
To make matters worse, when King Herod heard about Jesus being born, he immediately set out to kill him. But in the midst of all this confusion and anxiety, frustration and fear, somehow we ended up with a picture filled with peace and serenity.
One of the words that the Bible uses to describe the world into which Jesus was born is “darkness”. Isaiah said in Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
I heard recently about a couple that was getting ready for a family vacation. They were dreading the most irritating thing that parents experience on long trips, and that’s the constant, persistent question, “Are we there yet?”
And so, this couple explained to their young children that they would be sitting in the car for a very long time. The kids were told that they would not arrive at their destination until after dark and so there was no reason for them to ask, “Are we there yet?”, so don’t ask that question.
They got started down the road, and for a while, things were quiet. But, then their five-year-old daughter spoke up and asked, “Is it dark yet?”
As we look at the world around us, I think the answer to that question is, “Yes, it is dark.” Nighttime has always been viewed as a somewhat hostile time. Walking in the dark is a fearful experience. Criminals come out at night. Nighttime is a time that is filled with danger.
Fortunately, nowadays, we are usually surrounded by artificial light. In fact, we have so much light at night that it’s hard for us to appreciate the way that night was perceived in earlier times. For centuries, though, people walked in darkness — literally.
Maybe if we lived in Alaska, we might have a better appreciation of what darkness means. The city of Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost point in North America. In winter, it is also one of the darkest. The sun set there one month ago, on November 18th and it hasn’t been seen since. And it won’t be seen again until January 22nd. That’s over two months without the sun ever being seen in the sky. And it’s very difficult for the 4,500 or so people who live in that city. Barrow has one of the highest attempted suicide rates in Alaska.
The people of Barrow understand the importance of light. Can you imagine how excited they must get at the end of January when those first rays of sunlight peek back over the horizon? The darkness is over. Light is now here.
If you can appreciate their excitement, then you get a sense of what Isaiah was trying to convey in our text this morning. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (Isaiah 9:2).
Isaiah wrote during a very dark period of Israel’s history. A few years before his prophecy, the mighty Assyrian army had ravaged the land and taken over a couple of the northern tribes. Many of the Jewish people began to worship pagan deities. And Isaiah closed out the 8th chapter with these words: “If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn…And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.” (Isaiah 8:20,22).
Some of you know what it’s like to live in darkness. It can be a darkness brought on by circumstances that make our lives miserable and almost unbearable. And when you’re surrounded by darkness, it’s hard to see the light.
Depression is a problem for many people – especially at this time of year. And depression is described by some as being a time of darkness. And I think that’s an accurate description. I know, because I’ve been through it. There was a time in my life when depression really got me down, so I went to my doctor and said, “I’m worried because I’m feeling so depressed.” He said, “Tell me what’s going on in your life.” So I told him – about problems at work, problems with relationships, problems with health, problems with finances.” When I was done, he said, “No wonder you’re depressed – you have a right to be!” I didn’t get any help from him, but at least I got some sympathy.
But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted someone to help me out of it. My doctor asked me, “When do you see things getting any better?” And I said, “I don’t.” And to me, that’s where the darkness came from. Things were bad and I just couldn’t imagine that they would ever get any better. Now, they have gotten better, of course, but I couldn’t see it then. Everything was too dark. The problems were overwhelming. My feeling was, if I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, it was probably an oncoming train.
But when you’re in the darkness and you can’t see any light, you desperately need some hope to hold onto, some hope that there is light up ahead. And so Isaiah gave Israel a message of hope in the midst of their darkness.
“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish…The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (Isaiah 9:1-2)
Isaiah is saying here, “There’s hope.” No matter how bad the situation may look, God offers hope. No matter how many problems you may have, God has something better for us that lies ahead. And, for Isaiah, that hopes lies in Jesus Christ.
A few verses later, he says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
Israel had experienced years and years of darkness. But Isaiah said, “The sun is getting ready to rise. The darkness that surrounds you will soon be replaced by light.” And the source of that great light for Israel (and for us) was the birth of a king. This future king of Israel who would be the Messiah, the Christ.
I heard recently about a mother who was taking her son home from a hockey game and they were chatting about what they thought were some bad calls and some plays that could have gone better. Then her son paused, and he said, “Mom, can I ask you something?” She was afraid he was about to ask her a hockey question that she couldn’t answer, but instead he asked her this: “What do you think the world will be like in 20 years? Because when I look around, things seem really bad, they seem really dark, and I just wonder how much worse is it going to get?”
That’s a question that I’ve asked myself many times, but it seems so heartbreaking to hear a child asking that question. But, the truth is, our world today is not all that different from the world into which Jesus came. Things at that time seemed really dark. It’s always been bad. But there is always going to be light.
The Christmas story is the story of light coming into our dark world. Have you ever thought about the fact that most portions of the story of the birth of Jesus took place at night? The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, I would assume at night. The shepherds were “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8) when suddenly an angel appeared and “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). The wise men came to see Jesus, following a star in the sky.
It seems fitting that so much of the story takes place at night, because the story of the birth of Jesus is the story of light and hope coming to be with us in the dark places of our lives. In a world filled with darkness, the light of God came to this world.
The apostle John begins his gospel story in this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:1-5,9)
Christmas is the story of the coming of the great light of God into our dark world. And it is only in that great light that we can find peace and comfort. It doesn’t eliminate the darkness and chaos of this world, but it does bring hope.
“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16)
Paul writes in Ephesians 5:8, “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”
“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13)
But perhaps the most important statements about this light come from Jesus himself.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5)
“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)
I find it interesting that right in the middle of these all statements from Jesus about how he is the light of the world, Jesus attended a feast in Jerusalem. In John 10,, “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple.” (John 10:22-23)
This Feast of Dedication was known by several different names. Sometimes it was called the “Festival of Lights”. Today, the Jews usually call it Hanukkah, and right now the Jews are celebrating it. Hanukkah is actually an 8-day long celebration, and today is the 5th day of Hanukkah.
Now, if you look through the Old Testament, you won’t find any mention of this Jewish feast. It started during the Inter-Testamental period, between the Old and New Testament. In 168 B.C., the Syrian armies came into Jerusalem and they took over the Jewish temple and desecrated it. They killed any Jews who continued to practice Judaism, and they turned the temple into a worship center for Zeus.
But there was a small group of Jewish fighters, called the Hasmoneans or the Maccabees, who led a fight against the powerful Syrian armies. Even though they were vastly outnumbered, they won two decisive victories and re-gained control of the temple. As a result, Hanukkah was set up to remember the miracle of their victory against overwhelming odds.
But Hanukkah also remembers another miracle. According to the Talmud, once the Syrians had been driven away, Judas Maccabee ordered that the Temple be cleansed and rededicated. As they cleaned out the rubble, built a new altar, and made new vessels, a terrible discovery was made.
There was only one single container of consecrated olive oil, which was required in order to keep the lampstand in the Temple burning through the night. God had commanded that it should never burn out. To allow that to happen would be like another desecration. The problem was that it would take eight days for more oil to be pressed, prepared, and consecrated.
Feeling very helpless, the Maccabees and the priests did what they could. They offered their prayers to God as they lit the oil they had. And, miraculously, this one container of oil, which was enough to last only one night, burned for all eight days.
Which is why the Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days. And it’s why they use a menorah, a candelabra that has nine branches, one branch for the oil for each of the eight nights, and one to light the others, which is known as the shamash. And, on each of the eight days of Hanukkah, one of those branches is lit.
How fitting it is that right around the time that the Jews were celebrating this festival of lights, Jesus was proclaiming himself the light of the world. And while the entire city of Jerusalem was aglow from the light of so many candles, Jesus said that he is not just the light of Jerusalem, but he is the light of the world.
And there’s one more interesting parallel. Remember I said that the lights of the candelabra were lit by one special light called the shamash? Shamash is the Hebrew word for “servant”. In Matthew 20:28, Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This servant is the light that lights all the other lights. In Matthew 5, Jesus said that his followers are to be the light of the world, but we have to be lit by the shamash, the true light of the world. And as that light is passed to us, and then on to others, and then on to still more, bit by bit, this world of darkness begins to glow with the light of God’s people. And darker this world is, the brighter and clearer our light can be seen.
Peter wrote to Christians in 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
And all of this is important for us to remember when we find ourselves in darkness. And we often do. Don’t be surprised when life is hard. No one, and certainly not God, ever promised us an easy life. Life will be hard, people you love will struggle, you will struggle, and there will be darkness and chaos.
Jesus himself said that. At the end of his time here on earth, he reminded his disciples of all the hard things they would face and experience and see. He didn’t promise to shield them from the darkness but he did promise that he had gone ahead of them and that there was light ahead. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
In every dark place, there is a moment where God’s light shines to comfort and bring peace; to reveal to you that God is with you even in the darkest parts of the night. The mark of a Christian is not denial that life is hard, but is rather an acceptance of both the challenges of life and an unswerving faith and trust that there is a light and peace that shines into the darkness.
Any time you go camping, you want a flashlight or a lantern with you, because flashlights can shine light into dark and scary places. They illuminate the unknown. They demystify the dark.
And we’re all a lot like children. Children want light at night. Shel Silverstein wrote a poem, Afraid of the Dark. In it, he says “I’m Reginald Clark, I’m afraid of the dark, so I always insist on the light on.” And it’s true. Children want night lights and closet lights left on, because light brings comfort.
Children are always asking for light! They want it because they trust that it will help them. They trust that whatever hides in the darkness will be defeated by the flip of a switch or the flicker of a candle.
What if we were people who lived that way, who always had faith that light will overcome whatever is in the darkness? What if we were a people who, when we find ourselves surrounded by darkness, would always reach out for that light that brings peace, that brings hope, that brings comfort. And what if we were a people who shared that kind of light, so that, in the chaos of a trip to the emergency room, or a call from the doctor with bad news, or the death of a loved one, we could be a people who spread that light, messengers of love and mercy and grace when everything seems so dark.
Because, in the end, light will win out. It will triumph over darkness once and for all. Scientists will tell you that our universe is breaking down. Historians will tell you that mankind has a long history of doing harm to one another.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
We are not born into a world that is working in our favor and yet, light wins out over the darkness. That’s why some of the greatest songs of faith have come out of some of the darkest moments in our history. Songs like “Go Tell It On the Mountain” have roots in American slavery. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” have their roots in the American Civil Rights movement. It’s why, among the horrors of World War II, new music was written and created in concentration camps. It’s why, “It Is Well With My Soul” was written after a Chicago lawyer lost his four daughters at sea.
Charles Dickens reminds us that, “There are dark shadows on earth, but the lights are always brighter.” In the words of the apostle John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
And our culture rallies around stories where light overcomes the darkness. One of the reasons that the Star Wars empire lives on is because that story of good triumphing over evil is told in a compelling way that captures hundreds of thousands of hearts and minds. Every Christmas we watch “A Christmas Carol” because everyone wants to see the good of Scrooge’s heart win out over his cynicism. Robin Hood, the Avengers, and the Guardians of the Galaxy: These are the stories that we gravitate toward because they connect to something in our souls. It’s more than just a naïve optimism for a happy ending. They represent the divine cosmic story that we are all in together.
Because darkness does not have the final word. God will have the final word. And while we do not have the promise of a pain-free, picture-perfect life this side of heaven, what we do know is that God is with us in the midst of it all. Because, 2,000 years ago God brought light into the darkness of this world
Do you have a faith that believes that, in the darkness that surrounds us today, just like it surrounded Joseph and Mary 2,000 years ago, light can still be found? Are you willing to let that light shine in your life and bring you peace even in the midst of chaos?
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)