(Originally preached on Christmas Eve 2015 in Santa Barbara, CA)
The world has had a rough year! I suppose that could be said of any year, but there seems to be a heavier sense of worry and fear in the air these days for reasons we all understand. Parents may sense a greater burden when the world feels like it’s going off the tracks. All of us feel the burden though – grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, first responders, counselors, health care providers – all of the adults who care about the generations being raised in today’s world.
Fear is being hyped these days. It’s being bottled and sold on the political trail along with sides of protectionism and militarism masquerading as patriotic fervor. That’s not to say there’s no basis for the fear, only that the escalating rhetoric benefits the ones using it more than it does the public good. Tough talk lets people feel safer in the short term but doesn’t significantly change anything for the better.
The prophet Isaiah wrote during a time of national chaos and despair. In fact, things were about as bad as they could get for those living in the kingdom of Judah. In the midst of geo-political upheaval and shifting alliances in the Middle East, King Ahaz refused to listen to the counsel of the prophet Isaiah who offered him a word promising God’s deliverance from their aggressive neighboring kingdoms. The resulting destruction of Damascus, annexation of large portions of Israel, and deportation of much of the population forms the backdrop of darkness Isaiah describes at the beginning of chapter 9.
The light of the nation had grown dim. It was not just King Ahaz who had chosen this path of destruction; it was the people themselves who were looking for easy solutions to their fears without stopping to listen to the God who had rescued them before. It was the people themselves who had opted for darkness – the darkness of warfare, violence, oppression, and inhumanity. Darkness describes those times when we do not allow the better angels of our nature to come out.
The psalmist, in perhaps the most familiar poetry in scripture, describes darkness as the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). “Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” the psalmist reassures, “I fear no evil; for you are with me.”
We long to be in that state of grace that would enable us to face all of the challenges of life and the troubles of this world without fear, knowing that God remains near. We long also, I believe, for an end to the violence and conflict that touches us not just on an international scale, but much closer to home, and sometimes tragically even within people’s homes. We long for the light of God’s peace to spread throughout the communities and nations in which we live.
Sometimes it is difficult to relate the message of scripture, written in a different time, in ways that will be fruitful and relevant to our lives. Isaiah spoke to a people who had been mired in dark times, their freedoms under threat, their spirits troubled, and he said that God had not given up on them, that God had already broken the yoke of their oppressor.
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. (Isaiah 9:2)
As we gather around the manger, we come to embrace the child of the light! With hearts that ache for this world, with hearts longing for peace, with hearts open to the healing word of God, we come and kneel before the holy child of Bethlehem.
Indeed this is the sign offered by the prophet Isaiah that a new divinely inspired dominion is upon us:
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.
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
for this time onward and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Stephen Boyd comments, “In the face of the fear, even terror, it is tempting to put our trust in the powerful – those who, seeking their own interests, promise to protect us. In this, our own darkness, Isaiah poses the questions: Will we make room for the Prince of Peace, who orders the world with justice and righteousness? Will we prepare to follow him in peacemaking?”[i]
At Christmas, kneel before the Christ Child who is the very light of God. Poet Ann Weems, in her poem “The World Still Knows,” leads us to the manger with these words:
The night is still dark
and a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth,
killing the children to stay in power.
The world still knows its Herods,
but it also still knows men and women
who pack their dreams safely in their hearts
and set off toward Bethlehem,
faithful against all odds,
undeterred by fatigue or rejection,
to kneel to a child.
And the world still knows those persons
to follow a star,
those who do not consider themselves too intelligent
to kneel to a child.
And the world still knows those hearts so humble
that they’re ready
to hear the word of a song
and to leave what they have, to go
to kneel to a child.
The night is still dark,
but by the light of the star,
we can still see
to kneel to a child.[ii]
Let us pray:
God of all ages,
in the birth of Christ
your boundless love for your people
shattered the power of darkness.
Be born in us with that same love and light,
that our song may blend with all the choirs of heaven and earth
to the glory of your holy name. Amen.[iii]
Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson (except where noted)
[i] Stephen B. Boyd, “Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 102.
[ii] Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980, p. 55.
[iii] The Revised Common Lectionary website, Year C – Christmas, Nativity of the Lord – Proper I (December 24, 2015), Vanderbilt Divinity Library.