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Due to technical difficulties, this sermon was not recorded. This is a transcript of the message.
This morning we are concluding a series of Advent worship services based on the prophecy of Isaiah. In each of the weeks of Advent, we it one of the candles of the Advent wreath and focused on the Christmas gift it represents. We have looked at the gifts of hope, peace and joy. Today we come to love, which makes the other gifts possible.
It is significant that we have always believed our Savior Jesus Christ was born at night, when it was dark. Darkness is always the time when we are most aware of our need for God to be with us. Darkness is what our newspapers and TV describe. It is what the lab report depicts when it finds a disease in our body. Darkness is what many young adults feel about their economic prospects, and it is what remains in our hearts after we have been hurt.
In the light of day, we do what we can to keep the darkness at bay. We work hard, we make plans, and we focus on the reasons for hope and the clear blessings of life. We do all that to keep our despair locked away in a corner of our hearts. But in the dark, our fears, our grief, and our anger break out and have free range of our heart.
So it has always been. When Isaiah wrote his ninth chapter, it was in the 8th century B.C., which was a dark time for the tiny nation of Judah. The ever-expanding Assyrian Empire had already swallowed up the ten tribes of Israel and dispersed the people. The two tribes that remained in the southern kingdom of Judah lived under constant fear that they would be next. Under the shadow of this threat, it was dark even in the daytime.
Isaiah begins our text by proclaiming extraordinary hope. Verse 2: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Those are the opening words of what our Old Testament scholars believe was an ancient Hebrew hymn. The words were sung over and over because they depicted the love of God who would come for His people. They continued singing the hymn down through the centuries, and they taught it from one generation to the next. Their words were well known long before George Handel got hold of them and made them a part of his masterpiece The Messiah. The chances are good that even the shepherds abiding in their fields outside of Bethlehem knew about these words. They knew about hoping for a great light that would pierce their darkness.
What the light means is that heaven has broken into the dark world. But God didn’t drop down more instructions or laws. What God was giving us is God.
You would think if Isaiah were going to offer divine light to the Judeans who were struggling under the oppression of the Assyrians, he would depict the arrival of a great and mighty warrior. But He did not do that. What He promised is “…to us a child is born.” And we are given His names. He will be called “Wonderful Counselor”. That is what we have always wanted – someone who understands. And He will be called “Mighty God”. Yes, that is what we need –someone who can again shove the darkness and chaos aside as He did at creation. He will also be called “Everlasting Father”, who is someone who will nurture us through all of life with grace, truth, and a love that knows no conditions. And He will be called the “Prince of Peace”. This is the long-awaited someone who can pull it all together – the One who can finally teach the wolf and the lamb to lie down together.
These are extraordinary names for a child. How can a child become our great light that dispels the darkness? He is so small and frail lying in a manger. This is the God with us? When the Greeks proclaimed the gods wee with us, those gods came in the form of adults who had great mythological powers. When the Egyptians claimed Pharaoh was a god or when the Romans allowed Caesar to claim divinity, it was after they had built incredible empires. Today, people still worship the idols of power and wealth, hoping they will get rid of the dark. But at Christmas we Christians join the shepherds and the magi in worshiping a baby.
Maybe the birth of a baby gives a little light, but frankly, it doesn’t blind us. Right – that is exactly as it was intended to be. This is why at Christmas we don’t shoot off fireworks. Instead, we light candles to honor the quiet subtlety of the power of this miracle. A child has been born to us. His holy gifts of hope, peace, joy and love will have to grow up within us.
When we celebrate the birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr., we don’t send cards to each other that are adorned with pictures of these great men as babies. So why is there so much attention on the nativity of Jesus? We all know that Jesus grew up to become a man and that as a man, He fulfilled all of Isaiah’s promises. Why can’t we just focus on Jesus’ teaching, His miracles, His work on the cross and His resurrection? Why do all of the stories of the angels visiting, the virgin birth, and the heavenly host singing “Glory to God in the Highest” matter so much?
The repeated affirmations that a child has been born to us root our thinking about the Incarnation of God. Jesus isn’t a god who just looked human. Nor is He a human who figured out how to climb up to heaven. Jesus is God becoming one of us. That cannot happen without Him taking on all of our human frailty. So the Savior arrives as vulnerable as He possibly can – as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.
As His life began, so did it continue. Throughout His life, Jesus demonstrated that He knows about hunger, thirst and temptation. He knows about great dreams and betrayal, laughing and crying, bleeding and dying. This is why He can be the Wonderful Counselor who truly understands our lives from the inside out. The Savior also knows what it means to be resurrected, to ascend into heaven to the right hand of the Father, to reign over all of creation, and what it is to be the one to bring about a new Kingdom. This is why He is the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. And it is all because God loves us too much to leave us alone in the dark. The Incarnation makes it clear that from birth to death, every human emotion is known by our Savior. But He isn’t just empathetically bumping around in the dark with us. This is the God who brings us light.
The Incarnation also claims that our flesh is sanctified – made holy – once it was taken on by a holy God. Just as the break and cup of the Lord’s Supper and the waters of baptism are ordinary objects that are made holy by the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, so our lives are made holy by His presence. After the Incarnation, the flesh is sanctified again, as it was to be from the beginning.
This means that love between friends or family, love in romantic relationships, and even the love of work provides some approximation or a glimpse of the love of God. The goodness of being with someone – even as a friend – on the journey of life is that it reflects the light of Christ that shines in the darkness. So you can never give up on love. It doesn’t matter how hurt you have been, how old you are, or how dark the prospects are, you can’t stop loving or you will get lost in the dark again.
Most of us are familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who participated in the resistance movement against Adolph Hitler. I know I’ve spoken of him many times. Not as many people know that in 1943 Bonhoeffer became engaged to the love of his life, Maria von Wedemeyer. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested and sent to prison where he was eventually executed. His correspondence to Maria has been published in a wonderful book called Love Letters from Cell 92. The book describes the light of love in a very dark time.
In his last letter to his fiancée, he states:
“We have been waiting for each other for almost two years, dearest Maria. Don’t lose heart. Here are a few verses that have occurred to me to in recent nights. They are my Christmas greeting to you.”
Although the old year still our hearts oppresses and still of evil times we bear the weight, O Lord, bestow upon us that salvation for which our troubled souls thou didst create.
The candles brought by thee into our darkness, let them today burn clear and warm and bright. And bring us, if thou wilt, once more together. Thy light, we know it well, shines in the night.
By kindly powers so wondrously protected we wait with confidence, befall what may. We are with God at night and in the morning, and just as certainly, on each new day.
It would be possible to view the love between Bonhoeffer and Maria as a tragic love story that was cut short by Hitler’s gallows. But these letters make it clear that is not how they saw it. They saw it as a resolve to love. They knew what was waiting ahead, but they resolved to love as a testimony of their faith to a Savior who would outlive Hitler, just as He outlived Herod, and just as He outlives every tyrant or terrorist who tries to turn the light back to the dark.
So we will always choose to love, And when we do, some more light perseveres in the darkness. Once we have seen that a Savior has been born to us, there is always hope, peace, joy and love because now we know that “We are with God at night and in the morning.” Amen.
Pastor Jim Spon | Isaiah 40:6-11
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