The people lived in a land of darkness, and into the darkness their came a great light.
The season of Advent is upon us, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, it is not intended to be a season full of joy, where we do nothing but sing merry songs of a jolly old plump soul. The season of Advent is intended to be a season of personal introspection, to identify the darkness in our lives that requires such a light to come for salvation and healing.
With the over-marketing of Christmas, with decorations being sold as early as October, with descriptions defining the big sales such as “Black Friday,” Advent has become a season we enter into that is surrounded by darkness. And because of the darkness that clouds this season, we the faithful are called to lie in wait with the hope and expectation, and with the personal preparation, to welcome a new light that will define how life should and will be in the time to come.
The season we enter into, that will take up the next four weeks – this Advent – is not the first time God’s people have lived through a time of darkness while awaiting and anticipating a great light. Nor will this be the last.
The people of God were in exile. In the time this Isaiah passage was written, the people were reflecting on their many years of captivity at the hands of the Assyrians. Loved ones had died, homes had been destroyed, and their sense of personal identity was slipping every day. The years under the rule of King Ahaz had not proved fruitful for their independence. There was a desire for a new king – a new day – a new age that would prove to deliver them from the darkness of destitution and misery.
The scripture of Isaiah, the words of the prophet, were not spoken to them at the time to offer a promise of a coming Christ-child. They were not looking for a provider of eternal salvation to save them from an eternal death. The people, living in this exilic community, were looking for a new king to rise up and lead them in a return them to their homeland. They wanted to re-establish their own understanding of identity as freed persons – as a community not under the rule of a foreign entity. They wanted to be out from under the rod and yoke of oppression, as the scripture puts it – they wanted free of the burden of heavy taxes and military occupation. They yearned for a new light that for them was not defined by an incarnate child who would rule through miracles of healing and a message of salvation – but someone who would bring forth power and might, and would raise up a great military to lead them from exile.
In a day and an age when evil seems to be lurking around every corner, when the rule of money and wealth are elevated on pedestals as the purpose of life, when neighbor and governor alike care more for their own well-being than that of the community – in such a world of darkness, the desire for an eternal savior is not often found in the forefront of the minds of the people.
Like the people living in exile, our world has convinced itself that what is needed today is not a Christ-child to come and bear good news to the poor, or offer life the living dead – what the world has envisioned as the best way to leave this dark season of our history, what people seek as a way out of this darkness of fear… is a new leader, a new king, a new puppet to reign who will seek the benefit and aspirations of the lofty few.
When people are living in the darkness, whether in an exilic world without the comforts and protection of home, or in a pseudo-freed world where we are willing to ignore the needs of others to ensure we feel safe at home, when living in such darkness, we envision that the light we need, the savior we need, the god we need will not focus primarily on the eternal purpose of the divine creation – but that such a light – such a god – will fit nicely into a wrapped box, with a bow and a tag, and that it will meet our desires and conceived needs in the false promise of the created Christmas extravaganza. That is, our society has come to think that such a temporary fix – be it a new human deity or the gift under the tree – will suffice to bring comfort and peace into our lives. This mentality of society has pervaded our own understanding of God. We – the church – have come to envision the god we need by the standards of the society in which we live. And therein lies the problem we face in this season of Advent. “If your picture of God is distorted, your life perspective will be skewed.”[i] How you view the god you need shapes everything about your belief – your faith and your values.
American consumerism seeks to define God for us in this Christmas time of year. The marketing world works to define God by perverting a season instituted around the sacred gift of God in Christ by redefining for you what gifts matter, and what gifts you should expect and desire in this season. Any glance at billboards, emails, newspapers or internet sites will offer you a story line that entices you to believe that what you need most in this season is new, shiny, expensive, and perhaps best considered wasteful toy – but yet, it is defined as necessary in this age of materialism. Such a mentality praises and encourages debt, exhaustion, false identity and temporary satisfaction.
This Advent season our focus is going to be reclaiming the promise of God in the gift of the incarnate son, Jesus Christ. Your invitation this season is to turn off and tune out the false promises offered by the consumerist and entertainment worlds and to envision a different kind of Christmas. You will never convince the business world, a world that makes every decision based on money, to change their ways. But, you can control your own ways. You can decide to start new traditions, and make new efforts to bring the focus of Christmas back to Christ. Today, to begin our reclaiming of how God defines the light needed in the darkness, we are going to consider the work of God in miracles.
First, I want us to consider the difference between God’s promise of Christ given as a miracle, in direct contradiction of the world’s promise of the magical.
Magic is best understood as an illusion. The slight of hand to the woman in the box cut in half or pierced with swords – yet escapes unscathed – from simple card tricks to the elaborate productions – as the Great Houdini and Walt Disney have shown, the world is drawn to magic. There is something special about magic. It is an art that is designed for entertainment – and who among us does not like to be entertained. For many, the season of Christmas is nothing more than a promise of magic – it is a season in which we look forward to being entertained. There is a hope and expectation that the unlikely will happen. We wait in baited breath as we open each gift under the tree – hoping, like a rabbit from a hat, that the right gift will pop out of the box.
But magic – entertainment – is the not the business of God. God is not seeking to provide entertainment or temporary satisfaction – God is in the work of eternal transformation. Celebrating a different kind of Christmas is not about engaging in that which brings temporary smiles to the faces of children – it is about believing and partaking in the work of miracles that wipes the sorrow off of faces worldwide.
The dictionary defines miracles as, “a visible interruption of the laws of nature, understood only by divine intervention and often accompanied by a miracle worker.”[ii]
Miracles – like giving sight back to the blind, bringing the dead back to life, the pregnancy of someone deemed unfertile, the recession of incurable cancer – miracles are not offered for entertainment and temporary joy, they are offered as transformative acts to restore and give life to those who thought life was not worth living.
If we examine the biblical examples of miracles, we see that the miracle worker is essential to God’s transformative work. And, while we worship and praise Christ for the many miracles offered by his hands, it is not only the hands of Christ through which God works miracles. God calls many to partake in the work of transformation – relying most often on those who thought themselves or deemed by others as unqualified and insignificant. Let’s consider a few:
Moses, a Jewish infant, was raised in the house of the Pharaoh and was deemed a loss for the people of Israel. But Moses was called at the burning bush – called by God to bring life and freedom to a people who were living in the great darkness of enslavement. Through God’s faithfulness and the hand of Moses, God miraculously provided a way out of Egypt and provided food and water in the barren wilderness.
Esther was orphaned as a Jewish child, as she lived with her uncle in Persia. She was called upon to be the queen of the Persian King Xerxes I. She kept her Jewish identity hidden. And yet, in her unlikely role, and in an unexpected turn of events, she runs interference in the Persian palace to save her entire community of people. A saving miracle for the Jewish people offered through the faithfulness of God through the work of Esther.
The disciples gathered with Jesus near Bethsaida, just up on the hillside from the Sea of Galilee. There a multitude of people gathered around Jesus. The disciples seemingly had only five loaves of bread and a couple fish to feed the masses. Yet, through the faithfulness of God and the offering of the disciples, the multitude was miraculously fed – estimated at 5,000 people. Though Christ was present, it was the disciples serving through whom the miracle was brought about.
Sarah – the wife of Abraham – was beyond the age of giving birth. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was also deemed incapable of carrying a child. Yet both served as miracle workers as they conceived children who played major roles in the story of God faithfulness and God’s promise to sustain and offer life to creation.
And Mary – humble Mary. She was poor; she was considered a nobody in society. And like the many others who had shared in working God’s miracles in the past, she was given a vision by the angel Gabriel – she was invited to share in the work of God, in the transformation of creation – she was invited to carry the Christ child. And she served as a instrument for God to work a miracle.
The same Holy Spirit that conceived the miracle of the child in Mary’s womb, that offered support to Sarah, Esther, Elizabeth, the disciples, and Moses, the same Spirit still seeks and is actively working through the lives of faithful disciples today to continue God’s faithful work of miraculous transformation. God has always been in the habit of using those who were deemed unworthy to bring about transformative acts.
The people living in exile heard the words of the prophet, Isaiah, who promised a new king – one who would be more powerful than all the kings before. As the succession of kings continued, each new king brought a renewed sense of joy. But as each king came and went, the people were always searching for something more. There was always the hope of something better. And it is that same mentality that the consumerist world yearns to propagate. For so long as we give in to the falsity of immediate pleasure, we will always seek for a temporary god to supplant the eternal promise of the one true God.
As the early Christian church claimed this text from Isaiah, as the new community of Christ reheard these words – they found a new understanding of the promise of a counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, and prince of peace. They found a new hope that was offered in the incarnate God – the Christ child. They saw new life offered by the one who came to rule through justice and righteousness. They finally understood the text to not be about the next temporary king who would offer a provisional new way – but that God had provided Christ as an eternal living witness of the only way – as new definition of the Way – that there might be a permanent and eternal light in the darkness.
The promise of such a light in the darkness invites us now in this season to once more rehear these words of Isaiah and consider – what light will shine in this day to rid the world of darkness in this age? How do we once more faithfully claim the word of God in the incarnate Christ in this season of Advent? What miracles is God seeking to work, and have you considered that perhaps you are being invited and asked to play a servant’s role?
Christmas is all about a miracle – but the reality is miracles don’t just happen. “[Miracles] are born through the pains of labor.”[iii]
In this season of Advent, you are invited to imagine a different kind of Christmas. You are invited to celebrate a Christmas that is marked not by the consumer and materialistic ideals – but by celebrating the work of God in Christ – celebrating this miracle. And I call on you to consider, what miracles may God be inviting you to partake in making happen? In what way may the life you live be a part of God’s transformative work in the world? May you help share the light of God in Jesus Christ to all that all may know the eternal love of the Lord. Amen.