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Christmas: Hope Amidst the Gloom

Preaching Magazine Articles

What does it look like to celebrate Christmas in 2020? Here we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Many of us have had sicknesses and deaths within our own families, churches, and communities. Many have been hard hit economically by the pandemic. Quite a few feel isolated, unable to gather with friends, family, or church due to health issues. On top of that, we’ve been through a tumultuous political season and, however you voted, our country doesn’t look healthy. It seems that the biggest thing many people want right now is simply to be done with 2020, but surely we don’t think these issues are merely connected with dates on a calendar.

What should it look like to begin Christmas preparation in our current setting? We need to remember that Christmas is all about longing for redemption and rescue to come. The darker our days the greater our longing for light. In fact, in the midst of World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in a German prison camp where he’d eventually be executed wrote his parents saying, “We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us” (November 29, 1943).[1] Christmas is not about pretending that everything is ok. Rather it is about staring directly at the ruins around us and declaring, in the words of the Hallelujah chorus, “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth!”

It is helpful to notice how many of the Messianic prophecies come in the midst of darkness. We often read the wonderful Messianic promise in Isaiah 9:1-7, for example, but we ought to notice the context from 8:11-22. We read the promise of “no gloom” (9:1) but miss the preceding promise of “darkness, the gloom of anguish” (8:22). We need to recognize that this great promise of hope and rescue comes in the context of gloom and destruction. The promise of seeing a “great light” is made to those who have been living in “a land of deep darkness” (9:2). Recognizing this can help us celebrate Christmas more realistically and more hopefully.

The context in Chapter 8 is that the people of Judah, including their king, are in rebellion against God. They do not want to listen to God’s prophet, Isaiah, but they expect God to bail them out of their trouble. So God sent Isaiah to preach judgment and destruction: “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.” 8:11-9:7 then presents 3 key lessons for living in, even preparing for Christmas in, dark and trying times.

Fear the Lord (8:11-15)

God told Isaiah not to “walk in the way of this people,” that is not to live like them. Specifically, he is not to get caught up in conspiracy theories and he is not to fear what they fear. There were political conspiracies in Isaiah’s day, but God tells them that this is not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is that the people fear many things (enemy nations, economic problems, pain), but they do not fear God. If we are going to live faithfully in dark times, we must fear God above all else.

Our lives are governed by what we ultimately fear. What do you fear most? Loss of job, disapproval of people, pain, loneliness? As bad as those things are, this text tells us we need to reckon with the holiness of God (v. 13) and as a result fear God above all else. Peter many years later applied this text to his readers in the same way (1 Peter 3:14-15). Conspiracy theories are popular right now, but we need to realize that our biggest problems are not political but spiritual. The loss of the fear of God across our churches sets us up to be co-opted by the prevailing trends of culture.

So, the first answer for faithful living in fearful times is fear. That may seem odd. The Bible is no supporter of those posters and t-shirts which proclaim “No fear!” You will never get to a place of absolutely no fear. The issue is whether or not you have proper fear. Our culture loves to proclaim its fearlessness, but fear is written over all that goes on. If we fear God rightly (Luke 12:4-5], He can calm our other fears. Fear God and that will take away your fear of man. Fear God and that will keep you from sin (Prov 16:6; cf. Ex 20:20).

Hold Fast to God’s Word (8:16-22)

Then, fearing God will cause you to hold to His Word over all else, no matter who else turns away. Isaiah portrays a time when many people are turning to other sources, sources that seemed more hip, more up to date- mediums and those who contact the dead. You can almost hear the Israelites saying, “All the other countries consult the dead!”  While occult practices are still around, the most common source of supreme authority in our culture, it seems to me, is the Supreme Self. Listen to the justifications you hear: “This is just what I needed”; “This is what was most important for me.” Or even the spiritual take, “I know the Bible says that but I really prayed about it and think I should do this.” Relying on our own fallen reason or desires is just as foolish as trying to contact the dead. And it leads to the same end- distress, emptiness, bitterness and rage against God (8:21).

No matter what else happens, no matter what falls apart and how much your world shatters and crumbles, hold fast to God’s word. No matters who else turns away from God’s word, hold fast. “Should not a people inquire of their God?” (8:19). It is sadly common today to hear people say that they used to believe in God’s word but when suffering came, they ceased to believe. God told us hardship was coming (Acts 14:22; 1 Thess 3:4; 2 Tim 3:12). Hold fast. Don’t let go of in the dark what you knew to be true in the light. Hold on and live in hope.

Live in Hope (9:1-7)

Judgment and darkness are never God’s final word for His people. The darkness is present, and it is real. We dare not deny it; but it is not final. Light is coming. Rescue is coming. Joy is breaking through.

And God often pours out his richest blessing on the most unlikely places. God’s judgment via Assyria came first and most brutally to the northern area, the land of Zebulon and Naphtali, the region of Galilee (1 Kings 15:29). Other invaders would follow the same route. But in the very place where judgment came hardest and most often, there also the light first began to shine. In this very region Jesus will emerge on the scene and here his miracles and message will first be seen.

And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 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.” (Matt 4:11-16)

It’s ok if you feel like you are in the darkness now. The light is promised to those who have been in darkness- on them the light has shined (9:2). The promised Son (9:6) has come and his kingdom is now advancing. It is not yet complete and the world still lies in the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19), but the decisive victory has been won at Calvary. Christmas reminds us that God has been faithful to his promises about Jesus’s first coming and he will be faithful to his promises about his second coming. In Advent we are reminded that the people of God waited for centuries to see the Messiah come. We should draw courage from them as we now await Messiah’s return, knowing that he has defeated death and sin through his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

So, even in the midst of the difficulties of this year, let us fear, God, hold fast to his Word, and live in hope. Let us celebrate Christmas as people of hope not merely with nostalgia or sentimentality, but with robust faith and hope, even in the midst of tears if necessary.

Hear from Bonhoeffer once again, writing to his fiancée from prison on December 13, 1943:

“And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”[2]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 3.

[2] Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger, 5.