Christmas Eve 2021
Isaiah’s mad idea
Nearly three thousand years ago Isaiah wrote words that must have sounded like nonsense to his audience: “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.”
It sounds lovely in a setting like this, but what about when we leave here and go back into everyday life?
Well, Isaiah was addressing people who were fearful about the future.
They belonged to a small territory which was always under political, economic, and military threat from neighbouring powers.
The question these people faced every day was how to ensure their security and freedom in an uncertain world, in which the future was often shaped not by themselves, but by others.
Each day was a bit of a gamble.
Isaiah, though, wants his people to remember who they are, what they’re about and where they’ve come from.
And, running through their story, was an apparently ridiculous idea that, however dark their circumstances became, the light of God’s presence couldn’t be snuffed out.
Not just God’s presence when everything was going well for them, but when the darkness descended, and the future seemed to be shutting down.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
A challenging time
This time last year I was here recording this service in a nearly empty church as we were in lockdown, at the end of a challenging year.
Then 2021 came along, promising much before delivering little.
Promises of a return to ‘normal’ gradually got forgotten as the world came to terms with continuing uncertainty and new Covid variants.
We continued to learn that human beings cannot control everything and are not invincible rulers of the world.
Infections, illness, bereavement, death, isolation can’t be organised according to convenience.
But the interesting thing here is that this is exactly the sort of world Isaiah wrote in and into which a baby was born in Bethlehem.
The story of Christmas is not essentially about making us feel comfortable, but, rather, about God joining us in our difficult world.
The real world we know and enjoy and endure.
Darkness is part of that reality and can’t be avoided.
This in itself sounds a bit miserable, but the Christmas story continues to surprise us.
For it invites us to look for the light that is there when the going is tough, and the gloom seems all-powerful.
One of the radical challenges the grown-up Jesus would bring to his people was simply this: don’t just look for the presence of God when all is well, your problems are solved, or you think all is going to be OK in the world; look for the presence – the light – of God even when the darkness persists.
In terms of Jesus’s first friends, this sounded like: “Can you spot the presence of God in your world even while you remain under Roman military occupation, your freedoms are curtailed, illness is all around and the chances of your children surviving infancy are pretty low?
This is why I think Christmas should be a great celebration.
It rejects the idea that darkness always wins.
It dares to see past appearances to angels bringing good news, a young woman giving birth to the Son of God under enemy occupation, shepherds dropping everything to come and see, foreigners setting out on long journeys to bring gifts and worship.
This isn’t some fanciful story just meant to make us feel good; rather, it takes the world seriously, looks tragedy in the eye, and still insists that this is where God is to be found.
The people who first heard the news that God had come into the world weren’t the ones you’d expect.
They were people whose work meant they couldn’t meet all the religious requirements that were expected of them.
They were foreigners and pagan stargazers who didn’t even come to the right place at first.
They were the local people of this small place called Bethlehem.
These weren’t people who had found all the answers, but they knew the daily struggle to survive in a difficult and confusing world.
And it was to them that God appeared in Jesus, interrupting the routine of the everyday and hinting that the darkness doesn’t get to have the last word after all.
And it’s to us that God appears now.
In darkness and in light God appears, to the tired, the confused, the worried, and the unsure, as much as to the confident, the eager, and the happy.
God is still here, constantly fighting with us and for us against the darkness, bringing light in unexpected places and in unforeseen ways, just as he did among the people of a Middle Eastern village.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and authority rests upon his shoulders.
Thanks be to God!