One of the best known readings of the Christmas season comes from the ninth chapter of the prophet Isaiah, and it starts with these words:
‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2).
Christmas is a time when we usually jump straight to the light, but Isaiah doesn’t start with the light; he starts with the darkness; ‘The people who walked in darkness’. And like him, as we gather tonight for this very special service, we need to spend some time thinking about the darkness in which the light of Christ shines.
I don’t know what has brought you to this service tonight, but for myself, I know I seem to be very much aware of the darkness as we move toward Christmas this year. This will be the second Christmas since my dad died, and even though he lived far away in England, I will miss talking to him on the phone on Christmas Day, and I will miss knowing that he is joining in the family celebrations at my brother’s house in Manchester. My dad was not only my dad; he was also the one who helped me commit my life to Christ, and no doubt it was largely because of his influence that I decided to spend my life helping other people come to know Christ and follow him. So, like so many others, my Christmas celebration will have a little sadness in the background this year.
But of course there are many other kinds of sadness. I know of two married couples whose marriages have broken up this year; in both cases, I counted at least one of the spouses as a friend, and in one case, I officiated at their marriage. None of us really knows, I suppose, what is going on in the marriages of other people, but as I come to Christmas I will be especially aware that for these good friends, and many others like them, Christmas this year will be full of pain.
I have other good friends who have lost people they loved this year. In our own congregation, since our last ‘When Christmas Hurts’ service, we have lost Joan Reiffenstein, much loved to many of us, who died tragically in a car accident on her way to visit family just before Christmas last year. We’ve also lost Joan Finlay, Kathi Kilgour’s mom, who had been a member of our parish for a number of years. Of course, some of you will be here tonight because of other people, known and loved to you, who have died, and you will miss them this Christmas.
There are many, many people tonight who are facing this Christmas in the context of a serious, perhaps life-threatening, illness. I know of two or three people who are very close to the point of death because of terminal cancer; their families can’t even begin to think of the manger and the Christ Child, because they are entirely taken up with what probably seems to them to be an unfolding tragedy. Where is God when someone you love is dying, perhaps dying well before their time? There are no easy answers to questions like that.
I could go on. I have friends who are recovering alcoholics who will be spending a lot of energy at this time of year just staying sober. I know of others who have lost jobs and are facing Christmas in very difficult financial circumstances because of it. I know others who are estranged from loved ones; they wish they could find a way to be reconciled, but nothing they try seems to work.
‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’, but until you see the light, the darkness seems very dark indeed. And I promise you that I will not try to give simplistic answers from this pulpit tonight. Simplistic answers have hurt a lot of people over the years. People have been told that if they just trust in God, God will deliver them from whatever their particular darkness happens to be; the problem is, they’ve already tried that, but nothing about their outward circumstances seems to have changed. Now their burdens have increased; as well as the trouble they were already carrying, they’re now asking themselves, “What’s wrong with me, that God hasn’t answered my prayer?”
Our first Bible reading for tonight was written while God’s people were in exile in Babylon, far away from their homeland. Their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had been unfaithful to God and worshipped other gods made of wood or stone. They had abandoned God’s laws, oppressed the poor and needy, turned to sexual immorality, and offered their children as sacrifices to idols. Over hundreds of years God had tried to call his people back to him through the prophets; a few responded, but most ignored God’s call. So eventually God had allowed foreign armies to come and defeat them; their city and their temple were destroyed, and their leaders were taken away as exiles to Babylon.
But now, seventy years later, God sends a prophet into this seemingly hopeless situation to speak a word of comfort to the children of those exiles, who had grown up longing for their homeland. God gave this prophet a word of hope for people who lived in hopelessness and despair:
‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins’.(Isaiah 40:1-2)
The prophet is bringing the people an incredible message: God still cares for them. Not only that, but the day is coming when he is going to give them the opportunity to return home to the land they have longed for all their lives.
The message of this passage to us today is that wherever you are, whatever the situation you are in, God still cares. God loves you, and in the midst of your suffering he comes to you with a word of hope. ‘Comfort, O comfort my people’. You may feel like a little lost sheep in the midst of your troubles, all alone and desperate. Very well; your God is the one who ‘will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’ (v.11).
Furthermore, the words of this prophet point us to two things that give us hope. The first thing is the promise of God. Human life may be frail and uncertain, but the promise of God is not. Listen again to the words of the prophet:
‘A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever’. (Isaiah 40:6-8).
Isaiah is telling the people that they can count on God’s promise to be with them in their time of need; that promise is rock solid. I’m reminded of the words of Jesus: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35 NRSV).
The words of scripture are not magical charms that we repeat to protect ourselves from dark forces. They are the message of God’s love expressed in the words of human beings. They are a love story of how God’s good creation was broken because of evil, and how God has never given up working to free the world from that evil and restore it to his original plan. We are very aware of the evil and the pain and the darkness tonight, but the story the Bible tells is a story of God’s love reaching down into that darkness and touching the lives of people just like us. Sometimes God’s love rescues people from the difficult circumstances they’re struggling with. At other times, God’s love gives people the strength they need to walk on through the darkness in the knowledge that God is holding them close to his heart.
And this leads us to the second thing the prophet points to, to give us hope: not just the promise of God, but also the presence of God with us. At the end of the reading the prophet makes an announcement to the people in exile in Babylon; he says simply, ‘Here is your God’. And the image he uses for God emphasises the tender and loving nature of God; ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’ (v.11). Yes, God is coming to live among them again, as a tender shepherd caring for the weakest and most vulnerable members of his flock.
God is not far away from us; he is present with us and lives among us. This is what the coming of Jesus means. Matthew says that the birth of Jesus was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23-24). Never again will God be a stranger to human life; he has lived it to the bitter end just as we do. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14: ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’. And if God is truly in our neighbourhood, then there is always hope.
As we continue with our service, we are going to give you the opportunity to participate in two symbolic actions that will hopefully help you bring whatever or whoever is on your heart to God tonight, to ask for God’s healing and hope. First, you will have the opportunity to come forward and light a candle on the altar. You might want to light a candle in memory of a loved one, or as a symbol of your prayers for someone you know who is in particular need. That person may be yourself, as you ask for God to be a candle of light and hope in your own particular darkness, whatever it may be.
Secondly, in your bulletin tonight you will find a file card. You may want to write on that file card the name of someone who is in need of God’s help; again, that name may be your own name. You might want to write down the reason for the request, or you may just want to write the name and leave it at that. You can leave that card on the altar when you come forward to light your candle, or, if you don’t want to light a candle, you can simply give the card to me after the service. I assure you that those names and requests will be prayed in this church throughout the Christmas season.