Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Light In the Darkness

Have you ever been afraid of the dark? It isn’t unusual for people to fear darkness. The landscape changes in darkness. The coat hanging on the chair by your window quits looking like a coat—with a little imagination (sometimes very little) it turns into a figure crawling into your bedroom. Without light you can run into things, you can step in a hole and twist or break an ankle. During darkness criminals are active using the nighttime as a cover for their mischief. It is at nighttime when most carnivores hunt.

There is good reason to fear the dark.

I think it is fascinating to notice the times of darkness found in the Bible. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the writer of Genesis says, darkness was over the surface of the deep. It is in the evening when Abraham cuts open several pair of animals and waits for a message from God. Yet before he receives the vision the text says that darkness fell and he was filled with terror.

It was in the middle in the night when the apostles were struggling to cross the sea of Galilee and were almost swamped until Jesus comes walking on the waves toward them. It was at nighttime when Jesus experienced the agony of the garden and the humiliation of six trials before Herod, the Sanhedrin and Pilate.

But God shows himself in the middle of darkness. It is in the darkness that God delivers Israel by striking down the first born of Egypt. In darkness the pillar of fire demonstrating God’s presence shines all the more brightly. And the truth is God has always been there—especially in the middle of darkness!

During the time of Ahaz, Judah was again surrounded by the darkness. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had joined forces with Syria to attack and overthrow Judah. In Isaiah 7 when Ahaz and his court heard the news, the Bible says the people were shaken as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind. God tells Isaiah to encourage Ahaz with God’s promise of deliverance. A sign is provided: a child would be born and before he could tell right from wrong, both Israel and Syria would be overthrown. The child would be named Immanuel, which means, God-with-us. The message to Ahaz: Don’t fear this darkness that you are facing! God is with you!

In the first century, the Jewish people were again enveloped by the darkness. They looked for a messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression, the way God delivered them from Egypt. It is in this context of darkness that light breaks forth. The Jewish people didn’t understand though that the darkness was not just a description of their political situation. It described the spiritual condition of the world. And in the gospels we begin to see references to a coming light for all people.

In Luke, Zechariah bless his son, John with these words (1:76-79)
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Following the birth of Jesus, he is taken to the temple for presentation and an old man named Simeon blesses the baby Jesus with these words (2:29-32)
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel.
And isn’t it interesting to see the contrast between the darkness and the light when the angels appear to the shepherds in the fields at nighttime? In the dark of the night God’s glory shines and the heavenly messengers give the announcement of Jesus’ birth. The birth of the one called Immanuel, God-with-us.

Even Matthew will reference light in Matthew 4 as he quotes from this text in Isaiah:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…for to us a child is born to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
In a couple of days people all over the world celebrate the birth of Christ. Many haven’t a clue what the coming of Jesus is all about. In fact—the baby Jesus has become a cute symbol of peace that has little meaning of real-life significance for our day-to-day existence. But Jesus did not come to serve as a sweet symbol of peace. He did not come to make people have warm, sentimental feelings once a year. He didn’t come to be the focus of cute plays and festive pageants. He came to shine in our present darkness. John says it well in John 3:16-21:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.
Jesus came to bring us into relationship with the Father. He came to give us a relationship that transcends all moments of darkness that we might encounter—

Question: what is the darkness you are encountering? What is the nightmare that keeps you awake at night? Is it the fear of death? Is it guilt of bad behavior, attitudes or sin? You feel responsible for the evil that has come upon others? Is the darkness perhaps some disease or fear of things beyond your control? Is it loneliness?

Jesus has come to shine light in your darkness. He is the presence that will walk with you, who will hold on to you as you face even the inevitability of your own death.

And you want to know something that may surprise you? You may not have realized it, but he has always been here. He has always been available. That’s what Israel found out in Egypt. That’s what Genesis 1 indicates when it says that darkness covered the face of the deep and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. Listen to what the Psalmist said in Psalm 139:7-12:
Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the grave, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me securely. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
It doesn’t matter how deep the darkness, how powerful the fear, how hurtful the pain, how painful the guilt. Immanuel, God is with us and he longs to bring light in the middle of your darkness—to hold you securely in his hand.

Question: Will you walk with him? John tells us that though he made the world, the world did not recognize him. That even though Jesus came to his own, they would not accept him. But those who would accept him, he gave the right to be called children of God!

Immanuel: God-is-with-us! But will we go with him? He will shine in our darkness, but will we walk into his light? Will you trust him enough to take hold of his hand? To do so, you must believe more than the story you hear during this season. God not only became a baby—but he grew to be a man for the express purpose of dying on a cross, to take the punishment you deserved for your sin. You see, that is how he can be light when you face the darkness of guilt. It doesn’t matter how bad you are, who you’ve hurt, who you’ve crushed or destroyed. Your guilt can be forgiven. He personally took on your guilt and died. Not only that, but he came back to life to guarantee that even our greatest nightmare, death, could not rule over us. One day we, too, will rise never to die again. You accept the benefit of that death, burial and resurrection through baptism—immersion in water as a metaphoric enacting of that same death, burial and resurrection—and you determine to let him call the shots in your life. Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to live your life seeking to set the world right, to bring justice, mercy and peace--to bring the Kingdom of the Messiah to bear in the world around you?

It isn’t unusual to fear the darkness. You know, even as a kid, I could always face the darkness. I was never afraid of the dark—as long as I was holding my daddy’s hand. Will you take the Father’s hand? He will walk you through whatever the darkness you face. Immanuel: God-is-with-us!

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