2 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. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Darkness…why do so many of us have a deep fear of the darkness? One would think that we’d be accustomed to the darkness having spent the first nine months of our lives in the darkness of the womb. One would think that we’d find great comfort in the darkness where nothing seems to hurt us and all of our needs are met. After all, our mothers protected us and met our needs for food and shelter in those first few months of darkness. Why do we develop such a fear for the darkness over time?
Perhaps because the warmth and security of the darkness is always fleeting. We leave our mother’s womb and come to realize that the light and love of our mothers was actually what was keeping us safe and protected all those months. We come to realize that bad things lurk in the shadows of darkness. Scary, harmful things hide in the darkness and we rightly become afraid of the darkness. It is safer to remain in the light.
Our readings for this evening begin with the words of the prophet, Isaiah. Right from the outset, he proclaims, “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.” Like newborn babies entering this world for the first time, the people of Judah were overwhelmed by the light of his prophecies. They had lived in the darkness for so many years that they had forgotten what the light felt like anymore. The people were consumed with their sin. Sin loves the darkness! Sin thrives in the darkness! But the problem with sin is that it spoils any relationship with God. God HATES sin! God has no tolerance for sin. This is because sin gets in the way of God sharing His love. God wants to share His love and this can only happen in the light. Sin has control of darkness while God has control of light. The people of Judah were living in the darkness and God sent light to shine upon them.
The prophecies of Isaiah were written hundreds of years before the coming of Jesus. How did he know that God would send the Son, the “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” “Prince of Peace?” He didn’t. He was doing what he was called by God to do: prophesy. He just happened to be prophesying in the present tense in today’s reading. He proclaims, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” In making such a prophecy, he was giving his people hope. Was there any way his people could ask for proof? Could they ask him who this child was? Yes, but that would have taken away some of their hope. Sometimes an unfulfilled prophecy is more hope-inspiring than a fulfilled prophecy. Besides, Isaiah was merely laying the groundwork for Jesus. Jesus comes several hundred years later and fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy.
Our inherent nature is to seek out the darkness. We are sinful by nature. But God doesn’t want us to live in darkness. God wants us to live in His light. Think back to the beginning of Genesis, ch. 1. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” God breaks into the darkness and shines light! He did it at the beginning of creation and He does it again through His son, Jesus Christ. We’ve gathered this evening, out of the darkness, to celebrate God’s loving light so mercifully and graciously shining upon us! Let us rejoice in the true light of the world, coming to us from that little town of Bethlehem.
Luke 1: 26-35, 38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
As children, we come to fear the darkness because of all the evil, hurtful things that lurk in the shadows. But are they ever really hiding there? Is the boogeyman ever in our closet or under the bed? No…at least never in my closet or under my bed! So what we come to fear about the darkness isn’t what lies in wait but rather that we just can’t see it. We don’t know what lies in the darkness and that makes us so very afraid. Fear of the unknown is a deep fear shared by many of us. Not knowing what lies in the closet or under the bed quickly develops into not knowing how we are going to provide for ourselves or whether our good health will remain. The future is filled with unknowns and this can be very scary for many of us.
Our reading from Luke sheds light on the fear that Mary was feeling when visited by the Angel, Gabriel. After the angel calls her “the favored one” and tells her, “The Lord is with you,” we hear “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” How many of us have ever been visited by an angel? For those of us who believe they’ve been visited by an angel, were they beautiful, radiant, heavenly creatures? I believe angels walk among us each and every day but seldom appear to us as the movies and paintings depict them. They are indistinguishable from us and typically only realized in hindsight. “Was that an angel that I was just talking to?” Some angels bring good news and some angels bring bad news. One never knows what kind of news an angel brings. As a faithful servant of God, Mary probably thought the same way. She, too, probably believed in angels bringing good and bad news. When Gabriel approached her, she was afraid which kind of news she was going to receive.
Even after Gabriel tells her the good news that she will give birth to a child to be called the “Son of the Most High,” the fear of the unknown keeps nagging at her. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She’s less concerned with understanding the scientific possibility of a virgin birth and more concerned with having to explain it to Joseph, let alone everyone else in the small community. Who would believe a virgin birth? It’s just not scientifically possible! The only rational explanation for such an immaculate conception would be that Mary was having inappropriate relations with a man in the community. If people were to believe that, who knew what kind of punishment Mary would have received! Probably a beating or imprisonment. Joseph would have likely left her because of her infidelity. All of these thoughts must have run through Mary’s mind as she received the news from Gabriel. The unknowns of the future can be frightening indeed!
Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid of any of these possibilities, for God would be with her. She was reassured and boldly responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She allowed God’s light into the darkness of the unknown. As we reflect on Jesus’ birth in the days ahead, let us be encouraged by Mary’s strength and allow God’s light into our own lives of darkness. The unknowns of the year ahead can be frightening for many of us. We might wonder how God will provide for us or our families. We might wonder if our health will carry us through another year. These thoughts might create great anxiety and put is in darkness. The strength of Mary teaches us the importance of letting God’s light into our lives. If she could remain open to the light despite such a foreboding darkness, then we can remain open too.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
Darkness falls on all of us at some point in our lives. We can’t always remain in the light. Every day is allotted a portion for darkness. No matter how hard we try to stay in the light, we will invariably find ourselves in some degree of darkness. We lose a loved one, we lose a job, we lose a friendship, we lose material goods, and we eventually lose our health. These are all opportunities for darkness to enter into our lives. More often than not, we’re going about our life, trying to do the best we can, when these moments of darkness come upon us.
We hear in this reading of the shepherds just going about their business, trying to keep watch over their sheep throughout the night. They weren’t looking for trouble, only trying to do their jobs. Suddenly an angel comes to them. This is the second time an angel appears to someone in the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Like the angel that approached Mary, this angel brings nothing but good news. Yet the shepherds have a similar reaction to Mary. We hear, “…the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Sure, this appearance was in the middle of the night but the shepherds were used to working throughout the night. For anyone who’s ever been scheduled to work the graveyard shift, it’s their time to shine their lights, to serve as beacons of light while the rest of the world sleeps. It might be dark outside but they shine just as the rest of us shine during the daylight. But God’s light is unlike any light these shepherds had ever seen. God’s light can be terrifying no matter what time of day it shines.
Think back to Moses and the burning bush. Like the shepherds in our reading, Moses was just minding his business tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. We read in Genesis 3 that “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” Moses approaches the bush to find out how it is possible that this bush could burn without being consumed. God speaks through the bush and warns Moses, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses does as commanded and realizes the brightness of God’s light. We read, “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” God’s light is frightful even to the boldest among us!
But what are the shepherds able to do? What is Mary able to do? The angel comes upon them so fast, so unexpectedly, that they’re just stunned into paralysis. The angel reassures the shepherds, as it had done with Mary. “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Though angels may bring bad news from time to time, they’re always bringing good news when they bring God’s light. God’s light is the greatest gift for our world. God’s SON is the greatest gift for our world! We would be condemned to lives of darkness without Jesus.
As we reflect on the God’s gift to us, let us be glad that God comes to the unexpected among us. Sure, it makes sense that God comes to Mary, a holy and righteous virgin. It makes less sense that God should shine on the shepherds in the field. God shines on us even when we’re just going about our daily lives, trying to cling to the light while wading through the darkness all around us. We take comfort in hearing that God sends angels to share God’s glory with the unsuspecting among us.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Of course, there will always be some among us who resist God’s light. There will always be some among us who would rather suffer in the darkness than thrive in the light. King Herod was one of those people. He was an evil man that was consumed with the fleeting glory of earthly power. His ruthless ambition led him to kill his father-in-law, two of his sons, and several of his ten wives. He mercilessly taxed the citizens to pay for lavish projects that garishly flaunted his power. It’s no wonder he tried to trick the wise men into telling him whether Jesus was at Bethlehem or not. The wise men had asked him, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Did they not realize who they were asking this of? Did they not realize that Herod had an insatiable hunger for power and that mentioning a “king of the Jews” other than him would incite great jealousy and anger within him? Whether they did or didn’t, the wise men failed to report back to Herod after they found Jesus. They were wiser than their interaction with Herod suggested!
We hear King Herod’s reaction to the questioning wise men, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” When we live in the darkness for so long, when we’re consumed with the darkness as Herod was, it can be terrifying to hear of the light. Darkness feeds upon itself and seeks to shut out the light. Look at a black hole. By its definition, a black hole is a region of space having a gravitational field that is so intense that no matter or radiation can escape. It is the result of a star collapsing in on itself. Stars are magnificent sources of light but they have a lifespan. Like everything in the universe, they eventually die out. What a dead star leaves behind defies all the light the star gave off. It leaves behind a field that consumes all the light around it! As if the source of light couldn’t just die off, it has kill the light around it!
We invariably come across these types of people in light. We’ve all known “black hole” people who are so consumed with darkness that they kill the light around them. They suck up all the life in the room because they’re afraid of the light. And they should be afraid of the light! With light comes life! With light comes growth! With light comes love! The darkness harbors sin and death but the light brings with it love and life. Believe it or not, even black holes die off eventually…even “black hole” people die off eventually! In spite of all the monuments he built for himself, in spite of all his attempts to declare himself a god among the people, in spite of efforts to kill Jesus, even Herod died off eventually. And not in a very pleasant manner. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported that he died of a painful and debilitating disease that caused breathing problems, convulsions, rotting of his body, and worms.
Throughout all of our readings, we continually encountered the darkness: the people of Judah had walked in the darkness, Mary experienced the darkness of the unknown, the shepherds worked in the darkness, and the magi evaded the darkness in King Herod. Each of us encounters the darkness at some point in our lives. We rejoice in celebrating the birth of Jesus because God comes to us as the true and everlasting light of our lives. God breaks into the darkness and shines a glorious light. Let us go forth reflecting God’s great light into the world!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.