The God who enters the darkness

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was, in his day, a renowned author and poet. He is not so well known now. In Christian circles, if remembered at all, it might be for his a poem entitled Christmas Bells, which was later set to music and became the carol that begins I heard the bells on Christmas day. If you are familiar with the carol and detect a sombre note in it, you have caught something of the spirit in which it was written.

On Christmas Day 1864, during the American Civil War, Longfellow received news that his son had been wounded in battle. Two years previously Longfellow’s wife had died in a tragic accident. Her dress caught fire from a candle, and, despite her husband’s best efforts to smother the fire, she died the next day from the severe burns she sustained.

Burdened by grief, Longfellow began to write. And Christmas Bells was the result. Two of the verses in particular highlight the acute tension of holding on to faith when circumstances seem to undermine it:

And in despair I bowed my head / ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, / ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: / ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; / The wrong shall fail, the right prevail / With peace on earth, good will to men.’

The distinguished American poet is not the only one to have spent a Christmas grappling with grief. Nor is he the last person to try and make sense of the seeming contradiction of a message of peace and goodwill in a world that seems filled with discord and malice, confusion and tragedy.

The tension drawn out in the nineteenth century carol is not as out of kelter with the spirit of Christmas as we might think. Rewind to the first Christmas and you might well conclude that there seemed to be very little peace and goodwill around!

There again that is where you might just expect to find God. In the darkness. Whether in the darkness of  the evil intent of a psychopathic ruler or the darkness of personal grief and pain.

In one of his Messianic prophecies Isaiah describes the coming of Christ in terms of bringing light into darkness:  

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned (Isaiah 9.2)

If the incarnation of the Son of God teaches us anything it teaches us that God does not absent Himself from the darkness – from our darkness. Far from it. He enters the darkness in order to dispel the darkness.

What does that mean for us? How do we bring the light of Christ into our darkness?

Firstly, it is worth recognising that darkness comes in all sorts of different shades.

The darkness of uncertainty. The darkness of grief and pain. The darkness of guilt and shame. And you can name your own “darknesses”. Darkness, however, in none of its manifestations, has the power to extinguish the light.

John picks up the theme in his gospel:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1.5).

Secondly, darkness never has a divine origin but it can have a divine purpose.

That is not the same as saying God cannot work out His divine intentions through the darkness. Of course He can. And does.

If we are going through some kind of darkness, it is not because God wants us to be the darkness, it is because He wants us to learn to trust Him in the darkness.

Jesus’ brother James wrote:

God is light, pure light; there’s not a trace of darkness in him (1 John 1.5 MSG)

Finally, darkness is dispelled by turning on the light not by turning off the dark!

That is not exactly profound theology, but you would be surprised by how many Christians expend lots of time and energy on trying to turn off the dark. We try turning off the dark when we focus on it and try to develop ways to manage it. And all the time God is saying “Come to the light!”

Turning on the light requires both desire and decision.

Some years ago we were preparing for a carol service and we decided to turn out the main lights and leave the place candlelit. I asked the person who was organising the lighting how anyone would see in the relative darkness. He replied that our night vision would kick in once our eyes became used to the lack of light.

Sometimes we can become so accustomed to the darkness that it becomes a place of comfort.

We switch on the light when we decide to entrust ourselves to the light of the world and follow Him. He has promised to lead us. When you follow Him you will never walk in darkness – even if you feel the darkness.

Wherever you are at this Christmas. However dark it might feel around you. Be assured of this, God has entered the darkness. And He has entered your darkness. And however you feel, the light of the world has entered your gloom and is shining just where you are.

The Parallel Worlds of Christmas

Possibly one of the best known and most powerful Christmas stories is that of the Christmas truce on the Western front in 1914. German troops singing Stille Nacht. British troops responding with the English version. The legendary football match on Christmas day. All combine in a way that seemed to capture something of the spirit of Christmas.

Whilst that never to be repeated incident from the first world war is etched on the memory because of its unusual character, its context is perhaps closer to that of the first Christmas than the “winter wonderland” notion that has grown up over the past century or so.

Jesus was born into a world in conflict. His own land was occupied by a foreign power. He was on a wanted list before He was a toddler. And He lived in Egypt as a refugee with His parents until it was safe to go home. Even then His parents had to choose carefully where they lived. Hardly material for a Perry Como album.

The pivotal figure in those days of Christ’s infancy was Joseph. As Mary’s husband he had the responsibility for making the major decisions about the young family’s future. He had to respond to a God inspired dream to go to Egypt. It is unlikely that up until that point he was unaware of the serious threat facing his family.

He had to lead his family on an unexpected and probably an unwanted journey into Egypt. Somehow he had to settle them into life in this foreign land for an indefinite period of time. Finally, he had to manage a trip back to Israel and perhaps manage the fears of his wife as well, as they sought to re-establish themselves in their own land.

We are not told whether they ever asked the question “Where is God in all of this?” You could hardly blame them if the thought at least momentarily crossed their minds. They are bringing Messiah into His own world and yet they are on the run from their own people!

Yet God was in every step that they took. The journey to and from Egypt was all part of His plan. Matthew sums up the flight into Egypt with reference to prophecy:

‘And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”’ (Matthew 2.15)

What was unfolding in the lives of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, was unfolding in two worlds, parallel worlds. One world was that of the eternal purposes of God. Their actions were progressing God’s purpose in and for this world. The other world was a succession of difficult circumstances accompanied by difficult choices and mundane tasks.

All of the dislocation, discomfort and uncertainty was making a way for God to do something new and wonderful in His world.

That seems to be the way God works. It’s the way He works in our lives today. It might not look that way, but behind our uncertainties, unexpected circumstances, and unwanted destinations, God is still at work. Welcome to parallel living!

Unsung hero

According to Mumsnet a syndrome emerges about this time every year known as Why-isn’t-my-childMary syndrome. It seems that some parents – actually, mothers – harbour such a deep rooted desire for their little daughters to play Mary in the school nativity that their zeal turns into real antagonism towards others mums whose daughter might just turn out to be a rival. Apparently the syndrome begins in November and has cleared up by the time Christmas is finished.

The kind of desire for just a little bit of profile and the chance to be centre stage is not restricted to the school playground in the run up to Christmas. It’s something that is hardwired into human nature. However, it is very often the people who have little or no profile at all who are the real heroes. In church that is certainly true. For every high profile event or famous preacher, there are dozens of unsung heroes, people who serve without fuss and sometimes without thanks, people see serving as a great privilege and never seek praise.

In the story of the first Christmas, Joseph emerges as one of the great unsung heroes of the Bible.

Joseph found himself caught up in a whole web of events that he would no doubt have never chosen. His bride to be falling pregnant. Finding himself and his family on Herod’s wanted list. A journey to Egypt and a two year stay there. Hard to believe a carpenter from Nazareth would welcome such a set of circumstances. And yet throughout the drama, Joseph is only a supporting act. Centre stage is reserved for his young wife and, of course, the baby Messiah.

It was no accident that Joseph played the part he did. When you read the portions in Matthew 1 and 2 that narrate Joseph’s role in the Christmas events, you find a godly man with a godly capacity for the challenges he faced.

Joseph had a solid core. Matthew 1.19 describes him as a righteous man. The way he handles the news of Mary’s pregnancy reveals his righteous mindset. His decision to divorce Mary quietly demonstrates a combination of conviction and compassion. This was something that he had thought long and hard about. He loved Mary and did not want to bring shame on her. But he also loved God and did not want to bring shame on Him.

Unsung heroes have a strong inner core that drives them to seek the best for God and for people.

Secondly, Joseph was open to God, He was prepared to revise his decision in the light of further information – in this case divine information (Matthew 1.20) . Openness to God can save us from making harsh judgments and catastrophic decisions, the like of which Joseph would most certainly have made had his ear not been open to the voice of the Lord.

Finally, Joseph was prepared to give up his rights (Matthew 1.25). Joseph did not consummate his marriage until after Jesus was born. He had the right to, but he gave up his conjugal right for the sake of bringing Christ into the world.

Bringing Christ into our world requires the same kind of surrender of rights with which Joseph was faced. Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 9.19. He says that even though he is free he is prepared to become a slave to everyone in order to win as many as possible to Christ!

Despite the sacrifice, despite the courageous decisions, Joseph has never really gained the kind of hero status that befits him. In fact, he might well be appalled that we are talking about him in terms of a hero, even an unsung one. There again, that’s what unsung heroes are like. Not too concerned about receiving praise, just content to have had the privilege of serving.

It starts with you

There is a saying that is attributed to a rabbi. It goes something like this:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. As I grew older I realised I could not change the world. So I decided to change my nation. I soon realised I could not change my nation. So I decided to change my town. I soon realised I could not change my town. So I decided to change my family. As I grew older I realised I could not change my family. As an old man, I finally discovered that I could only change myself. I also realised that if as a young man I had decided to change myself, I might have changed my family. And if I had changed my family, I might have changed my town. And if I had changed my town, I might have changed the nation. And if I had changed the nation, I might have changed the world.”

Perhaps the said rabbi’s connection between changing himself and changing the world is not quite as assured as the quote makes it out to be. Nevertheless, it is true that change on a grander scale is the result of changes in the thoughts and behaviour of people at a personal level. And of course there are many examples in history – good and bad of people who have developed convictions which have impacted cities and nations and sometimes even the world.

In Revelation chapter three Jesus delivers the sternest of His seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor to the church at Laodicea. What He says has sometimes been seriously misinterpreted and the idea that Laodicea refers to the church of the last days has no scriptural foundation. His words about hot, cold and lukewarm are not a call to either be on fire for God or leave the faith altogether. They allude to the cool waters of Colosse, a city just a few miles from Laodicea and the hot springs of Hierapolis, a city a few miles in the other direction. Because Laodicea had no natural water supply, its piped in water was lukewarm. The Laodicean church’s activities, like the city’s water, provided neither refreshing nor healing.

The only way for a turn around in the Laodicean church was for a re-evaluation of their condition and their values, combined with repentance and a rediscovery of what was of true spiritual worth.

However, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that if anyone opens the door of their heart to Him, He’ll come and have fellowship with that person (Revelation 3.20). He starts with His concern for the whole church and ends up by appealing to individuals.

Jesus will start with one. One person who realised his or her need and opened their heart to Jesus could become the change agent for the whole of the church in Laodicea. One person could begin a revival.

Whatever else the letter to the Laodiceans teaches us, it is a reminder that we all have to make a personal response to Jesus. Not just in the sense of being born again, but also when it comes to our ongoing relationship with Him. And it is also a reminder that revival can begin in our hearts before it begins anywhere else –  indeed it might be that revival has to begin in our hearts before we see its impact anywhere else.

One rabbi says “Change yourself and you can change the world”. The greatest Rabbi of all simply says “Open the door of your heart”.