26 December 2004

O Temporary Night

Medical statisticians tell us that 17 million Americans suffer from depression and that roughly 40% feel “blue” during the “holidays.” No one needs a PhD to study these phenomena. The plain truth is that we have lost any arresting quality to the Christmas message of Immanuel (God with us).

We have forgotten that Immanuel heralds a temporary life in the darkness and an eternal life in the light. Hiding from naked conviction before Him, we have missed the satisfaction that accompanies the God’s zealous love for us. Instead, we have searched for a controllable transcendence in merry making and perishable toys. When these come short of satisfying our deepest longings – we despair and rightly so. May our despair lead us to examine with intensity the hope of Immanuel. “For unto us a son is born…” (Luke 2:10, Isaiah 9:6)

The angels are careful to allude to the prophet Isaiah as they announce what is about to happen in Bethlehem this day. These words had embodied hope to the tired and battered nation of Israel since Isaiah penned them over 700 years previous. Now, for this little nation, all was darkness. Except for a flickering hope of a child given – a ruler with the government on his shoulders and enemies at his feet. Messiah. Using “for unto you is born this day” was heaven’s way of saying “Ladies and Gentlemen – the moment you have all been waiting for, your great darkness is about to end” - indeed good news of GREAT joy for all the people.

In all the anticipation and in all the excitement of the shepherds and their hearers, I wonder if anyone stopped to think about how this ruler entered the world. Isaiah is not subtle or cryptic on this point. He would be a child and He would be GOD. I wonder if anyone thinks of GOD entering the world as a baby in Christmas celebrations today. It is fairly accepted doctrinal point, the deity and humanity of Christ, but have we truly considered it? Therein lies great joy and vast expanses of hope - a great light.

God will do exactly as He has promised. We have good reason for hopeful watching and waiting. Here Mary is our example. In many ways Christmas brought her no gift. Her life would be filled with the mocking of anyone who could do the math. A sword would pierce her soul while watching her little boy crucified in the midst of a vengeful, jeering crowd. Mary’s days were destined for what many would consider darkness. But Elizabeth rightly praised Mary for believing “that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45) and Mary’s response ends with the proclamation of a promise fulfilled - “[God] has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:54-55). Light overcame her deep darkness. And we have greater promises than Mary! (Hebrews 8:6) We have a greater reason for hope! The redemption she waited for was for a single nation in this life. The redemption we await is for every tongue, tribe and nation and it is eternal.

As unique as God’s faithfulness is, any god that cannot fulfill his promises is no god to worship and certainly no place for our hope. A greater, more surprising, more satisfying hope is found in the Christmas story. The intentions of God are revealed in the sacrifice of His Son (Romans 8:31-39). “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

How can the human heart begin to understand the vast expanse of God’s love shown just in His dwelling among the filth of human depravity? A God we had no right to ever approach, whose Holiness would bring to us an almost suicidal conviction (Isaiah 6:5), approached us. He came as a baby. Fragile. He came into a delivery room greased with excrement and a crib fit only for livestock feed. This baby at Mary’s breast, who needed her milk - this child - was God. This was His invasion - an invasion of love from the first infant cries to the last “It is finished.”

Imagine you are God – sovereign and supreme in all power. How would you end the darkness of evil? What would be easier? Swift, righteous judgment or stripping yourself of everything that would set you apart, entering this filthy darkness naked, poor and helpless, touching the God-haters and convincing us of your consuming love?
Before deception creeps in to steal from you the defining glory of this great gospel, remember God did more than dwell among us and touch the open sores of our selfish, rotting, unspiritual flesh. He received weighty, profound, all-sufficient punishment for our rebellion. While we were yet sinners, in the midst of mocking and betrayal, God Himself died for us.

The Chronicles of Narnia reveal the following exchange between Shasta and, Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure.

And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks. What put a stop to all this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls. What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale…

If the horse had been any good – or if he had known how to get any good out of the horse – he would have risked everything on a breakaway and a wild gallop. But he knew he couldn’t make that horse gallop. So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer. ‘Who are you?” he said, scarcely above a whisper.

“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.

“Oh please – please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!” Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face.

“There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.” Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and all of their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.

“I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice.

“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.

“There was only one lion,” said the Voice. “What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and …” “There was only one; but he was swift of foot.” How do you know?”

“I was the lion.”

And Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”

“It was I.”

“But what for?”

“Child,” said the voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers.”
(C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy)

Here we see the power of the Christmas message. A great lion has come to us. He is fierce and powerful and He has us naked before Him. Instead of tearing us to pieces He calls to us and breathes life upon us in the darkness. Now a beam of hope illumines the story of our life and reveals the significant moments for what they really are. He is fierce and His intentions towards us are good.

The power of Christmas, the transcendence we seek, can only be found in Immanuel. All other pursuits will end in emptiness and despair. Immanuel is good news of great joy for all people because we all dwell in a land of deep darkness. Today all of us need some help and all of us powerless to do any good. But there is good will towards the people in darkness. Surprisingly, here, Jesus Christ is holding all things together by the word of His power. He is the Light in secret - shining in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.

Soon all will understand the Light. In the Second Advent, God will remove evil, injustice and selfishness forever. All that will remain will be the precious goodness of God and the precious goodness of those who saw the Light in a land of deep darkness. The groaning expectation of the world will be finally fulfilled. Death, crying, mourning and pain, those alien conditions, will be gone.

Regardless of how we pursued it, whether in despair or hope, God is using Christmas to remind us that Jesus Christ is the one true light. Night is temporary. It will be destroyed as the night hanging above the shepherds was destroyed by the Glory of the Lord. God will fulfill His promises as He did that first Advent and He loves us with an eternal intensity.

“Surely I am coming soon.” (Revelations 22:20)


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