Christmas is a time of joy, but we know that many people walk in a bubble of darkness through this season of light. I think of my parents many years ago—a young couple in Zambia, who had just buried their eight-month old daughter to malaria. I had not yet been born, but I imagine them hearing the wishes for a good and joyful Christmas, and then returning to their space filled with loss and hurt. I think of a friend and his wife whose prospective son-in-law died in a hiking accident this past summer. As they walk through this Christmas, with one child just married and another child recently bereaved, I imagine that Christmas comes with a mixture of light and darkness. How do we anticipate Christmas when we are broken? Our friends wish us joy. How do we receive God’s joy when sadness and hurt overwhelm us? We turn to two texts—from Isaiah 35 and from Luke 1—to seek for guidance.
Isaiah 35: 1-10
35 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
As we have said before, this passage both points to the end of time and as well as to our lives today. Isaiah speaks to people who are facing an uncertain political and spiritual future. The road ahead appears to be a desert, but it will burst into bloom, and they will be filled with joy. Notice who receives strength and joy and healing: “the feeble hands”, “the unsteady knees”, “those who are afraid”, “the blind”, “the deaf”, and “the lame”. God’s joy and healing are there for the people who need it, and for no one else.
This text emphasizes God’s call for holiness (verses 8 and 9): “A highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; … The unclean will not journey on it; … but only the redeemed will walk there.” The call to holy living is important, but this morning I observe something else also in the text. These people who are in such great physical and emotional need find a way of complete safety, a place where “lions” and “ravenous beasts”, symbols of danger, are not present. Echoing last week’s text (Isaiah 11), it is the blind, deaf, lame, and oppressed who receive God’s full salvation. We turn, then, to Luke 1 and Mary’s Song, a passage we hear often at Advent.
Luke 1: 1-12
46 And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.’
Mary sings this song after Angel Gabriel told her that he child would be the Messiah, while she was visiting Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist. We have this interesting scene in which John “leaps” in Elizabeth’s womb as he senses the coming of Jesus in Mary’s womb. Then Mary sings her song. Her song sounds a lot like Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2: 1 to 10, as she celebrates God’s saving action through the birth of her son, Samuel. This teenage girl celebrates the amazing truth that “the Mighty One”, that is God, has done great things for her—giving her a child before she slept with a man, a child who would save her people, indeed, who would save the world from the power of sin.
This salvation brings down rulers and exalts the humble. It fills the hungry and sends away the rich, leaving them empty. This salvation fulfills the promise that God made to Abraham when God first called Abram and Sarai to leave their home (Genesis 12). Like Isaiah, then, Mary sings of salvation and hope, which comes to those who are broken and empty and helpless here on earth. The climax and point of her song comes in these words from verses 51-53: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
The Upside-Down Reality of God
This pattern—that God fills the weaker and brings down the stronger—is a theme that runs the whole way through Scripture.
Consider Cain and Abel. Cain is the older brother (Genesis 4); Abel is the younger brother. We can debate why, but the pattern begins here—that God accepts the lower and rejects the higher.
Consider the patriarchs. Abraham’s first son was Ishmael, and his second son was Isaac. God’s line of promised salvation ran through Isaac. Isaac’s first son was Esau and his second son was Jacob. God’s line of promised salvation ran through Jacob. Among the 12 sons of Jacob (“the Children of Israel”), the oldest son was Reuben, but the line of the Messiah ran through the third son, Judah.
Even the way that Jacob’s wives and concubines bore these sons makes the point. Judah’s favourite wife was Rachel, and her son Joseph became great in human terms. One might expect the Messiah to come through Joseph, whose life in the Old Testament serves as a fore-runner of the life of Jesus. Instead, the line of the Messiah runs through Leah, who was the wife less loved (“When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive”: Genesis 29: 31). Even the priestly line (the Levites) comes from Levi, the son of Leah.
We could continue, but you see the pattern. God regularly chose to work through those who were less valued in human terms. The elder son was always the primary heir. The older son received “a double portion” when his father died, but God chose to work through the younger son and the less loved wife to bring about God’s plan of salvation for the human race.
We see the same pattern in Jesus’ ministry, captured in his well-known words, “the first will be last, and the last first.” What’s going on in this pattern? It reflects another statement with which Jesus described his own ministry (Mark 2: 17): “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Why does God turn us upside down when God heals us? Because those who are healthy don’t need healing. Because those who are righteous don’t need saving.
Thus Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor [in Spirit], for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven/God.” I remember a quote defining the poor as we meet them in the gospels: “The poor are those who need God’s help and know it.” [I don’t remember the source of the quote.] This truth helps us understand John’s words to the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3: 14-17): “These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
Talking About Ourselves
We are a people who value our ability to get things done. We are a people who value self-sufficiency. A basic reason that the church in North America has become weak is that we see ourselves as strong people, people who do not need a physician, people who do not need a Saviour. But of course we all need God’s help. When life crashes in around us, we realize that we are not able to take care of ourselves. When we see that, God can help us.
The principle is very simple really. We sometimes say, “God helps those who help themselves.” The truth is that God fills those who hold out empty hands. God heals those who embrace their brokenness and come for healing. If you don’t need God, God won’t help you. God helps you only when you discover and own your weakness and brokenness.
I began with the memory of my parents’ loss during their first term of missionary service at Sikalongo, in Zambia. They lost their second-born, their daughter, my sister, Dorothy. One of the consequences of that loss was to deepen their relationship with the people around them at Sikalongo. Many years later, in 2003, I went back to Sikalongo with Lois and our sons. When I met the principal of the school that is there now and he heard my name, he said, “Your parents were David and Dorcas. Your sister is buried there” (pointing to the cemetery.” There is a strong and rich bond that is created only when we have been broken and healed.
Sometimes we think that people who walk in darkness must be afraid of this season of light. But remember words of Isaiah (9: 2) “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
Are you walking in the darkness of a broken relationship? God has healing and hope for you. Are you living in the darkness of death’s shadow? God brings light to you. Are you struggling to make ends meet? God brings hope for you. This is not a magic formula, but a call to lean on God and discover the life and light that God brings through the birth of Jesus in our lives. Are you walking in darkness? Come, walk in the way of God’s healing.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
11 December 2016