“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.” ~Isaiah 9:2
This is a very well-known Christmas text, a famous Christmas text that speaks to the coming of the Christ. And it describes the condition the Christ is coming into as darkness. People are walking in darkness. People are living in the land of darkness. We read this a lot at Christmas, but we don’t ever read the verses right before it. The end of the previous chapter actually tells us why the world is so plunged in darkness:
“When people tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God?… If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn… They will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” ~Isaiah 8:19-22
People are looking toward the earth for help. Men and women are looking toward themselves for wisdom and salvation.
Yes, we’re living in darkness; yes, things are really messed up; but we can fix it ourselves! There’s poverty and hunger, greed and lust; but if we’ll just all look out for each other and learn how to give more, we can change it! There’s broken lives, broken hearts, and broken relationships; there’s twisted bodies and warped minds and institutional vileness and moral evil all around us; but if we just vote for the right people, if we just pass the right laws, if we just use the right technology, if we just invest in the right companies, we can overcome it!
Listen, the message from the Hallmark holiday movies and the holiday music and the Coke commercials and emails and billboards is that we have it within us. The love and goodwill that exists in each of us is enough to create a world of unity and peace. In other words, we have the light inside us. And if we just work together, we can eradicate the darkness of the world. If we’ll all come together, we can overcome poverty and injustice, violence and evil. With what’s inside us, we can build a world of love and joy and peace.
Really? Can we?
We can’t save ourselves. Have you noticed?
We’ve been trying for centuries. We are completely unable to save ourselves. In fact, believing that we can save ourselves — that education or politics or hard work or some system or ideology can save us — has only led to more darkness!
See, the Christmas message gives us a very realistic way of looking at life. At it’s core, Christmas is very unsentimental. It’s not mushy or fantasy. Christmas is not, “Cheer up! If we all pull together, we can make the world a better place!” Christmas is not optimistic thinking like, “We can fix the whole world if we try really hard.” And Christmas is not pessimistic doom, either, like, “Things are awful and they’re getting worse and nothing’s ever going to change.”
The heart of Christmas is this: Things really are terrible and we cannot heal or save ourselves. Things really are this dark. Everywhere. But, there is great hope.
On those living in deep darkness, a light has dawned.
It’s not, “A great light has sprung up from the world” or “The light has come from the people.” It’s ON the people, a light has dawned. ON the world, a light has come. The light has come from outside us. The hope has come to us from outside the world. Christ Jesus is that salvation light. That light is the Holy Son of God.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not conquered it… The true light that gives life to all people was coming into the world.” ~John 1:4-9
The true light was coming. The eternal light that gives life to all people has come. The one light that shines in the darkness and overcomes the darkness — the light from above, the light from outside us has come!
And we celebrate that light at Christmas. But that’s not really the right word. We stare at it dumbstruck. We’re lost in wonder at it. We fall down on our knees in awe of it. God himself comes to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ to provide for us what we simply do not possess, to do for us what we could never do ourselves. He brings to us from outside of us holiness and righteousness and peace.