The Darkest Hour…Just Before the Dawn by David Levin

“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of the oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For unto us a child is born,
to us a Son is given;
and the government shall be upon His shoulder,
and His name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
I’ve been meaning to blog for some time now.  Especially since moving to this place, so cold and so far away from everything and everyone I have known, and yet so astonishingly beautiful that many times words and even pictures are not sufficient.  So I have finally been driven to the point where I need to write down my thoughts.  Rather than journal my thoughts, at which I have never been either successful or consistent, I thought I would simply share them with you.  It is my hope that in reading the random thoughts that go through my head, that you will also be pushed to “wonder” or to reason through things that matter.  I already do too much “wondering” about things that don’t matter, and I’m sure there will be things about which I write here that probably do not matter very much.  However, I believe that everyone has moments where we will think about things that matter, things of lasting value, and wonder perhaps if others do as well…even if we are unsure and hesitant in actually making them a topic of conversation.  It’s safer to stick to trivial things.  If this is you, then rest assured that there is at least one other human being on this planet who is like you!  These posts are for you.
I distinctly remember many Christmas’s from my childhood.  One of my most vivid memories is the traditional Christmas stories and movies that we would watch…all cozy with our hot chocolate and marshmallows (because hot chocolate is not sweet enough).  Remember “It’s a Wonderful Life”?  I still hear that little kid saying “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”.  What does that even mean anyways?  I’m a little bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas. I think this is because I build it up in my mind as this warm, cozy holiday.  It’s all about having a loving family around, giving gifts, Santa Claus, endless Christmas music (ever notice that there are some songs played 1.2 million times during the month of December that if they were about anything else besides Christmas…would be buried somewhere in a “top 10 worst musical scores” list), and doing good things for people in need.  The reason I’m a Scrooge about this type of Christmas is that it seems to always over promise but under deliver.  All the warm fuzzies from Christmas day fade quickly into the realities of stress, family discord, financial hardship, and in some cases real human suffering by December 26.  In fact, the older I get, the more even the good parts of Christmas get less satisfying.  The joy is more fleeting, the feelings less warm and more transient, while the harsh realities of life press in and become more real and more permanent.
This present Christmas brings all of this into focus more clearly.  Joyful expectation has turned into deep loss.  Excitement over new life has been replaced with the reality of brokenness and sorrow.  Time around the fire with family is now tempered with loneliness.  What do I do?  Stoically accept what life throws at me because hey well…it’s fate and we’re all the product of a random collision of molecules anyways?  Become bitter and angry at God because He let me down?  Bury my feelings, put on a good face and pull myself up by my bootstraps and pretend like everything is as it should be?  All these things are natural and I have felt them at some point…and yet are they grounded in what is true?
Let’s pretend for a moment that there was one of those Christmas stories that was true.
It’s the oldest Christmas story and we have made it into one of the warmest and fuzziest of them all.  It’s about a little baby boy, born into a poor family who didn’t even have a crib to put him in.
Can we just look at it not as a legend for a second and reason through it?  Just humor me and let’s see if the reason for Christmas could actually bring something real to answer the brokenness we live in.
The poem above comes from the book of Isaiah, written hundreds of years before the Christmas story begins.  If you grew up in church like I did, then you probably heard this passage read every year.  But then, if you’re like me, you probably heard it so much that you yawned your way through it and were ready to get to the good stuff, like the presents.
We start out by seeing a contrast of light and darkness.  Apparently there are these people living in a land of “deep darkness”  In Juneau, we just experienced the winter solstice.  It’s pretty dark up here this time of year.  Even the day time may not be that bright as the sun just barely gets above the mountains near mid day.  If you’re on a north facing slope, you’re in the shadows the entire day.  It’s like the night never ends.  I can relate already to this poem.
On closer examination, those words “deep darkness” actually come from one word, for which another definition would be “death shadow”.  So there are these people that are living in the land of the “death shadow”.  Is this just some spiritual metaphor?    It also says that on these people a great light has shone.  I think we can all agree that without light, we would have a hard time surviving.  The sun gives us heat, light, helps us produce vitamin D (sadly lacking up here).  So light and life are synonymous.  Light reverses darkness.  So if there is a light breaking out on these people who are walking in the “death shadow”, then we can reasonably assume that there is a life breaking out that will reverse the death shadow.  Back to my question, is this a spiritual metaphor?  If so, then it just gives me some warm spiritual feeling about having some ethereal spirit life somewhere.  Maybe you can find hope in that, but I need something more concrete.  It’s not a secret that this world seems to be winding down.  Even the sun has a lifespan right?  Take even the deli sandwich I got the other day.  Left it out over night…and guess what?  It’s decaying!  Like it or not, you and I too are winding down.  I can’t help it.  I’m not a strong as I used to be.  I can’t run as fast.  I don’t recover from injuries very quickly anymore.  I’m like that deli sandwich…decaying… just at a slower rate.  If there really is a way to reverse the “death shadow” I want to know.  What if instead of a sun that is running down and a body that is dying (albeit slowly), we could know the source of light and life?
“Again Jesus spoke to them saying, “I am the light of the world. 
Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.”–John 8:12
“Martha said to him (Jesus), ‘I know
my brother will rise again on the last day’.
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.
Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
Do you believe this?'”–John 11:23-26
So who is this Source of light and life and how do we get it?  How does this give us any hope?
Hope comes in most unexpected ways.
“For unto us a child is born,
to us a Son is given;
and the government shall be upon His shoulder,
and His name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
So you’re telling me that this promise comes in the form of a baby that was born 2000 years ago?  Doesn’t sound like a way I would choose to fix the world.  Why doesn’t God just come in and obliterate evil?  If he is really God, why doesn’t he do something to fix my pain?  Why do so many horrible things happen?
It is becoming apparent to me when I ask this question that I am not considering what I am asking.  What if I am not seeing the whole problem with the darkness?  What if God sees that the stakes are much higher than I thought.  What if the problem of darkness or evil is not something that  affects me or is present around me, but instead it’s so pervasive and widespread that it’s become the biggest part of who I am?  How then can I stand in front of the light?  Light by definition destroys darkness.  It’s what light does.  It doesn’t chose bits and pieces of darkness to destroy and let’s the “less dark” parts go.  If I am not affected by darkness but AM darkness then how will this light affect me?  How can I ever know true life if this life is from a God in whose presence I can’t stand?  Perhaps you disagree with this assessment.  That is fine.  We naturally feel offended that God would destroy us…because we have to have some good in us right?  And then we have those moments where we look into our hearts and are appalled by the sheer depravity that we find there.  If you haven’t had that moment yet, it’s coming.  Or maybe you’re like me for years and just try not to look to closely…
But doesn’t it say that God is love?  How can such a God love us if He would destroy us if we were in His presence?
Quite a conundrum.
Meet the real Christmas.  God’s way of satisfying both His love and His justice.  As C. S. Lewis says, if God is truly God, then it makes no sense that we would relate to Him as one person to another.  Instead, it would make more sense if we related to Him like characters in a story relate to the author.  If you are in the story, you have no way of knowing the author.  So if the author wanted to make himself known to the characters, he would have to write himself into the story.  Christmas is where God inserts himself into our story. Dorothy Sayers (a British novelist) says it better than I can:  “Jesus was not some kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man.  He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”–he was God.  Now this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is–limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death–God had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine.  Whatever game he is playing with creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.  When he was a man, he played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”
Jesus came and went through what I am living through.  I by no means am living through it perfectly.  Jesus however, did.  I am still, in spite of my best intentions, screwing up this Christmas season.  No matter how much I want to have faith, I don’t have it.  No matter how much I try to be unselfish and live a good moral life, I fail.  And even when I succeed in living a good life, give money to the needy etc… and generally live so that people around me will see that I am a good person,  I find myself quite prideful about it. I feel pressure of living up to a law that I can never fulfill.  I feel the guilt of past sins.  Sometimes I wish that someone better could just live my life for me.
“and the government shall be upon His shoulder…”
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not an iota, not a dot,
will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”–Matt 5:17
Christmas says that Jesus came and wrote Himself into my story.  He came to experience my pain. He came so that the law which tells me every day “you will never be good enough no matter how hard you try” will be on His shoulders.  He passed with flying colors.  He came to take the “death shadow” on himself.
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice (which could be translated “screamed”)
‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?'”
The gospel says that justice has been satisfied.  Evil was put on the shoulders of Jesus and then was undone.  Even death itself then worked in reverse.  Physical death no longer has any power.  Pain no longer wins. Suffering is not forever.
Christmas says that the earth, although twisted and broken now, will be restored.  What is ugly will be made beautiful.  What is beautiful now will be made unimaginably brilliant.
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning
with the pains of childbirth until now.
And not only the creation,
but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,
groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons,
the redemption of our bodies.–Rom 8:22-23
Maybe you too are struggling this Christmas.  It could be that you are wondering is there any hope for you?  Does anyone care?  Are you as utterly alone as you feel?  Many people have come up to me in the past few days and said things like “wow I’m sorry this has had to happen to you at Christmas of all times”.  I understand what they mean, however, of all times this is the time of year where it should be most apparent why I needed Christmas to have happened all those years ago.  If you’re in my shoes this Christmas, or perhaps struggling with even deeper things than I am, here is what I want you to know.  You are loved.  You are so highly valued that no one less than God himself chose to take on your pain and your emptiness and died for you.  You are not alone.  You have a Father who knows exactly what you are going through.  It’s ok to be sad.  But if we know and believe the real story of Christmas, in spite of our sadness, we have hope.  The opposite of joy is not sadness, it’s hopelessness.  In Christ we have hope.  You have hope.
To be honest, I did not mean for this post to be this long.  My intention is to share with you my current thoughts working through a tough situation.  I know that not everyone will agree with what I have said.  Perhaps many of you will think that it is a stretch to think this way.  Maybe you are right.  If anything, my hope is that this post will lead you to explore this story a bit more on your own.   It’s possible you grew up hearing this story all  the time as I did and still have a lot of baggage or even anger towards Christianity.  You could just be a skeptic.  That’s ok.  I think I have hit all those points at one time or another.
This Christmas, just take some time in between the hot chocolate, the presents, and the sappy Christmas movies to pause and reflect on why/what/who we should celebrate.

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