The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.
These are the opening lines of Christmas, indelibly marked within and eternally connected with Luke’s nativity.
Scholars however tell us when originally written, these words were not intended to predict a divine birth nearly seven hundred years in the future, but to celebrate the coronation of Hezekiah as the King of Judah. Hezekiah’s reign came with great hope and expectation. His father, King Ahaz, ruled Judah with an iron fist and did little to protect his people from the tyranny of the Babylonian and Assyrian occupations. With the ascension of Hezekiah the people of Judah celebrated their hope of a restored and independent Judah, to a cleansing of the Temple of all foreign gods and to a purifying of their faith.
As I read this passage from Isaiah, I can picture the great celebration that took place throughout Judah and within the walls of Jerusalem. I can equate the level of national jubilation as that which was present throughout Washington D. C. the first time President Obama took the Oath of Office. I still remember the images from that day nearly five years ago as hundreds of thousands descended upon the National Mall. Pictures of people young and old, of all various races and backgrounds, who had journeyed from far and wide to celebrate and witness the historic event of the first African-American to assume the Presidency.
Joy, hope, and great expectations fade quickly in this world which expects instant results. After four years of slow economic growth, ongoing battles in Iran and Afghanistan, increasing violence in our cities and our schools, and a growing sense of unfulfilled promises, the hope and the joy that was present five years ago has gradually turned to frustration and discontent. Come the second term, the margin of victory narrowed and the National Mall, not as crowded as the first time around.
Good will did not surround Hezekiah long either. No matter how hard he tried to overthrow the Assyrian Empire, the armies of Judah were just too small and too weak to keep the empire and the occupation out of Judah.
It seems this is an age old story of human existence, we are always looking for the new leader, the one on whom we can pin our hopes and wishes. The one on whom we place all our expectations to relieve us of our troubles and sorrows, only to be disappointed in the end. Only to be led from hope to despair. And we wonder why, or how we can be so fooled again.
The answers are often the same. As a people, we think in the short term, we hope for and seek the quick fix and forget what Martin Luther King Jr. taught his followers, that, “the arc of justice is long.” Meaning, the justice and equality they hoped for would take time, generations in fact.
Second, we often mistake escape for hope. The people of Hezekiah’s day placed their hope in a man born to rule, born with earthly power, they mistook him for a demigod because he was born in a palace and made to wear the robes of state. Today, we place our expectations on those who project the image of what we hope for, wish for and dream for. Often our hopes and dreams are placed on the well-polished and well-spoken politician over over and above the humble and not so well spoken theologian.
In our Gospel reading from the Third Sunday of Advent, after Jesus answered the Baptist’s question if he was the Messiah, Jesus turned to the crowed and asked them what they had expected, “a man in soft robes.” He asked, because he knew they would never have thought to look for an unkempt man in course clothing to be the source of the divine hope they were seeking.
Often, it is at the opposite end of the social spectrum where divine hope resides and waits for us in the midst of the darkest and messiest of places.
This evening we have come to celebrate the incarnation of God. Many of us have come here tonight filled with our own sweet, hallmark images of the nativity. Thanks to St. Francis, who created the concept of the nativity sets we place on mantels and window sills, and to centuries of children’s pageants, we hold in our hearts the serene and pristine image of Christ’s birth, complete with a well-scrubbed holy family kneeling in the cleanest barn ever known to man.
If the story of the nativity were being written today, it would look nothing like the images we have set before our altar. Mary would still be young somewhere between fourteen and sixteen, and most likely the product of extreme urban or rural poverty. Joseph, her boyfriend, would be a few years’ older, unemployed and seeking opportunities as a day laborer. Their mode of transportation would most likely be an old rusted out car, held together with duct tape and wire. Their humble abode for the night would not be a Holiday Inn or a Hampton Inn or even a Motel Six, but most likely the back seat of their car, parked for the night in the parking lot of a local Wal-Mart. And the shepherds, as one writer surmised, mostly likely migrant workers and/or illegal aliens who move from harvest to harvest gathering the food that we take for granted on the shelves of Tops and Wegmans.
Into the darkest of places, devoid of hope or light, God entered this world, and it is into the darkest and most desperate of places in our lives that we often find God. These are the places where few humans dare to or are willing to go, places where even we ourselves are afraid of, unwilling to seek out or even go ourselves.
It is, however, in these dark and desolate places we must go to find God, for this is where God has chosen to meet us and greet us. . , places where we are most open and most vulnerable, where the opportunity for transformation is at its greatest. It is here,where the light of God is most easily discerned.
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the evangelist writes,” the light has entered into the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This evening, invite you to head the words of the angels “fear not” and to follow the angels into the darkness for there you will find the light of the Christ child wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger. This is the real Christ, the messy, dirty one who has chosen to enter our world through the deepest and darkest portal. This is the child who can and does guide us though the despair of our lives and into the hope that never disappoints.
For “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”