Back in the mid-1980s I was the minister in charge of All Saints’ Anglican Church in Aklavik, Northwest Territories. Aklavik is situated on the western side of the Mackenzie Delta, and from it you can easily see the Richardson Mountains, the northernmost part of the chain of mountain ranges that runs up the whole western side of North America. The Richardsons are an easy one-hour snowmobile ride from Aklavik, and I often went up there on hunting trips, going after caribou with other members of the community.
These were winter trips, of course, and they usually involved long hours of riding on a snowmobile, dressed in several layers of down clothing, and sometimes an overnight stay in a cabin up there, waking up in the freezing cold, lighting the wood stove, and then waiting for daylight – which comes late at that time of year – so that we could go looking for caribou. By the time we came back to Aklavik it was usually dark again, and by then I was cold and tired and looking forward to a hot bath, a cup of tea, and a good meal.
Aklavik had an airstrip, and at one end of the airstrip there was a huge revolving light. When you were coming down out of the mountains by skidoo you could see that light a long way off – as long as thirty miles away, actually. I can remember how good it felt to catch the first glimpse of that light. You knew you still had miles to travel, but suddenly there was hope that the journey would not last forever Underneath that light was a warm house and a warm welcome. It was amazing how much difference it made.
A light shining in the darkness; haven’t we read something about that this morning? Oh yes:
‘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’ (Isaiah 9:2).
One of the Advent traditions that’s become very special to me over the years is the use of the Advent wreath. I wasn’t raised with the Advent wreath; in fact, I don’t think I ever saw one until Marci and I got married and moved to Arborfield, Saskatchewan in the Fall of 1979. There, for the first time, I was introduced to the custom of the four purple candles – one for each Sunday of Advent – with the central, white candle for Christmas. We adopted it into our family, and we found a little book of devotions for each day that we could use with our kids after supper, as we lit the candles, sang the songs, and prayed the prayers.
Now, thirty-eight years later, the kids are grown and gone, but Marci and I are still lighting the candles and praying our Advent devotions, and I still love it. And this year, as I’ve been going through the Advent season and moving toward Christmas, I’ve found myself reflecting on the fact that we use the symbolism of candles as we wait for the coming of Christ. I’ve been thinking of that verse: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2). As John says at the beginning of his gospel, ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:4-5, NIV 2011). Jesus himself uses this language; he says, “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).
In the last few years I’ve been taking photos of our Advent wreath to post on Facebook, and like many other people I’ve discovered that the photos look a lot better when all the lights in the house are turned out. Then, truly, ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’! And I’ve been thinking about that symbolism a lot this year as well. At Christmas time we tend to jump straight to the light, but Isaiah doesn’t start with the light; he starts with the darkness: ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’.
I think this year, 2017, we’ve been very much aware of the darkness. I’m sure I don’t need to go into great detail about the political events that have been happening in various places – some near, some far away – but it seems as if anger and hatred and fear, and prejudice have been given a new lease on life over the past twelve months. And if we take a slightly longer term view it can be even more depressing. Those of us who remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain really believed that a time of great darkness was finally passing away and the world was moving into a new era of cooperation and freedom and peace. It’s hard now to remember the optimism of those days. If you base your outlook on life on what you see in your daily news feed, the world at the end of 2017 looks like a pretty dark place.
So yes – we have to take the darkness seriously before we move on to the great light. But of course, that darkness has always been present in human history, right back to the days of the Old Testament prophets. Scholars aren’t sure what exactly Isaiah was originally referring to in our first Old Testament reading for today, but I think it’s likely it was Assyrian military aggression he had in mind. The Bible wasn’t written in an idyllic world where people had lots of time to contemplate the meaning of life; it was written at a time when human life was cheap – when tyrants had absolute power and murdered anyone who stood in their way – when ordinary people had very little control over their own destiny. In other words, a time very much like our own time for many of the people on this planet.
Hundreds of years later, not much had changed. Israel was under the power of another tyrant, Caesar Augustus in far away Rome, and he had an accomplice in Judea, Herod the Great, a fanatically insecure ruler who had murdered several members of his own family because he suspected them of plotting against him. Rome decided that it needed to update its tax records, and suddenly daily life was disrupted, people’s plans were put on hold, and an ordinary engaged couple from Galilee, Mary and Joseph, found that they had to make an unexpected journey to Joseph’s ancestral home, Bethlehem, the home of Israel’s ancient hero, King David. And while they were staying in Bethlehem, the miracle happened:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:6-7).
No doubt when Isaiah first spoke these words he was referring to the birth of a son and heir to the king of that time, but Christians have always read a deeper meaning into these words, because what human king can possibly live up to the titles ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’?
And at first glance these titles seem out of place when we apply them to the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, too. This is Yeshua, the son of Yosef and Miriam, a little boy who cried and got hungry and needed to be changed just like any other baby. He wasn’t born in a palace and didn’t have the advantages of wealth and power. He was never an ordained priest in any recognized way. He was never involved in any of the power structures of Rome or Judea or Galilee.
And yet, it’s very clear to me that even today, he shines – he shines as a light in the darkness. In a world obsessed with wealth and possessions, he demonstrates a life based on simplicity and generosity. In a world split apart by hatred and violence, he loves his enemies and prays for those who hate him. He reaches across borders to Samaritans and Romans and refuses to recognize dividing lines between people and races and classes. In a world where women and children are definitely second-class citizens he treats them with dignity and respect.
Most of all, in a world where most people struggle to have a sense of God’s presence in their lives, he walks with God in a living and dynamic and tangible way. You get the sense as you read his story and listen to his teaching that his heavenly Father was every bit as real and close to him as his earthly father and mother had been. When I read the gospels this is what stands out to me; I want to go to him and say “Lord Jesus, you obviously know God really well. Will you show me how to know him like that? Because I think that might just be the key to everything else I’m looking for in life”.
‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2), says Isaiah. John says, ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:4-5, NIV 2011). Jesus says, “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). So let us follow him so that we can walk with him in the light of God.