Isaiah 59.9-14, Luke 2.8-20
It’s rare today for us to experience genuine darkness. When it gets dark we just flick a switch to chase it away. We expect our streets and our public places to be lit too, with the result that the sky is so light that we can hardly see the stars anymore. This is a recent phenomenon, though. Our ancestors, like many people in the world today, had very little access to artificial light. When night fell, that was it. Candles were expensive, and for many people a feeble, smoking rush-light or the light of the fire was all they had. They knew what it was like to be in the dark in a way we have largely forgotten; the helplessness and vulnerability of it, the dangers that might be concealed in it and the limitations it places on normal activity.
Isaiah paints a vivid picture of life lived in the dark in our first reading. “We wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes. We stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.”
Of course, Isaiah isn’t talking about literal darkness. He is using this powerful imagery to express the experience of hopelessness that he and many of his fellow Israelites were going through in their exile in Babylon. The reading begins “Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.” Justice and righteousness are the lights his people long for, but their world remains pitch black. They can’t see the way ahead, and they suspect that God can’t see them either. What is worse, they think this is all their fault; they turned away from the light of God when times were good, and now they find themselves far from him, not even able to see the path that will lead them back. There is no help for them now.
I think theirs is an experience we can all identify with. Most of us, sooner or later, come to a point where we don’t know what to do for the best, where we can’t see the road ahead, don’t know what direction to take, and are paralysed by the fear of what might be out there in the darkness. It might be our fault – we have done something we know is wrong and now we can’t see how to set it right. It might not be our fault; we may be the innocent victims of the wrongdoing of others, caught up in a darkness not of our making. The end result is the same. We are in the dark, directionless, feeling alone and abandoned. We can’t help ourselves, and we can’t imagine than anyone else can help us either. When there is no light, how can anyone else even see your plight, let alone come to your aid?
It is no accident, then, that Luke sets the central part of his story of the birth of Christ in the dark, in the middle of the night, with the announcement of his arrival being made to people who were well aware of its hazards. Why were these shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night? Because they knew that the night was the most dangerous time for their sheep, the moment when they were most vulnerable to attack by wild beasts or simply to wandering off and getting lost. These shepherds were men who had to face the dark constantly, to live in it; they had no choice, and they stand for the whole human race in this story, for all those who stumble about in the night of injustice or sin or sorrow. It is to a group of night-dwellers that God’s light comes first and most strongly, in the glorious radiance of angels. It comes to those who need it most, and it comes to them when they need it most, too, when the darkness is at its deepest.
In these three Advent Breathing Space addresses this year, I have been thinking about waiting for God, waiting in stillness, waiting in silence, and now waiting in darkness. This is the reality that we all have to accept. We like to think we are powerful, clever and independent, that we can run our own lives, sort out our own problems, but the truth is often very different. All of us face times when we can’t act to help ourselves, can’t find the words to express our need, can’t even see the way ahead or believe that anyone can see us in our darkness. Such powerlessness frightens us, which is why we prefer to pretend it isn’t so. And yet, as we discover in the wonderful tale of Christmas, God acts when we can’t, God sends his Word into our wordlessness, God not only sees us in the darkness where we thought we would have to live forever, but gives us the Light of the World so that we can see him too.
It’s all about grace, this Christmas story, the unmerited gift of God’s love. It is the most basic element of Christian faith, yet we all struggle with it. We so easily start to think that we must earn God’s favour, hiding our weakness and our need from him. We strive and we struggle when really he is waiting for us to sit still, shut up and hold out our hand in the darkness, so he can take it in his and lead us to the place we need to be. Amen.