Hopes and Fears: A Christmas Reflection

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” -Is. 9:2 (NLT)

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” -Jn. 1:14 (ESV)

“’I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” -Jn. 8:12 (ESV)

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” -1 Jn. 1:5b-7 (ESV)

You are light for the world.  A city cannot be hidden when it is located on a hill.  No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.  Instead, everyone who lights a lamp puts it on a lamp stand.  Then its light shines on everyone in the house.  In the same way let your light shine in front of people.  Then they will see the good that you do and praise your Father in heaven.” -Matt. 5:14-16 (GW)

“For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” -2 Tim. 1:7 (NET)

“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” -Phillip Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem

“‘Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.” -John Wesley

Those who know me know how much I enjoy singing, especially Christmas songs, and most especially, Christmas carols and hymns.  Growing up, my family and I would gather around our piano at parties and sing Christmas hymns until we couldn’t sing anymore.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been realizing just how it easy it is to slip into singing Christmas carols almost unconsciously, without being present with what we’re actually singing.  One of these moments occurred a few weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

My family and I were at a concert, and during the concert we got to sing the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem.  As we sang through the first verse, we quickly arrived at the last few phrases of the verse, quoted above.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.  I realized that the phrase had gone by way too quickly, or, more likely, I wasn’t aware of it going by at all.  Let me quote it again, just in case you might have experienced the same thing I experienced:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.

I started to ponder how this phrase and the one before it, Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light, is so timely for recent events that have transpired in our tired, groaning, confusing, beautiful, wonderful world.  I’ll end this post with the reflection.  But first, some appropriate Biblical commentary to set up that reflection.

Throughout the Bible, the writers of the Bible describe God as light.  In a previous post, I mentioned how it’s often difficult to imagine God as being a substance that is so infinite, so unquantifiable, yet incredibly simple and profound…unless you’re surrounded by darkness.  Then, of course, you stop trying to figure it out and begin to simply experience it for what it is – light banishes the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  No matter how much darkness you have, light always overcomes the darkness.

At Christmas, we celebrate that truth in the reality of the Incarnation: God with us, the Word becoming flesh, the Light of the world, piercing through the darkness of sin that resides not just in humanity, but the entire created order.  And to think – this was prophesied hundreds of years earlier in Isaiah 7 and 9.  (Interestingly enough, the word ‘Isaiah’ means ‘God saves’).

The book begins with pronouncements of judgement from God because His people have worshipped Him hypocritically, complained about everything, and failed to treat the poor among them justly (funny how that would describe many folks today, including myself…).  As a result, Assyria invaded Israel, and Israel sunk into deep darkness – “They will look to the earth, and see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish, and they will be driven into darkness” (Is. 8:22 NKJV).

But wait…that’s not the end of the story.  In the very next chapter, Isaiah gives a prophecy: The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.  Hope is not lost in the midst of darkness, some sort of great light, we’re told, will overcome it.  He continues: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgement and justice From that time forward, even forever.  The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Is. 9:6-7 NKJV).  Interesting…so, this great light is actually going to be a child?  And this child will, at some point in His life, be declared king?  Crazy talk.

What’s even more fascinating is that, as true followers of Jesus – the King who is the light of the world, born in a barn – we have the light of the world indwelling us.  We are specifically called by the light of the world to be light for the world – to have the light of Christ shine so brightly through us that people will actually get to glimpse the person of Christ in us!

Let’s tie all these threads together and begin to wrap it up.  We live in a world ravaged by darkness. If you don’t believe me, Google Ferguson protests, New York riots, Pakistan school shooting, or Bahamas crime statistics.  This same darkness also wreaks havoc within our own hearts – when we hate instead of love or take selfishly instead of give selflessly.  Something I remember about the dark when I was young: it was scary.  Darkness has a slippery way of instilling a spirit of insecurity, terror, and fear in our hearts and minds.  Friends, take this to heart: God has given us a spirit of power and love.  He is love! And He is light.  The light of the world is Jesus Christ.  I believe this is precisely what Phillip Brooks is talking about in O Little Town of Bethlehem:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.

In the dark streets, alleys, and corners of our cities around the world, the Light still shines.  It is too easy to become overwhelmed by the thickness of the darkness and wonder, “Is there really any light here?”  The answer: look at those who claim to follow Jesus.  As long as people are loving Jesus and loving their neighbors with everything they’ve got, there is still light.  There will always be light.  And finally,

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.

And every night, for that matter.  All of our hopes and fears – past, present, future – all our yearnings for light, truth, beauty, all our moments of wandering in darkness, uncertainties, doubts, worries, and troubles, big or small, all of them converge in all their messy collisions onto Jesus Christ: the Light of the world, the child born in Bethlehem’s dark streets to shed light on the dark streets of our cities and in our hearts.

So, to conclude, a call and an exhortation.  The call: we are promised by the Light Himself that if we walk in His ways and follow Him (see Matt. 5-7 for Jesus’s sermon/manifesto), our hearts will be set ablaze by His light, so much so that others will come and see Jesus through and in you.  I urge you – follow Him today.  Lastly, the exhortation: For those of us who already claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, are we letting our lights shine?  Or are we doing precisely what got Israel thrown into exile – worshipping hypocritically, complaining, and not caring for the poor/busted-up/broken-hearted among us?  Let’s shine our light in the places that need it the most in our world, and not just at each other.

“Walk in the light, beautiful light,
come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.
Oh shine all around us by day and by night,
Jesus is, Jesus is the light of the world.

No need to worry, no need to fret,
all of my needs, the man named Jesus has met.
His love protects me from hurt and from harm,
Jesus is, Jesus is the light of the world.

If the gospel be hid, it’s hid from the lost,
my Jesus is waiting to look past your faults.
Arise and shine, your light has come,
Jesus is, I know that He is the only light of this world.” -Thomas Whitfield, Walk in the Light

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