2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 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.
Welcome to our Christmas Eve service. I hope that you enjoy the service this evening because a Christmas service is meant to be joyous and celebratory. In other seasons of the year – especially lent – we can be more dour and introspective, but not at Christmas. Christmas should be celebrated like a party. It is in fact a birthday party, the birthday of the Lord.
Of course we don’t know the exact date of Christ’s birth. The date of Christmas was chosen because on December 25 the ancient Romans had an annual festival in which they celebrated the winter solstice. According to their calendar, December 25 was the shortest day of the year, and everyday after that the Sun would stay longer in the sky until the summer equinox in June. December 25, then, was a day for celebrating the return of life, the promise of fertility in a new season. The evergreen tree – our Christmas tree – is essentially a symbol of life in the midst of winter deadness. It is a promise that however cold and snowy and lifeless it may be, spring is on the way.
The ancient Israelites did not have a winter celebration as we do, but they did celebrate the birth of a new king. And that is probably what Isaiah is doing in the Scripture passage that we read a short while ago. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century B.C., a particularly difficult time in Israel’s history. The empire of Assyria was on the rise. It was a Mesopotamian power that was bent of conquering all of its neighbors in the Middle and Near East. And it succeeded in conquering the Northern Kingdom of Israel – this was the region that included Zebulon, Naphtali and Galilee. Many people were killed; many were led off into captivity.
Isaiah, then, was not being merely rhetorical when he referred to them as a “people walking in darkness,” a people “living in the land of the shadow of death.” The Northern Kingdom was devastated. The ten tribes of Israel were lost. And there did not seem to be any hope for them. Yet the situation suddenly seemed to change with the birth of a new king in Israel – probably Hezekiah. For Isaiah a little baby boy made all the difference, offering hope in a dark moment. And he writes: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”
Isaiah’s poem was written because of the birth of a new king, but it was in fact a messianic poem, one inspired by the whole messianic idea, one that could only have its ultimate fulfillment in the coming of the messiah, or the Christ. Matthew quotes this passage in the fourth chapter of his gospel as being fulfilled in Christ, who came first to Galilee of the Gentiles, a people living in spiritual darkness, even in the land of the shadow of death. They were the first ones to “see a new light,” to know that “a light had dawned.”
That light came into our world in an unlikely form: a baby born in Bethlehem in a stable, or cave, or back room for animals. The birth of a baby often gives us a sense of fresh hope in a world about which we might otherwise despair. And hope is a very important thing: it helps us to carry on when we might otherwise give up. Nelson Mandela tells a moving story of hope in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He was imprisoned in 1964 for his work against apartheid in South Africa. Though he thought of himself as a political prisoner, he was sent to Robben Island, a cold, bleak, isolated outpost of the South African penal system. He was set to hard labor in a rock quarry.
When he first arrived, he did not believe that he would be spending many years there. But in 1978, fourteen years later, he was still there. In all that time, he never saw his family. He only occasionally saw his wife, Winnie. During his time his little daughter Zeni had become a young woman engaged to a prince of Swaziland. Upon marrying him, Zeni became a part of the royal family and was granted diplomatic privileges that included the right to visit her father in prison. That year she arrived with her husband and a new born baby girl. Because of their royal status, they met Mandela in the consulting room rather than the usual visiting area, where prisoners were separated from the visitors by a partition. When Zeni saw her father, she ran and hugged him. They had not hugged since she was just a little girl. Then she put the baby in her father’s arms. Mandela writes of that occasion: “To hold a newborn baby, so vulnerable and soft in my rough hands, hands that for too long had held only picks and shovels, was a profound joy. I don’t think a man was ever happier to hold a baby than I was that day.” In fact, he says that he held the baby, his granddaughter, throughout the time of the visit.
Zeni and her husband were not simply paying a social call. The visit had an official purpose. It was the custom in South Africa for the grandfather to select the name for the child. He chose the name Zaziwe, which means hope. He writes: “The name had a special meaning for me, for during all my years in prison hope never left me – and now it never would.”
Mandela believed that his granddaughter would be part of a new generation of South Africans for whom apartheid would be a thing of the past. Mandela would spend another thirteen years on Robben Island, but then his dream would come true. He was released in 1990, the year that apartheid came to an end. Surviving twenty-seven years in a bleak prison is not easy, but keeping hope alive helped to make it possible. And a newborn baby became a symbol for him that better days were coming. And that is what the image of the Christ child means to us. The newborn baby in the manger reminds us that better days are coming; that there is reason for hope, for a child has been born.
As we look around our world today, I don’t think we should say that it is as bleak as a penal colony on a rocky island. But, still, we all know that things are not what they should be. We are a world riven by race and economics and nationality. We are a nation in an unpopular war, weighed down by mounting debt and a declining dollar. As individuals we struggle to maintain marriages, to raise children, to keep all the plates spinning in our complicated lives. And having hope in our lives makes all the difference. Having access to a divine power, which is kind and loving and understanding, can also make all the difference. Even as Matthew said of the people of Galilee, we can say that we too are a people who live in darkness, even the shadow of death. And yet a light has dawned. For to us a child is born – a newborn baby in a manger has given us hope.
For some of you tonight, though, this may not be quite the case. We are celebrating a birthday party tonight, but perhaps you haven’t met the guest of honor. Or perhaps you met some time ago, but you haven’t been on speaking terms for a long time. For you, Christ stands at the door of your hearts and knocks. He is standing there even now holding a Christmas present with your name on it. Will you take it? Will you open it? Will you accept the gift? Will you let your rough labor-worn hands hold something so fresh, so tender, so vulnerable as new born hope, zaziwe – the hope of a fresh start with Christ in your life as Lord and Savior?
For all of us, may this be joyous Christmas! May God richly bless you on this Christmas Eve!
The foregoing sermon was given on Christmas Eve, 2007, by Rev. Michael Parker at the United Parish of Bowie.
© 2007 Michael T. Parker