Wednesday, December 22, 2004

For Those Who Don't Really Feel Like Celebrating

Christmas is nearly on top of us now. We're in the home stretch. Last minute shoppers are frantically searching for that perfect gift, every night brings another of those animated Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, the airports are packed to the rafters and my kids are actually counting the days.

And here's something I've noticed this week: Some people are really looking forward to Christmas. Life is good. Jobs are terrific; finances are secure. The kids are healthy, making good grades and keeping their rooms clean. Blood pressure and cholesterol are down. Stocks are up. It's been a great year for them, and they're really looking forward to Saturday.

But not everyone is.

I'm thinking of my friends who just found out that they're going to lose the baby she's carrying. It's just a matter of time. They've told everyone she's expecting. Now they have to go back and tell everyone their tragedy. Their only prayer now is that it won't happen on the 25th.

I'm thinking of the family who ex-communicated their son several years ago. They were following the advice of their church -- make of that what you will. But now they've just discovered that their son has been killed in Iraq. They didn't even know he was there. And now he's gone.

I'm thinking of the father who wonders how in the world he's going to do Christmas with his kids now that his wife is gone.

All around us people are busy shopping and decorating and baking and attending parties. On the surface we may join in the festivities, but deep down we just don't feel like celebrating this year. Many of us find ourselves resonating with old Scrooge's sentiments: "What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?"

Some of us are struggling through relationships and wondering if we're going to make it through the holidays intact or stay together in the new year. Some of us are out of work and nervous that we might not be able to pay the mortgage. Some of us are facing illnesses and worried that this might be the last Christmas we spend with someone we love. Some of us are battling addiction and the added stress of the holidays seems to make it impossible to resist.

Seven hundred years before Mary and Joseph ever thought of going to Bethlehem, the world was also crashing down and falling apart. The nation of Israel had divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah, with its capital -- Jerusalem -- in the south.

Armies from conquering nations are forming an alliance to destroy Jerusalem and carry the people off into captivity. Ahaz, who is king in Juday, has turned away from God. The situation seems hopeless, and the people are in distress.

Into that scene God sends the prophet Isaiah with a promise. Isaiah begins by declaring that despite how horrible and hopeless the situation seems, "Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who are in distress" (Isaiah 9:1).

How can he say that? Because here's the promise: "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 9:2).

Notice who the promise is for: People walking in darkness -- people living in the land of the shadow of death -- people who probably wouldn't feel very much like celebrating.

That describes a lot of us. We are often the people walking in darkness, the people living in shadows. We need light desperately because in so many ways we live in a dark world. We live in a world of poverty and hunger, violence and death. We live in a world where nations oppress people -- where war and terrorism are a part of everyday life for too many.

We live in a world where people steal and are unable to control their sexuality -- a world where abuse occurs and families are torn apart. This is a world where people step on others in order to get ahead, people lie to win cases in court, people cheat and lie and hurt. People intimidate and disappoint. People are full of selfishness and pride and bitterness.

We could go on and on, but the Christmas story promises that in this land of darkness a light has dawned. A few verses later, Isaiah describes what that coming light would look like: "For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).

Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace. When you think about it, isn't that exactly what we need? Aren't these the things that we hope for and long for, but sometimes fear that we'll never find? Perhaps you feel like you've been waiting a long time for wisdom or acceptance, for an experience of God's power and peace. At times we feel like we've been waiting such a long time for the dawning of the light Isaiah promised. Some of us are waiting in darkness, clinging by a narrow thread to this promise that the dawn will come.

But now the waiting time is over. The Christmas Story tells us that the Light of the World has stepped out into the darkness with unfailing love and full redemption so that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in him. And the good news of Christmas is that the light Isaiah promised is available to you and me right now. The Light is here for those who are merry and for those who don't really feel like celebrating.