The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
Today starts the season of Advent. This is our second Advent celebration together and I have been looking forward to this season for quite some time. Tim and his family lit our first candle this morning and they read this verse from the prophet Isaiah. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Before we go forward in this season I want us to stop and think about this passage for a moment.
Imagine, if you would, that you were walking around in a dark room. Imagine it was this room. We have a stage and all kinds of sound equipment. There are chairs everywhere, metal poles all throughout, and a big rail running right through the middle of the room. It would be difficult trying to walk from one side of the room to the other without falling down or knocking something over. Now imagine that there was a single light, perhaps in the corner of the room. Would that make it easier to navigate?
Now imagine that instead of walking through a dark room, you were wandering in the darkness of life, not knowing where to go or how to get there. This was the Nation of Israel. They were wandering in the darkness. They had once been a proud people, certain of their own importance, but God brought them low. They were raided and taken captive, taken away from their home and from the Temple where God’s presence dwelt. Then God restored their nation. He allowed them to return back to the land from whence they came. And there they waited.
What would it feel like to you if your entire sense of worth and being was taken away? This was the Nation of Israel.
Isaiah said they were a people walking in the darkness. They couldn’t see where to go. They didn’t know how they were going to get out. They had known at one time that God had chosen them to make his glory known. They were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had heard the stories of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. They were the people descended from Joshua, the one who led the armies into Canaan to take over the land. David and Solomon had been their kings. And now they were people in darkness. They knew that one day rescue would come. They knew that their oppressors would be destroyed. But they still didn’t understand what that meant.
They were people walking in darkness. But something would change that. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder…of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” We know from reading the New Testament that Jesus was this light. He even called himself “the light of the world.”
When you’re walking in a dark room and the light comes on, you don’t want to walk in the dark anymore. When Jesus, the “light of the world” comes, you don’t want to return to the way things were before. This is the season of Advent. The Latin word from which we get the English “advent” means “coming.” This is the time we use to remind ourselves about the period of waiting for the Israelites before Jesus came into the world (his first Parousia). We as Christians also use it as a reminder that Jesus will indeed come again and we should make preparation for that time (his second Parousia). We are reminded that the darkness is still around us. We can see it every day. The light of the world has come and many still walk in darkness because the light hasn’t been pointed out to them. I pray that as we go through this season together you would not only remember the light for yourselves, but that there are people who have never seen the light.
That said, I want to spend some time this morning looking at the first group of characters we encounter on our journey through the Nativity.
The first characters we’re going to be looking at this season are the shepherds in the fields. I think that it’s telling that the first people that God chose to reveal the coming of his son to were shepherds. Perhaps it’s because they were in the right place at the right time. Luke says they were in the “same region.” Jesus had just been born in a stable nearby. They were already in the area. Maybe the angel just showed up at the place where Jesus was and the first people he encountered were the shepherds. Maybe some of the shepherds had used this particular stable before.
So the shepherds were nearby when Jesus was born. They were watching their sheep. They were keeping vigil. Maybe they were taking turns sleeping so that there was always someone awake to guard the sheep. One could imagine that late at night, the shepherd whose turn it was to stay awake was perhaps fighting sleep, having to stand up and walk around from time to time so he didn’t drift off. I wonder what he thought when, maybe after his eyes had just closed an angel suddenly appeared in the sky.
Luke also says that the “glory of the Lord shone around them.” At this point there is just the one angel. The “them” Luke is referring to has to be the shepherds. An angel appeared out of the dark of night and God’s glory shone around the shepherds. I want you to think for just a moment about the glory of God. Remember Moses on Mount Sinai. When he came down from the mountain, from being in God’s presence, his face shone. In fact, it shone so much that the Israelites were afraid of him and he had to wear a veil so he wouldn’t freak the people out.
The glory of God existed in the Holy of Holies in the temple. This was the place where once a year the high priest went to offer sacrifice for the sins of the nation. The glory of God was a big deal. In fact, if you stood in the full glory of God, you didn’t live. We’ve mentioned before that when you encounter the presence of God, you aren’t the same as you were before. This is the glory that surrounded the shepherds. To say they were filled with fear is an understatement. I love how the King James translation puts it. It says “they were sore afraid.” I think we’ve lost a bit in the evolution of the English language. These shepherds, these simple men who were watching their sheep, trying not to fall asleep in the middle of the night were terrified.
If you had never seen an airplane before and had no frame of reference for what one looked like and what it did and then you saw a B-52 hurtling down a huge road at you, you wouldn’t know what to do. This was the shepherds at this point. They saw an angel, something they had never seen before. Perhaps they had heard stories, but had never had a personal experience with an angel and didn’t know what one looked like. We sometimes picture angels like these sweet little Cupid cherubs who are naked with white feathery wings. Angels were terrifying to behold, I’m sure. I’m thinking they were probably more like the scene in Lord of the Rings when Galadriel is tempted to take the ring and she briefly turns into this terrifying Elf-queen. That’s what I think the shepherds saw. Couple that with the very glory of God coming down to surround them and they had no idea what was going on.
I can imagine that while the shepherds were cowering down trying to protect themselves they were completely oblivious to the sheep. If you were a wolf, this would have been the best moment to try and get dinner, if you could do so in the presence of an angel. I wonder if the animals were aware of the angel…hmmm.
Then the angel said “Fear not.” I’m sure that comforted the shepherds. Donald Miller once said that he wondered what it was like being an angel. You would have to calm everyone down before you could deliver a message. It was probably annoying. But the angel had good news. Remember that the people were walking in darkness. They were desperate for salvation. They were looking for the answer. The angel said “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy…”
There is good news for people walking in darkness. There is good news for people with no hope. There is good news in a world filled with bad news. There is good news! And this good news will bring about great joy. The people walking in darkness don’t have to stumble through the dark anymore. The light has come into the darkness and what’s more, this good news will be “…for all people.”
You see, the Israelites thought that the Messiah was coming for them. They thought the Savior would be born to save them from their oppressors. They still thought they were the chosen ones who would rule the earth. Instead, they were the chosen ones from whom the Savior of the world would come. The good news would be for all people!
This was, I think, why the angel appeared to the shepherds. The message was for all people. No one gets left out of this. Everyone can hear the truth. The message is for all.
If the shepherds hadn’t yet been amazed, what was about to happen was going to absolutely shake them. As if one angel wasn’t enough, a multitude of them appeared in the sky. Now, I’m not sure how many a “multitude” is, but I’m confident that it was a whole bunch. I can imagine that the sky was filled with angels from horizon to horizon, that the light they gave off made night seem like day, that their praising and singing would be so loud the shepherds had to shout at one another to make themselves heard.
The shepherds, having been successfully roused from their watching of sheep, went to Bethlehem to see if what the angel said was true. It’s possible that they were still skeptical, that maybe they weren’t certain that the whole thing wasn’t a dream. But they were sufficiently terrified that they didn’t waste any time. Verse 16 says they went “with haste.” They ran to Bethlehem where they found Mary, Joseph, and the baby, just like the angel said. Then they told everyone they encountered what had happened to them that night.
As I’ve tried to put myself into the sandals of the shepherds I find that I think I would be completely bewildered. Why did the angel appear to the shepherds? Why were they the first to find out about the Savior? Did this change them in any way?
What we know is that the shepherds were simply doing their job when the angel appeared. They were minding their own business. They didn’t ask to be informed of the Savior, but they were all the same. Running to discover the truth, they proceeded to tell everyone what had happened. They were the first messengers of God’s truth. They were the first evangelists, the bringers of good news, the good news that was for all people.
God, in his wisdom, chose these shepherds to be the first to hear of his Son’s birth. They were nearby, true, but since the news was for “all people” I think that God chose them because they were ordinary. There wasn’t anything spectacular about them. They weren’t of noble birth. They spent their time with sheep. Verse 18 says that “all who heart (them) wondered at what the shepherds told them.” The news spread quickly. So quickly, in fact, that Herod heard about it and felt threatened.
There is good news for all people. There is light that those in the darkness need. But there is still one who would see this light quenched, who would have people continue to walk in darkness. The Enemy would steal the joy of this season and replace it with other things. He tried in the beginning to keep anyone from hearing of the good news. A man named Herod would not share any glory with another “king” so he tried to hunt Jesus down and kill him. The Enemy would attempt the same thing even today.
For many, Christmas isn’t a time of joy, it’s a time of sadness. For others it’s not a time of peace, but of stress. Instead of hope, some find despair. Instead of love, some feel anger. For whatever reason, this season causes many people angst. Christmas becomes a competition to see who gets the best stuff, who gives the best stuff, and if we can beat what we got last year. The Christmas season is a race to see if we can get from one family to the next in time to eat yet another meal, consuming our allotted caloric intake until Martin Luther King Day.
Let me caution you against the Enemy. He would steal your peace, hope, love, and joy. The Enemy would silence this good news so that others wouldn’t hear. He would snuff out the light so that others may not see. Let this be a season where our hearts are stirred with affection for Jesus. I pray that would be how you encounter Christmas this year.
In the New Catholic Encyclopedia, believers, during Advent, are asked:
- To prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love
- Thus to make their souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer coming in Holy Communion and through grace
- Thereby to make themselves ready for his final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world
So during this season I ask that you would prepare yourself to celebrate the anniversary of God’s coming into the world in incarnate form. As we celebrate communion, let us be mindful of what we are doing. We are feasting on the flesh and blood of Jesus. We are becoming one with him, that he might use us to be light-bearers in a darkened world.