What’s your favorite Christmas song? Growing up, I loved “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, because what’s better than a reindeer who saves Christmas for all the kids of the world by lighting the way with his nose? Maybe your favorite is “O Holy Night”, or “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. We love Christmas songs and we love Christmas, because for many of us, it all makes us feel good.
For others, however, the holidays are not such a joy filled time. The idea of singing songs filled with joy is far from their minds during the holidays. For many, the holidays are a difficult time, and the darkness of the pain they experience due to loss, illness, or any number of other difficulties, can be almost consuming.
“Nothing bad happens on Christmas Eve”…or Does it?
My wife and I love the hit show “This is Us”. The show traces the story of a family by going back and forth between the present and their past. In the most recent episode, there was a clear theme: “Nothing bad happens on Christmas Eve.” That one phrase sums up how this family approached every Christmas, blindly believing that nothing bad would happen during the holidays and that their lives would be filled with joy and happiness. For them, and for many of us, the holidays are “the most wonderful time of the year.”
But what happens when the holidays are not the most wonderful time of the year? What happens when a loved one dies, or is sick, a house burns down and you lose everything, or a your company falls on hard times and is forced to let you go at the worst time of the year to lose a job?
The Bible is not ignorant of suffering, especially during the holidays. In fact, Christmas is about God himself coming to deal with the evil, sin, and suffering we experience in a fallen world.
Darkness, Light, & Hurting During the Holidays
As Tim Keller points out, “one of the first indications of the Christmas season is the appearance of lights…this is appropriate, because December 25 follows the darkest time of the year in the Mediterranean world and Europe, where Christmas celebrations took shape. But the lights are not just decorative; they are symbolic. No matter what you want to do in a room, you have to first turn on the light, or you can’t see to do anything else. Christmas contains many spiritual truths, but it will be hard to grasp the others unless we grasp this one first. That is, that the world is a dark place, and we will never find our way or see reality unless Jesus is our Light” (pp. 5-6, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ by Timothy Keller).
Isaiah 9:2 says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Keller notes that in the Bible, darkness refers to two things: evil and ignorance (p. 6, Hidden Christmas). What this means is that in our world, there is real evil. There is real pain caused by real wrongs committed against God and against others, and there is also real suffering in a world broken by humanity’s sin. It also means that we have no idea how to solve this problem.
In my own life, I think of friends who are battling cancer this Christmas, family that is no longer here this Christmas, and even my little brothers who will spend their first Christmas without their Dad, who passed away this year. And these are just a few people I know and a small bit of the pain that some are experiencing this holiday season. If I had to guess, you probably know many in your own life who are going through similar tragedies or having a really difficult time.
Others are wrestling, not with things that have happened to them, but with sins they can’t stop committing against others. Some are wondering if their drinking will be the problem again this year at the family reunion. Some wonder if their marriage will survive the holidays, in light of the fights they can’t seem to stop having, or the wandering eyes they can’t seem to keep in check. Some are wondering if a child or a parent will forgive them for what they’ve done, and whether they’ll ever get to have a “merry Christmas” with their loved ones again.
We too, just like many of Isaiah’s original readers, are a people that have walked in deep darkness. We have been estranged from God because of our sin, or we have felt estranged because of the sins committed against us. We have walked through times and tragedies in which it is hard to imagine there being any light.
The True Light & The Hope of Christmas
But this passage of Isaiah, so famously quoted each Christmas season, says that there is a great light to be seen in the darkness, and this Light is the hope that is meant to be celebrated at Christmas, and all throughout the year, no matter what we are going through. This Light is where hope can be found for those who are hurting during the holidays, and John writes of Him:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to her witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
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. (John 1:1-14, ESV)
In this passage, John writes of a God who does not remain distant, sitting on a throne and ruling, but not caring about us and our problems. No. John writes about God incarnate. John writes about a God who reveals himself to us and even becomes one of us, so that he might redeem us, and because He is victorious over the darkness, we can be as well in Him.
What John writes here is at the heart of Christmas. Christmas is about the God of all creation becoming a man, which means four things for those who are hurting during the holidays:
1. Christmas shows us that God understands us.
John writes about Jesus in this passage, and in the rest of his Gospel. Jesus is the Word, whom John says is God, and the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. This means that Jesus, God himself, lived a life as a Man in the very world we live in.
The author of Hebrews says this about Jesus: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV).
What this means is that God understands us. He knows the world we live in, the life we live, and the difficulties and pain involved therein.
2. Christmas shows us that God is with us.
The word that John uses for “dwelt” could also be translated “tabernacled”, and makes the reader think of the tabernacle of the Old Testament, which was the place where God was present with his people. Christmas is all about the incarnation; about God becoming a Man and being present with his people.
In Jesus, we have God with us, which is the very meaning of the name “Immanuel”. Christmas shows us that God not only understands, but is present with us, even in our pain.
3. Christmas shows us that God is redeeming us.
John writes about two different responses people have to Jesus: rejection or reception. We respond to what God has revealed about himself, by either rejecting him or by receiving him.
As we have seen, God understands us, and is with us, and now John says that he wants to redeem us. God does not want this pain to be the end and the summary of our lives. In Jesus, true life is offered to us, life that is eternal. We are offered a new identity, should we respond by receiving this God who became a Man for us.
With Jesus first advent, or coming, we are offered life eternal and a new identity in Christ. With Jesus second coming, or second advent, He will return to bring about a final redemption, and at that point He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). God is bringing about redemption, of which Jesus’ first and second advents are a part, and we have hope because He has come and is coming.
4. Christmas shows us that God is the Light in our darkness.
Finally, God is the Light in the midst of our darkness. John says that Jesus is the true light, which gives light to everyone and came into the world. Light reveals things. As Tim Keller said, no matter what you want to do, you need light to do it. A light shows us what is around and helps us to navigate the terrain.
I remember in high school, when a friend and I tried to navigate a country road at night without our headlights. The road usually had little to no traffic, and we were young and stupid, so we tried just for the fun of it. We were actually somewhat successful, but we were not successful because we didn’t need light. We were successful because of all the times we had driven down the road in broad daylight. We had driven with such great amounts of light so often, that when it was dark, we knew how to navigate the road better.
In Jesus, God has revealed to us how to navigate the roads of life, which can sometimes be unfamiliar at best and treacherous at worst. But if we trust him, lean on him, and turn to him, then when the darkness comes, we will have hope in navigating it.
We should not try to navigate the darkness without the Light, as my friend and I tried to navigate that country road without our headlights. Hope is offered to us in the darkness, regardless of how scary or treacherous it is. Just as my friend and I could have switched on the lights, God has made available to us the Light in the darkness. Will you turn to Him?
God understands. God is present. God is bringing about redemption for us. God is the Light in the darkness. Jesus is our hope when the holidays are hard, and you can trust Him because He’s God with us, Immanuel.