Honesty recalls the shame that often defines our lives. Like dark clouds hovering above, shame lingers, squeezing out any real light, suffocating us with its heat, making us long for relief. I define shame as that intense feeling of despair brought on by either guilt or threat. Some of us are ashamed because we are guilty of something. The hurt and embarrassment of our guilt stays with us. We repeatedly turn over in our minds the would-ofs, could-ofs, should-ofs, desperately attempting to make sense of our choices. Some of us are ashamed because we have been or are now threatened by something or someone. Some bully at school haunts us every day, making us afraid and embarrassed. A dream is slipping through our fingers because our work has been second-best or the economy is betraying us. That spouse has left us high and dry. A child has flipped us off and we feel helpless.
Shame is awful.
But it need not be the end of us. Indeed, one of the great features of the Christmas story is how powerfully God interrupts shame and offers himself. The prophet Isaiah helps us process this reality.
In Isaiah 8 and 9 we find Isaiah anticipating the time when the people of Judah would be utterly surrounded by a tyrannical enemy known as the Assyrians. One day they would completely encircle Jerusalem. Their fierce general would stand before the city and call down curses on it, the king of Judah, and even Judah’s God. There would appear to be no hope for the people within the walls. Lines of communication with the outside world would be gone. They would have no resources with which to sustain themselves. It would be a harrowing time, one during which the people of the little kingdom would “look to the earth, but behold distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness” (Isaiah 8:22).
We may not be hearing from brutal generals, but many of us relate to the turmoil. Many of us have our own “gloom of anguish.” Many of us understand the forceful push by people or circumstances into “thick darkness.” In large measure, Isaiah wants to address the shame and humiliation within such an experience. He wants to address it because God wants to address. God wants to address it because it is a real part of daily life for us all.
God wants us to know he not only cares, but he is able to intervene.
Intervene he can and does. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2). The darkness spoken of in the first phrase relates to a darkness so thick and black that it leaves one in utter obscurity. I might have translated the phrase this way: the people who walked in dark isolation have seen a great light. And the “deep darkness” referenced in the second phrase parallels the well-known words of Psalm 23:4, wherein we discover a valley of the shadow of death. Dark obscurity and death valley. Not pleasant places to be. But in a world defined by these two frightening and humiliating realities, light has come forth.
Strangely, that light is a child. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). So certain is the prophet Isaiah of this Light penetrating the gloom which would descend upon his people, he stylizes the grammar in what is called a “prophetic perfect.” Though it has not yet happened from Isaiah’s standpoint, it is such an absolute expectation he writes it as if it has already happened: a child is born. Such certitude overwhelms us with deep and satisfying hope. From our vantage point, these things have found fulfillment. But who is this child?
Jesus Christ, of course. Born of a virgin named Mary to set people free from their sins. Born to mitigate our deepest terrors, and to reconcile us to our Heavenly Father. Born to deal a death-blow to both our shame.
He was born to die. Die he did. On a cross.
He is a Counselor of infinite worth, a wonder-working Companion who actively walks with us moment by moment as we live life in this brutal world. He is a Hero-Warrior kind of God, not the superficial, pansy-like god our world thinks Jehovah to be—but a Fighter for you, concerned about your well-being, willing to be your strength and your help and the upholder of your life (see Isaiah 41:10).
He is the Everlasting Father who will never abandon his child, and who invests in his child with a scope and scale one should expect from the very best dad the world could offer. He is also the Royal Ambassador of Peace, breathing shalom into our sore souls. “My peace I leave with you,” Jesus declares. “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
The proof of his relentless investment into our shame-shaped lives is the crucifixion, when Jesus purchased our sure passage from guilt to righteousness, from fear to power, from uncleanliness to purity, and, yes, from shame to honor.
As one reflects on the broader scope of Isaiah 9 one discovers a few important considerations. First, God acts with certainty; he can be trusted to intervene in the midst of your own shame. Secondly, you are never alone. Do not overlook the fact that it is a “people” who walk in darkness (Isaiah 9:2), not just an individual. It is “for us” a child is born (Isaiah 9:6), not just for one. Our journey on the cloudy pathway is a journey with many. And God meets the many with himself. The enemy of your soul may want you to think you are all alone. Forget it! You are in community—a community of the humiliated, and because of the work of Christ and the cross and your trust of him, a community of the redeemed. Lastly, God relishes using the weakest things to foil the strongest adversaries. Who would have thought that in the face of our greatest darknesses and obscurities, our greatest shames, he would insert a child?