If we were more honest we would be more cognizant of the real and deep shame that too often defines our lives. Like dark and heavy clouds hovering just above, shame lingers, squeezing out any real light, suffocating us with its laden 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 spin over and 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. A 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. A 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. Isaiah 9:1 and following help us process this reality.
In Isaiah 8 and 9 we find the prophet Isaiah anticipating the time when the people of Judah would be utterly surrounded by a tyranical enemy known as the Assyrians. So forceful would the Assyrians be, they would completely encircled Jerusalem. Their august general would stand before the city and call down curses on it, the king of Judah—even the God of Judah. It seemed as if there would be no hope for the people within the walls. All of their lines of commuication with the outside world would be gone. They would have no real resources from without 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).
Many of us relate to this. 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, the prophet Isaiah wants to address the shame and humiliation that is part of that kind of experience. He wants to address it because God wants to address. God wants to address it because it is such a real part of daily existence for us all.
And God wants us to know he not only cares, but he is able to intervene.
And 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.
And 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 that would penetrate the gloom which would descend upon his people, he stylizes the grammer in what is called a “prophetic perfect.” Though it has not yet happened from Isaiah’s standpoint, it is such an absolute expectation that he writes it as if it has already happened: a child is born. Such certitude should overwhelm us with a deep and satisfying hope. And, indeed, from our vantage point, these things have found fulfillment. But who is this child?
Jesus Christ, of course. Born of a virgin named Mary. Born to set people free from their sins. Born to mitigate our deepest terrors. Born to reconcile us to our Heavenly Father. Born to deal our shame a death-blow.
Born to die. And die he did. On a cross.
And 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, father-time, panzy-like god that our world projects 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 (note the strongest Trinitarian element here!) who will never abandon his child, and who invests in his child with a scope and scale that one should expect from one who would indeed be better than the very best dad the world could offer. And is 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-laden lives is the crucifixion, at which time Jesus purchased our sure passage from guilt to a declaration of righteousness, from fear to real power, from uncleanliness to purity, and 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 juxtaposition 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?
* * * * * * * *
“Write This Down…” provides a restatement of selected points or observations from various teaching venues at which Pastor Matthew speaks. The preceding material is from Pastor Matthew’s sermon entitled, “In the Midst of Darkness—Light!”, presented on the weekend of December 11, 2011, at Bethel Church.