1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to 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.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
What is the meaning of Christmas? I’m sure you have been hearing a lot of options. Ads and little jingles are saying that Christmas is all about gifts, presents, decorations, food, parties, yada…yada…yada. Your Spotify or iTunes playlists are singing about reindeer, a fat-bellied, jolly, man in a red jump suit, a snowman, and on and on. And how about all the Christmas movies? A few weeks ago, I went with my 5 year-old daughter 3 year-old son to see the new Grinch movie. It was a fresh take but similar to the one I grew up with. The Grinch hates Christmas, so he steals everything from the Whos down in Whoville. But to his surprise, they still wake up on Christmas Day and gather together to sing. Do you remember the song from the Dr. Seuss version? “Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze! Christmas Day is in our grasp! So long as we have hands to clasp!” …and later “Fah who rahmus! Dah who dahmus! Christmas Day will always be! Just as long as we have we!” Seeing and hearing that completely changes the Grinch forever. His heart grew three sizes that day. The meaning of Christmas is you don’t need presents, decorations, and food; you just need hands to hold.
That pretty much sums up the way our culture talks about the meaning of Christmas. It’s sappy, sentimental, and tugs at your emotions. It says as long as we have compassion and kindness with family, friends, and those around us, then the world will be a better, brighter place. That sounds so warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? The meaning of Christmas.
And then we hear these classic words of Isaiah 9 that always come up at Christmas time: “For to us a child is born , to us a son is given…” and everything seems right in the world. But this section of the Bible is so common at Christmas, maybe sometimes we don’t even concentrate on what it’s saying and the meaning of it. For example, did you notice how Isaiah chapter 9 begins with the word “nevertheless?” That means to understand Isaiah chapter 9, you have to look at what comes before it.
And here’s the situation surrounding Isaiah and his beautiful Christmas prophecy. Judah is the land where he is living, and it’s an ugly mess. The people were threatened by a foreign nation that specialized in terrorism. The Assyrians loved to send a message by chopping off heads of conquered foes and piling them up in pyramids to let everyone know who was in control. Isaiah tells us that the world was full of racism, mostly against the Jews because there was something different about them, their religion and laws. Isaiah says there was a problem with elitism. That means the rich had no mercy and compassion for the poor and destitute, even taking advantage of them. People didn’t care for one another but were always fighting “neighbor against neighbor.” Divorce was on the rise. Immorality was the norm. People struggled with addiction as some were known as “heroes of drinking wine.”
Terrorism, racism, elitism, moral decline, political chaos, addiction – does this sound familiar? The truth is the more things change, the more they stay the same. Isaiah described the gloomy scene as he saw it more than 2,700 years ago, and it’s still pretty accurate now. Turns out God know us really well. This world doesn’t look much like the one he made. This is the result of what we have done to it.
And so, Isaiah says that we are people “walking in darkness.” The word “walking” there means to “walk in the way of;” it can be translated “to follow.” And the word “darkness” is the common word that refers to something that is not filled with light. Symbolically, it can mean the parts of my heart and life that aren’t bright, like “distress” or “dread.” So, Isaiah is saying this is not something that we were forced into, against our will. Darkness is often something we choose to walk around in, like taking a casual stroll.
Jesus said the same thing in one of our earlier lessons from John 3. He says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light…” And if we examine our own heart, we have to admit it’s true. When someone wrongs us deeply, we have this urge to hold onto the grudge or seek revenge, rather than forgive them. When we have a juicy bit of gossip, there’s a part of us that would love to share it a few times. We say that honesty is the best policy, but if being dishonest will get you ahead – like a free meal at a restaurant, a better grade on a test, a better perk at work – then we prefer the self-serving dishonesty. My friends, why would you think that humanity can rid the world of darkness, when I can’t even begin to rid my own heart of darkness?
And then, there’s the other word for darkness that Isaiah uses. He says we are “living in the land of deep darkness.” This is the Hebrew word, “zalmavet.” It’s the more poetical word that means “death shadow.” You might be familiar with this word from another place in Scripture. The Good Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, is where the psalmist says, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Maybe you can look around this world and say, “Yeah, there’s some darkness, but it’s not completely corrupted.” But the darkness is not just something that we walk around in, it is also coming for us, looming like this death shadow over everything.
That’s the mother of all dark problems that not one of us can solve. You can run 5 miles a day, eat healthy, and use products that counteract signs of aging, but the shadow of death is chasing you. We can cure cancer. We can crack down on gun violence. We can stop abuse. All we’ve done is put off the inevitable. We haven’t really made the world a brighter place.
Like I said, we live 2,700 years after Isaiah. All these advances in technology, sociology, and in governments – the invention of democracy – s0 now we don’t have terrorism, we don’t have racism, we don’t have political chaos, now we don’t have economic problems, we don’t have people struggling with addictions, or do we? The world is a dark place, and everything that mankind does to try and rid the world of darkness fails. Merry Christmas!
It’s a pretty gloomy message, if that’s all that Isaiah tells us. But he goes on; chapter 9 starts with “nevertheless.” And Isaiah reveals these two brilliant conclusions to the phrases in verse 2: people have “seen a great light…a light has dawned.” I hope you notice that this light is not something the people produced by holding hands and singing around a tree. This light is not a program or policy. It just appeared; it “dawned.” What is the light? It’s a person. “To us a child is born, to us a son is given.” The light is a human baby boy, but he’s no ordinary baby boy, because Isaiah continues “the government will be on his shoulders.” It’s not a government. His job is not to be a king for just Jews. The administration of the entire universe is his responsibility. That is something no human being can handle. So, Isaiah tells us this human baby boy is also God. He emphasizes that fact with these four titles. He is the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. We don’t have time to dig into the beauty of these divine titles, but each one can only be applied to God.
Wonderful Counselor – he is the one who gives perfect advice because he knows absolutely everything. That doesn’t apply to Oprah or Doctor Phil or anyone else. Only God knows everything.
Mighty God – this little baby will accomplish things only God can do.
Everlasting Father – the author and source of all life, and he has been doing it for all eternity with the love and compassion of the perfect Father.
Prince of Peace – he is able to create perfect harmony, even between the Holy God who hates sin and the people who sin every day. This Hebrew word for “peace” is “shalom.” It also has the idea of making everything whole and complete. He can take any and everything that is broken in your life and put it back together forever. This is what the angels sang about that first Christmas. Only God can do this.
The Light of the world is God in human flesh to free us from the darkness of sin. That is who lies in the manger. The Light had to be both God and human. He had to be man to deal with the darkness of the mankind. If God wanted to tell us how to think about darkness and sin, he could have used a normal person to give us his laws, which show us how to live a bright, beautiful life. But then again, he did that with all those prophets and we still choose the darkness. If God wanted to give us an example of how to live a bright life, he could have sent us an angel to show people how compassionate, thoughtful, and selfless we need to be. An angel would show us how to use our entire existence to give God glory.
No, that wasn’t going to be enough. We needed all the darkness to be snuffed out completely. Normally, we think of a light being snuffed, but we needed the darkness – sin and that death shadow – to be snuffed out and removed. That required the Light to be God and man. The Light needed to be man so that he could be pay for sins. The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death.” The Light needed a human heart, so that it could stop beating. The child needed blood in his veins, because the Bible says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
The Light also needed to be God for the payment to have enough value for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived. We all understand that a trade needs to be two things of equal value. You can’t get away with trading a Christian Yelich card (great baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers and MVP of the NL) for a T206 Honus Wagner from 1909. One is maybe 5 bucks and the other is over 3 million. If the one who died on the cross was just a man, then an equal trade is one other person. But if the one who died on the cross is not just a man but the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace that is a sacrifice that is extremely valuable. It’s so valuable, in fact, that the Apostle John wrote in one of the lessons that we read, “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
My friends, the only gift that matters for us at Christmas is this Light, God and man to free us from the darkness. Christmas was not given to us to be sappy and sentimental. It’s not supposed to be a distraction from the darkness. It’s not just nostalgia with all the lights, cookies, carols, and parties. See, here’s the facts. I cannot save myself. I cannot overcome temptation enough. I cannot fix the relationships I have fractured, including the one with my Creator. I cannot outrun the shadow of death, even if I fulfill a New Year’s resolution to get in shape. There’s too much darkness in here. And you have it, too. We are in desperate need of the Savior from all the darkness. That is what Jesus came to be. Christmas is Jesus saying to us, “You all are so broken, so utterly incapable of cleaning yourselves up, that I had to come into this world to save you. The situation was so dire and hopeless, that I not only was born for you but I will die to completely remove all darkness from you forever.” That is what Christmas is about. The angels said so: “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you.”
But this Light of Jesus Christ does not just save me from the darkness. Isaiah says the Light is going to build people into a new nation. “You have enlarged the nation…” he says, which, from the context, is a reference to believers. In using that terminology, Jesus intends that the relationship we have with him will create relationships with each other. Do you remember hearing that already tonight? The Apostle John wrote, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.” God doesn’t want his people walking in his light alone. If you consider yourself a Christmas and Easter type of person, God’s gift of this Light in the darkness is for you, so that you can walk in his light with others. Believers need the encouragement of fellow Christians as we roam through a world that is still covered in darkness. One of the main places that happens is here, in this place of God’s light.
So, are you still looking for the meaning of Christmas? You’re not going to find it from the pen of Dr. Seuss, from your playlists on Spotify, from a TV special, a movie or a shopping mall. The meaning of Christmas comes from God. It isn’t sappy nor sentimental. It is his honest truth from the one who loves you more than anyone, because he was willing to do more for you than anyone could. The world is full of darkness, and we contribute to it without any way of piercing the darkness. Nevertheless… NEVERTHELESS! A light has dawned. Christ was born to you. Walking in his light gives you peace, joy, hope and love this world cannot give. It’s your free gift now and forever. Merry Christmas!