john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Isaiah 9 / Luke 2 - Light in the darkness

    Good Shepherd Christmas Eve Midnight Communion 24/12/2007

    Isaiah 9.2-7, Luke 2.1-14

    So here we are at the edge of Christmas, in church at the end of a year where God has often made the headlines: for good and bad reasons.

    God has been reported as the cause of wars; the motivation for acts of cruelty such as the many suicide bombings in the troubled cities of Iraq; the cause of moral craziness such as the imprisonment of Liverpoool teacher Gillian Gibbons or companies banning their staff from wearing burkhas or crucifixes.

    For these sorts of reasons Richard Dawkins' bestselling book The God Delusion this year made the case that belief in God is not just wrong, but potentially deadly. And Tony Blair said that he had to keep quiet about his faith while he was in power in case people thought he was a 'nutter'.

    But in other places God got a good press. The faith which gave strength and dignity to Kate and Gerry McCann as they faced the terrible loss of their child; churches opening their doors and their halls to people stranded by floods in East Yorkshire and Southern England; the celebration of the Christmas story which brought great cheer to our city in the Liverpool Nativity last weekend.

    It all goes to show that it's very debatable still: who God is, and what a faith in God means.
    To some, God is the transcendent power waiting for us in everything;
    To others, God is an oppressive power used to bind and blind the wretched of the earth.

    To some, God is a liberator, hearing the cries of the oppressed and moving to help them;
    To others, God is a collaborator, deaf to the cries of the oppressed and siding with the powers that be.

    To some, God's hands were split open by violence in suffering love for women and men;
    To others, God's hands are stained with the blood of the countless atrocities and needless human suffering.

    Some of us find all our hope and sense of meaning in God;
    Others have lost all faith in God. [1]
    And here we are tonight, gathered in worship on the very edge of Christmas.
    We are here because God means something to us,
    to our worship or our doubt,
    to our trust or our fear,
    as lover or as tyrant,
    as ultimate reality or grand illusion.
    We are here to face up to what we do and don't believe about God. [1]
    Perhaps we are here because we feel that God is a light in the darkness of the world.

    God's people have always lived in turbulent places, God's people have always lived through troubled times.

    That was how it was for the place called Galilee, where Jesus grew up and chose to begin his ministry. At the time of Isaiah the people there had to face life under the control of foreign forces. It was a time of gloom, a time of darkness for them, having to give up many of the things precious to them - their ways of life - to fit in with the new ways of their conquerors.

    Like the people of central Europe under Soviet domination in the 20th century, or like Palestinians today hemmed in by the military state of Israel, the people of Galilee under the rule of Assyria, would have felt crushed. And they would have different views on God. Some would have felt that God had abandoned them; others would be holding onto a hope that God may yet save them.

    Isaiah was the voice of hope. "There will be no more gloom for those in distress," he said. "In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali; but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan."

    Isaiah had a vision of what it would be like for the people in the future, in that glorious day of freedom and release:
    The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned, he said.
    Thank God for people like Isaiah, who will stand before a suffering people and give them words of hope. Thank God for people like Isaiah, who will stand before a downtrodden people and encourage them to seize the day. Thank God for people like Isaiah, who will stand before a faithless people and turn their eyes back onto a faithful God.

    One such person today is Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian working for peace in Jerusalem. In a recent Christmas message he wrote:
    Some of our people ask how can we celebrate Christmas
    with all the closures and checkpoints,
    with all the injustice and oppression,
    with all the violations of human rights,
    with the presence of a wall that separates families and friends,
    and a multitude of hardships that the occupation imposes to make people's lives miserable,
    how can we speak of love, peace and joy when most of our people and millions of others around the world do not experience liberty and peace?

    The questions are legitimate
    [he continues]. Yet ... The Christmas story is a story of a liberating God who comes to join an oppressed people in the work of liberation. God's message through the angels is a message of defiance. In spite of the presence of empire, human arrogance, and oppression, God is announcing peace and goodwill. This is God's agenda. Glory belongs to God and not to the emperor nor to the powers. Once that is genuinely acknowledged, peace is not far away. [2]
    What does he mean by "A liberating God who comes to join an oppressed people in the work of liberation"?

    Isaiah's hopes were answered in Jesus - who came from Galilee - the place which had suffered the most during the enemy occupation; God chose to be born and minister to the people of Galilee - the people Isaiah said were walking in darkness ... living in the land of the shadow of death. And who in Jesus time were under Roman occupation. Some of them hoping to see a great light; some of them hoping that a light will dawn on them.

    And sure enough, that light did dawn - to the shepherds on a Galilee hillside, and over the stable where they met the God-child. It wasn't a coincidence that Jesus was born there. It was very deliberate. Not for God the easy choice to make himself known in Rome or even Jerusalem, in the attractive places, in the corridors of power. No, the place God chose was occupied territory, a difficult and broken land. Naim Ateek again:
    It is in the midst of the Roman occupation that the Incarnation took place;
    it is in spite of the occupation that Mary and Joseph found joy and love in the birth of Jesus;
    it is in spite of the occupation and in the midst of economic hardships that the shepherds came to visit a family of modest means and discovered great joy and peace;
    it is in spite of the occupation that the Magi came to offer their gifts to the child.
    This is God's way; to come alongside people humbled, struggling, suffering. To bring light into their darkness and give them the chance to see a brighter and better way ahead. In Palestine they say,
    We celebrate in the midst of the occupation and in spite of it.
    Through our celebration we defy the occupation;
    we defy the injustice; we defy the oppressors; we defy the powers. ...
    They do not possess the last word,
    they can build high walls, but they cannot take away our hope,
    they can put us in jail, but they cannot take away our joy,
    they can prevent us from visiting family, but they cannot take away our love,
    they can stop us at checkpoints and impose all kinds of restrictions, but they cannot take away our pursuit of freedom and liberation,
    they can prevent us from going to Bethlehem, but they cannot prevent the spirit of Bethlehem from reaching us...
    I know that Isaiah's Israel and Jesus' Galilee seem like worlds away to us. And Naim Ateek's Palestine too. But we don't have to go that far from here to find people walking in darkness; those living in the land of the shadow of death.

    Some folk we know live in hidden shadows, like the darkness of depression or fear or loneliness; some in our city live in the shadow of dereliction and decay, next door to a wasteland; others again live in the darkness of holding a grim secret, like those who know who killed Rhys Jones but are too frightened to say... We live every day with such darkness. In the midst of all this darkness we see people consumed with anger, or fear, or doubt, giving up on God.

    But the angels said to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid..." and that is the message of God to us and our society tonight.

    When Jesus came to Galilee his message was clear - the light has come into the darkness, the kingdom of heaven is near. His message to the people was repent, turn to him, and receive the good news in your lives, in this place.

    It is still the message today. And for those who choose to accept it, life can be transformed. This is what God means to us; this is the faith we hold at Christmas; that even in the darkest places, light, love, hope can shine.
    For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
    authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
    Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
    His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
    for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
    with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onwards and for evermore.
    The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

    This is a rewrite of an earlier talk, Epiphany: Light in the darkness, given at St Christopher Norris Green, 23 January 2005
    [1] Doug Gay, An Approach to God - Losing my Religion, from Alternative Worship [edited]
    [2] Naim Ateek, The Defiant Spirit of Christmas, Sabeel's Christmas message 2004