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Advent in a global pandemic

December 2020 | by David Mathis

These have been dark days in 2020, even in the light of spring and summer. A global pandemic and fever-pitch identity politics. Protests devolving into urban warfare and civil division. Fierce hurricanes and raging wildfires.

Those spared great personal suffering and pain haven’t lived under such ominous clouds in decades, if ever. The anxieties of a slow-moving pandemic in a highly contentious election year have cast a long, dark shadow.

As we come into December the dark days get darker. But as Advent begins at the end of November, we can declare the message we’ve far too often ignored: in the very darkest of days, the true light shines out all the brighter.

Advent, the liturgical season of waiting and preparation before the high feast of Christmas, is a fresh chance to regain spiritual sanity, and create fresh and healthier rhythms personally and as a family.

As we enter the six darkest weeks of the year in this hemisphere, we will pivot midway to mark the greatest and brightest turning point in all history: the birth of Christ. Perhaps this Advent will begin restoring what the locusts of the pandemic have taken this year.

Dwelling in darkness

At the first Christmas, all was emphatically not calm and bright. And have we not come to learn, in our own lives, that those Christmases when all has seemed calm and bright didn’t actually prove to be the best ones?

The light of Christ’s first Advent dawned in days of deep darkness. Zechariah prophesied of his coming, ‘The sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1:78-79).

That’s where God’s people found themselves that first Christmas: sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Of course, Matthew 4:16 (echoing Isaiah 42) captures that darkness, and the inbreaking of light, as well as any of our favorite Advent readings:

‘The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned’ (Matthew 4:16).

They dwelled in darkness as they awaited his first advent. Jesus didn’t come to a world already alight with comfort and joy. He came to bring peace to a world at war. He came to bring true comfort to a world distressed. He came to announce good news of great joy to those drowning in a sea of sorrows. He came as light, shining in the darkness.

Two millennia later, it’s easy to overlook just how dark those days were, and how shadowy the details of his arrival: the scandal of an unwed mother with child; the shock Joseph faced to find her pregnant; the suspicions and judgments against her in the small town of Nazareth, where word would spread quicker than fire; an inconvenient and arduous journey to Bethlehem, with Mary at full term; not even modest accommodations while she labored; the indignity of a manger.

Christmas first came when and how our race would have least expected it.

Great unexpected

Add to darkness the great shattering of human expectations. Remember how long God’s faithful remnant had waited. It had been a millennium since the great king, David, and God’s promise to raise up a ruler in his own line who would establish his throne forever.

It had been seven centuries since Isaiah prophesied of Immanuel, and a virgin with child, and a son given with the government on his shoulders, and his name called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6).

Even after Malachi and the closing of the Old Testament, God’s people had waited another 400 years. No one expected such divine forbearance. No one thought it would be so many centuries of waiting after this Messiah had been promised.

Then, as God took the initiative to move the first pieces, none would have guessed Nazareth. Nazareth? Few outside of Israel had ever heard the name, much less expected anything good to come from such an obscure backwater. Galilee was strange enough, so far downstream from Jerusalem – but Nazareth?

And to an unwed woman, after all. Isaiah’s prophecy notwithstanding, a virgin is not found to be with child. The ancients knew this every bit as well as we do today.

And what of God moving literally the whole ‘known world’ of the time, with a decree from Caesar Augustus, to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to David’s town at precisely the time she would give birth, to fulfill Micah’s prophecy (Micah 5:2)?

None would have expected that upon their arrival, there would be ‘no place’ for the mother and her holy child who would be ‘laid in a manger’ (Luke 2:7). This is David’s heir! How would there be ‘no room’ when we might expect a palace? And when we would expect wealthy parents, how could he be born to a couple poor enough to offer the two turtledove provision (Leviticus 12:8) for those unable to afford a lamb (Luke 2:24)?

Would such a child, so long expected, not soon be surrounded by the nation’s greatest dignitaries? Instead, the angel visits blue-collar shepherds and directs them to the manger. And in due course, and one of the most bizarre details of all, magi – pagan astrologers – traverse far to visit the child that the Jerusalem religious elite will not even come down five short miles to Bethlehem to see.

Pierce your own soul

How upside down has God turned our expectations when the Messiah’s family must flee Judah to Egypt? God’s people had emerged from the womb of Egyptian slavery. Out of Egypt God had called his son – and now he calls his Son to Egypt to escape a monstrous tyrant every bit as demonic as the ancient pharaohs who didn’t know Joseph.

Finally came those piercing words from an old man named Simeon in the Temple. Such a passing reference, on the one hand, so easy to overlook, then yet so haunting.

Not only had Messiah come, not only had God himself been born as man, as they would later discover, but he came to embrace the most unexpected event of all: death, even death on a cross.

Simeon had looked Mary in the eye and said, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed… so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed’ – with this earth-shattering parenthesis: ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also’ (Luke 2:34-35).

Your own soul also. ‘I will be pierced?’ she would have asked. ‘Wait, he will be pierced?’

Finding the light

Into a world of such thick, suffocating darkness, Jesus came as Light, and he came to triumph, not be turned back.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5). But holding the darkness at bay didn’t mean his victory was easy or immediate.

Even as his sun rose and began to chase away the darkness, it did not flee all at once. ‘This is the judgment,’ he said, ‘the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil’ (John 3:19).

Yet the tide had turned with his coming. Light had dawned, and he called his followers out of the darkness into his light. ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12).

‘I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness’ (John 12:46).

But while the Light had come, and would prevail, Jesus did not pretend the war against the darkness was over before its time.

Hour of darkness

For three decades, his light pushed back against the darkness. And then, as he went to the cross, he gave the darkness its one last thrust: ‘This is your hour, and the power of darkness’ (Luke 22:53).

The battle of the ages between darkness and light came at last to its head – and God echoed it in nature: ‘It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed’ (Luke 23:44-45; also Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33).

Then followed that Black Sabbath, that longest, bleakest day in all history – the day, from sun-up to sun-down, that the Son of God lay dead.

On Sunday morning, though, the women ‘came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb’ (John 20:1). In the very belly of the darkness, the light began to shine anew. He had risen. Once and for all, Light had dealt the Dark its deathblow.

Shine in the darkness

We now live in fundamentally different days, however dark they may seem. Christ has come, and conquered. The Light has already triumphed, even as we engage in the final campaign. We endure ‘this present darkness’ (Ephesians 6:12) and know well its dangers, but we do so having already tasted Christ’s once-for-all, decisive act of deliverance.

The Father ‘has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’ (Colossians 1:13).

Delivered. Past tense. It is done. ‘God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Just as God spoke light into the dark at creation, so too has he spoken light into our dark souls as new creations in his Son.

Our eyes now see the light. The decisive act has happened. The critical kingdom-transfer has occurred. And so, as Peter says, we ‘proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9).

Once: darkness. Now: light. ‘At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:8).

Most important Advent

God not only brings his light to us, while we sit in darkness, but he makes us channels of his light for others.

As Christ himself said to the apostle Paul, ‘I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God’ (Acts 26:18).

He calls us ‘children of light, children of the day… not of the night or of the darkness,’ (1 Thessalonians 5:5) and calls us to be ‘a light to those who are in darkness’ (Romans 2:19).

Which brings us here to Advent, a precious opportunity in a year of strange and deeper darkness.

Advent reminds us again, ‘The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining’ (1 John 2:8). For many of us, this might be the most important Advent of our lives. It will be telling. Is Advent real? Are we real? What is Christmas really about for us?

Perhaps it will be precisely in the dark days of a year like this that we will see light dawn like never before.

Advent doesn’t pretend the darkness is gone. Our lives may yet grow darker. But Advent looks darkness square in the eye and issues this great promise for our season of waiting: the darkness will not overcome the Light. It is only a matter of time. And Christmas is just around the corner.

David Mathis is Executive Editor for desiringGod.org and Pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St Paul. He is author of The Christmas We Didn’t Expect: Daily Devotions for Advent.