In our sins we have been a long time…
It seems appropriate that Advent is celebrated as the days grow shorter and the nights longer. Many of us enjoy the extended hours of darkness this time of year because it gives the lights hung on trees and houses longer to shine. Indeed, many of our Christmas celebrations and traditions take place in the dark: The lighting of the tree, Christmas Eve candlelight services, Christmas concerts, slow drives through neighborhoods with the best lights, and 5:00 a.m. gift openings.
Advent is a season that anticipates the celebration of Christ’s birth. What is sometimes lost in the seasonal observation is that Advent, as a series of days, is quite different from Christmas. Advent is not meant to be 24 days of Christmas preceding the big day where we all get to finally open presents. Advent is meant, in part, to remind us of the sinful darkness of the world in which we live.
The prophet Isaiah pointed out the terror of the silence of God: “…for you have hidden your face from us…” (vs. 7c). The silence to which Isaiah refers reached a deeper degree during the period between the prophet Malachi and the ministry of John the Baptist. During that “intertestamental period,” which lasted in the neighborhood of 400 years, there was no prophet in the land; no word from God to his people. The temple and all its operations continued on. And it is likely that many of God’s people did not recognize the silence. Life went on. The absence of a word from God did not halt the religious practices of the people. But God was silent and the world went dark.
During Advent we do not look away from the darkness. We do not ignore the terrible prospect of life without God. This darkest of all earthly darkness was what the world experienced in the generations leading up to the birth of Jesus. Darkness had settled upon the land and its inhabitants scarcely noticed. For some 400 years there was no “Thus says the Lord.”
This thick spiritual darkness is one of the things which makes the preamble of John’s Gospel so striking. The coming of Jesus into the world was jarring. It enraged Satan and his demons. It stirred up King Herod into a murderous frenzy. Light is disruptive in a world so used to darkness. Of Jesus’ entry into our world, John writes: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (vv. 4-5). John goes on to use the word light in reference to Jesus a total of five more times in the first nine verses of his preamble. For a world which had walked in shadows for so long (without realizing it!) the Apostle rattled his hearers by deliberate repetition into recognition of the Light which now had come into their darkness.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone. (Isaiah 9:2)