Many years ago, my wife and I visited the site of the Dachau Concentration Camp, about 10 miles to the northwest of Munich. This abandoned munitions factory in a quiet medieval town was reconfigured into a place of death and suffering. The camp saw nearly 200,000 pass through its gates; Jews, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, etc. We are told that 31,951 were reported killed, but it is believed that many more deaths went unreported.
The camp was liberated by US forces on 29 April, 1945. It was used for holding SS troops awaiting trial and was the actual site of the Dachau war crimes trials. After 1948 it was used to hold ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe awaiting resettlement, and used by US troops during the occupation. It was closed in 1960 and made into a museum which exists so the world does not forget the horrors of war, injustice, and unbridled racism.
How could Dachau ever be considered a place of hope? It happened on Christmas Eve 1944. The place was a cold and dark bunk room where a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, himself a prisoner was preaching a Christmas Eve sermon to the skeleton-like figures huddled around him. This is what he said:
God, the eternally wealthy and almighty God, enters into the most extreme human poverty imaginable. No man is so weak and helpless that God does not come to him in Jesus Christ, right in the midst of our human need; no man is so forsaken and homeless in this world that God does not seek him, in the midst of our human distress…This is what is so singularly peculiar in the Christian message of salvation, which tells us, ‘You need not go to search for God; you should not imagine that he is far from you and is not concerned with what crushes you! He is here and is close to you in the man who, as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, was lying in a manger. All your need is so far from being alien to him that on the contrary he gave himself freely to bear it with you.’ Whoever can grasp this in faith is not forsaken in prison and in death; for in the worst darkness he may say, ‘Thou art with me; thy rod and staff they comfort me.’
This is the significance of Christmas; that God became flesh and dwelt among us. The infinite, eternal God became one of us and fully entered into our human situation so that he might redeem us. I think we still have this mythological notion that if we are facing difficulties, feeling depressed, and experiencing life’s unfairness then our Christmas will be ruined. On the contrary, it is as we do experience such things that we will have a clearer understanding of the true nature of the incarnation; that the God of the Stars has become the God of the brokenhearted.
This is the truth of the incarnation: God stooped so low in Jesus that no one is excluded from his grasp. No, not even you.
Did you ever stop to think how much of your life you have spent waiting for something? In fact, over the course of your lifetime you will spend at least five years waiting in lines and two years just trying to get in touch with people by telephone. You can also look forward to spending eight months opening nothing but junk mail and six whole months sitting and staring at traffic lights that refuse to turn green. In fact, if in order to get to work, your time behind the wheel or on the train averages 60 minutes a day, you will spend six 40-hour work weeks just getting yourself to and from your workplace (taken from Jeff Davidson, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing Time [New York: Alpha Books, 1995.]). That is a lot of waiting!
Speaking of waiting, how would you like to wait 800 years for God to fulfill His Promise in sending the Messiah? That is about how long the people to whom Isaiah wrote Isaiah 9:1-7 had to wait for Christmas, in the face of a gathering darkness over their culture because they had turned their backs on God.
In 8:21, 22, Isaiah described a nation that was experiencing emptiness and dissatisfaction (loss of meaning and hope); a nation angry and cursing their government and their God because they believed that no one cared. Does this sound like our nation? America is filled with people who have diametrically opposed political vision calling down doomsday curses on those who do not agree with them. Many spout love for country and patriotism, while on the inside they are angry and empty people living in fear and anxiety. They resemble the Hollow Men in TS Eliot’s poem… “We are the hallow men, we are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw, our dried voices are quiet and meaningless… we are shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without meaning… hollow men, stuffed men.” When we (individual or nation) run from God, we run from meaning and hope and light into darkness and confusion.
Yet, it was in such a cultural context that Isaiah 9 wrote “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 Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan– 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.”
Matthew quoted this Scripture in Matt 4:15, 16 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a Messianic fulfillment. However, the Matthew text not only refers to the area of northern Galilee where the ancient tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were once located, but also to a more specific region called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This was the region in which many non-Jews lived; those who were despised by the majority Jewish religion, and seen as having no hope and living in spiritual darkness. Thus Matthew saw the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of Messiah coming not only to a run-away culture, but also to those most hopeless, most benighted- those “walking in the darkness,” those “living in the shadow of death.” It is upon these that the great light of Messiah will shine.
And so we see the Promise over against the waiting here in Isaiah 9; the gloom is not final and the darkness is not absolute. A light will shine, life will come, hollow men will become real, hungry people will be filled, and thirsty people will be satisfied. Because… A child will be born, a Son will be given. His name will be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace and His government will never end.
Christmas was promised 800 years before it was fulfilled. Against the darkness of national tragedy and personal humiliation there was a Promise of the Coming of Jesus Christ; a light in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sadness, victory in the face of defeat. I love this because it is an example of the very pattern of God to show up just when we think things are beyond hope. It is in the darkness that the light shines most clearly. It is in the presence of death that we see most powerfully experience the hope of eternal life. Martin Luther saw this pattern in the crucifixion: it was at the moment of greatest darkness and despair for the disciples that God was doing his greatest work. Luther called it the “Theology of the Cross.”
And so, if in this Advent season you are at the end of your rope and feel there is no hope left. “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you… ” (Isaiah 60:1-3) A child has been born, a son has been given and God may be doing a great work in your life! Remember the Cross!
It is hard to believe that the Advent season is already upon us and with it comes opportunities to share the gospel even in a secularized culture like ours. Since I am the Chaplain of the Graduate School at Wheaton College, I have access to material that could be helpful for you to create an entry point for some interesting conversations with neighbors and friends this season.
The Billy Graham Center has created a resource to help you begin faith conversations this Season with those who don’t know Christ. You could also use them with your children as a part of the 12 days of Christmas celebration leading to Epiphany.
The above link will take you to the site (copy and paste in case it doesn’t take you there) and the link below to a PDF file if you want to make a copy. May God help us to be good stewards of the good news this Christmas.