While we think of Christmas as a season of light, the truth is, the birth story of Jesus Christ is filled with darkness. Anticipating the birth of the Christ child centuries before Mary was great with child, Isaiah writes that the light that was coming into the world, came to a people shrouded in darkness (9:1-7). Gloom, anguish, and contempt were just some of the adjectives used to describe this darkness.
Thus, in order understand the full revelation of the light which came into the world when Christ was born, we need to recognize the darkness into which our Christ was born. Today, we will consider seven aspects of the darkness, aspects not out of God’s control, but rather sovereignly ordained such that Christ’s light would radiate all the more brilliantly.
First, when Christ was born, the word of God had not been heard for four centuries. Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament, written in the fifth century BC. It concludes with the statement that God would send Elijah the prophet as a forerunner for the Messiah. But since that last pregnant statement, which would eventually be fulfilled in John the Baptist, God had been silent. And everyone knew it. Listen to some of the Jewish writers of the day.
Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b: ‘After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the voice from heaven’
Josephus, Against Apion: ‘From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets’
1 Maccabees: ‘So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them.’
Without the word of God present among them, the people walked in spiritual darkness.
Second, the people of God were under the oppressive rule of Rome. This is evident in the birth story of Jesus. Luke 2:1 records the census taken up by Caesar Augustus. It was a blatant reminder that the people of Israel were owned by another. Likewise, Herod, a descedent of Edom, ruled in Jerusalem. Long gone were the days of a Davidic king. Much like today, soldiers walked the streets of Jerusalem. Only they were not 19-year old Israelis with M-16’s. They were Roman guards, called to police the city of David.
In some ways, Israel had escaped exile. No longer did they live in Babylon. But in many ways, they were exiles in their own country. Even their own temple was built by a foreigner—Herod the Great was a descendent of a rival nation. Political darkness reigned!
Third, the nation of Israel was fracturing. Four groups in Israel sought and fought to lead the people. (1) The Pharisees resided in Jerusalem. They attempted to shape religious life in Israel through their traditions. Jesus had many run-ins with these legalistic Jews, who led astray the people of God (cf. Matt 23). (2) Sadducees opposed the strict legalism of the Pharisees, and only embraced Moses law (Gen-Deut). They rejected the resurrection, belief in angels, but still had a influential place in the temple and law courts. (3) The Essenes, who lived in a commune near Qumran–they were the scribes who penned and preserved theDead Sea Scrolls–lived an especially pure life. They devoted themselves to God, and prayed for God’s overthrow of Rome. (4) The Zealots were a band of brothers who did not pray for change so much as they sought violent means of overthrowing Roman rule.
The result of these four competing sects in Judaism led to constant friction, only increased by the oppressive rule of Rome. Riots were common. Tension was unceasing. Darkness permeated Judaism.
Fourth, the birth of Jesus came through a virgin. Now, in our day, we celebrate Mary as an example of devotion and faith. We send Christmas cards with creche scenes on them and sing songs praising God for this humble servant. But it was not so then. Matthew 1 records that Joseph, who was a righteous man, one who loved Mary, sought to divorce her quietly. Why? Because everyone knows how a child is conceived! Mary’s child would grow up ridiculed as the son of an unchaste women (cf John 8:41). A virgin birth was not a celebrated event in ancient Israel. Darkness surrounded it!
Fifth, the census was a considerable imposition. Living in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lived more than 100 miles North of Bethlehem. Yet, there was no way around it. They were forced by legal constraint to make the arduous trip. Without a highway, a car, a cushioned seat, or a suspension system; the teenage couple were forced to walk over hills and through streams. While we celebrate the pilgrimmage today with illumined festivity. This was a dark walk.
Sixth, the poverty of Mary and Joseph did not fit the royal son they had. Not only were the conditions leading up to Christ’s birth dark, so too was his birth. Luke 2:7 records that there was “no place for them in the inn.” This is probably because it was filled up with travelers coming for the census; but it may also be the case that Joseph, a carpenter by trade, did not have the means to pay for or to pay extra for a room. Money talks, right? But it is clear, that Joseph had no bargaining power. Mary and Joseph went to the stable, where Jesus was born and laid in a manger. Without family or hospitality, darkness surrounded them.
Seventh, through the hostile forces of Herod, Satan tried to kill Jesus. Poverty was not the only source of darkness; persecution followed Jesus’ birth, so that he was constantly under threat. Matthew 2 records the details.
Matt 2:1-8. Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
Herod, so paranoid for his own position and power that he had multiple family members executed, attempts to use the wisemen to lead him to the Christ child—not to worship, but to exterminate. When he learns that the wisemen have not complied with his scheming, he orders the execution of all the children in and around Bethlehem.
Matt 2:16. Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
The Good News of Great Darkness
Darkness is everywhere in Christ’s birth, which should not come as a surprise when we think of the prophecies in the Old Testament and the conditions of the world that God created. As John 1 says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world, . . . yet the world did not know him.”
The reality of Christ’s darkness is not in itself comforting, but when we consider that Christ came into the darkness in order to bring light, the truth is staggering beautiful. For we all face seasons of darkness, and God in the flesh knows exactly what that looks like and feels like.
Remembering that the light of Christ came in the darkness of night gives us hope that God can still pour light into our hearts and shine light into our lives. No matter how dark it may be, no matter where the darkness comes from, God is the light who enlightens everyone, and has come to take up residence in the lives of those who look to Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss