Guest Blog: The Night Before and After Christmas

The Night after Christmas, It Was Still Dark
How the story of the shepherds changes our view of suffering.
by Jeff Peabody – November 27, 2020 – Good reading in Christianity Today.

The little Palestinian town of Beit Sahour is believed to sit atop the site where “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8).  Two churches claim to mark the spot of the angelic visitation.  But that is just geography.  This year I find myself less interested in the where of the fields because I am more concerned with the when — the “at night” Luke briefly mentions.  The shepherds’ experience of darkness, both before and after their trip to the manger, holds special relevance for a Christmas arriving in the waning hours of 2020.

It has been a pretty dark year.  In the midst of already dire global conditions, the pandemic has plunged the world into what has seemed like an endless metaphorical nighttime.  It calls to mind when God brought the plague of darkness on Egypt, describing it to Moses as “darkness that can be felt” (Exodus 10:21).  Once again, something palpable seems to have blanketed the world with all the unknowns, fears, and uncertainties nightfall brings.  And as with most nights, we are weary.

Merry Christmas, right?

Maybe the sentiment is not as incongruous as it feels. Maybe the season of joy is right at home in these conditions. “Advent always begins in the dark,” writes Fleming Rutledge.

For most of my years as a pastor, it has felt as though I have been shepherding at night, in the dark.  No grand visions.  No mapped-out growth strategy.  I have prayed regularly for the light-up-the-sky kind of illumination realized by the Bethlehem shepherds.  Just show me what to do, God, and I will do it.  But my eyes have never been able to focus very far ahead.

That blindness became amplified by all that happened this year, like moving from twilight to midnight.  Suddenly, I could not see two steps in front of me.  Staring into a camera week after week to deliver sermons, I could not even see the flock, let alone the fields.  Each new crisis in the world begged for a response I did not have.  Big decisions and future planning became increasingly difficult, even as the need for them intensified.

The Old Testament book of Joel recounts a disastrous pestilence that wreaked havoc on God’s people.  It brought widespread, horrific destruction. In reflecting on those events, Eugene Peterson observed, “There is a sense in which catastrophe doesn’t introduce anything new into our lives. It simply exposes the moral or spiritual reality that already exists but was hidden beneath an overlay of routine, self-preoccupation, and business as usual.”

The virus we are facing may be novel, but the distress we are experiencing is not.  The preexisting darkness has simply grown thicker, making it more difficult to move.  But immobility is not always bad.  When we cannot go anywhere, we are left with sitting and waiting. And if we are still for any length of time, we are more likely to notice what we would have missed otherwise.

Such as those two little words: “at night.”

That first Christmas night created a watershed between epochs of darkness. There is pre-manger darkness and post-manger darkness.  “The shepherds returned,” Luke says, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20).  After everything they saw, they returned to the place they had started.  In other words, they went back to that dark night.

All the brilliant, phosphorescent glory that lit up the entire sky did not end their experience of darkness.  It was still there, waiting for them on the far side of the manger.  And that was to be expected.  The angels had not visited the shepherds to bring a miraculous halt to the rotation of the earth.  They were not there to banish the night.  Glory displayed for one purpose only: to provide the irresistible prompt to seek out Jesus.  A flash of light showed the way to a greater light.

This, I have realized, is where I have often gotten hung up.  I have been praying for a light that will eradicate the dark altogether and get me out of it. I am looking — aching, at times — for clear, confident revelation that will end my confusion for good.  I have been waiting for God to solve life for me.  But honestly, that is more escapism than seeking God’s leading.  And that is not why he gives us light.  He shines his beams of revelation to show us the path to Jesus, the light of the world.

We can learn to reframe our questions from “Lord, when will this darkness be over?” to “What is pointing me toward Christ?” As we do, we may find there is significantly more light in the room than we realized.

The angel’s message began with the reassurance that there was no need to be afraid because God’s rescue plan was in motion.  It encompassed everything (offering joy for all people) and missed nothing (down to the details of how Jesus was bundled).  God’s grasp of history and his utter command of the situation were fully evident.  The birth of Christ happened before the angels arrived, during the unlit hours of the night.  The angelic announcement may have shattered the gloom with its brightness, but the miraculous arrival of Jesus occurred much like his resurrection: “while it was still dark” (John 20:1).

God is at work before we see him, absolutely unhindered.  Our blindness is not His.  “Even the darkness will not be dark to you,” the psalmist says (Psalm 139:12).  He is not intimidated by all the unknowns of night that stop us in our tracks.

That first Christmas night created a watershed between epochs of darkness.  There is pre-manger darkness and post-manger darkness.

Up until then, no one had ever lived in a world where the Son of God had dwelt among us as a fellow human being.  Prior to the Incarnation, God had not fully revealed himself.  As the shepherds sat out in those fields, they were living in a world that could see no more than the outlines of God’s redemption plan.  The veil had not been torn yet.

But then, as Isaiah predicted, a light dawned on the people sitting in that pre-manger darkness.  The birth of Christ changed everything.  Suddenly, there was physical evidence of spiritual action.  The hopes of endless ages were no longer abstract wishes.  They were about to be fulfilled within the lifespan of a real live person.

It was the reality of Jesus — not the light of the angels — that stuck with the shepherds.  As glorious as the heavenly choir had looked and sounded out in the field, it paled in comparison to the staggering truth the Christ child embodied.  Even as they were filled with wonder, the shepherds were given only the smallest glimpse of what was coming.  Their understanding was limited to whatever promise they could imagine from a newborn baby.  They did not know he would literally calm storms.  They did not see him heal the sick or raise the dead or feed the crowds.  They knew nothing of the Cross, let alone the Resurrection.  God did not show them the Holy Spirit’s work at Pentecost, the inclusion of the nations, or how the gospel would advance tirelessly around the globe for the next 2,000 years.  Yet the shepherds had enough light from that encounter to march back into their dark night rejoicing and praising God.

Sometimes we act as though what we are going through is pre-manger darkness.  When God seems silent, when we are bewildered by our inability to figure out a way forward, we make up a greater void than is truly there.  Because in truth, a staggering amount of light has been shed on Jesus since the shepherds.  History continues to provide both evidence and explanation.

I do not mean to minimize or trivialize anyone’s “dark night of the soul.”  When you are in one, it is painful and disorienting, often to the point of despair.  But as believers, our darkness is always post-manger.  Our darkness is forever against the backdrop of the light of Christ.  What has been shown of him cannot be unrevealed.  And Jesus never leaves our side through each season of darkness.  It is those who love us best who stay with us through our worst.  You know love is real when it shows up in the middle of the night.

Someday, morning will come.  Night never lasts forever.  In the meantime, we have Immanuel, God right here with us.  And that means we can return to the dark again and again, rejoicing and praising God for the light we have and the One who loves us enough to remain.  We can heed the angel’s call to not be afraid of this present darkness or any other.  The one born to us that night is still good news of great joy.

Jeff Peabody is a writer and lead pastor of New Day Church in Northeast Tacoma, Washington.

Angels We Have Hear On High – Pentatonix

don’t take sin lightly

Gospel According to GodJohn MacArthur, the pastor from Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and radio personality of Grace To You, a syndicated Christian teaching program, offers some advice in his newest of 150 books, The Gospel According to God.  He remarks that there are some people who take sin lightly — it’s kind of a trendy thing today.  There are lots of churches and lots of churchgoers who are never really confronted by the wretchedness of their own hearts and the sinfulness of their own sin.

We sing very lovely and kind songs in worship and speak often of God’s immeasurable grace.  We share about what we believe about God and His plans for the world; we talk about the details of whether the word, “love” is agape, phileo or storge; we smile and pat each other on the back as we tell each other, “Oh, we’re all doing fine.”  This makes our times together in church very pleasant, but I wonder if we often sacrifice an important part of the Gospel message.

Our message seems to be primarily intellectual.  If you understand and believe you can be all right in God’s eyes.  However, try driving 70mph in a 35mph section of road and try explaining to the officer that you “believe” that the speed limit is 35!

In the past century (no, I’m not quite that old! 😉) the good news of salvation was often presented as a fire insurance policy.  Get saved or go to hell; not as an invective but simply as a statement of what would happen.  Most pulpit ministers never seemed to notice that Heaven and salvation are mentioned many more times in the Bible than hell or condemnation.  Taken in total, the Bible really is Good News!

But missing from the current trend of American churches is a call to repentance based on how terrible our sins are in God’s eyes.  I find it interesting how often the term “grace” appears associated to MacArthur’s name.  Yet he proposes in his latest book that there are limits to that grace, based on our understanding of what the “good news” for us cost Him.  In it he describes the literature of Isaiah 53 in detail, showing how this prophecy some 700 years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem described the life and purpose of Jesus coming to the world, to save sinners from the penalty of their sin.

There is this dichotomy in his thesis: God’s grace sent Jesus to die for our sins (the Gospel), but it is our sins that nailed Jesus to the cross (the reason God had to give us grace!).  He goes on to say we must not take sin lightly, because it was our sin that put Christ on the cross.  How can we treat lightly what he suffered?  To look at Jesus on the cross is to understand just what God thinks of our sin, and it is not pretty.

Passion of the Christ“He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised or crushed for our iniquities. The divine chastening, the wrath of God, was put on him for our well-being. All we, like sheep, have gone astray, but God has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6) How can that be a light thing?” MacArthur asks.  Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ attempted to depict the suffering of Jesus from just prior to His crucifixion all the way through to His death and resurrection.  Several details were historically incorrect, but one thing was clear:  Jesus suffered miserably and horribly at the hands of men for whom He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

As Protestants we usually hang empty crosses in our churches and sometimes I think we miss something the Roman Catholics understand when they have icons of Jesus still there.  They see a suffering savior who went through hell to give us Heaven.  Too often we gloss over the “hell” he went through and jump as fast as we can to “the joy that was set before Him.” (Hebrews 12:2)  We do not like to spend too much time on His “enduring the cross, scorning its shame,” because that is not the point of our lives.  True, He created us for Joy, not sorrow; He created us for Peace, not war; He created us for Love, not disinterest; He created us for Life, not death.

But He accomplished our re-creation by going through that hell, and sometimes He guides us through some of it so that we can identify with Him.
“Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death —
        even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

Otherwise, we might estimate His sacrifice, suffering and death were no big deal.  After all, we think, He is God and can handle it; it must not have been that bad for Him.  But Jesus was fully man as well, a mystery we cannot get our minds completely around, but a truth that the Bible teaches clearly.  And when you see Him on the cross, “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the children of mankind” (Isaiah 52:14), you have to wonder how He could have endured such pain and torture.  Why would He go through all that if He could call 10,000 angels to set Himself free (Matthew 26:53)?

It was because of your sin.  It was because of my sinAll we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)

“If you look at the cross, you will understand the sinfulness of sin.  You cannot make light of it when you see it in that fashion.” John MacArthur

To Be or Not To Be . . . addendum

Please keep in mind as you read this, my heart.  I am not in a position to judge or condemn anyone, if you have read last week’s blog.  And my heart breaks for the suicidal and the problems that take them to the brink of this tragedy.  I also weep for the families and friends affected by the suicide, but we must be clear in our understanding of what the Bible teaches, as painful as that may be: suicide is never God’s will. 

There are those who think “killing” is always against the will of God, but both Hebrew and Greek have different words for “kill” and “murder,” and it is “murder” that is forbidden in the Bible.  As a wise friend of mine says, “Don’t be impressed; you can look it up.”

Suicide world wideSuicide comes under the narrower heading of “murder,” and not the more generic “killing,” because it qualifies as an act of planned slaying of oneself.  Just as the accidental killing of another person would come under the legal term of “manslaughter” and not “murder,” one’s accidental death does not involve the planning and intention required to make it “murder.”  (More on this in a minute.)  But the planned and intentional taking of another’s life IS murder, and the planned and taking of one’s own life IS ALSO murder.

The Bible never excuses one from suffering or difficulty in life, and in fact, promises that endurance of suffering can merit rewards equal to the suffering (1 Peter 4:12-15; Hebrews 12:7-11).  Furthermore there is a promise that The Creator will not test you beyond your ability to bear it (1 Corinthian 10:13).  And if that relief is to come by dying for The Name of Jesus, there is even a promise of special reward that assures the martyr that his/her death is not in vain (Revelation 6:9-11).  Paul was willing even to die for the name of Jesus (Acts 21:13) which, in fact, tradition holds that he did when he was beheaded under Emperor Nero.  In fact, all the first apostles, except John, died because of their testimony of Jesus.  It is important to note, none of these men were rebellious or troublemakers to the local government; none of them sought to take the lives of others; and none of them sought death as though they were looking for a reward.  But each of them faced death with the assurance that Jesus would be standing at the right hand of Father to greet them, just as Stephen had seen (Acts 7:54-60).

However, this bring us to another conundrum with regard to suicide.  It is my opinion that many suicides are “accidental.”  That many people “attempt” suicide and do not succeed suggests these are actually looking for help and hoping that somehow the “suicide attempt” will catch someone’s attention and bring relief to whatever problems are causing this person to tempt fate.  This may leave room for hope, even for a suicide, as his/her death may not have been as intentional as we or legal authorities may assume.  And we do not know the full extent of God’s mercy, even to one who is struggling with life problems that may have them acting foolishly.  So we must be very careful in judging if a suicide was really “self-murder.”

Suicide 1The fact is that suicide is really very simple.  That anyone would “attempt” suicide and “fail” suggests he/she really was not serious about murdering himself/herself.  The tragedy for many of these is that they over-estimate their ability to survive and such tragic deaths occur as a result of miscalculations on how many pills to take or how close to come to the railroad tracks.  So we must leave such determinations of eternal outcomes in the hands and mind of Him who knows the secrets of every heart (Psalm 44:20-22).

We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and really very fragile.  Destroying a life is so much easier than living through one’s troubles, that it is hard to see how someone who seriously reaches that point of deciding to kill oneself would not succeed.  Recall from last week, that suicide is not an act of bravery or selflessness (with the exception of one who willingly dies to save another).

Suicide 2For someone on Warfarin (a blood thinner), a simple overdose would cause significant bleeding, and simply planning to take it before bed would assure that one would die before waking. Tylenol can be effective if one takes enough, but that is a painful and slow death, even if the overdose is discovered.  Most drugs are poison if taken in adequate quantities, and a simple online search will reveal which ones are most effective and at what dosages.

Some auto accidents are survivable, but there are very few cities that would not have precipices that would guarantee a certain death if the auto were to be driven over one of them.  I have only heard of one person who survived a self-inflicted gunshot, and that was because he chose to try a .22 caliber pistol, which left him unconscious and brain-damaged, but alive.  Any shotgun or a higher caliber pistol, like a .45 or .38 or 9mm can be very effective.

Cutting, such as slashing a wrist, is a very risky way to die, as it usually involves some time, where reconsiderations or interruptions may occur, plus you need to understand somewhat of anatomy to make sure you cut the right direction and artery.  Of course, a jump from a tall location or a step onto train tracks in front of a locomotive are also effective ways of ending one’s own life. Hanging is also a very risky way to die, as people have been known to survive for hours, and this method fails in more than 30% of attempts.

Of course, as fragile as we are, there are many other techniques for suicide, from drowning to carbon monoxide poisoning, but the last consideration is how selfish and cowardly suicide is.

Suicide 3However, as we ended last week’s blog, again, I make the appeal: If you know someone who is seriously despondent, do not fear his/her reaction to your question: “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?”  It could be a question than will save a life!

And if you are thinking about ending your life, please, I appeal to you, get help!  It is available, and your situation is not as hopeless as it seems.  As huge as your problems may be, I encourage you to see them as one would see his thumb if you held it just a few inches away from your face.  Your tiny thumb could block the entire sun, and that is what is happening when you allow problems to take you to the brink of suicide.  Take down your hand and let someone guide you to see the life that you are missing.

Most of all, consider Jesus, who for the joy before Himself, did not consider even the suffering and death on the cross to be too much to handle (Hebrews 12:2).  He offers you that same joy, if you will allow Him to enter into your life and lead you.