To Those Living in the Land of the Shadow of Death

I am finding it difficult to write a Christmas message. It is so easy to fall into the trap of promoting mindless cheer. I am not suggesting that we discard the cheer, only the mindless. No doubt, even as I write this, hundreds of sermons and even more devotional bloggers will be reminding us not to forget “the real meaning of Christmas”. Sadly, far too many of them will also ironically miss it.

 

It will be through no real fault of their own, unless being incapable of seeing past a faulty paradigm can be considered a fault (and I don’t think it can). They will miss it because it is virtually impossible not to be swept up in the dominant philosophies of the time, and for the last couple of hundred years the Christian emphasis has been on Jesus forgiving our sins.

 

At first, that is going to sound heretical. Of course forgiveness of sins was part of the plan. But the plan was so much more beautiful than that. In an age where it seems that the sole aim of following Jesus is to achieve personal salvation, where that ideological framework underpins the vast majority of Christian teachings, it was inevitable that we would end up here: seeing Jesus’ incarnation as being about cosmic justice. And in a way, it is. But justice is about more than simply crime and punishment. It is about restoration too.

 

I cannot begin to convey just how frustrated it makes me that we have turned following Jesus into a list of rules for holy living. The we’ve-been-bad-but-Jesus-came-to-pay-the-price interpretation of His life hugely diminishes the power of the Christmas message. It makes it all about our goodness. It makes the root of the problem our behaviour. But it isn’t. the root of the problem is our ontological state: death. So Christmas is not so much about forgiveness as it is about restoration. Forgiveness is certainly a part of that, but the good news lies in comprehending the rest of it, too.

 

Christmas is always a painful reminder for me of how harsh life can be. It serves to remind me of the painful inequalities in life. While an elite few dine extravagantly and receive lavish gifts for which many will be ungrateful, little will change for the majority. They will languish in squalor and poverty. Many more will have their loneliness amplified, feel the absence of loved ones more acutely, feel the sting of regret more sharply, buckle under the renewed awareness of the weight of their shackles.

And the truth of the matter is that for many of them, God seems silent. Life seems like a barren wasteland, the years looming vast and obscene before them. Forgiveness of sins, important as that is, is scant consolation.

 

Until last week, I had avoided writing about the problem of suffering. I had avoided it because such discussions too easily attract trite truisms and illogical platitudes. And besides, I am not sure I have that much to say. The more one sees of the world, the less there is to say about it, I think. There are no words of consolation sufficient to fill the void left by the loss of a loved one. There are no possible explanations for the world’s awful injustices. Nothing I could say could possibly be appropriate. But I am not sure I can avoid talking about it anymore. Not if I want to talk about Christmas in a meaningful way.

 

I have loved teaching. But it has not been a pleasant journey. Over the years I have been compelled to look squarely at life’s brutality and the seeming indifference of the universe. More times than I can count I have sat with children who have lost a parent, or parents who have lost a child, desperate for answers, with nothing to offer that could justify that grief. I have wept inwardly with children as they told me of how their parents or uncles or brothers or family friends or boyfriends had done despicable things to them, while their futile pleas to God to intervene were met by silence. I have watched children and young adults I loved being ravaged by disease. I have seen families lose everything to burglaries, fire, retrenchment. Somehow the good news that their sins have been forgiven is not enough. Where was God in all of this?

 

Often, I am left feeling like Mary, when her brother Lazarus died because Jesus delayed his trip to see them (John 11). When he finally arrived, Mary lashed out at him, saying that if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died.

 

I don’t pretend to have answers. Honestly, I am not sure there are any. When I feel bewildered and hurt, I remind myself of when Nathan, my son, was a baby, and I had to take him for his vaccinations. I hated having to hold him as the needle went in and the serum burned in his tiny leg. I felt like such a traitor, watching him scream until he was breathless. But I knew I had to. That small hurt potentially prevented a much more devastating one. Nathan would never – could never – understand that. Sometimes I think it must be the same for God. Against the vastness of eternity, these – our lives – are like a pinprick, painful and intense, but short. I trust that He sees a bigger picture where I cannot.

 

I know that is not satisfactory, but it is all I have. That, and a picture of a Jesus who provided no explanation for his absence from Lazarus’ side as he lay dying, but who – upon seeing Mary’s distress – wept. And in the light of those tears, I revisit the Christmas story:

 

Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali – to fulfil what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:13-17)

 

Maybe like me, you cannot help but see how utterly broken the world is. Maybe, like me, there are times when your heart screams under the burden of that knowledge. Maybe, like me, you are sick to the soul of it all and pray for it to end. Maybe, like me, you say to Jesus: “if only you had been here…”

 

I want to remind you of the real meaning of Christmas. We live in the land of the shadow of death, drowning in a darkness that we are powerless to overcome. And we become weary, fighting for breath; we are repeatedly dragged under and buffeted by the waves, until we come up spluttering and gagging, not sure how much longer we can keep going. And so for me Christmas elicits not so much a shout of triumph as a sigh of relief: He sees. I cannot explain His absence. But I know He weeps. And he promises that it will not always be this way:

 

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:17-19)

 

In the person of Jesus, in the very fact of his incarnation, in his teachings and his relationships, his raising of Lazarus from the dead, I see that the light is dawning, there is the promise of restoration and hope, and I find the strength to hold on.

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7 thoughts on “To Those Living in the Land of the Shadow of Death

    • Yes. I see prayer as a lifestyle, not merely words. Like David, or Job, or Daniel, or Jesus himself – everything we do should be treated as prayer. It doesn’t minimise the suffering, but allows us to find hope in the midst of it. We still walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death – there is no bypassing that. But I think the real beauty of Christmas becomes evident when we juxtapose the magnificence that is Jesus’ incarnation with the darkness that is our fallen world. Thanks for the thought 🙂

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