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I love Christmas lights too ... except when they tangle, break, and jack up my electricity bill every December. Truthfully though, I love just everything about Christmas. It's all so feel-good, what's not to love? For the average American Christian to say she doesn't like Christmas would be like the average American turkey saying he doesn't like vegetarians.
Even for those of us who not only love Christmas for the flashing lights and free gift wrapping at the mall, but for its spiritual significance, it's still hard to keep from getting distracted by all the neon lights and general hype. How many of us, like Snoopy in A Charlie Brown Christmas, "go commercial" once Black Friday announcements start arriving in our mailboxes (and inboxes, and Facebook newsfeeds, and Twitter accounts, etc)? We waste our time - and money - at the toy store and body shop, not to mention the post office, and feel pangs of guilt because we know we should also be preparing our heart for worship, meditating on the inconceivable concept of Christ Incarnate.
How do we keep from pulling a Snoopy and going completely commercial? Advent devotions don't come with a guarantee ("If you read one devotion a day, you will not go into debt this holiday season, you will get all your shopping done with a cheerful and peaceful attitude, and you will refrain from decking the man who tries to cut in front of you in the USPS line") but at least they help you spend a few minutes each day focusing on the real reason for this joyous time of Christmas.
Well, we started our advent devotions this morning (a day late, but don't tell the neighbors). And I came to a striking conclusion: No matter what advent devotional you use, no matter how many different advent books you buy and go through over the years, no matter how hard you try to "spice it up" and add variety to your family's advent experience, the first day of advent will always include a Scripture reading from Isaiah. I find this only slightly ironic considering the fact that Isaiah lived hundreds of years before the angels appeared to the shepherds with the urge to "go tell it on the mountain."
This morning while eating stale leftover cereal (I'm trying to make room in the cupboards for all our extra Christmas cookie ingredients) the boys and I read Isaiah 9:2. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light." Again with the lights theme. You'd almost think Isaiah was getting some kickbacks from Walmart's home decorating department, wouldn't you?
If you're like me, you've probably heard this verse in regards to advent a few dozen times. Unfortunately, we're so obsessed with Christmas lights that we try to forget about the darkness that consumed the world at the time of Christ's birth.
Do you have a nativity scene? So do we. But it certainly doesn't include the soldiers who slaughtered all the boy babies of Bethlehem. It doesn't have the crucifixes in the background where Romans tortured Jews by the hundreds - those who were guilty as well as those who were innocent.
Christmas is a beloved holiday, and rightly so. Believers and unbelievers alike adore Christmas because it makes us feel so darn good. We light up our trees (and our garage doors, and our window sills, and our roofs, and yes, even our brooches) and we sit down and watch George Bailey promise Mary the moon. Why? Because we all are living with the absolute certainty that Christmas is supposed to make us happy. (Case in point: Nobody has ever watched Schindler's List in order to get into the Christmas spirit, right?)
Now don't get me wrong. I'm as much a sucker for the steroidal-sized endorphins running rampant this time of year as anyone else. Show me the Ghost of Christmas Present blessing the feast of even the humblest of London's poor, and I'll probably choke up. (I've even been known to cry listening to Junior Asparagus singing Christmas carols on our boys' VeggieTales album.) And, lest there are any thinker-judgers out there reading this article, crying because something sappy tugs at my heart actually means I'm quite happy, thank you very much.
But with our addiction to feeling good at Christmastime, have we forgotten the truth of Isaiah 9:2? The people of Jesus' day were walking in the darkness of sin. They were oppressed by a horrific regime. They were in slavery - to their fears, to their sin, to their captors.
Is that description jingling any bells in your head?
Jesus was born into a dark world. That's the whole point. So this advent season, as you plug in your flashing Christmas decorations and light up your gingerbread and allspice candles, don't forget that Jesus came for us, "a people walking in darkness" - the darkness of the world around as well as the darkness of our own personal sins.
Are you walking in darkness or light? Are you crouching in secret, hoping no one will discover your guilt? Jesus said that "Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed" (John 3:20). Maybe this advent season is the time to confront that sin that's been holding you in bondage. "Bring it into the light" by confessing your struggle to someone you trust.
Are you harboring hatred or forgiveness? John tells us that "Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble" (1 John 2:10). Are you living out this season in the light of love or towards darkness of unforgiveness? Are you ready this advent to let go of the pain and hurt of bitterness? Are you willing to extend grace to someone who has wronged you .... again?
Are you a flaming light on a stand, or a flickering candle under a bowl? Jesus reminded his disciples that nobody lights a lamp just to cover it up. "Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light everyone in the house" (Matthew 5:15). As Christians, we have been given the light of Jesus Himself. But are we letting it pierce the darkness around us? Who do you know this advent season who needs the peace Immanuel brings? Pray for opportunities to introduce those who are walking in darkness to the true Light of the World.
Are you broken over the darkness around us? This advent, while we spend money on fancy presents that our kids will play with for a day, a week, or a few months if we're lucky, there are parents worried for their children who have run away, who have been given devastating diagnoses, who have been shipped overseas to fight dangerous wars. While we fret over how much weight we'll gain this holiday season and go out and buy our turkeys and hams, there are literally millions of people starving in the world today. Some of them reside in our very own zip codes. Are we willing to mourn over our neighbors' misfortunes? Are we will to break the yokes of their oppression through prayer?
Are we willing to weep this Christmas ... not when Clarence gets his wings, but when babies die in senseless wars, when children starve in horrific famines, when families suffer in ruthless regimes? To truly prepare our hearts to worship the Light of the World, we need to start by realizing just how deep the darkness here really penetrates.
It's a darkness that will take much more than blinking brooches to overcome.
What about you? What advice can you give others who want to shine more brightly this advent season? What area will you be focusing on this advent to make the world a brighter place? (Feel free to leave your comment below.)