Isaiah 8:20 – 9:26-7
John 1:1-5
I Peter 1:3-9

During World War II, a woman named Anne took her two little children to Texas to be with her parents over Christmas because her husband was stationed in Europe. As they prepared for Christmas by putting up a Christmas tree and lights, they almost put aside the worry of the war. Then one week before Christmas they got that dreaded knock on the door and the terrible news that her husband had been killed. She had to tell her children their daddy wouldn’t be coming for Christmas ever. And then Anne went upstairs threw herself on her bed and began to weep. Her mother and father debated and finally decided it would be best to take down the Christmas tree, lights and the other decorations. But when Anne finally came out of her room a couple of hours later, she asked, “Why did you guys put Christmas away?”

Her mother said, “Anne, we’re all so broken-hearted, your father and I decided this is no time for Christmas.”

And Anne said, “Oh, no mother, please put the tree and lights back up again, Christmas was made for times such as these.”

Indeed, Christmas was made for times such as these, for with the coming of Christ, a new hope was born. A new hope that is rooted in the 5th verse of John’s magnificent prologue “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5).

Don’t you love how the Bible is so honest, it doesn’t sugar coat life; it acknowledges darkness.

Even in the midst of that first Christmas; it tells of a man who lost his ability to speak when he didn’t believe the angel who told him his “mature” wife was with child. It tells of a humble carpenter who nearly put his betrothed away because she was with child he did not father. It tells of a pregnant woman almost to full-term making a laborious journey to register for a census in Bethlehem. It tells of a mad king killing infants two years old and under in order to protect his throne.

Yes, there were shadows of darkness gathered on that first Christmas too.

But the apostle John reminds us today about what Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary and the parents who mourned their children in Bethlehem eventually learned in a dramatic way 2000 years ago: that no matter how bleak things might seem, there remains the hope-filled light that shines in the darkness!

“What is Christmas?” the pastor asked during the Kid’s Korner.
Most said, “It’s when you get presents;” only one said, “It’s Jesus’ birthday.”
Then a curly-haired little girl of four softly said, “I’ll tell you what Christmas is.”
“Okay, Molly, tell us.”
“Christmas is,” she began hesitantly, then pressed her lips to the microphone and whispered loudly, “Christmas is very shiny.”
The kids began to giggle and the adults snickered too and at the sound, Molly’s round brown eyes misted with tears and her lower lip began to quiver.
But before the pastor could say a word, Molly’s eight-year-old brother, John, quickly came forward and with all the wisdom of a sage he announced, “Christmas is shiny; it is the love of God shining through the darkness.”
A hush fell over that congregation. There was no need for the pastor to add to John’s sermon; message given, message received.

We need that hope-filled Christmas reminder because we know that the world in which we live can still be, and often is, shrouded in darkness and despair.

This past Thursday, Gail and I picked up my 90-year-old mother in Mogadore and took her to Southwest General Hospital to see her 96-year-old sister, who has suffered several small strokes since Thanksgiving and will likely never return to her home again.

Jesus never promised our lives would be free of darkness. In fact, He said, “In this life, you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In his first letter to the church, Peter echoes the teaching of Jesus. He fully acknowledges that yes, “you must endure many trials for a little while” (I Peter 1:6) but that does not mean that God has abandoned us. Peter encourages his readers to believe that when it seems God is absent, He is really most present.

All well and good; easy for you to say Peter! You walked with Jesus! You saw the miracles! You got your sign! When life goes south, when the unexpected happens, isn’t that what we want? “Just give me some kind of sign God that You are there and that You care.”

And Peter says the signs are all around us. They are the people who do not receive a sign, yet still cling to the promise of Emmanuel, God with us. Their faith shines far brighter than gold. They love Him even though they have never seen Him. And though they do not see Him now, they trust in Him. And they rejoice with a glorious inexpressible joy. And their reward will be the salvation of their souls. (I Peter 1:7-9)

Why? Because regardless of how dark it may seem to get, they don’t give up the faith they hold dear.

Shawn Sexton is Joan Long’s nephew. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Kathy. Together they have an 18 year old son, John, who this past fall followed in his mother and father’s footsteps and was accepted at Notre Dame. In November, Shawn was published in the weekly magazine America published by the Jesuits. I would like to read excerpts from his article:

“On the last Sunday of August, I sat in the Purcell Pavilion at the University of Notre Dame. It was “Welcome Weekend” for first-year students, and my son, John, stood near me with the rest of my family. I thought of how blessed I was, how blessed we were, to be there sharing this joyful occasion. For five years ago, I did not know if I would live long enough to see my son off to any college, as after a series of tests eliminated every other option, a neurologist gave me a diagnosis of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Most ALS patients become severely disabled and die within two to five years of the diagnosis. It was hard for me to witness the emotional anguish of John, Kathy, our family members and friends, but I believe God gave us a bit more grace during that time. Kathy and John really stepped up to help me. Over the past five years I have gone from being a fiercely independent person to entirely dependent on other people, especially Kathy, John and my caregiver, Samantha. Before my illness I frequently thought of life from the perspective of what I had accomplished. Throughout my illness, God has reminded me that what is most important is what we do for other people and that He is really in charge. After five years with this disease, I can barely move, I cannot speak or swallow and I get nutrition through a feeding tube.

I have never had the thought “Why me?” God is good. God provides. I am so thankful for all the blessings we have received and for the many kind, prayerful and generous people God has put in our lives.” 1

You need a sign this Christmas that God is with you, need your faith strengthened so that you can get out of bed and face tomorrow? And Saint Peter says, take a look at those who are currently going through the fire and continue to hold their heads up in hope because they know, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1:1).

If life has robbed you of hope, I am asking you to dare hope again.

If you have become so disappointed that you determined never to hope again so you won’t be hurt again, I am asking you to give hope another shot. For truly Christian hope is something we can bite into even when the rest of life seems shaken. We have lasting hope through the salvation we have in Christ. And this hope means that even when it looks like it’s all over, it’s not all over yet.

In December of 1863, as the Civil War continued to be waged, Phillip Brooks, one of America’s best known and well-loved preachers became extremely disillusioned with his faith, and with the Christmas message of love, hope and peace. He didn’t feel like he had anything to offer his congregation that Christmas so he took a leave and went to the Holy Land, hoping to get his spiritual batteries recharged. On Christmas Eve, he rode on horseback the 6 miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The sight of that peaceful village made an indelible impression upon him. As he made his way back to Jerusalem, he began to write a poem in his mind:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by,
Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Christmas was made for times like these.

James Dobson tells the story of an elderly woman named Stella Thornhope, who was struggling with her first Christmas alone. Her husband had died just a few months prior to a slow developing cancer. Now, several days before Christmas, she was almost snowed in by brutal weather. She felt terribly alone; and decided she was not going to decorate for Christmas.

Late that afternoon the doorbell rang, and there was a delivery boy with a box.
“Mrs. Thornhope?”
She nodded.
He said, “Would you please sign here?”
She invited him to step inside and closed the door to get away from the cold.
She signed the paper and asked, “What’s in the box?”
He smiled and opened the box to reveal a little Golden Retriever puppy. “This is for you, Ma’am; he’s six weeks old, completely housebroken.” The young puppy began to wiggle in happiness at being released from captivity.
“Who sent this?” Mrs. Thornhope asked.
The young man set the animal down and handed her an envelope and said, “It’s all explained here in this envelope, Ma’am. The dog was bought last July while its mother was still pregnant. It’s a Christmas gift to you.”
In desperation, she again asked, “Who sent me this puppy?”
As he turned to leave, he said, “Your husband, Ma’am. Merry Christmas.”

She opened up the letter from her husband. He had written it three weeks before he died and left it with the kennel owners to be delivered with the puppy as his last Christmas gift to her. The letter was full of love and encouragement and admonishments to be strong. He vowed that he was waiting for the day when she would join him. He had sent her this young animal to keep her company until then. She wiped away the tears, and then remembering the puppy at her feet, she picked up that golden furry ball and held it to her neck. Then she looked out the window at the lights that outlined the neighbor’s house, and she heard from the radio in the kitchen the strains of “Joy to the World.”

Suddenly Stella Thornhope felt the most amazing sensation of peace fill her soul. Her heart felt a joy and a wonder greater than the grief and loneliness. “Little fella,” she said to the dog, “It’s just you and me. But you know what? There’s a box down in the basement I’ll bet you’d like. It’s got a little Christmas tree in it and some decorations and some lights that are going to impress you. And there’s a manger scene down there; let’s go get it.”

Christmas was made for times such as these for, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1:1).