Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-7
It stared on October 27th this year. While most of the culture was focused on haunted houses, horror movies, costumes, and candy, the Hallmark channel was getting an early jump on strands of lights, hot cocoa, snowmen, and Christmas miracles. On October 27th this year the Hallmark channel premiered “Christmas at Pemberly Manor”. Between October 27th and December 29th there will be a total of twenty-two Hallmark Christmas movies that premier. I know statistically there is a good chance at least a couple of you have some tentative plans to watch one of those movies, A Gingerbread Christmas, when it premiers on the Hallmark channel tonight. I know this because the Hallmark Christmas movies get huge ratings for cable TV. Thanks in large part to its holiday movies the Hallmark channel’s ratings is often in the top three or four right behind powerhouse channels like FOX news and ESPN.
From a strictly critical point, it can be a head scratcher as to why these Christmas movies are so popular. They tend to be almost the same movie remade. Sure, one is about an architect clashing with the owner of an old theater and another is about two bakers competing to build a gingerbread house, but the plot is all the same. The couple, that are both fairly likeable, start off at odds at each other. They interact with each other against Christmas-y set pieces, romantic comedy hijinks ensue, and the movie ends with the two kissing. Seriously it does not matter if you watching Homegrown Christmas or Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe they all follow the same formula.
Despite that, these movies are crazy popular. Bill Abbott, an executive for the channel, sums up why perfectly in an interview where he stated, “We branded ourselves the happy place. We are a place you can go and feel good.” Last year Netflix tried to cash in on Hallmark’s game and released the very Hallmark like “A Christmas Prince.” This movie also found an audience with people looking for a place to be happy and feel good. While it was meant to be a funny tweet, Netflix hit this nail a little too directly on the head. Last December 10th, Netflix tweeted out: “ To the 53 people who've watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”
The likely reality for some of those 53 people is someone did hurt them. The reality is that there was pain and loss in their lives, and one of the ways they chose to cope with it is get lost in a sugary sweet story of a prince and Christmas romance. For a lot of people, this is a time of the year that is highlighted by festivities, family, and cheer. The reality is that for others that is not the case. For some people Christmas time is here, and it hurts. In the Elvis Presley classic Blue Christmas he crooned, “I'll have a Blue Christmas without you. I'll be so blue just thinking about you.” The reality is that some people feel that in their souls. The reality is that life circumstances will work out that at some time or another, all of us will go through a holiday season that feels a little blue. During those seasons of our lives this morning’s scripture reminds us why reminds us why our joy should be greater than our sorrow.
The time period that Isaiah lived in was a dark one. For nearly two hundred years the Israelites had been mostly in rebellion against God, and there had been a lot more evil kings who led the people in idolatry than there were kings who honored God. One of the kings who ruled during the time of Isaiah’s ministry, Ahzaz, is even recorded in the book of kings of sacrificing his own child to a detestable pagan deity. The kings and the people had largely ignored the prophets and the consequences the prophets had warned about were now being reaped. This morning’s scripture mentions that God humbled Zebulun in the land Naphtali. This region had been conquered by the Assyrians, and it’s people were taken off into exile. The handwriting was on the wall, the rest of the northern Kingdom was next, and the Southern kingdom was also under threat.
It was a time of spiritual darkness, it was a time when the future seemed uncertain and bleak. It was a time of gloom and dread. However, in the midst of that time, sandwiched between prophecies of warnings and God’s anger, Isaiah offers up hope. Isaiah writes of a future when the desecrated and ravaged land of Galilee in Northern Israel will be given redemption. Out of the desolate and forsaken land, a savior will rise and “he will be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
One of the common themes found throughout Isaiah as well as the rest of the prophets is that even it gets worse, it will get better. In the midst of dire warnings and destructive announcements of what will happen if the people persist in unbelief the prophets include promises of restoration. They include reminders that God is faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to God. When we are confronted with pain and loss, the prophets include messages of hope and joy. During this holiday season, a time for some that is a Blue Christmas, this prophecy from Isaiah can be a comfort in two ways.
The first comfort from this morning’s scripture is found in verse 2, The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” This is reminder that with God, the light will always break through. No matter how dark things can seem in our lives, the light will come again and the sun will rise. It does not matter if the darkness we experience is sudden and chaotic or a long aching hurt, this scripture reminds us that God’s light has come into the world and the darkness cannot overcome it. This scripture is a reminder that there is no darkness that the light of God cannot break through and there is always, always a reason to have hope and joy.
There is an old story that illustrates this. Betty was a woman of faith, but the past few years had not been easy on her. Things really got bad after her husband of many year passed away, because while she was still recovering from that loss she was diagnosed with cancer. It had been a long and painful road of hospital visits, failed treatment, and constant tests that seemed to only give worse news. It came to the point that Betty was admitted to hospice care, and one day her minister came to visit her. Betty was very frank with the preacher and told him, “Pastor, I know it will not be long until you are doing my funeral. I want you to know, I have one request. I want to be buried with a fork.” Completely taken back and flabbergasted the minister tried to keep his professional demeanor and asked “why?”
Betty continued, “Growing up, my mother would always tell to hold on to my fork because dessert was still coming. I want you to bury me with a fork, so that at that funeral when everyone ask about the fork, you can tell them she is saving her fork because the best is still to come.”
This prophecy in Isaiah about a child being born was made hundreds of years before an angel came to visit Mary in Nazareth, so from Isaiah’s perspective the best was still to come. This is true for us as well, no matter how dark life feels, no matter how deep loss is, and no matter how sharp the pain is the light has dawned and the best is still to come.
The second comfort this scripture can give us, is that God does not give up on us. The Israelites, especially of the northern kingdom, had been mostly faithless to God for generations. They had broken their covenant and they had not followed or honored God, but God did give up on them. This morning’s scripture shows that God had a greater plan. God had a greater plan, not just to restore and redeem Israel, but to restore and redeem all people back to God. This morning’s scripture contains the prophetic announcement of a child to be born who will be called Wonderful counselor and the prince of peace. When the angels appeared to Joseph, another title was added to these, the child to be born should be called Immanuel, which means God with us. This morning’s scripture which foretold the birth of Jesus, and the birth of the Christ child itself, is a reminder that God is with us, and God does not abandon us.
This is a point that Isiah makes repeatedly. This morning’s scripture comes from the beginning of Isaiah, but later on in Isaiah 43 we find these verses, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” These words of assurance were true for the people of ancient Israel, for God was not going to forsake them, and they are true for us as well. No matter what we are going through in life, God has and will not give up on us. God will see us through, because God is with us.
It needs to be openly acknowledged and stated that this can be a hard time of the year for some people. We often think that this time of year has to be as it is portrayed in the Hallmark movies, everything is perfect, sugary sweet, and happy. Because of that when someone feels less than holly, jolly this time of the year there is a temptation to suppress that instead of taking the time to grieve. When we suppress are sadness and do not deal with, then it tends to just grow in the darkness. So I acknowledge that for some of you this tough time. For some this is part of the year of firsts, and you especially miss that loved one now. For others that feeling has never really gone away, and no matter how many Christmases pass they still can feel a bit blue from time to time. We need to openly acknowledge that life, real life is not a Hallmark movie, and that in real life pain and loss are present.
We can and we should acknowledge those feelings but, we cannot and we should not let those feelings overcome us. The Holiday season can be hard for people because it is a reminder of loss, but it should also remind us that our reasons for joy are greater than our reasons for sorrow. This season is a reminder that even though we all have darkness in life, because of God’s great love we can also have the light of Christ that will never be extinguished. This season is a reminder that Prince of Peace came into this world as baby in Bethlehem, hung on a cross as a man in Jerusalem, and now reigns over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on forever and ever. This season should remind us that the best is still to come because best of all God is with us.
The holiday season can sometimes be tough, but may we not lose sight of the prince of peace. May we remember that Jesus is the reason for the season because God is with us. No matter what you are going through may that be a source in your life of great joy. May it be a light in heart and soul that nothing can put out. May the goodness of God’s love for you made known by Christ uphold you and sustain you. Even if this is an especially hard time for you this year, may you hold onto your fork. Because brother and sisters in Christ, I promise you the best is still to come.