Isaiah 60:1 (NIV)
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
The beginning of Advent doesn’t begin in the story of shepherds and angels or even in John’s joyful introduction of a coming Messiah. Advent begins long before, when the darkness was all-consuming, and all hope seemed lost. Advent begins in the dark. Much like light broke forth over the pitch black of an unformed creation, Advent begins in the helplessness and hopelessness of the night. Today’s passage is no different. An important part of our reflection, our preparation for the coming Christ, is remembering the despair of the people of God and how God’s promise entered in there too.
The book of Isaiah is a narrative of the events regarding the people of God during a painful time of destruction and division and Isaiah’s prophecy in it. Just before this passage, Isaiah spoke of sin, conviction, and the death that comes in separation from God. But the previous chapter ends with a glimpse of a coming hope for a people lost in hopelessness.
Before we talk about today’s beautiful words, we have to acknowledge what was happening for those who first heard them. The people of God, long ago, had been chosen, set apart, favored, and protected. Even though they struggled with seasons of great disobedience and rebellion, God would reach in with his promise of redemption and care, repeatedly renewing his promise to make this nation as numerous as the stars in the night sky. But the people of God, in this season of Isaiah’s prophecy, had been divided, destroyed, and oppressed. They were as far from the fulfillment of God’s promise to be a great nation as they could ever be. They had been conquered by another people, their territory divided, and their holy city destroyed.
While they are actively living in the darkness of deep despair, Isaiah commands these words. “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” Arise. Get up. The glory of the Lord rises on you. The power of that contrast has a hard time sinking in for me. In the division. In the despair. When we are convinced everything’s gone, is that when we’re supposed to rise up? And, with a clarity we only have in hindsight, even as Isaiah declared this prophecy, there was more darkness ahead when their holy temple would be laid bare by a conquering nation. The place where they worshiped, the very place of God’s presence with them, would soon be gone.
How in the world can you rise up when so much has fallen flat?
In the darkness of their despair, Isaiah shares a prophecy of encouragement, that God has not forgotten them, that the world’s redemption was still coming, and to not lose hope for the coming of their Messiah and King.
But when you’re in the darkness, it’s hard to believe.
Some of you know our story; many others do not. Part of the redemption of our pain is sharing it, so others can find God in their darkness too. Late in December 2020, actually the day the Bethlehem star appeared in the sky, Gabe and I learned we were, quite literally, miraculously pregnant. Many years before, we had given up hope for biological children, and the Lord healed our hearts through the incredible gift of adoption. But just to show off, the Lord gave us the gift of pregnancy and a sweet baby girl. We shared the story of her miracle with anyone who would hear, so God would be glorified in her gift. Then, just weeks before we expected her arrival, she was gone. Without notice or cause, our little miracle slipped through our grasp. And we fell into a pit of incredible despair.
If you’ve been in a place of deep darkness and incredible despair, you know that somehow the emotions of despair, fury, and heartbreak swirl around in the numbness and confusion that strips you of all capacity. And sometimes, many times, all you can do is allow yourself to be swept up in the grief and the darkness of night.
Just three months after that incredible heartbreak, Gabe and I returned to our spiritual home at the New Room Conference. We needed to be there. We needed our spiritual family and to worship the Lord in spite of our pain. One particular night of the conference, the speaker invited us to a time of ministry and prayer to find our way forward in surrender if we needed to “rise up” out of the graves of our despair.
I couldn’t move forward fast enough and laid myself upward across the steps of the altar and stage. I laid there peacefully, honestly, and in the fullness of grief; I invited God to raise me up, lift me out of this darkness, and restore my broken heart to fullness of life. And as I lay there, he eventually, and so very gently, said to my soul, “not yet.”
The tension of Advent is the pull between the darkness and the light. We live in the pain of actively unfolding darkness, even while the promise of Christ’s breaking into the darkness is already accomplished. The people of God were living in the pain of destruction and oppression, but Isaiah was calling them to take heart in a brightness that would still come, but they couldn’t yet see. He was asking them to believe that the dawn was breaking before it actually did. In fact, it would be seven hundred years before Christ’s light would dawn on earth. Isaiah was encouraging them with hope, the promise that God had not forgotten them, that he would prevail, and one day, in Christ’s time, they would truly “rise up.”
Until then, until that day, the rising of their dawn would not be in the physical arrival of the Messiah or the restoration of their nation; the rising would simply be in them as they allowed the hope of God’s faithfulness to break forth in the dark places of their spirit and bring new life. Though in the darkness of our pain, my “rising” wouldn’t come for a while. When the Lord said, “not yet,” the yet was evidence that one day I would.
This Advent, Christ breaking in through you, maybe the hopeful encouragement that one day, your rising will come, and one day, his return will come too.
Father God, we give you thanks for your faithfulness through the ages. We stand in awe of your vision that can see from the beginning to the end, the promise of resurrection, redemption, and arrival. And we join you in the believing command that your presence with us can raise our spirits, repair our broken hearts, and give us hope to cling to. When we’re not ready to rise just yet, help us to feel your patient presence, waiting with us in our pain, but pointing forward for a day of renewal still to come. And as we walk through our grief, may we, like the words of Isaiah, allow your glory to shine all over us. In Jesus’s name, amen.
Where in your life are you longing for Christ to break through? Are you comfortable lingering in the places of pain this Advent, or are you itching to move forward to the joyful stories of stars and angels? What makes you uncomfortable with God’s “not yet”? Are there places where you can embrace the light of Christ’s hope in your heart, even if your circumstances don’t see relief?
For the Awakening,