Fourth Monday of Advent: Night Vision
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.
—Isaiah 9:2 (Read Isaiah 9)
I don’t know if you’ve ever shared a room with someone, gotten into bed before them, and then had the perverse pleasure of watching them come into the dark room, eyes unadjusted, while your fully-adjusted eyes have the magic of “night vision.”
It can be a moment of sheer superiority and amusement, as you are able to watch them, arms fully extended in Frankenstein mode, carefully taking very small steps, unaware of that dangerous nightstand inches in front of them or the pair of shoes precariously perched beneath their feet. It is in that moment when the compassionate soul will gently call out, “Hey, be careful—you’re very close to tripping on that,” as opposed to the prankster in us all that will pretend to be asleep and let things play out as they will.
A short while ago, squarely set in my mid-life years, I had a crisis. I found myself stumbling in the darkness.
It was not comical, it had no amusing edge to it, and I sure hope no one was watching from any vantage point and wondering whether it was more fun to “let things play out.” I was going through a difficult divorce, and having, at best, strained relationships with both my kids, aged 11 and 15. I had been suspended from the ministry, deservedly, and become a bit of a nomad, trying to find a place to live.
The “walking in darkness” part of Isaiah’s famous messianic prophecy here in chapter nine easily applies to my life back then.
It was the darkness of guilt, sadness, and genuine uncertainty about my future. The phrase, “living in the land of the shadow of death,” may seem a bit heavy-handed, but I have never felt such visceral grief. There was a death of sorts hovering over me at the time, and it was the death of relationships, a personal and professional identity, and a way of life that would be irretrievable.
What “great light” dawned on me then to get me to where I am now? How did God shine?
I didn’t recognize it as such as it was happening, but the light that brought me from a stumbling, fumbling, mumbling mess to a wounded=but-functioning child of God—and then later a restored and healthy soul— was this: the light of compassion and generosity on the part of friends, family, and acquaintances.
Some spoke words of kindness and forgiveness, telling me that I was not the monster I believed myself to be. Some reached out with invitations to dinner and lunch, holidays and even a night’s stay here and there. Some offered practical help—a laptop to work on resumes and applications, networking ideas, and job opportunities.
Finally, I was offered the opportunity to rent an old, unused church manse in disrepair. A whole, strange, motley crew of friends and friends of friends furnished the place for me—I literally had nothing to my name at the time. My current wife and I now joke about the five coffee tables I managed to procure.
Each and every piece—all five coffee tables, and all the rest, in every room of that old, beat-up house—was a ray of light in a very dark time.
It took years to feel a true sense of restoration and redemption, but in those early stages, when life felt quite precarious, and the potential for more failure and more falling from grace seemed almost certain, I remember being utterly amazed by the light of God’s grace expressed in the love and kindness of others.
The church welcomed me back into ministry after a period of repentance, my family showed what unconditional love truly looks like, and I married a beautiful woman with her own deep appreciation of God’s light shining in the darkness.
And now, whether I am ministering to others or reminding myself, I know that the salvation and grace that Jesus delivers are gifts of light in dark places. They are not to be hoarded, but shared and proclaimed boldly. They are gifts for the whole world.
The rest of this great passage of the promise of a coming Messiah has to do with a corporate redemption for a dark and contentious world, one that is filled with battles and violence and animosity. The promised Prince of Peace will establish and uphold His reign with justice and righteousness.
I’m not sure how that will all play out, but as I think back on this time in my own life of personal failure, deep regret, and terrible loss, I feel hope rising within me.
I do not know the future, but I know the Messiah who holds all things together. And He never allows us to stumble through the darkness alone.
—John Dykstra is Pastor of Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. He served as CCO campus staff from 1988-91.