I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but we’re going through a season of change. Maybe you’ve felt it, the leaves falling off the trees. It’s colder now. Perhaps you’ve had to scrape ice from your windshield this morning. We’ve been through Thanksgiving. We’ve been through Black Friday. We’re moving into the Advent season. Of course, Christmas season unofficially began at the department stores before Halloween.
But, even during Advent season, perhaps you’ve noticed the shift. Along with that shift comes all of the Christmas music that you could ever want to hear. You hear it when you go to the mall or the clothing store or the department store. You hear it when you turn on the radio over and over again. You hear it when you stream music through your app.
It’s not just Christmas carols. It’s also secular music which is a multi-billion-dollar industry. In fact, in the year 2012, the BBC published a documentary that was called, “The World’s Top Ten Richest Songs.” These were the highest grossing songs in the world. Did you know that three of the top ten highest grossing songs in the world are Christmas songs? Here’s one of them.
Back in the year 1934 a publisher in New York City approached a lyricist by the name of Haven Gillespie and said to Gillespie, “You know, I think that you have a vocabulary that children can understand,” which I don’t think really is a complement. He went on to say, “I’d like you to write a Christmas song.”
So Gillespie sits down with his collaborator J. Fred Coots. He writes down some lyrics on the back of an envelope. It takes him about 15 minutes. It takes his collaborator J. Fred Coots not much longer, and they come up with the song, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” That song has made $27 million. The families have a copyright on it until the year 2029. Every time you hear it, they make a little more money.
Now, the second song was written in 1934 by a jazz musician by the name of Mel Tormé. It’s called, “The Christmas Song,” and it goes like this: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose.” He wrote it in the middle of a blistering Los Angeles summer with his collaborator, so I assure you there were no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and there was no Jack Frost nipping at his nose on that particular day. It took them 45 minutes. They made $20 million dollars off of it, and Mel Tormé, who is Jewish, has profited greatly off of that Christmas song.
But, these two songs pale in comparison to the number-one-selling single in the world. It’s the second highest grossing single in the world next to Happy Birthday (which is trademarked, by the way) and the song has made $30 million. It was written in 1940 by a Jewish immigrant from Russia by the name of Irving Berlin. It was sung by a young man who was nicknamed Bing when he was 7-years-old. What’s the name of the song? “White Christmas.”
Here’s the thing. Songs have power, don’t they? Songs have the power to move us. They get stuck in your mind, an earworm in which the song loops over and over and over again. You find yourself singing it, and you don’t know why you’re singing it. Songs have power to move us, to compel us to act, the power even to change our mood. Sometimes we’re in a bad mood. We turn on a song, and we notice something starts to change. It was the Scottish writer Andrew Fletcher who put it this way, “Let me write the songs of a nation. I do not care who writes its laws.” Because songs are especially powerful. Think about oppressed, marginalized, and disinherited communities. In the midst of hardship, strife, and suffering, how else would these communities get through the hard night but to sing a song? Song of hope. Songs that one day morning will come.
Songs have power, which brings us to our text for this morning: Isaiah 9. It’s not a letter. It’s not a story. It’s not a vision. It’s a song!
(Read Isaiah 9:1-7)
Songs have power. Song have power to bring hope when there is no hope, to bring joy when there is no joy, to bring light in the midst of darkness, freedom in the midst of bondage.
It’s important to understand this text in its context. So often we abstract it out of its context. This is happening 700 years before the time of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah is lifting up this song of hope in the midst of darkness, difficulty, and distress. A northern nation, by the name of Assyria, was oppressing the northern kingdom of Israel, and so that nation was in the midst of bondage, difficulty, distress, and hardship. They, like we, had a choice to make. Would they turn to God? Or would they try to do things on their own path? It’s a choice you and I have to make every day, whether or not we’re going to walk in the light or remain in the darkness. So, the choice they make is the choice we so often make.
Isaiah 8:19-22 sets the context for Chapter 9:1-7.
(Read Isaiah 8:19-22)
Not exactly the verses you want on a Christmas card, right? But, it’s important. Here’s why.
When God Offered Us Light, We Opted for Darkness
That’s what’s happening. A people that know that they should inquire of God decided instead to consult mediums and spiritists. You say, “Well, that was them and this is us, and that was then and this is now.” But, you know what? I assure you that there are plenty of spiritists and mediums that people are consulting today.
A people who were people of the Torah, people of the Book, who knew that they needed to drill down deep into the Word of God, instead of consulting God and inquiring of God and looking into Torah, they needed to be commanded to consult God’s instruction and to heed the testimony of warning. In the midst of “being famished,” they became enraged. When looking upward, they had the opportunity to praise their God and their king. You know what the text says? “They cursed their God and their king.” They, like we, when looking down at all the havoc and chaos that had been wrought, saw darkness, distress, and gloom.
When God offered us light, we opted for darkness. Now, you don’t need me to persuade you that darkness is real. You watch the news, consult a website, read the paper, look around. We see it in our society. We see it in our system and structures, and really we see darkness at a relational levels as well.
In a congregation this size, someone knows the experience of the pain of divorce. Someone knows the experience of being a survivor of abuse. Someone knows the experience of debilitating depression and crippling anxiety. Someone knows the experience of needing to heal from past hurt. Someone knows the experience of losing a loved one. Someone knows the battle of addiction.
Yes, darkness is real. And it’s not just that darkness that is out there. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll begin to realize that the darkness is not just out there, but the darkness is in here. The poet Dean Young puts it this way, “You start with the darkness to move through, and then the darkness moves through you.”
I remember hearing a story some time ago about a little boy who had been writing letters to Santa, but Santa hadn’t been giving him the gifts that he wanted. So, he decided to work his way up the organizational chart and complain about Santa by writing a letter to God. So, his letter begins this way, “Dear God, I’ve been good all the time this year so I would like lots of presents.” Then, he crossed out one part and started over: “Dear God, I have been good most of the time this year so I would like most of my presents.” He crossed it out again, “Dear God, I am reasonably sure I have been good some of the time this year so I would like some of my presents.” He crossed it out. He looks over at the little Nativity set that his parents have laid out right by the Christmas Tree, notices the little baby Jesus in the manger and decides to pick him up and hold him in his hand. Then, he writes his letter this way: “Dear God, if you ever want to see your son again, then I want all of my presents this year.”
Now, we like to tell ourselves stories like that one, stories that poke fun at something we already know to be true. The darkness isn’t just out there, is it? The darkness is in us, too. So, what do we do? Yes, it’s true, that when God offered us light, we opted for darkness. But, there’s something else that’s true, too. Look back at Isaiah 9:1, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan – The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
Yes, it’s true that when God offered us light, we opted for darkness, but you know what else is true?
God Refuses to let Us Remain in Darkness
You know what one of my favorite words is in this text? It’s the word, “Nevertheless.” We wouldn’t have time to do this today, but I assure you if we made the time, we could hang around here all day. Person after person would come up, and do you know what their testimony would sound like? They would say this:
-“When my marriage fell apart, I thought my life had fallen apart. Nevertheless, God!”
-“When my loved one died, I thought that I had died. Nevertheless, God!”
-“I left a wake of people that I had hurt and harmed and had plenty of regrets behind me. Nevertheless, God!”
Now, I know that I’m not yet who I want to be, and I know that I’m not yet who I’m supposed to be, but I know that I’m not who I used to be. Nevertheless, God!
God refuses to let us remain in darkness. We see it over and over again in this text. If you look at verse 1, it says that in the past, in the former time, he humbled the people in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. But, in the future, he will honor the people in Galilee of the nations.
This is an especially important theme, and here’s why. Galilee of the nations was a foreign place. It was a backwards place. It was a non-Jewish place. It was a dangerous place. But, in the midst of a backwards, foreign, dangerous place, God is able to take a people who have been living in shame and bring them honor. It’s important because Matthew 4:13-15 says, “Leaving Nazareth, Jesus went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali to fulfill what was said by the prophet Isaiah: Land of Zebulun and Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Nations”
Isn’t it curious that Jesus would conduct his earthly ministry in a backwards, foreign, and dangerous place? So, for a people living in shame, God promises that he will bring honor.
Then, in verse 2, for people living in darkness, God promises that he will bring light. In fact, the prophet Isaiah is sure enough about it that he’s willing to say that God has already brought his light into the world. It’s in the perfect tense. He’s sure enough about it even 700 years before the coming of the Messiah as he is sure that the Sun will rise in the East and set in the West. The God that brings honor to those who are in shame is the God who brings light to those who are in darkness.
Verse 3: the people who are experiencing despair will someday experience joy. Joy over despair. Verse 4 continues, “For as in the days of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.” Those who are in bondage, those who are shackled, will one day experience the freedom that only God can bring. And, verse 5. For a nation accustomed to violence, for a people accustomed to indemnity, God promises to bring peace. The God who brings honor over shame is the God who brings light over darkness is the God who brings joy over despair is the God who brings freedom over bondage is the God who brings shalom over violence.
If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ this morning, you know a God like that. Let me tell you something. The world doesn’t need more Christians blowing each other up on social media. The world doesn’t need more Christians trying to cozy up to people in power. The world doesn’t need more Christians who would rather be right than be reconciled. And, the world certainly doesn’t need more churches who are better known for what they are against than for what they are for.
You know what the world needs? The world needs Christians who are bearers and testifiers to a God who brings light into darkness, who brings freedom to bondage, who brings honor over shame, who brings joy over despair, and who brings peace in the midst of violence. As Walter Bruggeman likes to put it, “a God who injects hope into impossible situations.”
But, how does he do it? How is it that he refuses to let us remain in darkness? I remember talking to a parent—my kids are now 10, 12, and 6. I like to talk to other parents and to try to get wisdom to help me do this thing that I never thought would be so difficult. I’ll never forget talking to one parent whose child was having all kinds of behavioral challenges: behavioral challenges at school, behavioral challenges at church, and behavioral challenges in just about every single social situation. So, I asked this parent, “So, what do you do? I mean, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?” The parent said, “I get close to this little boy. I pull him close, and I say to him, ‘I love you too much to let you do this to yourself.’”
You and I know a God like that. If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ it means that you’ve been found by a God like that, a God that loved you too much to let you do this to yourself, which brings me back to my question. How does he do it? Isaiah 9:6 says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
As I was preparing for this message, I looked at the various commentaries and at what other people have said about this text. There was one particular observation that struck me. I had never really seen it before. The person put it this way. He said, “For a child to be born, well that’s more on the side of human agency.” Of course, it’s a miracle that the virgin Mary conceives and gives birth to the Son of God but, “That’s more on the side of human agency.” The commentator made this observation: “For a son to be given, for the Son of God to be given, that would require divine agency. There’d have to be a Father who loved us enough to give his one and only son. “For to us a child is born, and to us a son is given.”
God Is a Generous God
Did you see the titles? They mean that God is a powerful God. A wonderful counselor means that his purposes and plans are always right. To say that he’s a Wonderful Counselor means that his plans are perfect even if we don’t feel like our plans are perfect. There’s an old saying that goes like this: “The surest way to make God laugh is to tell him about your plans.” But, to say that he’s a Wonderful Counselor is to say that, even if I don’t see it right now, there is something above and beyond me that’s able to conceive the plans and purposes for my life that I can’t see right now.
To say that he’s a Mighty God is to say that he’s a mighty warrior in battle. To say that he’s an Everlasting Father means that, in a world that is broken with broken families and broken relationships, that there is an everlasting Father who can be the perfect, heavenly Father to us even if our life is falling apart. To say that he’s the Prince of Peace, to say that whether the conflict is out there or in here, that there is one who can bring peace where there is no peace, one who can bring hope where there is no hope.
When we were here at Central [the church where I used to serve as a teaching pastor], my kids were younger. We would do our little night time prayers, and we would do our Advent rituals. Some of the families do it here as well. We had this little Nativity set. We needed to make sure it was a child-proof Nativity set because, when they were really young, they tried to put the pieces in their mouths. These characters from the Nativity set would end up in all kinds of different places. So, Joseph would end up in Santa’s sleigh, and Mary would end up in the Christmas tree next to one of the ornaments. We had to find our lost pieces every year. In fact, we had to replace one of the Wise Men with Daisy the Farmer.
But, I’ll never forget. One night we were doing our bedtime prayers and one of our daughters was really young. When they’re really young, you have to do some coaching on the prayers, right, like, “Jesus, can we give thanks for Momma and Papa, and Grandma and Grandpa”? “Jesus, thank you for my church. Thank you for my school.” “Jesus: who can we ask you to help? Can we ask you to help Mommy and Daddy?” “Jesus would you help my sister? Then, they start looking around. “Jesus, would you help the kitties? Jesus, would you help the trees? Jesus, would you help our neighbors?” and they just start looking around.
I’ll never forget one night in particular. We were doing our ritual, and my daughter looks over at the Nativity set. In a simple and innocent way, she prayed: “Jesus, would you please help Mary and Joseph?” And, it was as if the Holy Spirit was tapping me on the shoulder and reminding me as someone who has been a Christian for a long time now of the power and hope of Christmas. For Jesus did come to help Mary and Joseph. Just as he came to help you and me.
Sometimes we romanticize that scene. Of course, we need to rejoice over the power of the Incarnation, and we need to rejoice especially during Advent that the Christ who comes is the Christ who will return. But, also in the midst of rejoicing and giving thanks, we also have to remember that the child born in a crib of wood will one day become a man who will die on a cross of wood. That Jesus, who is the Son of God, the Son who is given, will one day lay down his life for you and me. The reason why he came was not just to help Mary and Joseph—it was to help you and me.
Only Jesus has the Power to Push Back the Darkness
During this Advent season, perhaps you will be tempted to listen to all of those secular Christmas songs. But, I want you to know that there’s a song that’s much better, much truer, much more powerful than any of those songs. It’s a simple one. It’s the message of this text: Only Jesus has the power to push back the darkness.
When you leave church today, you might be tempted to listen to other songs, songs that might sound like this: “If I were only richer, if I only had a bigger house, if I only had a different spouse, if I only I were more advanced in my job, if only I were a better student, if I could only perform more, do more, be more.” I want you to know that there’s a better song, a truer song. There’s a song that God has put on your heart if you’re a believer in Jesus Christ this morning, and it goes like this, “Only Jesus has the power to push back the darkness.”
Perhaps tomorrow, when you go to work, or school, or drop your kids off, you might be tempted to listen to a different song, and that song may sound like this: “If only I were thinner, if only I had a better body, if only I were stronger, if only I were smarter, if only I could be more, do more, act more, give more. If only I could be the kind of person that I wish that I were.” I want you to know that there’s a better song, there’s a truer song, a song that God wants to put on your heart this Advent season. It sounds like this: “Only Jesus has the power to push back that darkness.”
Tonight, when you put your head on your pillow, you might be tempted to rehearse in your mind not only the day’s events, but also to rehearse the past regrets, the past mistakes, the addictions, the temptations. Perhaps the scripts that continue to go through your mind: “I’ll never be good enough, I’ll never amount to anything, I’ve totally messed up.” Well, I want you to know this morning that there’s a better song, there’s a truer song, a song that has the power to push that darkness out of your mind and your heart and from your life. It sounds like this: “Only Jesus has the power to push back the darkness.”
In the year 1847, a Catholic priest in a small town in France wanted a local poet who lived in that little village to write a song for Christmas. So, he approached the local poet, a wine connoisseur who also had a reputation for drinking too much in that little village. The priest asked him to write the lyrics for a song. Now, the poet was a lyricist and not a composer. So, on a long carriage ride to Paris from that little town, he tried to decide which composer he would approach to write the music for this song. He knew someone who wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jewish composer. But, he thought, “This would be the perfect person for this particular song.” So, he approached the composer. The composer saw the lyrics, and the composer decided to write the music to it.
The song premiered on Christmas Eve in that little town and it was an instant hit. In fact, that song made its way from town to town and it made it to Paris and other places around France. Fast forward a couple of years later, and the one that writes the lyrics decides that he wants to leave the faith altogether in order to join the Socialist movement. Now, while it had been concealed that it was a Jewish composer who wrote the music, it was revealed when this man left the faith. So, the church in France outlawed the song because it had been written by a Jewish composer.
They barred it from being sung in church until, years later, when a Unitarian American minister who was dedicated to the abolition of slavery in the US came across this same song. He was a collector of songs. He liked to recover different songs from different places in the world so that they might be sung and heard in the US. He was especially inspired by this song because of a particular line. As a dedicated abolitionist who was well aware of what Jim Wallace calls “America’s original sin,” the sin of slavery, he knew it was so pervasive and needed to be eradicated. Perhaps a song could somehow move the needle. There’s a line in that song: “Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.”
So, the song made its way across the ocean and people began to sing it here. Fast forward to 1906. A young professor, 33-years-old, classically trained violinist, has an opportunity to play the first song ever heard on national radio. On Christmas Eve, he read from the Gospel of Luke. Then, he read the lyrics to the song, and he began to play the music.
How is it that a song thought up by an anonymous catholic priest, lyricized by a drunk local poet, composed by a Jewish composer who didn’t really believe, outlawed by the church, picked up by a Unitarian minister dedicated to the abolition of slavery, somehow become the first song ever to be heard on national radio? You know the answer? God is especially good at accomplishing that which is impossible. Only Jesus has the power to push back the darkness. “Only Jesus” is the song that I’m calling you to sing.
Jared E. Alcántara is an Associate Professor of Preaching and holds the Paul W. Powell Endowed Chair in Preaching at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. His latest book is "The Practices of Christian Preaching: Essentials for Effective Proclamation." Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @jaredealcantara.