Darkness is an apt metaphor for 2020. Yet in spite of how we might feel at the end of this long year, we are surrounded by lights on trees and houses, in windows and on lawns. Why are we drawn to light? Why do we long for the days to lengthen and for the gray of winter to fade away?
God made light and darkness and he called them day and night. There was nothing evil in night. But when sin entered the world, night and darkness became places to hide and symbols for places where sin and evil rule.
The Light From Before the Beginning
Matthew and Luke began their gospels with Jesus’ birth, his entrance into the darkness of this world. Mark launched immediately into Jesus’ mission as the son of God who would suffer and die before being resurrected and glorified. John begins, not with Jesus’ birth, nor his mission, but with his eternal existence.
“In the beginning” Jesus was already there. Everything and everyone else has a beginning, but not Jesus. Yes, as Matthew and Luke recount he was born as a man, but he had always been. He had always been with the Father. He had always been God. And from before the beginning of time, the beginning of the earth or the universe, Jesus had always been the Light. And now with darkness reigning, Jesus has come to earth, born as a man, but still God from all eternity. He came and shone in the darkness and the darkness could not, cannot, and will not overcome the Light.
The Light Foretold in the Old Testament
John’s teaching that Jesus is God and that he is the Light was not new. He was connecting with a significant theme in Isaiah. Isaiah spoke of a savior who would come, someone who would be called Immanuel, “God with us” (Isa 7:14). Other deliverers had represented God to man (Exod 7:1), but this one would truly be God among men. This savior would be called Mighty God, and he would be the great Light that would shine on people who walk in darkness (Isa 9:2, 6). This savior would be a suffering servant whom God would make a Light to the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6) and who would carry our sorrows, be crushed for our sins, and bring us peace. He would bear our iniquity, to make us righteous in him (Isa 52:13–53:12).
The Light for Those Who Have None
This is the story of Christmas. The Light has come into our darkness and he has conquered sin and death. We try hard, in the darkness of our own lives, to light our way, but the savior Isaiah promised comes for those who realize they have no light of their own, to those who trust the name of the Lord, and in the Light he has given to the world. May God grant us eyes to see and hearts to receive the Light that shines forth from before the beginning.
J. Michael Thigpen (Ph.D.) serves as Provost and Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. His special areas of interest are prophetic literature, God’s motives, and the theology of work and economics in the Old Testament. Dr. Thigpen’s passion is to help the church connect more deeply to the Old Testament by understanding its literary nature and historical background. He and his wife Bonnie have two daughters, Abigail and Hannah.
God didn't choose Mary for what she had; He chose her for what she lacked.
This holiday season retailers are hard at work getting our attention. And it’s no wonder. According to the National Retail Federation, a full one-fifth of all retail sales occur in just the last two months of the year. The increased spending explains the increased marketing. Companies are busy telling us why their product is better, faster, easier, cheaper, and a host of other superlatives.
In contrast to this annual Christmas focus, the first Christmas came with no great marketing strategy and no million-dollar ad campaigns. Instead, it came with the inverted splendor so foreign to a world obsessed with appearances.
A first-time mother, nameless shepherds, and a lowly village
Consider that when God chose the woman to bear his Son into the world, he didn’t choose a seasoned veteran or a mom of the year. Instead, he chose a first-time mother, the virgin Mary. Or, consider that when it came time to announce the birth, the message went to a nameless band of shepherds not to the world’s great movers and shakers. And when it came to a birthplace, the Lord of heaven and earth chose the lowliest bed in the lowliest hamlet.
A God who looks on those of humble estate
But this is exactly what we would expect from a God who uplifts the humble and puts down the proud. No wonder that this is the first chord Mary strikes in the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (Luke 1:46–48). Mary knows that God hasn’t chosen her for what she has; He chose her for what she lacks.
That is, after all, the greatest reason to celebrate Christmas. It’s not for the gifts, gatherings, and goodies; it’s to celebrate the God who looks on those of humble estate. No fancy packaging required. Now that’s a reason to magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Savior!
Peter Gurry (Ph.D.) serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament and Co-Director of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary. His research interests range across Greek grammar, the history and formation of the Bible, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He and his wife are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church in Phoenix, Arizona.
How Advent Brings an End to Our Exile
Among the Gospels, Mark offers the shortest Advent reflection of all—a mere three verses in his opening:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. As it stands written in Isaiah, the prophet: “Look, I am sending my messenger before your face who will prepare your way, (Malachi 3:1), a voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Isaiah 40:3)
Mark cites two passages from the Old Testament together—a common way of interpreting Scripture at the time called gezerah sheva—because the words originate from one author—God. But he also learned from Jesus (see Mark 12:35–37) to hear Scripture as a Trinitarian conversation between the Father and Son prior to the Incarnation that the Holy Spirit allowed prophets to hear and record—in this case, Isaiah and Malachi. John communicates some of this mystery when he presents the Word (the son of God) as “beside God” (the Father) before creation (1:1–3).
A Messenger to Prepare the Way
In the first quotation, the Father says to the son, “Look, I am sending my messenger (John the Baptist) before your face . . .” Malachi is the final Old Testament prophet through whom God promised to send Elijah back to the people for a final opportunity to repent after the Babylonian Exile; Mark then portrays the Baptist in Elijah’s dress (1:6); and from this conversation, Jesus can explain to his disciples, “Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased” (9:13), referring to John’s beheading (6:14–29).
The End of Exile
In the second quotation, the Father celebrates the mystery of the Trinity by referring to the son as Lord, the God of Israel, commanding the Baptist and—ultimately the people—through Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord. God is about to end the Exile through a new Exodus into a final Paradise and Temple, the crucified yet resurrected body of Christ in whom we are united through repentance and faith.
The Way to Resurrection and Glory
Advent for Mark is the son of God coming in the way of suffering and death before resurrection and glory. There is no glory before the cross. Instead of catering to our disordered will, which led to death and separation from God, Jesus has come to show and make possible through his atoning death and the gift of the Holy Spirit a life ordered according to the will of the Father, a path of repentance and faith that is ideal for Christmas in a Pandemic—when circumstance disallows us from doing what we want. In Christ, we are no longer in Exile but still very much on the way.
John DelHousaye (Ph.D.) serves as Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation at Phoenix Seminary. His research and publications focus on Jesus, the gospels, the restorative and reconciling ministry of the Triune God, and great disciples throughout church history. Dr. DelHousaye serves as an Elder at Redemption Alhambra in Phoenix.