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Eternal Light Emerges Out of the Darkness of History

What do you want for Christmas this year?

If you read the papers and listen to the news, you might think you’ve got a patriotic duty to want a plasma-screen TV and a luxury car. A house and a truckload of industrial stock would be better. Business analysts are watching to see if the “consumer” will spark the economy with a Christmas shopping spree.

That’s not how most Americans feel, however. Seventy-seven percent of our fellow citizens wish for a “simpler holiday season this year,” according to a survey taken by Widmeyer Research and Polling. Sixty-four percent of Americans believe “too much importance is placed on giving and receiving gifts during the holidays.” A poll conducted by the Center for a New American Dream found that 54 percent of Americans think spending less money will help them “better focus on the holiday season.”

Not surprisingly, the Widmeyer poll learned 64 percent of Americans are concerned about the economy as Christmas approaches this year. The experts offer all kinds of assessments and prognostications, but regular people seem genuinely concerned about the economy.

That’s not all, of course. Word out of Washington and Baghdad sounds ominous. Americans of every political persuasion have to be thinking about how many lives may be lost—on all sides of the conflict—if we go to war with Iraq next year. The “war on terrorism” continues as well, and the recent message from Osama bin Laden, as well as bombings from Indonesia to Kenya, remind people everywhere that peace is tenuous, fragile, fleeting.

In light of so much uncertainty, the Christmas season Sunday School lessons published by the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ BaptistWay Press have provided particular comfort. They focus this year on Isaiah, an Old Testament book written to people enduring political, social and religious turmoil. At one time or another, the people of Israel and Judah faced siege, battle, captivity, despair and longing, as well as hope and promise.

One of the most hopeful passages comes from Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (40:1-2). That was, is and forever shall be good news.

It came as a delight to captives in Babylon, as they heard a gentle word of promise from God, sparking hope for their return to the Promised Land. For two millennia, it has presented a thrilling promise to people who look to the Messiah, Jesus, as the One who made eternal atonement for our sin. And throughout time, it will stand as a pledge of God’s redemption for all who will accept mercy and forgiveness “from the Lord’s hand.”

The original recipients of these words—the people of Judah who had spent almost 50 years in Babylonian captivity, many of whom had only known captivity—provide a particular model for us today.

In our Sunday School class, we talked about why, at this specific time, God decided to intervene in history. Why did God convince King Cyrus of Persia to release the Hebrew captives? One of the most striking answers is deceptively simple: The people were ready. Five decades of captivity in exile humbled them, not before kings and armies, but before God.

Think about the history of Israel and Israel/Judah since the time of King David. It’s a sad, sorry story of pride, sin and rebelliousness toward God. You can’t really call their history a “roller coaster ride,” because the highs were so brief and shallow, and the lows were so long and deep. Finally, God decided to use the armies of other countries to teach the people a lesson.

From the pages of Isaiah and elsewhere, we see what they finally saw. From the depths of depravity in Babylon, many newly faithful Hebrews finally realized divine ideas like blessing and promise and covenant and even land were meaningless unless people have a relationship with God. They had to go down to the bottom to look up. That’s where they saw God. That’s the vantage point from which they glimpsed the Messiah, our Savior, Jesus.

Why so much ancient history? Because this is our story too, and not just because it produced prophecy about the Messiah.

If a trip into exile caused the Hebrews to experience relationship with God and ultimate redemption, then God can use any situation and circumstance to redeem human lives.
We don’t know what the coming months will bring. No one wants the economy to tank, terrorists to strike or war to break out. But since ancient times, people have turned toward God when they realized they couldn’t control the future and manage their fate. Today is no exception.

The greatest “present’ we can give others is the good news that reality is more than what we see on the news. The Messiah has come, the Savior awaits, God controls eternity.

Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.