The people of Israel, in the centuries before the birth of Christ, lived their lives with a geographical orientation towards the East. They believed the world was flat and that the promised land was essentially as far west as you could go before you came to the great sea. They did not venture out onto the great sea because they thought that somewhere in its unknown vastness you would reach the point where the earth ended and that if you reached that point you would fall into the abyss of darkness that was the end of everything. On the other hand to the East was the place where the earth began out of the great void that Genesis describes as darkness. Eden lay somewhere to the East, probably where the great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates joined together. They called it the cradle of civilization, where humanity was created. When Abraham first entered the promised land, he came from the East, across the Jordan river, into the land that God had promised. The Jews of the Exodus entered the promised land from the East. When David built Jerusalem, somewhere around 1000 years before Christ, he chose a spot that was very near the geographic center of the land, high above the Judean wilderness, and he built the original city of David with an Eastward orientation. It is important to understand that the promised land was (and is) a very small sliver of land. From the farthest point in the north to the farthest point in the south, it is about 263 miles. And from East to west at it’s widest point it is about 44 miles and 9 miles at it’s narrowest point.
When David located his city on a high point near the geographical center of the land, David believed that he would essentially be able to gaze out over the entire kingdom. That was certainly true looking to the East. From his city, David could overlook the Judean wilderness and beyond the valley of the great river of life, the Jordan river valley. And the Salt Sea (which would become known as the Dead Sea) but in David’s time the Salt Sea because it was and is a huge deposit of salt which was one of the most valuable commodities for many centuries both for it’s preservative qualities for meat and and fish and other foods, and also for it’s healing qualities. Many made their way to the hot salt baths to bathe away whatever afflicted them. To the north, especially in the night, David could see the lights of the towns and villages of the Northern Kingdom. To the south there was only wilderness until you came to Egypt 263 miles away, and to the west was the great sea and the abyss of Darkness. It was David’s dream to build his temple on the highest point, making it not only the geographical center but also the spiritual center, but his sin prevented him from being the one to build it. When David died, his son Solomon inherited David’s dream and He built the Temple on the Eastern edge of the city of David, with an Eastern Orientation and built the highest point on the northeastern corner of the wall. It became known as the Pinnacle of the Temple and from there the King or high priest could see the entire kingdom and even to some extent into the great empires that lay to the east beyond Israel. And because of the harsh terrain, everyone who approached Jerusalem and the Temple would have to come from the East because all roads from whatever direction would eventually wind through the Jordan valley and just before reaching the Salt Sea, turn westward through the Valleys of the Judean wilderness which the prophets said had been made smooth through the floods of water that rushed from the mountain tops to the Jordan and Salt Sea. So friends and foes alike came from the East. By the time Jesus came it was the Jericho road that wound the 12 miles up from the Jordan river in the east to the Temple in Jerusalem. The wise men who came to find the baby Jesus came from East, up the Jericho Road to Jerusalem. That’s probably one of the reasons that Herod feared them. Even today the great enemies of Israel lay to the East. And so in the centuries before Jesus, when the great armies of Persia and Babylon came, they would come from the East. They would first enter into the Land in the north and after having defeated the Israelites would drop down to the Jordan valley and approach Jerusalem and Judea from the East. The great and powerful Kingdoms all lay to the East. And so it was only natural that when the dark times, times of defeat and destruction and death and exile came to the Jews, the people would look to the East for the one the prophets had said was coming, the Great King of God, the Wonderful Counselor, almighty, prince of peace. And so about 700 years before Jesus was born the conquering army of brutal Assyrian King Sargon swept into the Northern Kingdom completely destroying every town and village in their path, as they made their way to the Jordan valley and approached Judah and Jerusalem from the east, Isaiah must have stood at the pinnacle of the Temple watching as the lights of the towns of the north flickered and went out marking the advance of the conquering army towards Jerusalem. I recently read that the human eye can see light from several hundred miles away, depending on the intensity of the light. The town that occupied the place that centuries later would become Nazareth was 65 miles to the North, making it one of the last that the Assyrians destroyed before turning towards Jerusalem. From that distance, scientists say that from the pinnacle of the Temple, Isaiah could have seen the light of one single candle. And as Isaiah watched, the last candle of that ancient town flickered and died, indicating that the destruction of the north was finished. All he could see to the north was darkness. And as Isaiah continued to watch he probably saw hundreds of refugees fleeing the advancing Assyrians, people who had walked through great darkness, coming up from the Jordan river valley to the Eastern gates of Jerusalem. And in their despair and hopelessness, the people looked East and asked: Where is the Messiah? Will he finally come and save us, the people of God? And they looked to the East – hoping against hope that the Messiah would arrive before the Assyrian army did. And it was in that context that Isaiah spoke: “The people walking in darkness will see a great light; to those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” And the Light will not let the nation be destroyed, but instead will increase the nation, restore the harvest and trample the warriors boots. Once again, Isaiah offered a prophecy of hope and light in the midst of the enveloping darkness. The Messiah would come and save them. I wonder if there were those who wanted to say, “come on Isaiah, we’ve heard it all before. Where is this Messiah? Why won’t he come and save us now.” And then Isaiah speaks the words that changes everything for all time. He says: “You can’t find Him because you are looking in the wrong places. You look for the Messiah to come like the great and awful kings from the East. But Messiah will not come out of the East, or the north or the south or the west. No, Isaiah says, the Messiah will not come out of the world but will come into the world. He will come from within: a child is born, a son is given. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of his greatness there will be no end. He will reign with justice and righteousness forever.”
As we begin this Advent Season, just as in Isaiah’s day, there is a great deal of darkness that threatens to envelop us in despair and hopelessness. Think about it. All over the world there are wars and the rumors of war. Violence in our places of worship and schools and work places and shopping malls. We are dealing with the near total destruction of recent wild fires, and hurricanes and floods and earthquakes, and we’re told that because of our actions, the planet is hurtling towards extinction. Drought and famine, contaminated food, hunger. Deep divisions between us. A lack of civility. It really does seem as though the darkness is closing in. But I fear we are looking for a Savior in the wrong direction. We look to politicians, to the right or the left, to save us, but election after election the darkness advances. Some look to material possessions to save us. Wealth and riches. But still the darkness advances. Some look to the law to save us. But the darkness advances. As the darkness advances we look to the world for a Savior. And as Advent begins again, we can’t help but wonder Where are you Christmas? You see, the people in Isaiah’s time were looking for a Messiah that would come out of the darkness and make everything good again. But Isaiah tells them that the Messiah will not come from the East riding on a white stallion, wielding the sword of power and justice to vanquish the purveyors of darkness. Instead he tells them to look within, because the Messiah will not come out of the the world and defeat all of their enemies, but rather the Messiah will come into their world, a child will be born and live among us. He will not come to reign over us, but reign in us forever and ever. His light will not defeat the darkness from without, but rather dispel our darkness from within. The great kings come from the East to conquer us, the Messiah will come from within to save us. In 720 B.C.the people came to Isaiah, refugees from the darkness, asking where is the Messiah. We have looked to the East, to the world, and have not found him. And in 2018 we come as refugees from the darkness of our world, and ask the same question, where are you Christmas? Where is the Savior. We have looked for you in the things of the world, and can not find you. And we never will. Because unto us a child is born. And Isaiah says that the child will illuminate the darkness of our lives and reign in light in our souls forever and ever. John the Apostle said much the same thing seven centuries later when he wrote this of Jesus: He was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can not overcome it. And it never will. That’s the great hope of Christmas, perhaps especially this year, in 2018.
Where are you Christmas? A child of hope and light is born and no matter how deep the darkness may become, it will never prevail, as long as the Child, the Christ, the Messiah, continues to come and shine from within- US. Where are you Christmas? Look deep inside where hope is born and the everlasting light shines and that’s where you’ll find it.