The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
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.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
It seems an odd way to begin a Christmas letter, but I recall hearing earlier this year, that when the English writer, speaker and evangelist, John Stott, passed away, he was, as the news report chronicled “surrounded by friends listening to Handel’s Messiah”. I sort of grew up that way, especially at Christmas, surrounded by family, friends, and the church community, and under the influence of my mother, listening to Handel’s Messiah. We were never wealthy as a family and because we lived in neighbourhoods wealthier than our means, Christmas, materially speaking, could be a challenge; but it was never for want of the richness of the coming of the Christ child. And so I grew up amongst those who were as excited about the coming of the Christ child as they were, it seemed, about life itself. After the “Hallelujah Chorus”, Handel’s ‘Messiah’ also gave me the annual gift of “For Unto Us a Child is Born”. I remember most of the scripture used in the libretto of the Messiah, but I still to this day listen, sing, mutter, and pray the words of “for unto us a child is born”.
The newsletter today is an invitation to re-affirm these words but more importantly to re-navigate and re-covenant around these words for their personal meaning. It’s not enough to imagine the quietness and power of John Stott’s passing nor is it helpful for me to remember, even sentimentalize, but to remember longingly the memories of my childhood and early adulthood. (This is way too complicated to explain, but officially, my wife Kerry and I only went on one date – I paid for the tickets to the Messiah, she paid for dinner. I think on the grounds that she was hoping it wasn’t a date, who knew?!).
How do memorable, ‘hard-wired’ words begin to have new meaning for us? I believe that this Christmas, like every day and season of our lives, can be made new when we ask God to make the life of Spirit new and fresh. That renewal also happens when the Spirit makes himself known to us and we do not resist. Two years ago I began to listen to Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Winter Song’ CD. The song “The First Noel/Mary Mary”, which runs almost 5 minutes, is lulling, sweet and memorable until just before two minutes into the song there erupts for me something powerful. There is a power, majesty and almost a tearing open of the heavens as the angels appear and the Christ child is born. The world in which we live, the era we inhabit is filled with war, hunger, economic uncertainty and poverty for many who reside here. There are many that are well off, some extremely wealthy, and there are those without any sense of reflection and are apparently content. All these things not withstanding the coming of Jesus whether it is at his birth or in my renewal and rebirth in Him this Christmas; it is a tumultuous event. There is no muzak here, no calmness, but a virulent, almost violent and history-changing event.
In trying to write and rewrite this particular piece, I want to ask that each of us seek to re-covenant around the words of scripture quoted in Isaiah 9 at the beginning of this letter. I trust and pray that the sameness, the plainness, and the ordinary would in these words become extraordinary once again. I am particularly drawn to verse 6 and the names of Jesus: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. The aspects to the character of Christ captured in these names invite us to anything but an ordinary celebration of his birth.
God be with you this Christmas,