Editor’s Note: Welcome to Advent 2020. A Light Dwelling offers you a daily pause in God’s Word as you anticipate the coming celebration of Jesus’ birth. Our posts begin today with a reflection from writer and teacher Jasmine Timm. She will share additional posts the first three Saturdays in December and again on Christmas Day. On Sundays, beginning Nov. 29, we will share a simple post to help you take your family or a group of friends through the traditional five candles of the Christmas season. We will provide you with a brief Scripture reading and some suggested carols you can enjoy with others as you light that day’s candle. We will also propose a fun activity you could do that day or at another time. Then, Monday through Friday, we’ll post Pause, Ponder, and Pray to guide your daily devotional time as you journey through the story of Christmas. We pray A Light Dwelling is a sweet gift for you this season. — Many Blessings from the UFC Women’s Ministry Team.
By Jasmine Timm
Nearly 200 years ago on a cold New England morning, 57-year-old poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grieved as he prepared for Christmas Day. He heard songs of Christ’s arrival outside his window as people sang of “peace on earth and good will to men.” His emotions were raw as he faced this day as a newly widowed father of six children. As he listened to the carolers, he penned the following lyrics:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
For Longfellow, this Christmas day was a complicated one. A cloud of gloom hung over him as he wrestled with the dissonance of peace on earth having arrived in the person of Jesus alongside the tragic death of his wife and the recent paralyzation of his soldier son. How could peace prevail in a world marked by such darkness?
I can relate with Longfellow’s pain. For my family, the holidays are a complicated time. It’s a time marked by joy and sadness, gain and loss. Each year, I sense the weightiness of what it means to celebrate the coming of Immanuel, and each year, I struggle to feel the gravity of this good news as a cloud of grief and loss lingers overhead. We’re reminded of the fact that my sister is no longer alive to celebrate with us, so we grieve. Like Longfellow, we hear songs of “peace on earth and goodwill to men” and are forced to reconcile the joy with the present sorrow.
This year, before the weariness of the holidays even had a chance to set in, I found myself sitting in the hospital parking lot outside of the ER, praying for my dad who was suffering a brain bleed and a possible stroke. As I sat in my car, unable to go inside due to COVID restrictions, I lamented over not being able to be present with my dad. At that very moment, I was also supposed to be on a flight to the Midwest to celebrate the engagement of one of my best friends. I couldn’t be there either. I could not be in two places at once, or really in one place at all with either of the people I longed to be with. I needed God to be with me.
The people of Israel faced a similar dilemma, though admittedly more severe because their crisis had to do with their Creator. Their sin separated them from a Holy God, and the nation continually struggled with the consequences of separation. They needed God to be near, yet their sin prevented fellowship with Him. But God had a solution.
Enter the tabernacle.
After Israel was delivered from Egypt, God gave instructions to Moses to have a tent constructed, a tent where His glory would dwell. As Israel continually struggled through sin and the grief it caused, God dwelt among His people in the tabernacle. He enveloped them with His presence, sending a cloud by day to cover them from the scorching sun and a pillar of fire by night to shed light on their darkness. In His mercy, God found a way to dwell among His struggling and sinful people.
In the days of ancient Israel and the tabernacle, we see God pitch His tent among a camp of sinful people. Why? Because His intent from the beginning has been to dwell among His people — to be seen and worshipped for who He is and to exist in unbroken, joyous relationship to His imago dei, those He created in His image.
The tabernacle served as a sort of “sin disposal system,” as the ministry One for Israel describes it. Sacrifices and rituals were in place to make it possible for the people’s sin to be atoned for, and God made a way for darkened hearts to enter into the light of His presence. He walked with them, accompanying them by cloud and fire, and made His desire for closeness and connection abundantly clear. But even more than a temporary tent, God had a greater plan:
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord. And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.Zechariah 2:10-11
God has always intended to dwell among His people, and He has been moving history toward the culmination of His return to be with us. He has always had a better “sin disposal system” in mind in order to bring not just Israel, but all the nations, into the light of His marvelous presence.
The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. We looked upon His glory, the glory of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth.John 1:14
Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s tabernacle presence. He is the better “sin disposal system.” He is the fullness of God wrapped in human flesh with the intent of reconciling human flesh to the Holy God. The promise has always been that God intended to dwell among His created people, and He has delivered on His promise. He has come. He is Immanuel, God with us, and He will be with us until the very end when we see Him come again to take us to a home prepared for us.
As I look forward to Christmas Day this year and backward to the recent pains and sorrows that have become associated with this time of year, I can see beauty in the dissonance. The benefit I had in my moment of heaviness outside the ER as I prayed for my father was that God was indeed with me and He was with my dad and my friend. He was with all of us at once, fully present, yet not divided in His attention. I was reminded of the reality of Immanuel.
This has been God’s plan all along, and now as we anticipate Christmas Day, we can see His plan fulfilled. God has come to earth. His glory has intersected the sorrow of mankind, and He now dwells with those who have entered into His presence through His Son, who has taken our sin and sorrow upon His own flesh. We need Immanuel. We always have, and we always will. And this Immanuel has paved the way for our heavy hearts to be met with joy, even in the midst of unspeakable pain. We may wade through a cloud of thick sorrow for a while longer, but the light has begun to break through. The clouds will soon dissipate.
Longfellow’s song did not end in sorrow. Though he heard the joyful songs outside his window, which seemed to mock his cloud of pain, he remembered the rest of the story:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Longfellow knew that the best news had arrived: Immanuel. He was not alone in his sorrow, and he knew that Immanuel would return once more to make all things right and to establish a permanent reign of peace, where clouds of sorrow would be eclipsed by a cloud of glory. Because of this Immanuel, we can finish our song of sorrow as Longfellow finished his, even as we stumble forward through darkness. The darkness is temporary. The light will break soon.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.John 1:9
The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.Matthew 4:16
Listening Suggestions: To listen to the classic Burl and Ives I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, click here. For a modern hymn version of the song by Casting Crowns, click here. Another song you might enjoy today is Prepare Him Room by Sovereign Grace Music, which you can find here.