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A Great Light in Deep Darkness (Leading in the Light)

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

on them has light shined. […]

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and for evermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

- Isaiah 9 verses 2, 6-7


Don’t panic! You haven’t mixed up your dates. Advent doesn’t start until the end of November. You still have time to get prepared.

Ministers generally begin to think about the true meaning of Christmas at least as early as decorations start festooning shops. They need to plan Christmas activities and prepare talks. Getting started is easier than normal service planning sermon prep – the dates are fixed and the texts are obvious. Bringing plans to completion can be harder. The planning phase comes at a busy time in church life, when programmes are in full swing and few others are thinking about Christmas, and an emotionally tough time for all of us, when days are shortening and temperatures are falling. The passages and carols can seem overly familiar and it is not easy to scrape away the cultural accretions of materialism and niceness to get to the reality of the incarnation.

So, as ministers prepare and plan to lead others in their appreciation of Christmas, we in Living Leadership want to help them enjoy its wonder and apply its significance to leadership.


John’s Gospel describes the incarnation as, “The true light that gives light to everyone […] coming into the world” (John 1:9). This three-part series will consider what it means to lead in the light.

Isaiah prophesied about a great light that would dawn on people who lived in a land of deep darkness. In our age of electric lighting and (still, so far) reliable energy supplies, pitch darkness is a rare experience. Still, I suppose most of us have experienced a power cut at some time. For sighted twenty-first-century people, being plunged unexpectedly into darkness is unnerving. Assuming we do not have our mobile phone or a torch to hand, we can either sit in the dark waiting for the light to return or fumble towards where we hope to find a switch.

In Isaiah’s day, people knew how deep darkness could be. Night-time was a fearful place in days without streetlights, and when hostile nations and predatory beasts were on hand. It was also a place of hiddenness. Darkness meant both the threat of unforeseen attack from enemies and the temptation to think sin could be concealed from God. The metaphor of darkness would, therefore, have resonated profoundly with Isaiah’s first readers. It was a powerful way to describe the spiritual decline of the nation.

Some of the people of Judah in Isaiah’s time, facing uncertainty on the global stage, sought understanding from mediums and spiritists, who promised insight into hidden things. Isaiah says these people have “no light of dawn” (8:20) and describes the consequences for those who consult them “they will look towards the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness” (8:22). Seeking light in the shadows, they stumbled into deepest gloom.

This was no accidental stumbling away from God. It was a wilful rejection of his light for falsehood. God had warned clearly in his law that defilement would come through turning to mediums and spiritists (Leviticus 19:31). It has always been so with sinful people. We prefer to hide in the darkness rather than bringing our deeds unto God’s light: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (John 3:20).

Where the people should have turned was to their God, to consult his “instruction and the testimony of warning” (8:20). There is no light without God. He is light (1 John 1:5): pure truthfulness and holiness without shadow or hidden recess. His Word spoken to his people shines the light of truth on them, to guide their paths (Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 6:23). The word of God through prophets like Isaiah was an inconvenient truth for those in Judah who preferred to believe a lie. They wanted a God of endless comfort. A guarantor of peace without pain.

The light Isaiah foresaw was more than just prophetic words. It was embodied in a person – a coming child and son who would be called Wonderful Counsellor. Whoever this prophecy refers to in the immediate horizon of Isaiah’s time, we know its ultimate fulfilment is in Jesus. In the historic homelands of Zebulun and Naphtali – Galilee of the nations – he preached God’s kingdom now arriving and called people to repentance (Matthew 4:13-17). The great light had dawned for Jew and Gentile alike.

What does this mean for Christian leaders? One of the most profoundly challenging books I have read about leadership is In the Name of Jesus by Dutch Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989). He writes (p.10):

After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside me was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger. I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer, my loneliness, and my constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed. It was very hard for me to see clearly ... I was living in a very dark place.

Perhaps you can identify with this experience too? Especially in this busy season, we easily become slaves to what seems urgent and neglectful of what is most important. People may even tell us we are doing well, but we know we are in the dark.

When we sense the gloom, we can stumble for any light to brighten our path. False lights promise hope and healing. We may not consult spiritists and mediums, but we look to self-help gurus and pop psychology. We follow the message of our culture that tells us to protect ourselves, love ourselves and develop ourselves. We turn our half-open ears to other voices. We indulge ourselves with stolen pleasures or console ourselves with the success that imperils our souls. It is often in the night-time, when alone and weary, that these temptations clamour and we sin. Struggling with the gloom, we plunge into deeper darkness still. The Spirit is suppressed, even grieved.

If you are leading from a dark place, it is time to step into the light. When we live by the truth, we come into the light and others see that our works have been done in God’s sight (John 3:21). Christian leaders are accountable to God. We are people of the light and we must lead in the light.

We must resist the draw of lesser lights that are no lights at all.

We need nothing less than the light of Christ to rise in our hearts. This is the way of contemplative prayer and meditative reading. We need deep and unhurried time spent gazing on Christ, crying for mercy, and returning thanks for his grace. We must take enough time savouring the words of Scripture to let our hearts’ eyes adjust to its penetrating light – soaking in each promise, heeding every warning, noting each command. Only in the light of Christ can we lead others to glory in him. The Wonderful Counsellor works his words into our inner being through the Spirit he promised as we turn to his light.

Coming into the light means naming the darkness for what it is. Confessing the false lights that have dragged us into deeper darkness. Hidden sins like binge eating and watching pornography. Respectable sins of self-aggrandisement and boasting in ministry prowess. Too-readily-excused sins of irritability with our families and neglect of Sabbath, giving our dependents and our Lord crumbs of our time.

Coming into the light of God, especially if our spiritual eyes have grown accustomed to the shadows, can be painful. But it is a purifying pain.

Only in this light can we see what matters most, distinguishing the apparently urgent from the absolutely essential. In this light, we see things differently. People we had dismissed as insignificant, we now see as indispensable. Blessings we had taken for granted are revealed to be treasures of great worth. Sins that seemed so comforting are exposed as the poisonous snares they truly are. And ourselves, who we had come to love or to despise, we see as deeply flawed yet loved more deeply still.

So, brothers and sisters. As you prepare to celebrate the light that dawned over Israel’s darkness 2000 years ago, let the light of the Wonderful Counsellor shine in your heart today.


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