The Darkness of Isolation

This has been a difficult year? What has been the darkest dimension of 2020 for you? The global pandemic has provoked a tsumani of isolation – more people have been more alone this year than ever before.

This isolation has manifest in many ways – whether the personal isolation of having to be quarantined, of not being able to freely visit friends and family, of having to work at home not being able to enjoy the buzz of the office and the camaraderie of working with other people.

And as a church, we have all experienced the isolation of not being able to meet together. We have discovered that Zoom isn’t the same as be with each other – God made us social creatures. It’s hard to be alone!

1. My Story

I remember a time in my life when I felt very alone. At first, I was excited when my parents dropped me off at university – finally, FREEDOM! But by 2am early in the morning of the first night, I was having second thoughts. My bed was up against the corridor wall, which was vibrating with sound waves emanating from the elephant-size stereo system in the room across the hall. The corridor was a mash up of a mosh pit and a Roman toga party; the alcohol was flowing so freely one could have navigated from one end to the other in a kayak.

Having grown up in a Christian family in a small town, I was not fully prepared for the full immersion into the worldly rowdiness of university life. I remember laying on bed, praying, ‘God, what have you gotten me into?’. In the midst of great darkness, I felt very alone.

The good news of the gospel is that God does not leave us alone; the story of Christmas – the story of the Bible – is that God personally steps in to the darkness of human life with the light of his presence, with the light of himself. One of the core texts in the Christmas story illustrates the comfort God brings to us in times of darkness.

2. Mary's Story

Mary is a uniquely famous woman; there is only one mother of Jesus, there is only one mother of God. But before she was famous, Mary faced a period of intense isolation.

In Luke 1:38-45 we read the episode of her visit to Elizabeth. This comes after the remarkable announcement by God’s angel, Gabriel, that she would you conceive in her womb by the Holy Spirit and bear a son, and call his name Jesus, and that he would be known as the Son of God.

It was a glorious announcement; but at the end of it we read a key phrase: and the angel departed. This is immediately followed by in those days she arose and went with haste. When the angel left her, Mary left to go be with her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also with child.

Scripture is often quite brief in its description of events, condensing huge swathes of time between concise statements. Although it tells us everything we need to know, sometimes we’re left wondering what happened in between.

As we think about these two departures – the angels from Mary, and Mary’s to be with Elizabeth, what is it that was going on in Mary’s heart and mind? How was she processing this announcement from the angel? One thing that stand out to me – in between the departure of the angel and her arrival to be with Elizabeth – is that Mary was ALONE!

Think about – who could she speak with about her situation? Not her parents; pregnant by the Holy Spirit is not news one casually confesses to your good Jewish family. Not Joseph: pregnant by the Holy Spirit is not what one’s upstanding Jewish fiancé wants to hear. And not her friends; how does one broach the subject of ‘Oh, by the way, the baby I’m carrying – even though I’ve not been with Joseph yet – this is the Son of God?

Into the darkness of Mary’s isolation God brings two answers – his people and his presence.

1) God’s people
In her isolation, God provided a friend, a companion, someone to walk with her and share her difficulty. Elisabeth could understand because she was going through something similar. Out of all the people on the planet at this time, Elisabeth, the carrier of the Forerunner, could emphasise with Mary’s God-ordained plight.

Our challenge at this time is that this is precisely the encouragement we have been excluded from during this global pandemic. The church of Jesus is designed to work on the basis of mutual encouragement. We find ourselves – like Mary – in that moment of between departure and arrival.

2) God’s presence
In addition to fellowship with God’s people, embodied in Elizabeth, God also provided Mary with the encouragement of his presence. In Luke 1.79, Zechariah prophesies about the ministry of John preparing God’s way. He acknowledges that part of God’s agenda is to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Notice the phrase shadow of death which calls to mind the isolation of the Psalmist:  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23.4):

But also Notice that phrase: God gives light to those who sit in darkness. This is the good news of the gospel and the promise that God gives us at Christmas: God brings light into the midst of our darkness, the light of himself into the midst of human isolation. The good news is that we’re not alone: God has given Jesus.

3. Our Story

What do we take from this story of Mary? Very simply, in the midst of our dark isolation, God promises to be with us. There are two dimensions of God’s presence for us to consider:
 
1)The promise of God’s presence in this life.
God promises to be with his people – not only in eternity, but in this life. This promise is a consistent theme through scripture:

* Deuteronomy 31.8: The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
* Joshua 1.5: As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
* Psalm 94.14: For the LORD will not reject his people; he will never forsake his inheritance.

But perhaps the most personal statement of this promise comes from the mouth of Jesus in Matthew 28.20 where he says, ‘And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. The context of this promise is the commission he gives his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Jesus is with us in this life as we follow him.

2)The promise of God’s presence in eternity.
Whereas the promise of God’s presence in this life gives us great comfort now; we remember that in the context of eternity, this life is a vapour. What good is God’s presence now if we miss out on being with him forever?

This is why God gives us the promise of his presence in eternity; he wants us to live now with the confidence that he will keep his word. He promises in Colossians 3.3: For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

For those who have repented and believed the gospel, for those who have submitted their lives to Christ’s Lordship, we have already died to sin and self and have been placed in Christ (1 Cor. 12.13). Jesus himself is the armoured vault that keeps us safe and secure so that we might enjoy the fulness of God’s presence – not only in this life, but in eternity.

4. God's Story

Christmas is the story of God breaking into the human experience in the person of his Son; it is the culmination of God’s promise to make right everything that is wrong. One way of understanding the Bible is simply Into Darkness, Light. Scripture tells the story of God’s personal entrance into the darkness of human life – an existence darkened by our own sinfulness against God and each other.

The darkness of our story is the darkness of alienation – from God, and from each other. This year, in addition to our spiritual and relational alienation, we have experienced personal, physical isolation more than ever. God’s story – God’s good news – is that he has not abandoned us; he will take us safely through to the other side.

It seems the God’s modus operandi is – rather than taking us out of the darkness, to step into our darkness and walk with us. The time will come again when we gather together and enjoy the mutual encouragement of being with each other. In the meantime, the in between time we are living in, let’s remember the promise of God to with us. Make time daily to open your heart to be filled afresh with God’s Spirit and enjoy the comfort of his presence. He has not forsaken us, but is with us in the midst of the darkness