[First Sunday of advent, Jeremiah 33]
At the top of my list, the thing I least want to do in this life is to go to prison. The sense of incarceration and being confined to a cell with limitations, and the fear of brutalization sounds absolutely horrifying.
In ancient times, a cistern was an underground cavern or well that was used to hold water. They were dark, dank, cold places. Occasionally, in special fits of cruelty, empty cisterns were used as makeshift prisons. As we see in Jeremiah 38:6…
So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.
Jeremiah, having spent his whole career prophesying against the corrupt practices and sinful culture of Israel, had finally worn out his welcome. He was left there to die of starvation—a way to absolve his captors of his blood rather than kill him directly.
Yet in that tomb, wading in the mud and breathing in the rank air, Jeremiah continued to find hope. Jeremiah continued to pray and believe and to form some of the most hopeful scriptures in history. Jeremiah 33:14-15…
4 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
These are the words that were ringing in Jeremiah’s ears, and no doubt off the grimy walls of his prison as he sang them and recited them—remembering his story, and keeping hope.
So much of our story as Christians started in dark places. Paul did much of his New Testament writing in jail. He was possibly kept at Mamertine prison, a dark underground dungeon entered by a manhole. Prisoners were not fed in ancient prisons, and so had to depend on the kindness of friends and family to bring them food. It is in this dim light that the radiance of the New Testament began to shine. Most importantly, in the confines of a stable.
GK Chesterton, the great British theologian of a century ago, wrote:
It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded [inn] had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passersby, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born. (The Everlasting Man, Part II, ch 1).
Indeed, the Son of God himself, the very embodiment of hope for humanity, was born in a dark, closed space that was never meant for human living, let alone the birth of a child. The traditional image of a warm nativity scene with adoring shepherds and recently-washed sheep is far from accurate. The real thing was rough and rugged, more like the cave where Jeremiah thought he would meet his end centuries before. Yet in the darkness of that cistern, Jeremiah saw the light of hope—even the light of the great and future hope of the Messiah who would deliver all humanity.
And it was that first Christmas, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that the light of God and all humanity was born.
I am Greg Williams, Speaking of Life!