The Countdown Chain

“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.” Isaiah 9:2

Remember the countdown chain? When I was a boy, it was a tradition to make a paper chain about this time of year and each day tear off a link. Time crawled slowly as we approached Christmas. That phenomenon is in Einstein’s theory of general relativity somewhere. As a child, the days seemed endless. The countdown chain proved time was moving. The end was nearing. The wait would be over.

But what do you do when you don’t know how long to make the countdown chain? In a way, that’s the situation faced by our ancestors in the faith. They faced darkness and looked for the Messiah. Isaiah gave them hope. The light was coming!

In 700 years.

That’s how long their countdown chain would need to be. They waited for centuries, tearing off one link at a time, on a chain of undetermined length. That’s the real challenge. They didn’t know how long the wait would be.

We face many situations in life that are darkness of undetermined length. “How long does she have left?” “Will he ever get better?” “Will he ever change? Or should I leave now?” These are some of the questions I’ve heard in the last month alone.

The first week of Advent reminds us of the way God’s people waited, and clung to the undated promises of the prophets. We often live in the meantime between promise and fulfillment. We’re like John the Baptist in prison asking his cousin’s disciples, “Are you the one? Or should we look for another?” Or the man with a sick child desperately telling Jesus, “I believe! Please help my unbelief!” When will things be better? How long is the chain?

The first week of Advent is an acknowledgment that we all spend gray days wondering when the light will come for whatever darkness troubles us. A single candle burns on the wreath, one flickering, vulnerable light extinguished by the next gust. We wonder how long the wait will be.

We need to take action! Wondering, doubting, even whining is natural and normal, but it sure is not a way to live. By action, I don’t meant trying to fix the shadows. You can’t heal anyone. You can’t break another person’s addiction. You can’t force someone to be nice. You can pray and ask God to take away your fear, or your agitation, or your anger, or your simmering bitterness.

God always answers that kind of prayer. In my experience, He either completely relieves my distress, or takes away enough of it so that I can make it through the day. Always. In fact, the only part He will leave is the part I still need to learn from. He will always give you what you need to handle your problems.

Regarding your darkness, I cannot tell you “it will be ok.” And I can’t tell you “it’s going to get worse.” I can only tell you with 100% certainty “it will be.” The chain may come to an end or stretch out beyond the horizon. In the face of that uncertainty the ONE THING you control, is the faith you bring to a situation. What makes the difference will be your resolve to pray, and pray again, when you feel the tension swirling up around you. The light will dawn when you cast that burden upon God, maybe hour by hour, knowing that He can be trusted more than you can. The darkness will never overcome a tenacious, no-matter-what faith.

A Christmas carol illustrates my point. In “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” Henry Longfellow wrote in the first two verses of the beautiful sound of Christmas bells and their main message: “Peace on earth. Good will to men.” He hears it, and it cheers him.

But then the tone changes in verse 3, and fits perfectly the first week of Advent theme. “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.” He wrote that in 1864, after the devastation of the Civil War. Specifically, he thought about the empty places at the holiday table where sons, and husbands and fathers had sat for meals. Now they were dead. He had witnessed the strength of hate, and it drove him to a dark despair.

But not always! He kept listening, and what he heard he wrote down in verse 4. “Then pealed the bells more loud and sweet. God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail. The right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

That is where you want to stand in life, not denying the darkness but not giving into it either. Goodness will prevail because God is with you. Now and always. The Light has come, and the darkness cannot overcome it. No matter how long the chain of this present darkness persists, you are not alone. Keep believing.


Dr. Terry Ellis

November 30, 2014