During these Advent Sundays as we have focused on Living in the Light, we have talked about the darkness of the various tunnels we have to travel through in this life; we have talked about what it means to wait for the light with patience; and we have talked about how the spotlights the world shines on what it finds important can cause us to miss the true light of Christ which is more akin to a candle than a spotlight. Today we ask the question: “What does the light reveal?”
There are a variety of ways to answer this question. On Wednesday night we will come back here to rehearse the story of Bethlehem – the birth of a baby, the visit of shepherds, the ponderings of a mother. It is a lovely story of an important event taking place in an unlikely location with unlikely participants.
Today I want to talk about a different approach to the question: “What does the light reveal?” It is the approach of John’s gospel, which delves into what the light of Christmas reveals on a deeper and more spiritual level. The difference in the two approaches can be seen in a 1925 cartoon in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Two Kentucky farmers are visiting over a picket fence. One asks, “Anything new happen lately?” The other responds, “Nothing much. A new baby was born over at Tom Lincoln’s place, but nothing much ever happens around here.”
Listen to what Henri Nouwen has to say about reflecting on the Christmas story: “What can I say on a night like this? It is all very small and very large, very close and very distant, very tangible and very elusive. I keep thinking about the Christmas scene that had been arranged under the altar. This probably is the most meaningful ‘crib’ I have ever seen. Three small wood-carved figures made in India: a poor woman, a poor man, and a small child between them. The carving is simple, nearly primitive. No eyes, no ears, no mouths, just the contours of the faces. The figurines are smaller than a human hand – nearly too small to attract attention at all. But then – a beam of light shines on the three figures and projects large shadows on the wall of the sanctuary. That says it all. The light thrown on the smallness of Mary, Joseph, and the Child projects them as large, hopeful shadows against the walls of our life and our world. . . Without the radiant beam of light shining into the darkness there is little to be seen. I might just pass by these three simple people and continue to walk in darkness. But everything changes with the light.” (The Lord is Near, Advent Meditations from the works of Henri Nouwen, p. 30)
John’s intention is to take the Bethlehem story that Luke tells so lovingly and point to the huge shadows cast by this story into the cosmos. He assumes we are familiar with Luke’s account, and with imagery, poetry and theology, as Emeril would say, he takes it up another notch.
John’s beginning is foreshadowed by today’s Old Testament reading, the prophecy from Isaiah which says, “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 will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’”
John finds this prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, and appropriates Isaiah’s images of talking about light in darkness, the gift of a Son, the one who will be King of Kings and Lord of lords. To those images he adds the image of the Word.
This is truly an astonishing passage, one which neither I nor anyone else can fully explain but which is urgent for all of us to consider. Perhaps the best we can do is come to this passage like the Bethlehem manger, to gaze at it in awe and wonder. Fred Craddock says about this passage, “Texts do not always have to be mastered. There is immense value in taking the hand of the congregation and leading it up close to a huge passage where it can stand with face upturned in awe and wonder.” (John, Knox Preaching Guides, p. 8)
John starts by defining Jesus as the Word of God. This goes beyond just implying that God is speaking to the world through Jesus, though that is certainly part of it. ‘Logos’ is the Greek word translated into English as ‘Word,’ and in the Bible this word always refers to the creating action of God through his word. God speaks, and it is done. “Let there be light,” God says, and there is light. He speaks creation into existence through his word, he brings revelation, he brings redemption, all through his word.
John claims that Jesus is this creating Word of God, and always has been. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of the world.”
In other words, John tells us that the story of Jesus did not begin with Bethlehem’s manger, nor even nine months earlier when the angel appeared to Mary. The story of Jesus is as old as God. The story of Jesus did not end when his earthly life ended, either. It will continue always.
But at a particular point in time a very new and different and radical thing happened. This pre-existent, creating Word of God took on human flesh, being born of Mary just as every other child comes into this world. Having tried many other ways to reach people and teach people and save people, God finally said, “Enough of this! I need you to go to them. I need you to teach them, to show them, to save them.” And so Jesus went. “The true light which enlightens every person was coming into the world.” Thus would Isaiah’s prophecy be fulfilled: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…” Jesus said, later in his life, “I am the light of the world.”
What does light do? It reveals things as they really are, both the good and the bad. So for one thing, when Jesus the light of the world came into the world, our lives were shown to be dark and sinful, falling far short of God’s intention. Our world was shown to be dark and sinful, off track in so many ways. But in addition to that the light of Christ showed us that God is gracious and loving and forgiving and wants more than anything to be in relationship with us all. In the darkness it is not possible to see the path out of the woods. But Jesus illuminated the path to God and the life God wants us to live. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said. “No one can make it to the Father without me.”
The light came into the world to reveal its darkness and lostness, and to oppose the forces of darkness. The light came into the world to reveal God and to point all people toward the open door to God. And though people tried to extinguish the light by putting Jesus to death, it didn’t work. John says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
So if all these things John says are true, how is it possible that so many people did not believe in Jesus then and do not believe in Jesus now? Because as Luke had shown equally clearly, it was possible to look at the baby Jesus and see nothing but another baby born to a low-income couple who would have to somehow eke out his existence in the world. Jesus was both fully human and fully God. It was possible to look at the small, nondescript figures and write them off without seeing the enormous shadow which would be cast against the backdrop of the world by their lives.
So believing in the Word made flesh is an article of faith, not something which can be proven or was obviously true to a bystander. John writes, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
This is both a warning and a promise. Many who met Jesus did not recognize him, did not accept him. Many rejected him and outright opposed him. Many were blinded by their expectations. They were sure a Messiah was going to be a kingly figure, a warrior who would restore the glory and fortunes of Israel, who would drive the Romans out and make all things right. When they were faced with someone who claimed to be the Messiah and had no kingly ambitions, no interest in weapons or revolutions, and surrounded himself with fishermen and tax collectors, that was all just too much to overcome.
Craddock says, “God whispered and those waiting for a shout heard nothing. Those who heard and saw did so by trust, without guarantee. To those who will not trust, final proof is never enough; to those who will trust, final proof is not necessary.” (Ibid., p. 13)
And so when the light shines on the true meaning of Christmas, it is on Immanuel, God with Us. Whether you prefer to talk with Luke and Matthew about angels, shepherds, wise men, animals, stars, and a baby; or whether you prefer to talk with John about the pre-existent Word of God becoming flesh and living among us, the light shining in the darkness, full of grace and truth, you are talking about Immanuel, God With Us. Good news, good tidings, great joy, for all people. To all who receive him, who believe in him, he gives power to become children of God. It is truly an astonishing mystery which we contemplate at Christmas.
As we go through all our Christmas traditions and rituals this week, let’s make sure we don’t get distracted from seeing the light which came into the world at Christmas in the person of Jesus. Without that light everything becomes distorted. With that light, all is made clear.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey Central Presbyterian Church
December 21, 2014 Anderson, SC