4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:4-5, 9-14).
Christmas has a way of bringing back childhood memories. A favorite for many of us was playing ‘Hide-and-Seek.’ The game was always more exciting when you were in somebody else’s house where you didn’t know all the nooks and crannies, and would sometimes stumble into little hidden passageways under stairs or in storage rooms in the attic or basement. The Land of Narnia or Middle Earth could be lying just beyond any closet door!
For more advanced Hide-and-Seekers you could really make things interesting by turning off the lights and stumbling around in the dark. Sometimes this proved too difficult and after an hour of bumping into things and finding no one, the seeker would grab a flashlight to help. Sometimes you just gave up altogether and flipped on the lights. For an impatient child eager to be found, those lights were a wonderful thing. But for the stubborn child who wanted to remain hidden, those lights ruined the entire game.
Christmas Eve is a good time to ponder light and darkness, hiders and seekers—especially in light of the words from our Gospel text from John’s famous prologue. Now stumbling around in a dark basement playing a silly game of Hide-and-Seek can be a lot of fun. On the other hand, taking refuge in that same basement as the tornado siren blares and the violent winds blow outside, and then having the power go out—that is a more serious and less enjoyable predicament for children and adults. This happened to us a few years ago. Our boys were very frightened until daddy came into the room with a lit candle to snuff out the darkness. The light in our midst illuminated for our children our calm and reassuring faces as we huddled in the corner waiting for the storm to pass.
PONDERING THE DARKNESS
I think John has two similar scenarios in mind as he pens some of the most memorable and majestic theological sentences every written. He describes people dwelling in darkness, and God’s incarnate flashlight—Jesus the Messiah—coming into the world as “The true light that gives light to everyone” (1:9). Jesus the God-sent flashlight “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). The million dollar question is: Is the arrival of the light good news or bad news? If it were simply good news, then this would be a much shorter sermon and John could have stopped at verse 9…but he didn’t, and so I must preach on hoping those candy canes keep the kids out there occupied a bit longer.
With the help of John, I’d like to suggest tonight we all need to face the reality of the darkness in the world and in our own hearts. And unless we outright deny the existence of evil and suffering and sin and death, we each need to decide how we will respond to both the darkness and the light that Jesus claims to bring. Let’s talk about the darkness first, and then we’ll examine the light.
The Story the sacred Scriptures tell has the entire human race living in the dark night of sin and death, due to human rebellion against God and all the ways we have tried to usurp God’s role to be in control, rather than living underneath the Creator’s wise and loving oversight. John’s telling of the story in his Gospel is notoriously black and white, forcing us to “choose” sides—and, for John, there are only two sides.
We are walking in darkness or living in the light.
We are spiritually blind or we can see.
We are of the truth or being deceived.
We are born again or still dead in our sins.
We are either free in Christ or still in bondage.
We are children of God or children of the Devil.
For John, there is no gray area or middle ground in the spiritual drama and battle for our heart and souls. The Christmas message in the Gospel of John is about a search and rescue operation, the dropping of a lifeline to coal miners trapped underground, pulling them up before the unstable earth swallows them up. John’s Gospel forces us to decide: Will we reach up and grab hold of the lifeline or reject God’s rescue operation and remain in the dark cave of sin and death?
Now I don’t think I need to work hard convincing most of you tonight that the darkness in this world—and in each human heart—is real. Every news outlet does a fine job of showcasing the dark underside of sin 24/7. But getting back to our Hide-and-Seek scenario, I want to suggest that many of us here tonight are tempted to hold unhealthy attitudes toward the darkness that lead us to resist the arrival of the Light. I’ll name just two.
First, some don’t take the darkness seriously enough. Like children hiding under stairs in grandma’s basement, some are playing games with the darkness in their own hearts—making light of it, minimizing it’s dangerous power, or rationalizing it away as not as dark as it could be, not as dark as other people’s darkness. We continue to flirt with temptations confident we won’t fall. Destructive habits are slowly dimming the light but we can still see well enough to function, so we put off seeking help. Everyone else around us is playing in the dark, so we conclude it’s impossible to escape it and God will understand.
The unequivocal message of Jesus and the holy Scriptures is this: the darkness is fatal. We’ve all been bit by the serpent and Sin’s venom kills. In Paul’s memorable words: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a). The wisdom of the Proverbs likewise warns all of us who may be playing games with the dark that “There’s a way that looks harmless enough; but look again—it leads straight to destruction” (Prov. 16:25). So, for those getting too comfortable with the darkness, Christmas is the arrival of the Light that exposes the darkness and shows how ugly, dangerous and deadly it really is. So, while the bad news is that “The wages of sin is death,” the good news of Christmas is that “the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). That is, if we will receive Heaven’s saving light.
A second attitude toward the darkness is equally problematic, but almost the mirror opposite. Instead of enjoying a game of Hide-and-Seek in the dark, we find ourselves hunkering down in the basement and taking refuge from the storms battering the broken world outside. We become paralyzed or animated by fear of the darkness. We may find ourselves overwhelmed by our own sins, plagued by guilt and dogged by shame. Or we grow overly cynical toward the world, cutting ourselves off from the darkness, retreating into our own little isolated Christian light-chambers, and self-righteously watch the rest of the world go to Hell in a hand basket while we await evacuation from this earth.
If you find yourselves among those hiding in basements of fear and waiting out the storms, the message of Christmas for you tonight is that “The light shines in the darkness”—into the palpable fear and unrelenting worry of situation you’re now facing—“and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5), nor can it! God’s Light outshines any darkness, and that Light has come down the stairs into the lowest levels of our world in the loving face of Jesus, and that “Perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18). Just as my light-bearing presence calmed my children through the storm, so Christ’s presence should drive out fear as we navigate our own storms. Is there a particular fear driving your life, your moods, every decision and your outlook on the future? Would you like to have that fear driven out of your life this Christmas—just in time for the New Year?
RECEIVING THE LIGHT
So, having pondered the darkness and our attitude toward it, let’s marvel at the Light that stepped down into darkness. Matthew’s Gospel has us following a star and laying our gifts before the newborn king. Luke has us heeding the angel’s voice and following the shepherds to the manger. John’s Gospel drives us not to a manger, but to a decisive encounter with the flood light of Heaven that demands an appropriate response.
John says this about Jesus, God’s agent in the flesh: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (1:4). While the kids continue working on those candy canes, I have two questions: 1) What does it mean that Christ was the light of all mankind? 2) How should we respond to the light?
Put quite simply, Christ is God’s Heaven-sent floodlight illuminating the Way, the Truth, and the Life God originally intended for his human image-bearers. He is the Way—the pathway—to a restored relationship with God, bridging the chasm between us and God brought about by our sin. Christ is the light of Truth by which we judge error and falsehood, expose idolatry and sin, and distinguish between His justice and human injustices. He perfectly embodies the “Life to the full” (John 10:10)—the human flourishing—that God desires for humanity—a life that draws on Heaven’s riches even while we remain in this darkened world. One commentator puts it like this:
Not only did God create “all things” through the Word, but God sent the Word into the world as flesh to live in the midst of the human family…As incarnate Word he offers those who are in the world the possibility of experiencing heaven on earth, that is, the qualities of heaven while still in the world…In a manner of speaking, the Word incarnate in Jesus turns on the light in the world, so that people can see the negative quality of life in the world, in contrast to the positive quality of life in God’s Kingdom…Without Jesus, inhabitants of the world assume that its negative qualities are the sum of the possibilities of existence. Those who believe in Jesus, by contrast, begin to experience many qualities of heaven—for example, love, light, peace, freedom, abundance—even as they continue to live in the world (Ronald J. Allen, Connections, 108).
This is the Light Incarnate that transformed 12 scared disciples into 12 bold apostles willing to give their life up for their faith. This is the Light that spread across a pagan empire and transformed an entire civilization 2,000 years ago. This is the light that continues to set people free from bondage, healing broken hearts, transforming shattered families, renewing hope for the weary, inspiring justice work around the world, and more. But sadly not everyone welcomes the light.
We live in a rare moment in history where people believe there are many viable Ways to God; that you have your truth and I have my truth and they are equally valid as long as we hold them sincerely; and the best Life is found in pursuing personal happiness and self-actualization. This cultural cocktail we are sipping from daily is far removed from the spiritual reality John’s Christmas message confronts us with tonight. Remember John’s stark either-or description of the human plight?
We are either in darkness or light.
We are blind or we can see.
We are deceived or walking in the truth.
We are dead in our sins or born again.
We are in bondage or set free in Christ.
We are children of the Devil or the children of God.
We welcome the light or run & hide in the shadows.
There is no middle ground or gray area in John’s account of God’s Hide-and-Seek rescue operation. In our Christmas encounter, we are blinded by the Light-in-human flesh, and like Paul on the Road to Damascus, our blinding can result in actually seeing things accurately for the first time! But here’s the sobering dilemma in John’s nativity story:
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (Jn 1:9-11).
God sent a lifeline down into the cave to pull us to safety. He came with a candle into our dark basements to be “God with us” until the storm passed. In Paul’s words, “The God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). He was driven by self-giving love to drive out our deepest fears.
But will we recognize his presence among us? Will you receive Him again tonight or perhaps for the first time? Will he find a dwelling in our hearts and our home and our business this New Year? The first step toward receiving him is to acknowledge our own inner darkness and our own need to be rescued from our ourselves.
THE TRUE LIGHT OF SALVATION
Listen: the false gospel we often hear from the culture around us is a self-help, tap into your inner divinity, and believe in yourself message. This message takes many forms and comes from the lips of widely varying teachers—from Oprah Winfrey to the Buddha. What they all have in common is a misunderstanding of the meaning of Christmas—they underestimate the darkness, and they fail to acknowledge that the Light our darkened world needs comes from outside ourselves.
Gautama Buddha (or the Buddha), who lived 500 years before Christ, gathered his disciples around him on his death bed to offer some last words of “wisdom.” Just before he breathed his last breath he said this:
“You are a light unto yourself. Seek not any external refuge. Salvation is found in no other place than yourself.”
Friends, this is not the good news of Christmas. This is not the scandalous message of the Incarnation. This is not good news at all. The good news of the Christian story is that “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matt 4:16).
Before Jesus faced his own deathbed experience, he gathered his disciples together and said to them: “I am the light of the world” and the bringer of salvation. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Tonight the game of Hide-and-Seek is over. The Seeker has arrived! So come out of hiding! Step into the Light of a Brand New Day! Receive Him with open arms and marvel at this marvelous Christmas promise:
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).
So, beloved, let it resound from the rooftops:
Joy to the world!
The Lord is come!
Let every heart prepare Him room!
Let us pray.