One of my earliest poignant experiences of God came perched on the roof of our garage under the stars. I was in middle school and my contemplative nature still lay dormant inside me. The angel trumpets wouldn’t blast into my consciousness, awakening that part of me until college.
Still, on that rooftop I felt deep in my bones what I would later read in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story: “People sitting in darkness have seen a great light, and to those sitting in the land and shadow of death, a light has dawned on them” (Matt 4:16).
While this Lutheran boy couldn’t yet quote the Scriptures, sitting on that dark roof with the cold autumn air on my neck, I somehow knew the Great Light of God’s Presence was shining down on me through those twinkling stars.
Some 3,000 years earlier, another pimple-popping adolescent burst into song under the starry night as he tended sheep: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set Your glory above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1). And, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship” (Psalm 19:1).
But God remained a distant Star in the sky for me for quite some time. In college, however, I began to read stories and sing songs about the light stepping down into our darkness, and putting on a human face in Jesus.
The message of Christmas quickly morphed from sappy sentimentality to the announcement of a divine invasion of an upside down kingdom. Jesus, I discovered, wasn’t born in a manger so I could get presents from Santa each December. Jesus was born into a cosmic war zone to launch a spiritual resistance movement and enlist an army of light and love to help push the darkness back.
In Bethlehem’s stable, Isaiah’s words were being fulfilled: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you” (Isaiah 60:1). Simeon burst out into song when he held baby Jesus in the temple: “I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” (Luke 2:30-32)
The baby Jesus would grow up and tell his followers: “I, the Light, have come to the world, that no one who believes in me shall abide in darkness” (John 12:46). Therefore, “Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you… While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of light” (John 12:35-36). While most of my college peers were trying to find a career, I was pondering what it means for a 21 year old to become a “son of light.”
These Scriptures evoke the hope of the Advent season and proclaim the message of Christmas: God doesn’t remain like a distant star, showcased and sparkling from across the universe. The Light came down, and continues to come down, into the darkness of our world, bringing fresh hope and new beginnings.
But the Gospel of John tells us there is also a more sober reality to this light Jesus brings down from Heaven: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
Many of us good church-going folks think we love the light and long for more and more of it in our lives. That is, until that light is suddenly turned on us like a spotlight, exposing our own dark corners where we hide our sin. Yes, religious people have made a sport out of using the light to expose other people’s sins, while conveniently hiding their own stains in the shadows. Perhaps this is one reason some days we would prefer to hide that pesky light under a bowl or bushel!
Thirty years have passed since I sat on the garage roof staring up at the night sky. The worries and cares of a middle schooler have been upgraded one-hundredfold, now carrying the burdens of a father, husband and pastor living in this current cultural wilderness.
Perhaps, this Advent, you also feel like we’re sitting collectively on a cold and icy roof, staring up at the Heavens and badly need to hear this message again: “The people sitting in a pandemic have seen a great light, and to those sitting in the land and shadow of covid, a light has dawned on them” (Matt 4:16).
John’s Gospel reminds us of this Good News: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:4-5). Good news, indeed! But Christians aren’t meant to merely gaze at the light and warm ourselves in its glow. We are called to join God in bringing the light into the dark places of the world. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14-16).
Paul worries that the Christians living in the heart of Rome will get pulled into dark ways of Empire all around them. He tells them: “The night is nearly over; the day has drawn near. So let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12). He reminds the Christians in Ephesus of the dark past Christ has rescued them from: “For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light!” (Eph 5:8).
Similarly, Peter says: “God has brought you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Now you must tell all the wonderful things that he has done” (1 Pet 2:9).
“Okay, what exactly does it actually mean in practice?” you ask. “I’ve heard countless sermons about Christ’s light shining into darkness, and our call to shine our light. So what?” Indeed, we must go deeper and not settle for sentimental cliches and cute spiritual metaphors of Christ’s light shining in the darkness. What’s the next step?
We need to understand the nature of the light we are called to walking in and reflect. We need to take the Light of Christ into our hands and heart, turn it around and around like a diamond and appreciate the manifold shimmer and shine and sparkle. When the Light of the World invaded a stable in the little town of Bethlehem, and began shining the glory of God’s Kingdom on earth, what shape did that shine take? What colors refracted from that manger into the eyes of those shepherds looking on?
A couple Christmases ago, our kids got these little animal-shaped nightlight reflectors that spray light up on the ceiling in different shapes and constellations. Abby’s displays a unicorn, I know. What image is reflected by Christ’s light bearers? Is the light of our witness worthy of the name of Jesus?
When I was about 6 years old I had a glow-in-the-dark matchbox car that I would carefully set under my lamp to “charge” before bed. After my mom came in to tuck me in and turned off my light, I would drive my radiant car around under the covers until the glow faded away and I finally dozed off to sleep.
Likewise, we are to regularly place ourselves under the radiant glow of Christ’s marvelous light, and let our lives and attitudes and values be super-charged by that Kingdom light. But we need to make sure we’re being charged by Christ’s light, avoiding cheap knock-offs or, worse, being charged up by many scandalous alternatives flooding the religious marketplace these days, claiming to be Christian but are not light at all.
When darkness invades God’s holy people, we can end up casting a shadow over the land, rather than shining His light. Paul warns of leaders in the church who claim to live in the light, but who are actually emissaries of darkness. And we shouldn’t be surprised by this, for: “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:14-15).
Whether intentionally or not, these leaders preach and teach and “reflect” another kingdom that is less blinding to our half-asleep worldly eyes than the upside down Kingdom of Jesus. So, how can we make sure we’re faithful representatives of Jesus’ unique Kingdom of light? I suggest we spend time examining the Beatitudes at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom manifesto in Matthew 5:1-11.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ most well-known yet least followed teaching. This manifesto launched his ministry, and he wants those who would follow Him to know that they are choosing to embrace a radically upside down view of reality. In this crazy year when so much in our world seems so upside down and topsy-turvy, perhaps we’ll be more receptive to this jaw-dropping invitation to a whole new way of seeing.
Framed on the wall of my study is some artwork from my (then) 7-year old son, Peter. Its a kind of cityscape with a bridge in the background and a night sky dotted with bright stars. Flying through the night with arms outstretched is Peter. The scene immediately evoked Philippians 2:15-16 for me.
“Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright stars in a world full of crooked and perverse people… Shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to, and hold out to others, the word of life” (Phil 2:15-16).
When I shared my interpretation with the artist himself, Peter insisted we add to the painting, putting the “word of life” (i.e., a Bible) into Peter’s outstretched arm.
Now it tells the story that began to be whispered into my soul all those years ago sitting on the garage roof under the stars. Little did I know back then, that my life would eventually be given to the singular task of urging others to live a life that shines Christ’s light into a dark and crooked world. But this will only happens if Christians “hold firmly to the word of life”—that is, Jesus and his upside down Kingdom ethics.
I’m so grateful for bright starry nights, childhood art projects, garage roof epiphanies, and glow-in-the-dark cars. Most of all, I’m thankful that there is a light that shines into the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The fact that the Living God wants to let us in on the shining; well, that just takes my breath away!
The Beatitudes of Bethlehem we are exploring this Advent will help us make sure we are holding onto (and holding out to others!) the true word of life that is the essence of Jesus’ Kingdom. This Christmas let us return to the manger in Bethlehem, and plug ourselves into the Source of all Light and Love and Life. The Beatitudes of Bethlehem radiate the bright Sonlight we are to place our lives underneath, in order to keep our witness supercharged with a pure gospel glow.