The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it
Sermon preached at Enmore, Christmas Eve, 2016
Christmas is sometimes described as the Festival of light. At Christmas time many of us like to put up lights on our Christmas trees and give our homes a festive look with coloured lights around the house. Some, including at least one family in our congregation take this even further and transform the entire outside of the house with lights and bright decorations with a Christmas theme and people come from near and far to see it. Why do we associate Christmas with light?
In both Matthew and Luke’s narratives about the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it, there is mention of light. Matthew tells us about the magi, the wise men from the East, who came following a star which they believed heralded the birth of a new king. Luke, in the reading we have listened to tonight tells us of shepherds ‘keeping watch over their flocks by night’ who were suddenly terrified by the sight of an angel and the light of ‘the glory of the Lord’ shining around them. John’s Gospel does not give us a Christmas narrative but John gives us the wonderful hymn of praise to the ‘The word made flesh’ and describes the coming of Christ as ‘the light shining in the darkness.’ Furthermore, John tells us that Jesus is the true light who gives light to everyone. It is not surprising then that so many of the famous paintings of the nativity portray the infant Jesus glowing with light and illuminating the darkness of the stable in which he lies.
But what does John mean when he describes Jesus as the true light?
First of all he wants us to understand that Jesus shares in the light of God himself. The opening words of John’s Gospel are intended to take us back to the beginning of creation. Genesis 1 commences with the great declaration, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” The world begins in darkness but then God creates light. Light is God’s first gift to his creation. The earth depends on light for its survival. Plants, animals, humans all need light and sunshine. We live in a country blessed with an abundance of light- not everyone is so lucky. People who live in countries with a lot less light have to swallow vitamin D tablets and sometimes get depressed because of the lack of sunshine. In the Scriptures light and life are often linked. Light becomes a symbol of God’s presence and the life that he brings. In the book of Exodus, after Moses had been on Mt.Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, when he came down, the people noticed that his face shone because he had been in God’s presence so long. Light and life are linked in John chapter 1: 3-5. “All things came into being through him (Jesus) and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John is making an extraordinary claim here for he is saying that God, the source of life and all creation was present in the baby Jesus who was put to bed in an animal feed box in a remote village in the Roman Empire some two thousand years ago. Theologians call that the incarnation, God taking human flesh and living among us. To encounter Jesus John says, is to be in touch with God himself and the life he brings is not mere existence but life in all its fullness. In fact when John uses the word life, which he does frequently, he often calls it eternal life, meaning, not just life after death but abundant life, here and now.
Second, John wants us to understand that the light that came into the world with Christ is the light promised by the prophets’ centuries before. Passages such as the one read this evening from Isaiah looked forward to the day when Israel would be delivered from her enemies and her cities restored. Isaiah chapter 9 speaks of people walking in darkness and seeing a great light: “those who lived in a land of deep darkness- on them light has shined.” Here light is a symbol of life and freedom, while darkness is a symbol of oppression. John and the other evangelists understand the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. Jesus is the one who brings salvation and hope to his people. In Luke’s Gospel when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus into the temple for his presentation to the Lord as required by the law they meet the devout Simeon who takes the child in his arms and prays, “my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people.”
Third, John makes it clear that the light that Jesus brings will not be recognised or understood by everyone. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” The word translated as ‘overcome’ literally means ‘to take hold of’ or ‘grasp’ and so can be understood in two ways. Overcome implies a struggle; taking hold of something in order to subdue it. But it can also mean ‘to grasp’, in the sense of comprehending. Both meanings are possible here. Light and darkness are frequently contrasted in the scriptures and in apocalyptic writings like Daniel and Revelation there are conflicts between the forces of good and evil. However, in John’s Gospel darkness is more often portrayed as a failure to recognise the truth- or to have a mind that is closed. Those of us who have done any teaching will have experienced moments when we have struggled to convey a particular idea or concept and by the glazed eyes in front of us have realised that we have failed. However, every now and again you have those precious moments when light dawns and the students in front of you suddenly grasp what you are saying.
I think that is the sense of what John is saying here. When Jesus came as the light of the world many people completely missed what he was really about. They were expecting the Messiah –the promised one but Jesus just didn’t look like the one they were expecting. They were hoping for someone different- a great military leader who would drive out the Romans and establish Israel as a great nation again. Instead they got an itinerant preacher who said we were to love our enemies and to treat others in the way we would want to be treated. Instead of war, he preached peace and instead of hatred, he preached forgiveness. Instead of labeling their enemies as the forces of darkness or the evil axis, he warned them of the darkness that dwells in all of us that needs to be repented of. What’s more he chose all the wrong friends- pretty ordinary people including tax collectors, fishermen, accountants, and a bunch of women some of whom had pretty dodgy backgrounds. People on both sides of politics tried to enlist his support for the big political issues of the day but he showed little interest in them. He was interested in people and how they related to God and to each other. So the light shone in the darkness but the darkness just couldn’t comprehend it.
But some did get it- the motley collection of men and women who followed him slowly started to understand what he was about. They not only realised that he was the Son of God but they came to understand that they could know the joy of being God’s children too. Jesus taught them to call God their Father: a father who loved them and wanted them to experience life free from guilt and condemnation. Today, two thousand years later things haven’t changed very much: some people still find Jesus puzzling and hard to understand. But for those with eyes to see he is the light of the world, the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
John’s Gospel begins with Jesus as the light and life of the world and it finishes on the same theme. He concludes with the words “these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing you may have life through his name.” Christmas- the festival of light and life for all who believe.