St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Christmas Eve 2016

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.


Philip Brad­ford