The writer of the Gospel of John refers to Christ as the light of the world. No wonder the star shone so brightly over Bethlehem! Light was coming into our world. No wonder that our Christmas trees are adorned with hundreds of lights.
The Gospel of John uses the word “light” no fewer than 21 times in referring to Christ. The function of John the Baptist was to point people to The Light that is Jesus, the Messiah, the promised One, the Christ.
John the Baptist was the voice of one calling in the desert, “Make straight the way for the Lord.” John came as a witness to testify concerning the light, the true light. The celebration of Advent is the celebration of light coming into our dark world.
From 40 years ago comes a story about the power of light. Darrel Dore was working on an oil rig one day in the Gulf of Mexico when suddenly it began to wobble. Before too long it tipped to one side and crashed into the water. Darrel found himself trapped inside a room on the rig. As the rig sank deeper and deeper into the sea, the lights went out and the room where Darrel was trapped began filling with water. Thrashing about in the darkness, Darrel made a life-saving discovery: a huge air bubble was forming in the corner of the room. He kept his head inside that bubble of air and prayed that some one would find him.
As he prayed, Darrel knew he wasn’t alone; he felt the presence of Christ there with him. For 22 hours, the presence of Christ comforted Darrel, but--deep down--Darrel knew that the oxygen supply inside the bubble was slowly giving out. Soon he would be dead.
Then Darrel saw a tiny star of light shimmering in the pitch‑black water. Was it real or, after 22 hours, was he beginning to hallucinate? Darrel squinted to see. The light seemed to grow brighter. He squinted again. He wasn’t hallucinating. The light was real. It was coming from the helmet of a diver who was coming to rescue him. His long nightmare was over. He was saved.
This true story helps us understand Christmas. Sin had wobbled our world, tipped it to one side, and sent it crashing into the waters of spiritual disaster. Darkness was everywhere. The human race was hopelessly trapped. There was no hope. Humankind was doomed to certain spiritual death. People turned to God. They prayed in the words of the prophet Isaiah: "O Lord, you are angry and we are sinful, all of us have become unclean. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. Save and deliver us."
They prayed and they waited for the time promised to them: the time of the Messiah. Then, when the night seemed darkest, something remarkable happened.
When John wrote his Gospel the world was in darkness. He wanted the world to know that the Light had penetrated that darkness. The Savior had come: Jesus, the light of the world.
I think we all understand how important light is to life and anyone who has ever been lost on a dark night knows what a welcome relief light is.
Luci Swindoll tells about a friend who, along with six strangers, was caught in a stalled elevator during a power failure. Fear was quickly turning to panic. But then Luci’s friend remembered that she had a tiny flashlight in her purse. When she turned it on, the fear in the elevator dissipated. For forty‑five minutes these strangers sat around the light and talked, laughed, and even sang. The light brought comfort when they needed it the most.
And just when the world most needed God’s light, a baby was born in Beth-lehem (which translated from the Hebrew to the English, House of Bread) and Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger, a feeding trough. The Bread of Life. The Light of the World.
The great truth of Christmas, the great message of Christmas, the great promise of Christmas, the great joy of Christmas, is all wrapped up in one word, Emmanuel, which means God is always with us! The true Light is with us. The Light of Bethlehem is with us and, as we have received Christ--that Light--is now in us and shines through us.
Let’s recall again, as we do this time each year, the events that occurred in Bethlehem when the Messiah, the Light, came into the world.
A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all people should take part in a census for the purpose of determining tax rates. Everyone returned to his or her own hometown to be registered. Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth down south to Bethlehem, just a few miles below Jerusalem. Joseph was from that town, the city of David, and he was a descendant of Israel’s greatest king. While they were there, right after they arrived there, Mary had her baby.
Luke tells us there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks. There, they had the surprise of a lifetime. Luke writes, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
You can visit the place where it is believed the shepherds were. It is a vast pasture area still today, where the winter rains cause grass to grow. Shepherds still take their sheep there to feed. You can stand in those fields and see Bethlehem on a distant hill. In that place, the shepherds were surprised as “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
One of my prayers this season is that we might all be surprised again by the light, surprised by the joy, surprised by the blessings, surprised by Christmas! That we might not just let the passages sit on us and fall off of us, but that we might take them in and be illuminated by them in a new way, in a startling way, in a joy-filled, light-filled way. And I pray that we also might carry Christmas with us all through the year.
Some years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Pennsylvania, I asked folks to leave out or up some reminder of Christmas all year round. One young mother told me her family had decided to leave out the nativity scene. A year later, she reported that her daughter referred to the figures in the set as her “guys” and she often walked around carrying her Jesus. She had spent so much time holding on to him that a lot of his features had been rubbed off. Would that we all would keep Jesus so close, that we would all hold Him so tight!
We can learn so much from children, from their simple, yet profound, expressions of faith. Two of my grandchildren were recently out shopping with me, and surprised me with a great outburst of delight, when they came upon a nativity scene. With, great excitement, my granddaughter shouted, "Look, it's Jesus!" Would that we, as adults, might have that same breathless joy at each thought, at each glimpse of the Lord! Jesus often surprises us with lessons through our interactions with children--lessons that we never could have planned.
Bill Adams tells a story about a pageant being performed by a church’s youth group. Joseph and Mary and all the other characters did their parts with appropriately pious expressions ... at least they tried. It was a shepherd who turned the pageant into a circus.
The little ones were dressed in flannel bathrobes with towels around their heads. They marched up the platform steps where Mary and Joseph stared earnestly at the straw in the manger. All was well up to this point.
The manger itself glowed with the presence of the newborn Jesus. In this case the divine infant was played by a light bulb nestled in the manger. It was a radiant sight and a beautiful way of expressing the meaning of Christ’s coming.
I might note, as an important aside here, that when one Christmas when folks from the church I was pastoring assembled for a community parade, we discovered we were missing a baby Jesus. We came up with the last ditch idea of using my knitted gloves bundled up under the swaddling clothes as stand in for Jesus, but then one man saved the day, running home and arriving back in the nick of time with a baby doll. In all of our careful preparations, it wasn’t until we looked at the empty manger, until we looked at our Mary’s empty arms, that we realized how desperately we needed our Jesus. How’s that for profundity? Too often, we do the very same thing at Christmas–-leaving Jesus behind.
Anyway, back to the youth group’s pageant -- all was well until one of the shepherds turned to the boy playing Joseph. In a very loud whisper -- which all the cast could hear, the shepherd said, “Well, Joe, when you gonna pass out cigars?”
There was something about this unexpected wisecrack that sent a wave of hilarious hysteria through the cast. The chief angel reacted worst of all. Standing on a chair behind Mary and Joseph, she shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair. This brought the stage curtain behind her and all the rest of the props down with her. The whole set was in a shambles. In fact, the only thing that didn’t go to pieces was that light bulb in the manger; it never stopped shining. How appropriate.
The Light of Christ never stops shining. Our parents and grandparents saw the Light’s glow in the darkest hours of the Depression. Our soldiers have seen the Light’s glow even on distant battlefields. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The Light shines in prison camps. The Light shines in hospital rooms and funeral parlors. The Light shines amidst poverty and the Light shines into sunken rooms on oil rigs. The Light shines in every manner of heartache and hardship. Nothing can stop the Light of God’s love for humankind from penetrating the darkness.
As John declares so beautifully in verses 4 and 5 in the first chapter of his gospel, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of humankind. The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Jesus is the Light of the world.
That Light cannot be extinguished.
But there’s one thing more to be said. The greatest privilege in the world is to share that Light with someone else. John was not the Light. He came to bear witness to the Light. That is our job as well.
A woman named Judith Carrick tells of visiting a nursing home in her community. In that nursing home was a woman whose mind was as sharp as anyone’s, but because of her illness, she could no longer walk or speak. This dear woman communicated mostly by gestures. She and Carrick had become good friends over the years they had known each other, and, as friends do, Carrick occasionally would run little errands for the woman, small tasks that she could no longer do for herself.
On one occasion the elderly woman waved Carrick into her room with some sense of urgency. There on her bed was a paper napkin with a picture drawn on it. Looking straight at her visitor, the elderly woman pointed to that napkin over and over again. It was obvious that this was something important. Carrick looked closely, and she saw the woman had sketched, as best she could, what appeared to be a flashlight.
“Is that a flashlight?” Carrick asked. Her friend’s head nodded up and down, while she pointed first at the picture and then to herself. Carrick laughed.
“You want a flashlight?” The head nodded again.
“Whatever for?” Carrick asked.
The woman could not answer verbally, but in her own way she made it known that this was a matter of great concern and importance to her. So Carrick agreed to bring her a flashlight.
The next time Carrick went to the nursing home she made sure she had the flashlight in hand. She walked into the woman’s room, shining the light all over the walls. A big smile crossed the woman’s face. “Please,” Carrick said, “tell me what this is all about. Why do you need a flashlight?”
The old woman moved her wheelchair toward the door and indicated for Carrick to follow. Together they went down the hall to the nurse’s station, where one of the aides told Carrick that, a few weeks earlier, during a week of heavy rain and high winds, the power in the nursing home had gone out for a time. The woman had become frightened, and she wanted the assurance that if it happened again, she would have that small beam of light to shine in the darkness and ease her fears.
What a great gift for someone who might otherwise have to sit in the darkness!
What a gift to give someone the gift of light. This is our call as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, to shine His Light into the lives of anyone who is sitting in darkness. John was not the Light, but he came to bear witness to the Light. That light was and is Christ, who is the life and the Light of the world. And now we have the same privilege given to John the Baptist.
As you sit in a church sanctuary or drive about a night, look at all the lights and the incredible beauty that reveals. When you come upon poinsettias, remember that these plants, native to Mexico, were named after the first American ambassador to that country, Joel Poinsett, who brought the plants to the United States in the 1820s. The plants symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. The actual of the poinsettia is small and yellow. But surrounding the flower are large--often bright red bracts–-usually mistaken for petals.
When you look upon an Advent Wreath, a circular evergreen wreath adorned with four candles around the wreath and one in the center, remember that the circular shape of the wreath epitomizes God Himself, His endless mercy, and eternity, which has no beginning or end. The green pine boughs signify hope in God and eternal life. The candles speak to the Light of Jesus coming into the world.
The four candles around the wreath stand for the four Sundays of Advent and for the four centuries between the time the prophet Malachi predicted the coming of the Messiah and the actual birth of Jesus. The candles further symbolize some of the blessings of this season: hope, peace, joy and love. The center candle is called the Christ candle.
When you see the lights of the season, ponder what the world would be without the Light. We have the privilege of sharing the Light. Let the Light of Christ shine through you. Let this Light give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people.”
Prepare Him room and receive the joy that illuminates the world.
Gracious God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we come to You, the Faithful One who stands with us in and through all things. We rejoice this Advent season in the sure and steadfast hope that is ours in Jesus the Lord and we look, with confidence, to His second coming as the hope of glory. In these days, we pray that you might give strength to our feeble hands and make firm our unsure knees. To the fearful among us, declare boldly, “Fear not for I am with you.”
As we draw closer each week to Christmas, keep us growing ever stronger in mind and spirit. Enable us to walk each day in holiness and purity. May our lives express such devotion to the faith that has claimed us that there would be about us no wavering testimony but instead a witness of love that will be clearly understood by all we encounter. Lord, make us shine like the stars. May we do everything without complaining or arguing as we hold out the Word of Life. May we be glad and rejoice in You. May we be clothed in the Lord Jesus Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. Help us to stand watchful and ready until your dear Son is revealed in the fullness of his glory. And may we rejoice in his Presence, known to us today and forever, world without end. It is in His Name, we pray. Amen
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.
And now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord before all time, now, and for evermore. Amen.