Christmas service on December 20, 2020
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
The Light Shining in the Darkness
Hello, everyone joining in today’s Christmas worship, whether online or in person. I’m happy to be here to celebrate with you the birth of our Lord and Savior by once again announcing the good news: no matter how much darkness there is around us, the light of Christ is still shining in it!
There’s a lot of darkness in our world right now, isn’t there. Just think back to one year ago when we gathered here for Christmas. All in person, no masks, shaking hands and hugging! Remember that? We’ve gone through a lot of dark days since then, haven’t we. Some of us have lost people we love, others have taken big hits financially, still others have lost job security, and all of us have faced fear of the coronavirus itself. In some ways, the usual brightness and gladness of the season seems strangely missing, and the holidays oddly quiet.
But for us as followers of the Christ, when you look closer at the Bible stories of His birth, you see that darkness is really no surprise. It was dark in Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birthday. There were no Christmas decorations on houses or trees. No preparations like that were made to welcome the birth of the King of Heaven. Except for the stars above and probably olive oil lamps burning in homes and at least one inn, it was as dark as any other night.
Yet that did nothing to stop Christ, “the light of the world” (John 8:12), from being born, shining into that darkness, and beginning to overcome it. Because Jesus came as a baby, lived, died, rose again, and so made a way of salvation for all people, John was able to write years later, “The light shines in the darkness” (v. 5). That’s the message I want to focus on with you today.
John’s opening presentation of Christ uses another figure of speech: Jesus is the Word. First he pictures Jesus as the divine Word (v. 1), then the creating Word, (vv. 2-3), then the life-giving Word (v. 4), and finally the enlightening Word (v. 5). Let’s drill down a little deeper on that last one this morning. My prayer is that it will lead us to know Christ deeper and love Him more. That in turn can make it more spiritually enriching every year when you see Christmas lights on a home or tree or in a candlelight service and recall their deeper meaning.
As Pastor Sasaki noted last week, John did not just sit down one day and dream up the words of his gospel. When he wrote about Christ the light, he was seeing fulfilled the Isaiah 9:2 prophecy that people “. . . now living in darkness will see a great light.” And this theme continued to appear in the events of Jesus’ life. Soon after His birth, a man named Simeon met Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and said (Luke 2:32) that the child had been born as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of (God’s) people Israel.” Our Lord used the word picture of light again and again in His teachings after becoming an adult. Not only did He make the bold claim, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), but He said something even more amazing in some ways to His followers: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Even that is possible if He is born not only in Bethlehem but in us and we make our hearts His home. Then years and years after Christ has returned to heaven, we find John still telling the same hope-inspiring story. In I John 1:5, he writes, “Here is the message we have heard from him and announce to you. God is light. There is no darkness in him at all.”
“The light shines in the darkness. But the darkness has not understood it” (v. 5). To get at the meaning of this great claim, let’s take a little round-about way. Look at nearly the last word there, “understood.” This word (katalambano in Greek) gets translated a wide variety of ways in different versions of the Bible. Some of them are focused on understanding. They say (with “it” being the light, or Christ) that the darkness “comprehended it not,” “did not comprehend it,” “has not understood it,” “did not perceive it,” or “did not grasp it.” In Japanese, the Shinkyodoyaku（新共同訳）has it 「暗闇は光を理解しなかった」.
The same word gets translated in other parts of the New Testament in similar ways. For example, Acts 4:13 talks about people who “realized” that Peter and John had been with Jesus. In Acts 10:34 Peter says, “I now realize . . . that God treats everyone the same.” The writer of Ephesians 3:18 wants his readers to “understand” Christ’s love—how long and high and deep it is.
Other translations of katalambano are focused much more on conflict, or the battle between light and darkness. They say that the darkness “apprehended it not,” “has never put it out,” “couldn’t put it out,” “has not overcome it,” “did not overcome it,” or “has not suppressed it.” Those are similar to “did not seize it.” In Japanese, the Seishokyokai Kyoudouyaku has it「闇は光に勝たなかった」, and the Shinkaiyaku and Kogoyaku put it, 「やみはこれに打ち勝たなかった」.
In other parts of the New Testament, this word is translated in ways that focus on laying hold of something, as if with your hands, grasping it. For example, in Mark 9:18 an evil spirit “takes hold of” a young man and throws him to the ground. In John 8:4 a woman was “caught” sleeping with a man who was not her husband. I Corinthians 9:24 talks about a runner who “gets” a prize for coming in first in a race. In Philippians 3:12-13 we see a goal that you seek to “reach.”
In still other parts of the New Testament, katalambano is used in ways focused on a more general overpowering. John 12:35 tells us to walk while we have the light before darkness “catches up” with us. I Thessalonians 5:4 speaks of a day of destruction that could “surprise” you as a thief would (by stealth under the cover of night—or as a thief is “overtaken” by the light of day and might be discovered).
So which one is it? Is the Lord telling us in John 1:5 that the darkness of our world cannot understand Christ? Can’t overpower Him? I don’t see a reason that these two understandings are necessarily in conflict with each other. They are not exactly the same, and it’s hard to insist that he means them both equally in this particular case. But it’s very difficult to say that John means only one and not the other. My view is that if you look at the Bible as a whole, you can see that these both show important facets of the truth of God’s word. So let’s look at each just a bit more.
First, not understanding the light. The darkness includes humans’ incomplete knowledge of God. John seems to be stepping back and taking the broad view of God’s work of revealing Himself through Christ. That is, He shows Jesus generally through the goodness of the gift of life itself (v. 4), then through Old Testament teachings (types and prophecies, v. 5), and finally through John the Baptist (vv. 10ff).
Even the physical light we depend on for life points us to God and His ability to meet our needs. The mini-death that we go through each night when we sleep, the mini-resurrection that we experience with the light of every new morning. The dead-looking trees and the shortest days of the year in December, moving step by step with the promise of life toward the budding trees, green grass, and longer days of spring. The evergreen trees that symbolize the gift of eternal life, which Christ was born to bring and we remember with Christmas trees, wreaths, etc. These and many more are ways God shines the light through creation.
Then there are the Old Testament types (Jesus is the “second Adam” (Romans 5:14), the “rock” (I Corinthians 10:4) from which the water flowed in the desert, etc.) and prophecies (Christ is to be born in Bethlehem, for example). They pointed to Christ, but He was not yet revealed in the clear form of one human being, Jesus of Nazareth.
Next, the light of Christ shone through John the Baptist. John tells us more about him, but the main point is that he was preparation for the real light, Christ Himself. Neither creation, nor the Old Testament, nor John the Baptist alone could overcome the darkness fully and make God known completely. For that, we had to have the birth of Christ itself.
Then how about darkness as unable to overcome light? This involves a couple of things about where darkness is. It’s in the world around us in illness, ignorance, poverty, crime, war, racism, and all the evils of our world. Without Christ, we don’t understand God, the world, or ourselves correctly, and we are not in a healthy relationship with any of them. That’s not good news, is it. But it gets even worse. Not only are we in darkness—also, darkness is in us. We love things that lead us away from truth, beauty, goodness, and happiness—away from life, away from the light. For example, “Suppose someone claims to be in the light but hates his brother or sister. Then he is still in the darkness” (I John 2:9). If we are honest, all of us can look back and think of things we wish we would not have said or done in the year soon ending. There may be risks we would have been wise to take rather than playing it safe, choices that were simply self-centered, and much more. That’s the way our world and we are.
But the good news is even better than the bad news is bad. It’s OK. The darkness is real, but it’s not greater than the light. Darkness may look scary, but it’s not something to be afraid of if you have the light. For one reason, darkness is defined by its relationship to the light. It of itself is not powerful. Before you go to sleep at night, you don’t push a button to turn the darkness on, do you? Darkness can only have power in the absence of light. When the light is not in us, darkness can have the power to conceal, confuse, slow us down, make things difficult, prevent constructive activity, frighten, paralyze, and more. But none of that can overcome us if we live in the light.
Christ is the light, and He has come for us. If you open your heart in faith and let the Christ of Christmas live in it as Lord, the light is in you. And when the light is in you, you don’t need to worry. You don’t need to be afraid. You can learn to “walk in the light” (I John 1:7) and “live like children of the light” (Ephesians 5:8). If the light has been born in you, it doesn’t matter nearly so much if you have to be away from people you love. If your physical health and your finances and relationships with some people are shaky, or even falling apart, you still don’t have to live in darkness. If you can’t go the places, eat the food, meet the people, or make the plans you want because of the coronavirus, it doesn’t mean you face a dark future.
I think you know this, at least on some level, at least a lot of the time. I see you demonstrating that knowledge by continuing to move ahead in the face of some real difficulties. I’m proud to see this group supporting each other, hanging in there in painful times, and letting them grow you stronger rather than break you down. Seeing the light shining in the darkness that way gives me hope. That is my Christmas present, and I’m grateful and glad to have it.
Let’s remember the Christmas stories we have been hearing again this season. The good news Mary gives us is that when Christ the light is in you, even your body can be a holy place--the Temple of the Lord. The good news of Nazareth is that when Christ the light is in you, even a place where you feel uncertainty and confusion can be a holy place—one where you learn to live with a promise and expectation—with hope. The good news of Bethlehem is that, when Christ the light lives in you, even a dirty manger, a stable, a cave, can be a holy place—the home of the King of Heaven.
So whether you celebrate Christmas in a beautiful church house with others or in your home all alone, you can know that the light of Christmas is shining on you. It shone on the shepherds out in the fields, the wise men as they searched for the Christ-child, and the holy family as they escaped with their lives to Egypt. Christ has come. They knew it. Now we know it, too. He intends for our hearts to be His home. And when the light of the world is living in us, we have great reason to rejoice. Amen. Merry Christmas! Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we celebrate with you today the birth of your Son. Even though we live in a world that can seem so full of darkness, we have received the good news: “The darkness is passing away. The true light is already shining” (I John 2:8b). Thank you for loving us enough to send your only Son to provide for our salvation. Shine into every dark corner of our individual lives and throughout your world. Fill us anew with your goodness, your beauty, and your truth. In the name of the Christ of Christmas we pray. Amen.
Lightfoot, J. (1989). A Commentary on the New Testament From the Talmud and Hebraica by John Lightfoot. Hendrickson Publishers. Retrieved December 7, 2020 from https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/lightfoot-new-testament/john/1.html