Lighting Up the World

It was in the middle of one of my many vacation home improvement projects this year that I realized just how good we all have it.  I was fussing over electrical outlets and light switches, and it dawned on me just how much we take light for granted. I mean, think about it—we can have light anytime we want—day or night, rain or shine. Just flip a switch and on it goes. Yes, there’s work involved, but once it’s there, you don’t think anything of it.

And venture outside. There is always a constant glow, the city not too far off (or in my case the Bi-Lo parking lot). The night is really only a minor inconvenience with all those streetlights blazing.

Or take it a little farther. Think about the ball drop just a few days ago in Times Square. There, at the stroke of midnight, all eyes are on this pulsing, strobing ball, surrounded by flickering LED displays. There truly is no darkness on New Years Eve.

I want to point all this out so that you can take it out of your head. Put yourself in the mindset of our ancestors. Let’s go back to a time when there was maybe one oil lamp or a candle to light a room. That’s all the light you have. And think about what the darkness would be like then.

The darkness would surround you. It would cover you. And all you have is this little flickering light to keep it at bay. And it would be pretty scary, out there in the darkness, it was an unknown world.

So it’s with this in mind that we hear yet another Christmas story. But John’s version is not so interested in the details of Bethlehem or the manger or the shepherds or the angels. No, John is the big picture guy. He’s interested in the cosmos. In the beginning. Where it all started.

It would be a very strange and trippy Christmas pageant, John 1. Everything is shapeless, swirling through space and time. “In the beginning,” goes the booming voice. Where have we heard that before?

We’re supposed to think back to the Creation story, to Genesis, of course. But, instead of hearing the story of God creating the world, we are being told something else:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Wait, so what is this word again? I don’t want to spoil anything here, but the Word is Jesus. And How do we know that? A few verses later: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Ah, so there’s your Christmas story. Imagine the costumes we’d need to make for this Christmas play. Imagine the nativity set.

This, in a nutshell is what we call in fancy religious words, “the incarnation”—the term for the idea that God becomes human, in the form of Jesus Christ. And strangely, Jesus is not introduced as a baby or even an adult. Instead, he’s the Word, from the beginning, with God, from the beginning, and was God, from the beginning. 

And when this word comes into our world, comes into our lives, John has to describe it somehow, otherwise we’re still stuck somewhere in some mystical dimension. But again, no baby, no manger, instead, John chose to describe Jesus as light:

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

What would this statement have sounded like to someone without the luxury of electricity. We have conquered the darkness, but to them? How can the darkness not overcome a little candle?

Now, on one hand, we can look at this as a battle between light and dark—some sort of cosmic warfare. But there’s a lot of meaning packed into the original word for “overcome.” It can also mean grasp or comprehend or understand. In other words, “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness just doesn’t get it.”

And this is part of the larger story that John is telling us. Go home today and look through the Gospel of John. Pay attention to the number of times you see the words “light” and “dark.” Characters in this story are always stumbling their way through the darkness. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark, asking him questions about salvation. Judas betrays Jesus at night. Mary goes to the empty tomb in the predawn darkness.

Darkness is ignorance, confusion, chaos. Even in our bright, LED-lit world, I think that we can identify with this. Because a lot of times, we too are fumbling our way through the dark. I mean, another holiday season come and gone, and while some things have changed, a lot remains the same. We still face many of the same problems, shortcomings, insecurities. We all could use a little light in our lives.

The darkness doesn’t always get it. We cannot overcome our problems on our own. And sometimes our pride gets the better of us. Sometimes because of our own actions and our own choices, we cannot see the light clearly. But the promise that God makes on this final Sunday of Christmas is that the light has come. Really, the light has always been here, built into the foundations of all time.

And that light comes to us in this time and place—in the form of a teacher, a person, a baby in a manger. Again, if we take a step back and look at the larger story, we see that light is the light of the world, a light to our path. When we see the light—that is, when we place our trust in Jesus—our world get’s lit up like Times Square on a New Year’s Eve.

That’s John’s point, Jesus is the light of the world because Jesus is God coming down to us, God’s Word, taking on a real persona, being spoken from the lips of a human, in order that all things may be illuminated. And from that light, we see the way to abundant, eternal life. From that light, we see God.