Monday, December 28, 2009

Sermon on John 1:1-14, Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, "The Light no darkness can Overcome"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome. Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening, and the day is almost over. Let Your light scatter the darkness, and illumine Your Church” (LSB 243). These words are the opening responses from the ancient and infrequently used service of Evening Prayer. That service, like our Candelight Service tonight, reflects on how Jesus Christ, the Light of the World drives away the darkness and gives light to men by illumining His Church. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Those ancient responses come in part from John’s telling of the Christmas story, in chapter 1. John wrote: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5). When John tells the Christmas story, he refers to the Word that is God and was present at creation. John refers to the True Light coming into the world. He talks about the Word become flesh. It’s not the simple historic narratives we know from Matthew and Luke. John looks at what happened on the first Christmas from the theological angle. So we understand the greater meaning of Jesus’ arrival and birth in Bethlehem.

Christmas was when God in His eternity entered time. God, in the perfection of His Light and Holiness, grabbed a hold of and entered into the fallenness of our darkness and sin. His light scattered the darkness, and no darkness can overcome His light. The heavenly God grasped and filled the earthly and physical form of a human body. We call what happened at Christmas, the Incarnation. God taking on human flesh. These high and lofty ideas that our simple minds strain to grasp, are all part of the miracle and the wonder of Christmas. We sing them in words like these: “Veiled in flesh the God-head see, Hail the Incarnate Deity! Pleased as Man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!” But we don’t need a PhD in theology to understand John’s Gospel, nor do we need it to understand the meaning of Christmas. Because Christmas isn’t about us grasping God or reaching up into heaven to comprehend the eternal, to solve the mysteries of the universe, to bring God down to us by our understanding. No, Christmas is about God reaching down and grasping us, entering our world, and making Himself known to us.

God grasps us at Christmas. There in the humble manger lies Jesus, God veiled or hidden in the most unassuming form. The form of infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes like a typical Jewish baby from a modest family. Here God first entered personally into the form of mankind that He had so long ago created in the Garden of Eden as the perfect image of Himself. God incarnate is pleased to dwell among us as the Man Jesus. He’s the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. Christmas is about God entering our human story as one of us. This is why Jesus’ birth is the most celebrated birth of all human history. No person ever born has such a celebrated birth, and accompanied by so many signs and wonders. Because God was descending to make Himself known, so that we wouldn’t be blindly reaching and grasping.

When we come back again to John’s account of the Incarnation, or Christmas, we hear these words: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” We celebrate Christmas because it is the arrival of the light that no darkness can overcome. That light still shines even now, and it will never be overcome. Therefore we celebrate Christmas not just because of what God did once some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem—but we celebrate Christmas because of God’s ongoing work that He’ll fully complete one day (Scaer, 35). We celebrate Christmas with light—with our candles tonight, with lighted Christmas trees and houses strung out with beautiful lights and decorations. We try to fill this darkest month of the year with as much light as possible. We remember that light surrounded that first Christmas from the star of Bethlehem that showed the way to the Magi to the glorious company of angels that dazzled the shepherds with their shining glory.

But while we celebrate Christmas with Light—while we celebrate the coming of Jesus who is the Light of the World, we see that darkness still battles on till the end of the world. Not the physical darkness of nighttime or the winter season, but the darkness of sin and its delusions. The spiritual darkness that seeks to delude and discourage mankind ever since the Fall into sin. The heart of that spiritual battle of darkness against light isn’t about whether nativity scenes will appear in public places or not. It isn’t about whether someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The heart of the spiritual battle that goes on between light and darkness is whether we will receive Christ, the True Light, or not. Examples of nativities and holiday greetings are at least superficial evidence that the world does not receive Him—but should that be any surprise? John says as much when he said of Jesus, the True Light: “He was in the world and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.”

The greater surprise is what John says about “His own—His own people.” John says, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” Many of God’s own people the Jews, who should’ve been prepared for His coming, ended up rejecting Him. So the heart of the spiritual battle between light and darkness is whether our hearts will accept Him or reject Him. Even people like us who show up for religious services on Christmas—the battle is for our hearts. It is for our hearts that the darkness tugs and pulls—trying to win us to sins’ delusions. Trying to get us to buy into anything that will get us to sell out on God. It should be truly shocking to us that even Christians can find it so easy to go through all the usual Christmas celebrations and festivities, without really celebrating CHRIST! We can get so wrapped up in the shopping and decorating and family preparations, that we leave no time for Christ. And pretty soon we’ve celebrated the birthday without paying attention to the birthday guest of honor.

But the deepest part of our dilemma is that we ourselves cannot pave the way into our heart for Him to come there, anymore than we can reach up into heaven and grasp the light or bring heaven down to earth. But Glory to God in the Highest! Christ is God’s solution to that dilemma. Again, Christmas is God reaching down to us, coming to us and creating for Himself children of God. Now it’s especially important that you pay attention to how these children of God are born. How we as children of God are born. “Not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Children of God aren’t born through the flesh and blood union of man and woman. In other words, their birth is spiritual. And they aren’t born of the will of man. The human will is powerless to achieve this birth. If it were possible, then we could strive for this spiritual birth on our own, apart from God. But it’s of God and God alone that we are born children of God.

So Christ was born of God that Christmas night as the Light of God piercing into the world, rescuing us from our darkness and enlightening us. The Light of Deliverance that paved the way into our hearts; the Word of God that entered our hearts through our ears as we hear God’s Word. His Light supplies the faith that we were lacking, and by faith He gives us the right to become children of God. Children of God, children of the Light. And if we’re children of God, we can rejoice this Christmas and for every Christmas to come, that Jesus is the Light that overcomes the darkness. Because even in the Christmas story, already at Jesus’ birth, there are hints of the darkness He came to overcome.

That darkness threatened to overcome the Light when King Herod carried out his brutal deed against the innocent children of Bethlehem. That darkness threatened to overcome the Light when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. That darkness threatened most ominously to overcome the Light when Jesus, the Light, finally hung on the cross—and spiritual darkness met physical darkness as the sun’s light was blotted out. But at the cross—where the Light was most severely tried and tested—the True Light did not fail. The shadow of darkness that hung over His birth and traced a path to His cross, was pierced and scattered when Jesus rose from the empty tomb. Jesus, the True Light was not overcome, but Light pierced forth ever brighter, and that Light still shines.

So celebrate CHRIST this CHRISTmas and celebrate that He is the Light that no darkness can overcome. Celebrate that He grasped us and took hold of us by His Word that creates faith to believe. Celebrate that He has made us to be children of God by His own power, so that we can participate in His victory over darkness. We can live without fear of the darkness because as children of God, the darkness will not overcome us. This Christmas and every Christmas, celebrate the Light that came into the world as the infant Jesus, the light no darkness can overcome! Amen. May the peace of the holy Christ-child rest on you and your family this Christmas and New Year!

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