Incarnation: Light of the World

I don’t like driving at night. I don’t trust my night vision. Especially on narrow country roads, I feel like I’m always driving over my headlights. I need just a little more light. So after dark I either stick to familiar roads, or I avoid getting out at all.

This is a major exception to my acceptance of an idea called “flashlight faith.” You know how a flashlight works. It casts a narrow beam of light for a limited distance. You can see only so far. To see farther ahead, you have to take another step ahead. The flashlight does not show your destination. It only shows the next steps you have to take to reach your destination.

That’s the kind of guidance God provides for us most of the time. God gives us direction one step at a time. We have to trust God one step at a time. And I do – but I’m still leery of country roads at night.

*  *  *  *  *

The joyful Jewish thanksgiving festival known as sukkot falls in late September or early October. It’s also known as the Feast of Booths, because celebrants set up temporary booths in memory of the tents their ancestors lived in on the way to the Promised Land.

In the time of Jesus, the festival included an event called the Grand Illumination. Four candelabras more than 70 feet tall were erected in the Temple, and it was said that the light was so bright that it illuminated all of Jerusalem.

The light was a reminder of the pillar of fire that guided Israel through the desert. Now imagine Jesus standing in the Temple during the Grand Illumination and proclaiming: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

On this last Sunday of Advent, when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, we turn to one more title for Jesus: light of the world. He is the light we need to see ourselves as we truly are. In his light we can see the truth of our past, and our present, and our future. Only in his light can we understand where God is leading us, where we have strayed from the path, and how we can get back on track.

*  *  *  *  *

Throughout scripture, light shining in the darkness is a symbol of God’s guidance. Remember the creation story in Genesis. God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light (Genesis 1:3). God sees that the light is good, so God separates the light from the darkness. This implies that darkness was the primordial reality, and it was not good.

“The way of the wicked is like deep darkness,” a proverb says (Proverbs 4:19).

The poets of Israel give God thanks for redeeming them from such trouble. Psalm 107 says: “Some sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons, for they had rebelled against the word of God and spurned the counsel of the Most High. … Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and God saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder” (Psalm 107: 10-15).

The prophet Isaiah sees our human need for a savior and God’s timely response. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined. … For to us a child is born, to us a child is given, and the government shall be on his shoulder, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:2, 6).

John’s gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word. … In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

In Jesus, John says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9).

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It is no accident that Jesus comes to us this time of year. It is widely believed that the date of Christmas was stolen from the pagans. As I show in my book Keeping Christmas, this is not true at all. When they began to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, Christians had every right to believe that the date was correct.

Back then, December 25 was considered the Winter Solstice. The date of the solstice has moved forward four days our calendar drifts over time. Today we consider December 21 as the solstice. We also call it the first day of winter. To my mind, calling it that mutes the hope of the day, because the solstice is actually a day of hope.

The winter solstice occurs when the earth is at a particular point in its yearly circuit of the sun. On this day the sun shines the least number of hours and the night is the longest. But after the solstice, the sun begins to shine longer each day, and each night is shorter than the one before.

We may indeed be entering the deepest part of winter, but there is hope. After this, the days are getting longer and the nights are getting shorter! Light is coming into the world!

That is one of the reasons we will be offering a Blue Christmas worship time on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year.

It’s a recognition that long winter nights may be especially hard on those who have suffered the painful loss of a loved one. Especially in this season of joy, those whose joy is seasoned by sorrow may find it hard to celebrate. Blue Christmas reminds us that the light shines even in this darkness.

*  *  *  *  *

“I am the light of the world!” Jesus declares. But he also says, to us, his followers: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

And we need to let that light shine. You don’t light a lamp and then cover it up. No, you put the lamp on a lampstand so its light can shine throughout the room. “In the same way,” Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16).

The first letter of Peter says we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people – and we are called to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining in us, the first letter of John says. “Whoever claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light.” (1 John 2.8-10).

How are we the light of the world? We are the light when we reflect God’s light in acts of kindness and mercy and love.

Let me pass on a couple of timely stories from Martin Thielen, a retired United Methodist pastor.

Some time ago, in a suburb in Pennsylvania, there lived a Jewish family. Where other houses were decorated for Christmas, their house was decorated for Hanukkah. Hanukkah is the festival of lights, so they had a big menorah lighted in their front window.

One night they woke to the sound of shattering glass. Someone had smashed their window and destroyed the menorah. Their grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps, and they knew what the sound of broken glass meant. They covered the window and went away to speak with family about what had happened.

When they returned that night, they were surprised to see that in the front window of nearly every home in their neighborhood was a large, illuminated menorah.

The second story concerns a family in Little Rock, Arkansas. They had many decorations in their front yard, including an inflatable black Santa Claus. They got an anonymous letter telling them to get rid of the black Santa and go back to where they belonged.

When they shared their story on Facebook, black Santas started appearing throughout their neighborhood.

“We are God’s plan for changing the world.” That’s what Adam Hamilton says in his book Incarnation, the inspiration for this series of Advent messages.

There are many ways of changing the world. Each of us has a unique way to do it. I encourage you to find a way to change the world that best suits your talents and temperament. Then do it. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.”

The prophet Isaiah says this: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, and the pointing finger and malicious talk, if you share your food with the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness …Your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8-10).

A simple act of goodness may not appear to do much to keep the darkness at bay, but it could ignite a flame of love. From simple acts grow larger acts, and movements and revolutions. A revolution of the heart starts with a tiny spark. Be the spark for others. Be the light for others, as Jesus is the light for you.

We are nearing the end of this Advent season. Christmas is only days away. Our celebration this year may be very different from others in recent years. However similar or dissimilar it is, are you ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth one more time? Is Jesus being reborn in you as you prepare for the day? Are you ready for the coming of Jesus?

I pray that you are, and that you have a very Merry Christmas!

This message was delivered online December 20, 2020 for Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.      

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