December 27, 2015, When the Light Came On – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: 120505_001
The Christmas stories from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels are the ones that most of us find the most familiar and Christmassy – all about Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men. But John’s gospel, the gospel reading we read today as well as on Christmas Eve, might seem more like theology and less like story. We read ‘The true light was coming into the world, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ It’s beautiful, and it’s powerful – but how do we connect the human baby Jesus, a small, soft little person that you could hold in your arms, lying in the straw in the stable at Bethlehem, with something as unhuman and intangible as light? John loves a good metaphor, but is he really talking about the same coming as Matthew and Luke?
But if we read the Christmas story carefully, we see that it is all about light. On the night of the Child’s birth, the night sky over the fields of Bethlehem was filled with the glory (and glory means light) of the angelic hosts proclaiming the news. There is a really good song about the shepherds that goes:
They wake up suddenly in the night
There is light
And figures dancing in the sky
Clothed in more colours than the world can contain
It was the light of the star over Bethlehem that led the Magi from the Far East to worship the Child who had been born to be king. The scribes that Herod consulted about the star, scholars who had spent their lives studying the Hebrew Scriptures, recognized the prophecies of the star. They knew that the One who was born to be King had to be born in Bethlehem, and that the star was the sign of his birth. They knew that the prophecies of Isaiah foretold the coming of the Child in terms of light as well when he wrote wrote “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”.
The whole story is bathed in light. John’s take on the Christmas story is this: that when a poor teenage girl gave birth to her first-born son in a dirty stable in an overcrowded Palestinian village a little over 2000 years ago, a light broke through into the darkness of this earth – not theoretically or metaphorically but in truth – so that from that moment what had long been invisible became visible. No human eye, from the creation of the first people, had ever before seen God. They had heard his voice; they had seen his angels; Moses even caught a glimpse of God’s glory as he passed by him, hidden in a cleft of the rock. But on that night God himself became visible to mankind, so that we could know him as no one had ever before known God – not his rules and his decrees and his purposes only, but Himself.
John began his first letter to the churches with this same idea: “That which was from the beginning,” he wrote, “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” The rumors and the signs, the promises and the hopes, of century upon century upon century – it’s all true, John tells us. We saw it with our own eyes.
Jesus is the light of the world because he has made the infinite, eternal God visible to us. When we talk about seeing in human terms, we say that some people can see and other people can’t, those unfortunate people we call ‘blind’. But the reality is that without light, every human being is blind – we none of us have the power of sight, except as we receive light. Human eyes are only receptors for light. Without light our eyes can’t perceive anything at all.
You probably know basically how eyes work: light enters your eye through the pupil, the little black part in the center of your eye, and then the light is focused by a lens in the back of your eye like a camera lens, onto the retina, which is kind of like a movie screen onto which the image is projected. But you still don’t see anything, until the signal travels through the optic nerve to the brain, where the brain “sees” what you are looking at. But without light, the whole system fails right from the start.
Light is what makes things visible. Without light we have no power to see what is really there. When John begins his gospel talking about the coming of the light, he isn’t talking about a theoretical or philosophical idea: he’s talking about that which is as real and necessary, as much a part of our daily life, as air and water and food.
In Missouri, south of St. Louis, where we used to live, there are caves called Meramec Caverns. They are a popular thing for tourists, at least in Missouri, partly because Jesse and Frank James used to hide there when the law was out searching for them, and also because they are truly beautiful, with one great room after another, full of incredible rock formations. And when you take the tour they always stop in one of the deepest caverns and turn out all the lights. It is a darkness you can rarely find on earth: there are no crevices that allow bits of sunlight to filter in; there are no man-made lights, no reflections, no light of any kind at all. Every single person in that place is for that moment totally blind. That utter and complete darkness is the condition of mankind without the light of God. But with the coming of Mary’s Child, Jesus, the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
God never left his people fully in the dark. There were always his prophets, always someone through whom he spoke so that his people weren’t left utterly blind. God’s people had the law given through Moses. They saw God’s power and holiness and man’s sinfulness, they could see what was right and what was wrong. The law was like a nightlight, keeping God’s people safe in a dark world; pointing them towards the dawn.
But with the birth of the baby in Bethlehem, the light revealed who God was, and his good purposes for the whole world, in a sudden and completely unexpected blaze of glory – “more colors than the world can contain”. Have you ever met someone you had only known from a distance? Maybe someone you’ve only spoken to on the phone, or an author whom you’ve only know through their writings – but you have never seen them in person? And when you meet them, you find that they are nothing at all like the image you had created of them in your mind. You thought you knew them, but here stands the real man or woman, so that now you see them for who they really are.
That is exactly what happened when Jesus came into the world. We all had our images and expectations – basically, that’s what an idol is, our lovingly handcrafted image of who we think God is. But when Jesus came and the light revealed who God really is, the world was astonished: so much so that a lot of people refused to believe it and chose to stick with the image that fit comfortably in their pocket or in a frame on the dresser, instead of this unexpected God that showed up, poor and ragged and humble and fragile as only a tiny child can be. Who would ever have imagined that the Almighty God would look like that? The entertainment world, and those awful gossip sheets that you see in the grocery store checkout line – they love shocking revelations of every kind. But there has never been a more shocking revelation than this: that the Creator of the Universe showed up in humility and weakness and poverty, that he came as a servant, that he came not as the greatest but as the least of all. No wonder his own didn’t recognize him.
The Christmas story is here to light our way back to the truth of who our God really is, because we are just as fond of making idols as human beings have always been. We get very comfortable with the image of God we keep in our wallet, and we flash it like a badge to show we are tight with the Big Guy, who condemns all those other people whose lives are a mess – lazy people living on welfare, Muslims, kids who don’t respect authority, the rich and famous with their wild lifestyles, politicians of all kinds. But then we hear the voice of John: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The light came on, and God was a little Child, born in poverty and disgrace in a dirty stable, the last thing anyone had ever expected. And the angelic hosts filled the skies with their rejoicing.