Read the passage here.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. And I trust that everyone’s Christmas preparations, both practical and spiritual, are going well. Thus far in our Advent series, we have been following the lectionary readings, both in our opening Psalm and our sermon passage. However, for today, I’m departing from the lectionary for this Sunday (the passage actually is frequently included in Advent readings – just not today). And the main reason for this is that, thematically, one of the things we’ve been reflecting on this Christmas is how things are different this Christmas than in Christmases past.
Christmas is often a difficult time of year for many folks. And this year, it may be difficult for many more. I’m not suggesting that it is, in actual fact, more difficult. But the experience of difficulty, anxiety, or loss may be more universally shared this year than in others. And I want to suggest that this is, in part, just part of what it means to live in the world. But the promise and hope of Christmas is that it doesn’t have the final word.
The passage that we’re looking at is what’s usually known as the prologue to the gospel of John. It’s an important passage and much has been said about it. Among other things, John talks about Jesus’ arriving on earth, Jesus as God become human, as the light coming to the world. As you probably remember, John spends a lot of time in his gospel talking about the contrast between darkness and light.
In particular, here, John describes Jesus as the light coming into the world which is in darkness (or maybe is darkness?). And it’s this element of light breaking into darkness that I want to reflect upon today.
Again, over the past several weeks of Advent, we’ve been reflecting in a variety of ways on the experience of waiting. And obviously, as we’ve also been reflecting, one of the over-arching elements hanging over this Advent season has been the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve talked about how most of us, if not all of us, are anxious for relief, anxious for this to be over. We’ve thought about the things we miss and the things we can’t wait to get back to. In this year, it’s a situation that unavoidably colours our experience of Christmas.
But that’s not the only thing that people are waiting for. And it’s certainly not the only thing that people are struggling with.
The world is full of struggles. Life is filled with difficulties. We’re all aware of the challenges that Covid-19 has caused: Some of these are obviously health related, with close to 500,000 Canadians contracting the illness and almost 14,000 dead. As we all know, the situation in the United States is much worse with approx. 17 million contracting the disease and over 300,000 dead. And as many have rightly said, the economic impact has been catastrophic for some people with millions of people out of work and many small businesses struggling or closed. And yet somehow, billionaires have added a trillion dollars to their net worth. For some context, One trillion dollars is one million dollars a day for 2800 years. So, without making any comment on the necessity or value of lockdowns and restrictions (though I have opinions – again, I think that we should follow the public health guidelines), maybe there’s something fundamentally and seriously wrong with our economic systems?
But again, the world’s struggles are not confined to Covid-19. Throughout the world, tens of millions of people (or more) suffer from extreme food insecurity. People are still being stolen from their homes and sold into various forms of slavery. People are still being killed (murdered) because of their religion (Christian and otherwise).
As a society (or societies), we still do not take seriously enough issues such as mental health, domestic abuse, equity and equality, rampant consumerism, and etc.
I’m obviously not being comprehensive. And I’m also not saying that there aren’t good things in the world – and that, in many ways, the world is better than it was 100 years ago (or more). My point simply being that, as we well know, there’s a lot of brokenness and a lot of fallenness in the world. There’s a lot of sinfulness in the world. It has always been the case. And, on this side of eternity, it will always be the case.
And so when we hear the words of John describing Jesus coming into the world, we should understand the significance of what’s being said. And in understanding that, perhaps we can understand the significance of Christmas.
Again, we’re not going to look at this passage in depth (as we’ve done so before), but I want to pay attention to a few points. In v. 4 and 5, it says:
4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:4, 5
And in vv. 9-13, it says:
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.John 1:9-13
So the point that I want to make is that into the darkness of the world – the darkness that is a result of sin, the result of choosing to go our own way instead of trusting in God – into this darkness, Jesus has come into the world to bring light. Jesus is the light that is coming into the world.
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” When light comes into darkness, the darkness disappears. When the light comes, those who were blind can now see. When the light comes, those who are in despair can have hope. Those who are living in fear can live in truth.
But what we read, and what we know, is that even in the presence of light, some people prefer to remain in the darkness. “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
Last week, we reflected on how Jesus is bringing something new. How God was doing something that made no sense to some people because it didn’t fit into their understanding of the way the world worked. And I actually have a lot of thoughts about this, but I’m going to summarize and simplify today.
Sometimes we get so used to the darkness, so used to navigating the world through fuzzy shapes and dim perception; we’ve gotten really good at finding our way by shuffling our feet; bumping into furniture is just a normal part of life. We’ve gotten so used to it that we think this is how life is supposed to be and is supposed to work.
But no matter how good we are at navigating this world, if navigating this world is our goal, we are still living in shadow. What Jesus is doing is bringing light into this darkness. Jesus isn’t just providing a new way of navigating this world (though there is that) – Jesus is pointing the way to a new world. What Jesus is doing is showing us how things are actually supposed to be.
Now I’m actually not making a comment on fitting in or enculturation or even missional engagement. I’m not in any way suggesting that we (Christians) need to remove ourselves from society. In fact, we’ve talked frequently about the importance of living out the new world in this world.
What I’m talking about is, “where do we place our hope?” What I’m talking about is, “what do we expect God’s redemption to look like?”
Because I worry that a lot of our expectations of what hope is, what redemption or salvation is, is informed by what the world tells us is important.
Do we expect hope in Christ to mean that we will finally have things? Do we expect hope in Christ to mean that people will finally appreciate us? Do we expect to finally be proved right (and all others wrong)?
Now here’s the thing. The world is dark in all kinds of ways. Life is dark (sometimes) in all kinds of ways. And it’s dark in ways that we don’t always notice. Sometimes it’s dark in ways that we think is actually light. But to those who are willing (not able, but willing) to see it:
2 The people walking in darknessIsaiah 9:2
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world . . . 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.John 1:9-13
Christmas means that the light has come – and that the light is coming. Christmas means that the suffering and anxiety and fear of this life is not the end of the story. It’s not the substance or structure of the world. It can be hard to wait for the light when everything around you is darkness. It can be hard to have hope when all your life seems like struggle. But something better is coming. Something truer is coming. Jesus is coming and He is the light of the world.