2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


On Seeing The Light

Isa. 61:1-4,8-11; John 1:6-8,19-28

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

He came as a witness to testify to the light..."

-- John 1:7a

"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters" (Genesis 1:1-3).

So begins the book of Genesis, with the story of God's creation of the universe out of nothing.

To the author of Genesis, the image of "the formless void" looked very different from anything you or I would imagine. Most of us, I suppose, picture "the void" as something very much like outer space -- that black emptiness we could see on our TV screens this week, in live transmissions from the space shuttle.

To the eye of the Hebrew poet, however, the eternal void before creation is a limitless ocean, inky black -- with neither sun, nor moon, nor star, nor light of any kind to shimmer off its soundless waves.

The Hebrews were not a seafaring people, and to them the ocean is the most fearsome place imaginable. That's why the poet, searching for an image of the void before creation, turns to the dark eternity of ocean waves.

Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.

Into the formless void bursts a brilliant column of light, illuminating the watery darkness that had never before witnessed so much as a flickering candle-flame. That's how creation itself begins -- with the light.

That's how it begins for the gospel-writer John as well:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1-5).

To John, the world of his day seems as dark as the watery void before creation. Not dark in a literal sense -- but morally, spiritually. John sees his fellow-travelers on this earth as drifting aimlessly in the darkness, bobbing on the sickening swells of self-centered existence.

Then there comes "a man sent from God, whose name was John" (not the gospel-writer, of course, but John the Baptist):

He came as a witness to testify to the light....The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:7a,9).

That "true light" is Jesus Christ, whose coming you and I expect this Advent.

That we expect light in these waning days of early winter is no surprise. For millennia, peoples of the Northern Hemisphere have celebrated a winter festival of lights. As the sun sinks lower and the days shorten, some primeval urge arises within us -- to challenge the darkness. Advent wreaths, menorahs -- even the electric lights that believers and non-believers alike string up on their houses -- all of them pierce the gloom of the winter solstice and help us welcome the lengthening days.

Light is warm, comforting, life-giving. Yet to the eye of the physicist, light has some remarkable scientific properties. Now John, writing in the first century, hadn't the slightest conception of modern physics -- but even so, it's amazing how relevant his image of light remains, when extended to the insights of modern science.

First of all, the physicists tell us that light is the ultimate constant in the universe; its speed is utterly invariable. They say that if you were to fire a bullet from a moving car, the bullet would travel faster than if you were standing still -- 55 miles per hour faster, to be exact (or whatever speed the car is traveling). Yet if you shine a flashlight out of a moving car, the beam of light travels at exactly the same speed, whether you are speeding down the highway or standing in one place. You can't add the tiniest fragment of a second to the speed of light, nor can you take away from it a millionth of a heartbeat. Light is constant, unchanging.

So, too, is Jesus Christ. He is "the same yesterday, today and forever," the Bible tells us (Hebrews 13:8). Likewise, nobody can increase the grace of God, as we receive it in Christ. No Christian has an inside track to salvation; the grace of God is freely available to all who turn to Christ -- no matter what we've done or failed to do, no matter how late in life we may make the decision to welcome him into our heart.

Second, the scientists tell us that light is never defined over against something else. Space and time can be compared to one another -- and, in Einstein's theory, they may even influence one another -- but light simply is.

So, too, God simply is. God was, when earth and heaven were but a formless void. Without God -- and without God's living word, Jesus Christ -- "not one thing came into being." Thirteen hundred years before John wrote those immortal words, God spoke to Moses out of a burning bush, saying, "I am who I am" (Exodus 3:14).

Third, one of the paradoxes of light is that we never see it as it truly is. We see it only reflected in other things. If you or I were to gaze directly at raw, unmediated light -- to stare, for example, at a total eclipse of the sun -- the receptor cells on the back surface of our eyes would be permanently damaged. We would never see again.

So, too, there is an ancient tradition that God can never be seen directly. Moses knows he cannot look upon the face of God and live -- and so he hides in a cleft of the rock as God passes by (Exodus 33:17-23). When the prophet Elijah, racked with despair, feels he must have some sign of God's presence, God dispatches earthquake, wind and fire -- but God is not in any of these cataclysms of nature (1 Kings 19:11-12). And so the prophet wraps his face in his mantle (so as not to be blinded by God's glory), and steps cautiously out of his cave. There he does not see a thing -- but hears only "a sound of sheer silence" (or, "a still, small voice," as the older translation puts it).

Just as you and I cannot look directly at the sun, so too we cannot gaze directly upon God. Our vision of the almighty is of God's reflected glory -- in nature, in the scriptures, in other people. As the great missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer wrote:

Sometimes our light goes out but is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to

those who have rekindled our inner light.

In a similar way, you and I rekindle our inner light by those special human encounters of this holy season. As we behold the wide-eyed wonder of a child, or revel in the unexpected embrace of a long-lost friend, or hear in hushed tones the Christmas story retold, we see the light of God reflected.

More than that, in Jesus Christ you and I not only see reflected light -- we see divine light embodied, incarnate. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," John says. Jesus Christ is the very light of God; in him "we have seen [God's] glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

No longer do we need to shield our eyes, fearing that God's glory may strike us blind; for in the manger at Bethlehem lies not a fearsome deity but a babe, as helpless and as human as any other. Shepherds, wise men and angels alike look upon that innocent face, and go away knowing life in all its fullness.

Fourth, in this age of fiber optics we know that light can also carry information. More and more of our telephone conversations are carried not by electrical signals along copper wire, but by flickering beams of light along tiny strands of glass.

The mathematical properties of light can be translated into language. And that is exactly what happens with Jesus Christ. John calls Christ logos -- word. Not only does the creator-God send light beaming into the watery void; God also speaks a word into the eternal stillness: "Let there be light!" And when the people are languishing in spiritual darkness, God speaks another word -- to a teenage girl named Mary: "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus" (Luke 1:31).

Now John, sitting there in the first century, doesn't know a thing about the physical properties of light -- but he doesn't need to. Without ever opening a physics textbook, John knows that light is among the most important entities in all the universe.

Christmas and light are intertwined because Jesus is as vital to our lives as sun, moon and stars. In Advent, we light candles and look out -- hopefully, expectantly -- for signs of his coming. To the eye of faith, even the lesser lights of the season -- the "city streetlights, even stoplights, blinking bright red and green" -- point the way, suggesting the greater light.

I have seen him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps;

They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;

His day is marching on.

In 1862 a woman named Julia Ward Howe wrote these words, which became our beloved "Battle Hymn of the Republic." She wrote them in the darkest days of the Civil War, when it seemed that all hope for our nation was sputtering out like a spent candle.

Julia Howe looked out one evening over an encampment of Union soldiers, and as the grim and gritty life of the army camp was swallowed by the gathering night, she thought of what the war meant. For the soldiers it was an unremitting struggle of mud-slogging persistence -- of trench warfare, of starvation, of shocking injuries from artillery shells. More men died in the Civil War of disease and of gangrenous wounds than ever died on a battlefield.

Yet Howe was an ardent abolitionist, and so she thought also of the meaning of the war for the African slaves of the south. For them, this struggle meant freedom. For them, the sacrifices of the battlefield were not in vain. Suddenly, as the campfires flickered into life, Howe saw the camp transformed into a starry firmament -- the lesser lights of the campfires pointing the way to a greater light.

This Advent, take time to see the light. Even the lesser lights can point the way to the greatest light of all, Jesus Christ -- the light who is coming into the world.

Let me to conclude with a story about Sid Caesar, the television comedian. Sid Caesar was famed as one of the funniest men in America -- but there was a secret side to his life that was not funny at all.

He was addicted to alcohol and other drugs. One night in Toronto, he hit rock bottom. He was performing a play he'd done a hundred times -- but he found that he couldn't remember a single line. He couldn't remember where to sit, where to stand. Sid Caesar couldn't even remember who he was.

They took him to his dressing room, and laid him on a couch. From there, things went from bad to worse. Time and again he resolved to change his life, to conquer his addictions -- but each time he failed.

Finally, vacationing in Paris, Sid Caesar was coming back to his hotel from a long walk -- when suddenly it happened. All the street lights, as far as the eye could see, came on at once. It seemed to him as though all the fireflies in the world had gathered in one place at one moment. And he said to himself, "The lights have come on for me. I'm alive again!" The power of that encounter with the light gave Sid Caesar the spiritual momentum he needed to beat his addictions and begin a new life.

That new life is available to all of us, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ -- this Advent season and always. May you, too, discover the light that still shines in the darkness -- for the darkness has not overcome it!