Yesterday was the first Christmas Eve that I spent away from my home church. While I was away from old friends and family, I was gathered with new friends and a new church family at Hamilton Mill United Methodist Church. There, I had the privilege of preaching my first ever Christmas Eve sermon at our 11:00 Candlelight Communion service. I hope that my message based on John 1:1-14 will bless you this Christmas day.
Light into Darkness
All of us celebrate Christmas in our own special way. For 15 or so years of my life, my whole family traveled from Conyers to Buckhead, unloaded at Phipps Plaza, and then waited in line together so that my brothers and I could tell Santa what we wanted for Christmas. One of my friend’s families goes and eats at the Varsity before heading to church every Christmas eve. This eleven o’clock service, a service that is truly set on a silent night when few cars roam the streets, may be a Christmas tradition for you. And tomorrow is when most of the celebration happens. Some houses have gifts waiting by the chimney from Santa, other houses only have a few gifts but they have lots of laughter and long conversations. Many of you will take naps, I’ll likely go see a movie in the evening, and one member of the church told me that on Christmas night her and her family go to Hooters for fried pickles and wings. We really all do remember the day of Christmas in our own special ways.
And the gospel writers are no different than we are. As they wrote biographies, stories that attempted to showcase the identity and significance of Jesus, they each remembered Christmas – the day that Jesus entered this world – in their own special ways.
Matthew tells us about Joseph who was visited by an angel who informed him about the son his wife was going to give birth to, and he tells us about the Magi who recognized the baby Jesus as King of the Jews once he was born.
Mark’s gospel actually doesn’t mention anything about Jesus’ birth. Instead, he begins his story about Jesus with John the Baptist — Jesus’ cousin who prepared the way for him by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Luke gives us the classic Christmas story that I’ve acted out in many pageants, and you’ve likely heard, many times before. Luke tells of angels visiting Mary and her sister Elizabeth letting them know that they’re going to bear children. Then he tells us—you probably know the King James Version of this line — “It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” And we hear how there was no room for Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem so they gave birth to Jesus and placed him in a manger. And who can forget the shepherds who heard the great news of the Savior’s birth while they were abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And then there comes John’s gospel which we heard a few minutes ago. He doesn’t mention angels, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, or wise men. John assumes that we already know those stories. And instead of retelling them from his perspective, he gives us an introduction to his story about Jesus that is full of poetry, images, and metaphors. And all of them help summarize the significance of Jesus’ mission and entrance into the world.
And it’s the apostle John who gives us one of the clearest images of what Christmas is all about. It’s an image that has its roots in Old Testament prophecies. It’s an image that Jesus himself used to describe his mission. It’s an image that we celebrated earlier this evening with the lighting of the Christ candle. And it’s an image of the good news that we will walk out of here remembering and proclaiming tonight.
John reminds us that at Christmas, we celebrate that Jesus is the light of the world who came to extinguish all darkness.
John’s introduction to his gospel helps us understand this image. He starts off with the same words that begin Genesis, “In the beginning….”
But instead of giving us a detailed account of how the world came into being, John tells us this: In the beginning was the Word. Now, the Word may be thought of as “the active agent through whom God created the world.” [Oden, 255] And John continues by telling us that this Word was with God in the beginning, and the Word was 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.
Here, in this poetic language John points us to one of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith: the Trinity—the reality that there is one God made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that all of three of these persons have existed for all time. And here in in the opening sentences of his biography of Jesus, John reminds us that Jesus was present at creation, he isn’t merely a man who had a humble birth in a stable. Jesus is God.
And it was at creation that Jesus gave light and life to all people, for even at that time, he was the light of the world. And in the beginning, the world was full of life, it was full of light. God the Father through Jesus created humanity in his image so that we could be in relationship with him. He made us stewards over all of creation. And he created us to be in relationship with other people. Everything was good and full of light.
If the story stopped there, we wouldn’t be here celebrating Jesus’ birth today. We know that everything didn’t remain as God created it. Instead, Adam and Eve broke relationship with God when they disobeyed him. Immediately, they knew that what they had done was not right, so they went and hid in the darkness so that they wouldn’t have to face God. But God sought them out because he didn’t want them to be in the shadows, living in darkness. He told them that he loved him, and ever since then he has been trying to have his children live in the light rather than the darkness. But humans have continued to separate themselves from the light of God. We have exchanged our relationship with God for relationships with idols, we have not been good stewards of creation, and we have not loved those around us. We have chosen to separate ourselves from the light God gave us, and instead live in darkness.
For thousands of years God tried to help his people move back into the light. He gave the people of Israel light through the law and through his covenant promises, but they continued to live in darkness and disobedience. So through the prophets he promised his people a Messiah, a Savior, a liberator who would shine light into the darkness and enable people to walk in light.
And in the fullness of time, God sent his only son Jesus into the world to fulfill these roles. On the very first Christmas day, Jesus was born into a world of darkness so that he could bring an end to darkness. And the darkness was thick. The first Christmas wasn’t as peaceful as Hallmark cards often depict it. Soon after he was born, King Herod murdered all the babies who were two years old and under in the region in hopes that he would kill baby Jesus in the process. Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor during Jesus’ day regularly beat groups of people who opposed his rule into submission. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was ridiculed, questioned, and hated by many of his own Jewish brothers and sisters. But none of this stopped him from completing the mission he came to fulfill.
Jesus was God present as a man in the world. He was a prophet who revealed to humanity how we could live alongside of one another and love each other. He was a friend to the outcasts of society—the women, the prisoners, the hungry, the lepers, and all those who were deemed sinners by others. He was the light of the world shining light into the darkness. But as John tells us, when Jesus was in the world many of his own people who were living in darkness did not accept him. They didn’t want to receive light. So they crucified Jesus on a cross hoping to extinguish the light he radiated once and for all.
But God had other plans. God lovingly used Jesus’ death on the cross as an all-sufficient sacrifice that was owed to him because of humanity’s sin. This provided a way for the darkness of sin to be extinguished from the world. And three days after he died, Jesus conquered the darkness of death by rising from the grave. He ascended into heaven from where he originally came, and now he reigns there over his kingdom.
This is the story of the world that the church believes and teaches, but it isn’t always clear where we fit into this story and how it continues today.
Connecting Our Story to God’s Story
At times we’re tempted to think that everything is now okay in the world, that people are basically good, that things are a lot better along than they have been throughout history, and that perhaps if we all just tried to be a little nicer to each other, then this world would be as good as it can be.
But then someone walks into an elementary school with a gun and murders twenty-six people who were looking forward with excitement to Christmas break. Your spouse tells you that they don’t think they can continue in the marriage anymore. Your father dies. A friend talks about you behind your back. You find out that your child is addicted to drugs. Or maybe you wake up one day and realize that you’re addicted to something. Or you begin to hate yourself because of regrets that lie in your past.
It’s in those moments that we know that everything isn’t okay in the world. We know that darkness is still present. And we’re left wondering how these things happen in the world even after Jesus, the prince of peace, entered it at Christmas.
A Dark Prison Cell
I think a metaphor from Dietrich Bonhoeffer may be helpful here. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who was arrested during World War II because of his resistance to Hitler’s regime. While many church leaders in Germany gave in to Hitler and went along with him, Bonhoeffer stood strong with only a few others. He was also an amazing theologian who left behind many writings, some of which are his letters from prison written to those on the outside.
In a letter dated November 21, 1943 Bonhoeffer wrote, “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.” [Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger]
Life in a dark prison cell. I think that this is a great way to think about the situation of humanity. Before Jesus came there was only a sliver of light entering the cell through the bottom of the door. People were living in great darkness without the possibility of escape. But then one day, Christmas day, the door was opened from the outside, Jesus came into the cell. He lived with those inside in the midst of their darkness. He told them about a new world that was outside that they could experience if they would only follow him out the door. He told them that it was infinitely better than anything they’d experienced up until that point.
Some listened and trusted him. But others kicked him out of the cell. They were used to the darkness and were content with it. They had become so used to living in the cell that they couldn’t imagine anything better awaited them elsewhere.
After Jesus was kicked out of the cell some of the people who trusted him followed the path to the way out. These followers of Jesus discovered a new world outside of the darkness of the cell—a world full of light, peace, love, faith, hope, and joy. And so they ran back into the cell to tell others the good news. They told the others inside that they should trust the Jesus guy who came and opened the cell and follow his path out the door into the light. They were witnesses to the light and the amazing new life that came along with it. And while many people did follow them out, many chose to remain in the dark cell – a cell that they had grown used to, a cell that their eyes had adjusted to.
This cell is like the world we continue to live in, and the church is that body of messengers who constantly return to the cell by the power of the Holy Spirit to let others know that they can be free from darkness because of God’s great gift to them.
Today we celebrate that God did not leave us in the dark cell but sent his only Son to come identity with us and our situation, and show us the way towards light and new life. And we also look with great expectation to the day in which Jesus will come again in this world and complete his work of extinguishing all darkness, for we know that the darkness will never be able to overcome the light.
John tells us the way out of the cell. John tells us that all who receive Jesus—all who believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God, the light of the world sent to save us from our sins—all those who believe will receive the forgiveness of sins, the power to become children of God, and the assurance of life forever with God.
This is the good news of Christmas.
And if you haven’t ever believed in Jesus as the Savior of this world and the Savior of your life, then there is no better time than on this day in which we celebrate his entrance into our world.
And if you have believed in Jesus and followed him to light and new life, then tonight you have the opportunity to ask God to search your heart, reveal to you the darkness that still resides there, and to send his Holy Spirit to fill it with light. And you also have a mission. You’re called to go and tell others about the light of the world and the freedom he brings. You’re called to carry the light of Christ into the world so that others may receive the greatest gift on earth.
I don’t know if you’ve ever met some of the men from Phillip’s Transitional Center who are on their way out of the prison system. They’re in a transitional program so many of them are allowed to work and attend church, but they must go back and sleep behind bars each night. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had the amazing privilege at our 8:15 service of celebrating with a few of these guys who are set to be released within just a few days. Many of them are filled with a nervous excitement—they’re nervous about what life will be like on the outside and excited about their new freedom. They usually have huge smiles on their faces when we stand up and celebrate them in worship. And one of the first things I know they do when they get home is to go share a meal with their family and friends celebrating their new life.
Well, tonight, we have the opportunity to share a meal around this table with family and friends. We have the opportunity to celebrate with joy the new life we have because the Word decided to take on flesh and set us free from darkness. My prayer for you this Christmas Eve is that Christ would come into each of your lives in a new way as we gather around his table and that you would depart from this place carrying light into a world that so desperately needs it.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.