"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." John 1:5
We have the custom of hanging lights on our christmas trees. But do you ever wonder where that tradition came from? Most histiorians believe that the custom originated with Martin Lutehr.
It was a cold winter's afternoon in the dense German forest, recounted one historian. Martin Luther did not notice the sun slowly setting and the sky growing dark. His thoughts were on the sermon he was preparing. The forest soon came alive with the night sounds of owls, wolves, and other wild creatures.
Luther shivered and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. Then he quickened his pace, saying a little prayer for comfort as he went.
The forest grew darker. Martin Luther scurried along, continuing to pray that he would not cross paths with a wild animal. He glanced up at the night sky which was filled with tiny pricks of light. Martin Luther realized that those stars were God’s handiwork. He said that they were "Lights from Heaven to guide and comfort me, just as a star led the Wise Men to the stable that first Christmas."
Martin Luther smiled up at the twinkling sky. He was no longer afraid. Feeling safer, Martin Luther looked around for a small tree he could take home for Christmas. He found a young fir tree, pulled it up, and dragged it with him through the forest.
At long last Martin Luther was safe at home. He quickly prepared the little fir tree, hoping to surprise his family. He noticed on the table by the window the triangle shaped candle holder.
Soon Martin Luther called his family in, so he could tell them about his long walk through the dark and dangerous forest. Everyone gasped at the sight of the little fir tree. It was customary to hang Christmas trees upside-down from the ceiling beams and leave them undecorated. Yet, Martin Luther had placed this little tree upright in a pot, high on the table. The candles had been removed from the triangle shaped holder. Now, as the very first Christmas tree lights, they flickered from the tree's delicate branches -- just as the stars had flickered through the forest to guide Martin Luther.
The family gathered around as Luther told them what had happened earlier that evening.
"Just as I was getting very frightened, I saw the stars twinkling through the trees as if God was saying, 'Don't be afraid, for I am with you.' And that's when I realized the theme for my sermon. God's light shines through the darkest night for everyone, but sometimes we have to look up to see it."
Indeed, that story recounts for us not just the story of why we decorate our Christmas trees. It recounts for us the entire theme of the book of John. John tells us that Jesus is the Light of the world who came to dispel the darkness of evil. And throughout this gospel account John tells us that everyone who looks to this light may have solace from the spiritual darkness that envelops us.
And certainly that is what we find in the verse that is before us this morning. John records for us in this one line the story of the original Christmas Light, the Lord Jesus Christ, and his penetrating power over darkness. And the first thing John tells us is that Christ, as the light, invades the realm of darkness.
I. The light invades the realm of the darkness
Look at how it begins. It says, “light shines in the darkness.” Now what you have to understand is that this is language of aggression. This is not just a passage that you read and is supposed to give you warm fuzzy feelings. It is the language of invasion.
You can understand it when you think back to the creation of the world. The imagery takes you right back to the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1:1 it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The very next verse then says, “Now the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
So, even though God had made everything—if you were there—you wouldn’t be able to see a single thing with the naked eye. But then verse 3 goes on to say, “And God said, “Let there be light.” All of a sudden the black velvety veil of darkness was peeled back. Everything was now visible because the darkness had been banished from the universe.
In the first creation, light invaded the universe. John uses that imagery to then describe the new creation. The spiritual darkness that covered the world (and continues to cover the world)—be it the ignorance, the unbelief, the immoral lifestyles—it finds itself under attack. It is shrinking back because of the shining light of Jesus Christ.
You see then, that the incarnation was not just a sweet little nativity scene with shepherds, animals and wise men. The incarnation was God’s Normandy. It was his D-Day. Light invaded the realm of darkness and there follows the conflict between light and darkness, truth and error, belief and unbelief.
Some people love Christmas, but they love it for the wrong reasons. I am tired of hearing all the silly reasons people celebrate Christmas. “It is about family.” “It is a time to think about others.” “It is a time to____”. But that is not what Christmas is about. Christmas is where God re-drew the battle lines of his war on evil. Christmas is God’s frontal attack on the Devil and his dominion over us. It is his Tet offensive. And when Mary gave birth to the Christ child, it was as if the world of darkness and evil had just been hit with a bombshell.
Some of you will probably know what the Ying and the Yang is and the religion that it represents. It is that circle with one side that is white and one side that is dark and it looks like two tad poles chasing each other. That symbol is a symbol of a dualistic system where light and dark are both equals. The good and the evil possess the same power and are in a continual struggle with one another. They battle back and forth and there is no telling which will be victorious (or, for that matter, if there will ever be a victory).
But this passage puts that silly religion to rest. The light here is shown to be infinitely superior to the darkness. When you walk into a dark room and flip on a light, the light streams throughout the room. The darkness has no power against it. When the light shines, darkness flees.
And that is exactly what happens with Christmas. The Light of the world had invaded the devil’s territory. He came to bring liberty to those who are in the darkness of their sins. Light came into the world to break the bonds of darkness and evil forever.
But you will notice that the light does not just invade the realm of the darkness. The light also exposes the filth of the darkness.
II. The light exposes the filth of the darkness
The thing about light is that darkness does not like it. That’s because when light shines, the things that are safely concealed in the darkness are exposed. And that is what you find in this passage. When it says that the light shines in the darkness, it is telling us that the vile and wicked things that were safely concealed in the world were exposed. They were shown to be what they really are.
I remember a time when I was a kid. It was a summer night and my best friend and I were running around the neighborhood being kids. We were just playing and having a good time. And we decided to cut through one of our neighbor’s yards in order to get back to home. As we walked along we saw something laying on the ground in front of us. It was easily seen because it was such a very light color and the ground was quite dark. But despite being able to see its outline, we didn’t quite know what it was. As we got closer, one of us noticed that it was an animal. We immediately concluded that it must be one of the neighborhood cats prowling around. Being that we were in no real hurry to get home we walked over to pet the cat. But it was not until we got right up on it and saw it in the fuller light of the moon that we realized that it wasn’t a cat. It was a possum! Since we were young we didn’t know anything about possum. So far as we knew this foreign animal was the deadliest and most vicious animal in the world. It could be a rabid, killer possum so far as we knew! So we freaked out. We ran home as fast as we could.
You see. That little animal, so long as the dark shrouded its real identity, was a nice little kitty cat. It was something to be admired and cherished. But once the light exposed it for the vile thing that it was, it was something to be avoided.
And that is what the light of Christ does. It exposes the true evil of evil. That which is vile, can be cherished as long as it remains in the darkness. But as soon as it comes into contact with Christ, it is shown to be what it really is.
I like the illustration that James Montgomery Boice, the former pastor of 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, gave. He tells of the time when he was a young child at summer camp. Each night the kids would be laying in their bunk beds after the lights had been turned out. When it was dark in their cabin they would take up their flashlights and play silly games with them. One of the games they would play is “whose flashlight is the brightest?” That’s the game where you shine you flashlight in someone’s eyes and try to blind them. And all of you know that is great fun!
But as soon as the sun would come up in the morning, all of the flashlight games would end. That’s because the flashlights can’t compare with the intensity of the sun.
And Dr. Boice says this: So long as we live in this world we are able to compare the relative merits of human goodness. But all these distinctions fade away in the presence of the white light of the righteousness of Christ.
Do you hear what he is saying? We all can compare ourselves to one another now. We all can say, “Well, I’m better than so and so,” just like one kid could say, “My flashlight is brighter than yours.” But when we stand in the presence of Christ and are made to compare ourselves with him, we come to find that his righteousness far exceeds our own. All of our light is not that bright in comparison. All our righteousness is as filthy rags compared to his. When the light of Christ shines, we see our need for true righteousness—his righteousness!
And that is the glory of Christmas. Christ came to earth in order to obtain for us the very righteousness we need. The greatest gift of Christmas is that righteousness that is wrapped up in Christ. For God says that if we renounce our filthy works—if we see them for what they are in the light of Christ’s righteousness— and turn to Christ, we will receive that gift. We will be robed in the righteousness of Christ.
But there is one more thing to notice from this passage. The light not only invades the realm of darkness. It not only exposes the filth of the darkness. We also see that the light conquers the hostility of the darkness.
III. The light conquers the hostility of the darkness
The best way to react to the darkness is the way I just mentioned: to renounce your filthy life and turn to Christ. That is the way God prefers you to react. But there is another way to react: you can fight him.
Look again at this verse. It says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” Do you hear the tension? The darkness has not overcome the light. But in order for it to fail in overcoming it, it must at least attempt to overcome it, right?
That is exactly what happens when you are faced with a sudden blast of light, isn’t it? When you are in a dark room and someone flips on a light or shines a bright flashlight in your eyes, your immediate reaction is to put up your hands and shield your eyes. You try to fight against the light.
That is what happens when Christ shines his light. Christ came into the world, shining ever so brightly in his purity. And how did people react? They hated him, didn’t they? They couldn’t stand the fact that he was exposing their filthy lives. So they lashed back at him. The devil sought to fight against him. He tried to find a way to trip him up. The Jews looked for a way to be rid of him. At last they determined they had to kill him in order to snuff him out once and for all.
And that is how people continue to act, isn’t it? I mean the light is not finished shining, is it? The light continues to shine in every one of us! Remember that Chirst not only said, “I am the light of the world.” He also said, “You are the light of the world.” Every one of us who have come to faith in the Lord Jesus has him dwelling in us. And we are to let the light shine before men. Our lives are to radiate the light of Christ. And as they do the world has the same reaction to us as it did to Christ during his life. They will lash out at us, just like they did to Jesus.
But no matter how they try, they cannot overcome. Christ’s light always overcomes the hostility of the darkness. So what if they put us to death? So what if they mock us and treat us maliciously? Is that all that bad? Of course not. It is our confirmation that we are children of God.
I know that we often don’t see it. It often feels like the darkness wins many of the battles. But the darkness cannot overcome. Its hostility is futile.
I remember watching the news a while ago. They were doing a report on the tensions over in Palestine between the Israelis and the Palestinians. You know there has always been tension between those two groups. But the news cast showed pictures of a group of Palestinian kids throwing rocks at a group of Israeli soldiers. The soldiers were decked out in their riot gear. They had on helmets and body armor. They held huge shields in their hands to deflect whatever may come their way. And their weapons were visible too. They had machine guns and other artillery on hand and ready to fire.
But isn’t that a good illustration of the battle between Christ and his enemies. Their hostility is futile. They attempt to lash back, but they are merely tossing sticks and stones. They are nothing compared to the mighty force of Christ.
No matter how hard they may try, the darkness cannot overcome. Christ will always shine. His light is the light of righteousness that shines victoriously. And he shall always be victorious.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.