There was an ancient tradition, probably coming over from the synagogues, where visitors would share news of what was taking place in the church where they were from. Maybe the salutation (“The Lord be with you”) at the start of the service is the ritual placeholder for that. We welcome you, please share. To which the response would have been to share and end with “and also with you”. The welcome has been given and accepted. This sermon is a bit like that. When you read something that is so profound it humbles you, you really need to share it. I could not come up with a better illustration of “a city on a hill” than the response of this pastor from Wuhan.
The question of suffering is one of the constant ones of modernity. The curmudgeon in me wants to draw a graph showing interest is the problem of suffering going straight up over time and actual suffering has gone down over the same time, but a smart person once told me that “yes, suffering may be comparatively less, but it is still mine.”
The disciples ask a question that is full of assumptions about how God and the moral calculus works. Jesus’ answer bears directly on suffering, and gets to the heart of the gospel. The moral calculus doesn’t balance. At least not how we think. This sermon attempts to examine that fact in the light of Jesus who says “I am the light of the World”.
I’m not going to add more other than say give it a listen.
Worship note: I left out the hymns primarily because the sermon and Gospel lesson are longer than normal and I try to keep the total recording time around 25 mins or less.
Text: Isa 9:2-7, John 1:1-14 Christmas Eve Midnight Introduction
Most of you have probably heard me say that John is impossible to preach on. I broke my rule earlier tonight, but the only way it is possible is by picking one verse or one theme and then reflecting it through an epistle or some other scripture to help. Earlier tonight it was receiving. Christmas really is all about receiving. Receiving eyes to see. Receiving the light.
And that is what I want to meditate on a little tonight. Please forgive the cliché, but at midnight how is light a metaphor for Christmas, and how that light works on us. Life & Death
“Those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” – Isa 9:2b
That word for deep darkness has been translated a bunch of ways. The King James divines translated it the land of the shadow of death. It is the same word as in the 23rd psalm. Modern attempts say deep darkness. One even tried death-shade. The word is used 17 times in the old testament. 10 of them in Job. 2 more in Jeremiah. And once in that burning prophet Amos. Just knowing where it is used tells you what “deep darkness” is about – death, destruction, exile. One of the psalms that uses it is about prisoners in chains in deep darkness.
That is where Isaiah puts us. A people who dwell in a land of deep darkness.
But on them a light has shined. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
That is the start. Somebody told us about the light – a little baby in a manger, the man on the cross, the empty tomb – and nothing is ever the same. The Father and Spirit have moved us from deep darkness to light, from death to life.
And that is a dramatic event. In our age a digital event. For many Christians an unremembered event – being baptized as little babies. But we’ve had our mountaintop experiences, and have heard the dramatic conversion tales. Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I see. Goodness & Evil
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. (Isa 9:7 ESV)”
Another Biblical way we talk about light is good and evil. Nicodemus would come to Jesus at night – the original Nick at Night. Jesus would flabbergast him with talk of needing to be born again. “How can I a grown man re-enter my mother’s womb?” Jesus was talking more about that life & death metaphor. But Nicodemus wasn’t ready. So Jesus says to him,
“Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” – John 3:19-20
We understand the law. We might get it mixed up every now and then. We will try and mitigate its impact, but we get it. Bad men might glorify in their badness, but they know who and what they are. But in the midst of the land of deep darkness, there are Kingdom’s of light.
The promise of Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus, is a new kingdom. A Kingdom upheld with justice and righteousness. We know these when we see them. Our literature and history are woven through with reflections – Camelot and Plymouth Rock, Cincinatus and Washington, Reagan’s shining city on a hill. They are always more filled with light in reflection and myth than they probably were in reality, but that is because they are reflections of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem whose King was born tonight, whose government increases, like yeast in the bread, like the mustard seed, slowly, quietly until its final fulfillment.
Wisdom & Folly
The last way the Bible uses light is probably the toughest. People will envy you for your stuff or for your intelligence, for your looks or your luck, for almost anything. But rarely will you hear words of envy for someone’s wisdom.
I’m always amazed at the wisdom of the King James translators – which really goes back to William Tyndale who was burned at the stake for his wisdom. They had no tools compared to modern scholars who sniff at the texts they used – but they created a language that lasted really until it met the force of modern marketing that needed to sell bibles.
“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Joh 1:5 KJV)
The word they translated as comprehended has a wide area of meaning: more modern translations have tried overcome, understood, extinguish, and perceive. And those are all valid. The greek word is used in a variety of ways and he probably meant to evoke all of them, this being John. But here, he’s talking about a people not receiving. He’s talking about how the one through whom all things were made, was incarnated as a baby. Herod’s killing of the innocents is Matthew. To John, Jesus always knows what he is doing. Jesus puts down his life, and takes it back up again. This one came full of grace and truth. Not everyone sees it. Not everyone comprehends it.
In fact, the world looks at this baby and says foolishness. We have an inner light. We have our ways. God in this helpless child? God on a cross? God adopting us? God living with us? Impossible. The light shines, but the darkness – those living in a land of deep darkness – comprehend it not. Conclusion
But the true light, which enlightens everyone, came into the world. He shines in the darkness. The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned. They will be fuel for the fire. We call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts has done this. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts has done this…for us.