One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season is the Christmas lights. I enjoy driving by the wonderful Christmas light displays in people’s yards.
At my house we have a decorated tree in our yard, a string of lights over the garage, and a lighted Nativity Set on our porch. Our neighbor across the street has outdone us with lights that play some quiet music, and the lights go on and off to the beat. His are way cooler than mine. There is a house that I can see from Baptist Road on my way to and from church that has a large display. I enjoy driving by that every year as the trees in this families back yard are lit so beautifully. There is another I can see from 105 when I look north. The display is very bright and beautiful. When I was growing up, one of our neighbors was known for his lights every Christmas. It was very cool that he turned his flagpole into a Christmas tree of lights. When I was a youth, there was a concert venue near the church I served, that did one of those drive through light displays every Christmas. One Sunday night on the way home from youth group, we would drive through and enjoy the lights.
Some people use a lot of lights; some just a few. Some make them twinkle and flash; some shape them into Christmas trees and wreaths. Then there are displays like this:
Have you ever gone to the one on Windjammer Drive, just off of Lexington in Colorado Springs? It is one of the best you will see anywhere. The lights dance to Trans-Siberian Orchestra music, and last year a reindeer sang “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” to the Grinch. All done with lights. It is very cool! Christmas lights have come a long way since their origins.
Legend has it that the reformer, Martin Luther, was the first to use Christmas lights in the early 1500s. The story is that one Christmas Eve he went for a walk in the woods near his house. He was struck with the beauty of a group of evergreen trees as they glistened in the ice and snow. He wanted to share the beauty with his family, so he cut down one of the trees and put it in his house, decorating it with candles.
Over the years the tradition caught on and people started bringing in Christmas trees and decorating them with candles – which, by the way, is not the safest way to do things. Along came Thomas Edison in the 1880s with his discover of the lightbulb and to promote it, he decorated a Christmas tree with electric lights. Later came the safety light, that didn’t burn as hot as the old-fashioned ones, then the minis, and eventually the LED. All leading to the rockin’ “Amazing Grace” and Rudolph singing to the Grinch.
One of the reasons that all of this has caught on, is not because of the technology, but because light is such a powerful image of the Christmas story.
Every Sunday since Thanksgiving, we have set aside part of our worship service to light another candle on our Advent Wreath. For us this year the candles have been to remember the people in the story, who were visited by God’s messengers, and who said “yes” to their role in the coming of the Christ Child.
Tonight, for the first time this season, we lit the large white candle in the center – the candle we use to celebrate the coming of Jesus on this night. Later in our worship we will celebrate with our “Festival of Lights” where at this service we will light glow sticks as we sing “Silent Night” to symbolize the moment when the Gift of God was given to us.
Biblical images of light
The story of light, probably begins all the way back in Genesis 1, the very first chapter of the Bible. We read (Genesis 1:1-4):
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…
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good;
The first thing that God creates is light. The light is the first step of bringing order out of chaos.
We know that story all too well. We put night lights in our children’s rooms, so that when they wake up in the middle of the night they can see and don’t imagine monsters in the closet. And we know how when one of our kids is afraid to go into a room in the house, one of the first things we tell them to do is to turn on the light. Somehow the light seems to dispel the fear.
We still use that image as adults today. When we are unsure about what to do, we might say that we are “in the dark” about our situation. Or when we are going through a difficulty, we might call it a “dark period” in our lives, or we might call an especially trying time our “darkest hour.”
The good news is that when things are getting better, we say that we can see “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In some ways, that is what this Isaiah text is all about. Approximately 700 years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah is writing to the Hebrew community in Israel that has been conquered by the Assyrians. They are living in fear, hunger, and poverty. At any time, all they have worked for could be taken from them by their conquerors. They are a people living in a land of deep darkness, a land with little or no hope of getting better.
To those people Isaiah shares a word from God. He says it with such certainty that although it has not yet happened he writes it in the past tense as if it already has. He says that they have “seen a great light” and that “on them light has shined.” In the midst of the darkness, even the darkness of having been conquered there is hope – and not hope in the wishful thinking sense of “I sure hope things get better.” Rather it is hope in the sense that things will get better because God is still with us even in our darkest hour.
Isaiah goes on to talk about a day when there will be peace, a peace so great that the very tools of oppression will be “burned as fuel for the fire.” Then he writes these words that touch us so deeply on this special night (Isaiah 9:6-7):
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Isaiah is speaking a word of hope to a people in a hopeless situation, and the hope is not that God will come, but rather that the presence of God is with them even in their darkness. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, Isaiah, speaking God’s word to the people is saying that God has not left or abandoned them. The light is there, and a new day is coming!
Seven hundred years later the Hebrew people are no longer living under the oppression of the Assyrian Empire, but now of the Roman Empire. As it was under Assyria, there is little or no hope. They are a small nation that has been conquered by a worldwide superpower, and they are at the mercy of a government under which they have no say. They are overtaxed, oppressed, and occupied. When someone gets the idea that they might have the power to rise up against the Romans, they are publicly crucified to remind them of who holds the power.
Into that world, a child is born, a Son is given. One with ultimate authority who rules in perfect justice and righteousness. One who will lead his people to a new peace. One who is the God in the flesh living among us. He is the One we celebrate tonight – the great light that shone in the darkness of first century Roman oppression.
We are told that to mark his birth a special star appeared in the night sky – a bright light in the midst of darkness. God was making a statement that this is the one who can make a difference in the darkness.
But he is not just for that time and place. He is also for us today.
Fast forward to today. You and I know what darkness can lie around us. Jobs hanging by a thread, or the darkness of unemployment. We know the darkness that can be experienced in grief, and in the diagnosis that we just don’t know how to process. We have been through broken relationships with parents, spouse, children that can put us in the darkness. Some of us have been blindsided by a darkness that seems to have no cause other than a feeling of hopelessness that overwhelms us.
Tonight we do not deny the darkness. On the contrary. We recognize it. But we will not let it overwhelm or overtake us. Tonight we celebrate that a light has come into the world that can dispel the darkness. A Christmas light, if you will, that turns our mourning into dancing; One who brings order out of chaos; One who embodies the presence of God among us right here, right now – even in a rough economy, even with all your problems, even with all of your mistakes. This is not a light for someone else who has it all together. This is a light piercing the darkness of our lives – physical, emotional, and spiritual darkness. That is what we celebrate on this holy night.
With this understanding, listen the way that John, the most poetic of the gospels, describes Jesus’s coming (John 1:1-5, 14):
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…
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The original Christmas light is not the LED, or Edison’s incandescent bulb, or even the candles Luther put on the first Christmas tree. No, the first Christmas light was a baby born to a poor couple. A birth that was testified to by the angels to the shepherds, which led them to a baby lying in a manger. It is a birth signified by a light in the night sky that led the wise men to the child to worship him. It is a light that was promised some 700 years earlier, and a light that continues to shine two-thousand years later.
It is a light for you and for me, and for all of us to celebrate even today!
May you know that the light has come into the darkness and that the darkness has not, will not, and cannot over come it. Jesus has been born for you this day! When we give our lives to him, we find that there is order even in the chaos.
It is a gift freely, graciously offered to you and me who do not deserve it.
With that all in mind, let me share one more Christmas light display.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;”
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”
That is the true Christmas light. Given to us who do not deserve it by the Amazing Grace of God. May we let that light shine in and through us.
Merry Christmas! Amen.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.