I invite you to open your Bible to John 1:1-5, 14. This is John’s Christmas text. He writes nothing of shepherds watching their flocks by night, nothing of angels singing in the sky, nothing of a young Nazarene couple, nine-months pregnant, frantically searching for a place to stay in crowded Bethlehem before the baby comes. There’s no nativity scene in John’s account, but it’s a Christmas story all the same.
When we read the Matthew and Luke accounts, it feels like we are looking up from earth. When we read John’s, it feels like we are looking down from heaven. Lots of human involvement in Matthew and Luke, all God’s doing in John. The eternal Word who is Jesus, the Jesus who was with God in the beginning, and is God, the Word who created all that is, comes down to earth, becomes flesh, and dwells among us to bring us light and life. I encourage you in your Advent readings to read at least through v. 18. This morning we’re going to read through v. 5. Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).
There’s more theological weight in these verses than there’s sugar in your Christmas fudge and calories in your fruitcake. We could grab a shovel and a pick and spend hours digging truth nuggets from this text. But this morning, we’re going to focus on vv. 4-5 … “In him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.”
Jesus brings light and life. Jesus is light and life. Without Jesus you are dead in your sins. Without Jesus you are in the dark.
“In the dark?” you ask. “Well, I sleep in the dark, but when I get up in the morning, I live in as much light as anyone else.”
Physical light—yes. You can open the blinds and greet the morning sun. You’ve got a lamp by your bed, an overhead light in your kitchen. You can flick a switch and see into the darkness of your oven. And if the power goes out, you can grab the flashlight from your junk drawer or light a candle. If you are without Jesus, you have as much physical light to live by as Billy Graham or Mother Teresa ever had. Physical light.
But that’s not what John is talking about here. He’s talking about spiritual light. That’s a different kind of light. That’s the kind of light that shows you the way to the life that is really life, to the life Jesus wants to give you, to the life that neither darkness nor death can overcome.
It’s by this spiritual light in Jesus that we see ourselves as we really are. By this light we can see our own depravity and sin and brokenness. We can see that we don’t measure up to God’s standards. And we can see that what we need to fix our brokenness is not a life-coach or a therapist, not a bottle of booze or a bottle of pills. What we need is a Savior.
Notice that I didn’t say we need religion. All world religions, including a legalistic form of the Christian faith, say that we must earn God’s favor by doing certain things and not doing certain things. Religion claims that somehow, we must work our way up to God, find something like Jack’s magic beans that grow a beanstalk that reaches the heavens and gets us to a giant named God. Just start climbing and keep climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing till you reach him. If that’s what you’re doing, one question: how’s that working out for you? That’s what I thought.
- It leaves you empty, doesn’t it? It leaves you striving. You feel like that greyhound dog chasing in circles a mechanical rabbit you will never catch. The chase is exhausting. There’s no peace in it, no fulfillment, no joy. It leaves you empty.
- It leaves you anxious too, right? You never know where you stand with God. You have a bad day. You say some things and do some things you know that God would frown on. Your attitude is horrible. You victimize people. And you wonder if God is going to strike you down or write you off. And you pledge and promise to do better the next day: “Maybe if I do better tomorrow I can win back his love.” Religion leaves you pulling petals off daisies, “He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not.” You never know where you stand. Religion leaves you anxious.
- And it leaves you in the dark—the only light an artificial light that shines not on you or through you but on the list of do’s and don’ts you must keep to earn God’s favor and win his smile. All that list does is give you bricks to build a bridge to nowhere. All your striving, all your labor can’t get you to God. The farther you go, the darker it gets. There’s no life in it. There’s no light in it. Religion leaves you in the dark.
In our text, John is not pushing some new religion. He doesn’t say, “In religion is life, and that life is the light of men.” He’s not pushing religion. You don’t need religion.
You need a Savior. You need a personal relationship with Jesus. And John is telling us in his Christmas story that you don’t have to work your way up to God because God has worked his way down to you through the sending of his Son Jesus. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” When you find life in Jesus, you will also get the light to see things as they are, to see yourself as you are.
You can’t earn this life and light. Jesus earned it for you through his obedience to die on the cross for your sins, and Jesus gives it to you out of sheer grace and mercy. You don’t earn this life or take this life by your own efforts; you receive this life. In v. 12, John writes, “But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name.” You receive this gift, and with the gift the light.
And in this light, you can see the truth of the gospel:
- That you are more sinful than you dare believe, yet more loved than you dare hope.
- That salvation is a gift of God, not a work we must achieve.
- That God’s love is steadfast and endures forever.
- That God loves us through the bad days, that his grace is greater than our sin.
- That God’s love approves of me by grace, not because of what I have done but because of what Christ has done for me. This means I can live an obedient life. As Mike Pounders put it, when we live the obedient life from God’s approval rather than for God’s approval, obedience becomes not duty but delight. That’s gospel. And in the light of Jesus we can see that truth.
- And by this light we see another truth of the gospel: that once you have the life and light of Jesus, the darkness will never be able to overcome it.
The darkness will try. The darkness tried with Jesus. “Crucify him! Crucify him! Kill him on a cross!” And the religious and political powers of that day schemed together and got Jesus arrested, tried, beaten, and crucified. But this was God’s will for Jesus. He had to endure the dark to bring the light. He had to die to give us life. While he hung on that cross bearing your sin and mine, an eerie darkness covered the earth. Jesus endured everything the darkness could do to him to his last labored breath and the point of his death. As twilight descended on the earth, poor dead Jesus was pulled off that cross and buried in a borrowed tomb. At least on that day it looked like darkness had won the day.
But darkness can’t overcome the light. On the third day, about dawn, the earth shook, the stone was rolled away, and Jesus Christ the Lord was raised from the dead. Talk about turning on the light! Christ rose the victor over all the powers of sin and death and darkness—all of which went running off, tails between their legs, whimpering like frightened little kittens. Darkness can’t overcome the light, but light can destroy the darkness. Darkness loses. Light wins.
You want light instead of darkness, life instead of death? You can only find it in our Savior Jesus: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”
Jesus stands ready to give you life and light when you’re ready. His light will find its way into your darkness, and save your soul and change your life when you’re ready.
Leonard Griffin tells one of my favorite Christmas stories. A young, gifted doctor had a thriving practice when he suddenly became ill. And we’re not talking about a cough and the sniffles. We’re talking serious illness, bedridden illness, knocking-at-the-door of death illness. But somehow, the young doctor recovered. The process was a long one, but slowly, surely, his body regained its health. Not so his emotions. He remained down, depressed, discouraged. He couldn’t get out of the pit. Enveloped in soul-darkness, he felt helpless, hopeless.
His wife had an idea. Maybe since it was Christmastime something could happen to bring him back. She suggested this: “Let’s go to the church building on Christmas Eve. There are no services scheduled, but the building will be open for persons to sit and meditate and pray. Let’s just sit there and see if somehow God will come to us and help us.” The doctor shrugged his shoulders: “Why not? Nothing else seems to help. I guess it’s worth a try.” So the doc planned to meet his wife there at 5:00.
The doctor had no clue that his wife had cooked up a little scheme. She called an actor friend that her husband didn’t know. She told him what was going on, said that she would show up a little late, and asked her actor friend to slip in through the back door of the church, step into the pulpit in the twilight, and read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. She thought that maybe this good news of great joy would crack open his dark, depressed heart and put some joy in him again. The actor loved the idea and agreed to do it.
The doctor arrived at the church a bit early. He sat in the back in the shadow of stained-glass at dusk. He was the only one in the church, and he found it peaceful. Suddenly, he began to feel an eerie presence. A shadowy, indistinguishable figure stood in the pulpit. Instead of reading from Luke, he read from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And unto as many as received him, he gave them power to become children of God.”
Something happened in that quiet moment. A sense of newness came over the doctor like a cool, refreshing breeze. The dark gave way to light. He received Christ. He received hope. A wave of joy washed across his soul. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife, so he left the church to find her. She was coming in as he was going out. She could tell immediately that something had happened to him. She was amazed as she listened to his story. Want to know why? Because a few minutes earlier, the actor called to say he couldn’t make it. She confessed her scheme to her husband. His response? “I guess Christ really did come to me, didn’t he?”
And Christ will come to you. He came in the first Christmas to do the work of bringing life and light. And he can come bring that light and life to you today. Here’s why: because Jesus didn’t just talk about life; Jesus is the life. And his life is the light of every man and woman and boy and girl—every age, every color, every language, every culture, every social class, everyone.
Maybe you’re the one sitting in the back of the church today. Your soul—dark. Your spirit—depressed. Your faith, your hope, your joy—down to the dregs. And you’re just hoping for a Christmas miracle. Open your ears. Open your eyes. Jesus is here. He is here for you. In him is life. His life is the light of men. And the darkness, even your darkness, cannot overcome it.
Preached: December 10, 2017
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II