Monday, December 5, 2011

The Message of a Billion Lights

Hiking in the Verdugo Mountains one December evening, I remember looking out over the Valley, and beyond the Santa Monica Mountains to downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific, to see millions upon millions of dazzling Christmas lights twinkling in the darkness.  It reminded me of Jack Hayford's comment that God has “caught” humankind with the brilliant lights of Christmas (Jack Hayford, Come...and Behold Him!, Multnomah Books, 1995, p. 30).

Hayford is right…this Christmas, a billion people across the face of the earth -- many without understanding -- with candle flames and multi-colored lights, will announce this glorious fact: The Light has come!  Let's try to more deeply understand what so many fail to understand, so that we can celebrate and proclaim the truth about the glorious light of Christmas.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. 6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world (John 1: 1-9).
Associating God with light was not a new idea. John reminds us that it's the word we've been hearing from the very beginning. The image of light is an image for God that goes all the way back to the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, to the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, and to the first verses in the first book of the Bible, where we learn that…

He is the Light of lights before all worlds. Yesterday I worked all day putting up my Christmas lights.  I take pride in my display, however humble; and my favorite part is that moment, when after replacing all the burned out bulbs and fuses, I flip on the switch. I wonder sometimes if the millions of people who flip on their Christmas lights each night ever ask themselves why the really big lights, the countless stars in the heavens, burn so brightly?  What turned those lights on?  Scientifically speaking, we don't have a clue.  That's because science can’t describe anything before the moment of creation when the laws of physics, and the dimensions of time and space itself, came into being.  Yet thankfully, where human reason cannot penetrate the darkness, God's revelation enlightens: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…..And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light” (Genesis 1: 1-5). Nearly an eternity before the existence of our sun or our moon, before our own galaxy was formed, before the more than four hundred billion other galaxies shined in the night sky, each of which contains at least a hundred billion stars like our sun; there was another Light, says Genesis; and that Light, says St. John, is the light of God.  Interestingly enough, Einstein theorized that as one approached the speed of light, time slows down from the perspective of the traveler; and that at the speed of light…time stands still.  Paul once said of the Creator that “He alone…has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light….” (1 Tim. 6.16) and Peter writes that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8)!  No wonder John says elsewhere that "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).

The glorious light of Christmas is, first of all, the glorious light of the Creator.  Ravi Zacharias reflects on this fact in his book, If the Foundations Be Destroyed.  
“On Christmas Day 1968, the three astronauts of Apollo 8 circled the dark side of the moon and headed for home. Suddenly, over the horizon of the moon rose the blue and white Earth garlanded by the glistening light of the sun against the black void of space. Those sophisticated men, trained in science and technology, did not utter Einstein’s name. They did not even go to the poets, the lyricists, or the dramatists. Only one thing could capture the awe-inspiring thrill of this magnificent observation. Billions heard the voice from outer space as the astronaut read it: “In the beginning God”--the only concept worthy enough to describe that unspeakable awe, unutterable in any other way. “In the beginning God created”--the invasive, the inescapable sense of the infinite and the eternal.”  
God is the Light of lights before all worlds and, He is the redeeming light of our darkened world.
A. God has not only created light in the darkness of space; he is the Light of truth and goodness in a world darkened by sin and evil and death.  The lights that illuminate our Christmas displays bear witness to the light of God that pierces our darkness, bringing hope and eternal life.  The Bible is filled with images of God, and of our Lord Jesus Christ as light in a darkened world….
  • Before God delivers his people out of bondage in Egypt, he appears to Moses as flaming fire in the midst of a bush that is not consumed (Exodus 3.2).
  • As Moses leads his people through the wilderness, the Lord goes before them as “a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light” (Exodus 13.21).
  • The golden lampstand that burned continuously in the tabernacle and later, in the temple (Exodus 25.31ff.; 27.20ff.) was to be a reminder of God’s saving presence and eternal guidance.  
  • The Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear” (Psalm 27.1).
That divine light became visible in Jesus the Christ: Matthew refers to Jesus as the world’s “dawning light,” a reference to Isaiah’s prophecy (Matt. 4.16): “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” (Isaiah 9.2).  In the ancient world, one of the most difficult things to do was to keep a fire going. To lose one’s light was not just an inconvenience, it meant the loss of heat and warmth; the ability to cook food; to protect one’s self from wild animals; and to find one’s way in the night.  Light brought warmth, security and protection.  The hunger for light and warmth has been constant from the beginning of human history.

Now John writes of the Christ, “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… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (John 1.3b-5, 9).  When John says that He is the light of all people; he uses the Greek word phos from which we derive the word photon.  What is a photon? Photons are massless particles of electromagnetic radiation traveling at the speed of light.  There are low energy photons like radio waves and high energy photons like gamma rays.  Now visible light is the only form of electromagnetic radiation that human beings can see.  In the same way, though the infinite power and glory of God is invisible to us, He has made himself visible by the light of Christ. “No one has ever seen God” John testifies, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).  Einstein, the physicist who profoundly shaped our understanding of light, called Jesus the “the luminous Nazarene.”

Jesus told his disciples to carry his light to those who live in darkness:  “You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5. 14-16).  If Jesus is the world’s dawning light (Matt. 4:16), his disciples are to reflect that Light.  The reason the moon is visible to us, is that it faces the sun.  It’s light is a reflected light.  So too, as we face the Messiah and take him seriously, we will reflect his light to the world.  There are more examples of His impact on human history than we can possibly recount…

In his book, If Jesus Had Never Been Born Jim Henry reflects on an event that took place on Christmas Eve, 1989. “It was … after a Romanian church had gathered for a candlelight service, that the Communist soldiers came to take the pastor. The people lined up outside the church -- 10, 15, 20, 30 deep -- encircling the church and saying, “If you come after the pastor, you come after us first.” The soldiers couldn’t get in. They couldn’t move them. The candle lights began to move through the cities. As those candles began to spread, others came out into the street, and courage came. On Christmas Day the people said, “We’ve had enough of this,” and the terrible dictator of Romania and his wife, were courageously overthrown."

Christ has given countless millions courage to be light in a darkened world.  Paul writes in Eph. 5.8-9: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”  He is the Light of lights before all worlds…he is the redeeming light of our darkened world, and…

He is the eternal light of that glorious new world.  Christmas lights have a limited life span.  Eventually, they burn out (dying of natural causes) or, if you’re a Christmas light at my house, you often get accidentally stepped on or smashed by my ladder, and die an untimely death!  Such is the fate of holiday lights; and every candle flame that flickers out, and every crackling fire that is reduced to ashes.  But God’s light can never be extinguished. Isaiah prophesies: “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory….” (Isaiah 60.19).

Robert Russell talks about a house in his neighborhood that kept their Christmas lights burning long after the season was past. They burned through January, even through the first of February.  Finally, about the middle of February,  he became a bit critical and said, “If I were too lazy to take my Christmas lights down, I think I’d at least turn them off at night.”  But about the middle of March there was a sign outside of their house that explained why they’d left the lights on. It said simply, “Welcome home, Jimmy.” We learned that family had a son in [the war], and they had left their Christmas lights on in anticipation of his return.  Those lights were a symbol of hope (Robert Russell, author and pastor of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky,in sermon "Jesus Came to Be the Light").

What is do you hope for this Christmas?  Could it be making things right again with a friend or family member… finding companionship, getting out of a dark place, wanting to serve and help someone in need?  As we light our homes we often do so as a silent testimony to those hopes. Christ has promised us that this hope is not in vein, for he conquered the grave and in him there is peace with God and eternal life. This same Lord promises to come again to take us to himself.  We began with the first few verses of the first book of the Bible.  In the last chapter of the Bible we read that our Lord is preparing a brand new world for us; and that a Day will come when there will be no more tears and nothing to fear if we only hope and trust in him, for “there will be no more night; they [will] need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22: 5).

As I was hanging my lights yesterday on the side of the house, my neighbor who can see those lights was looking through the window with his wife.  “You’re a nice man! Thank you!” he shouted.  We’ve cleaned our windows so we can enjoy your lights!  The past few years have been tough for them; and they’ve told me in so many words that those lights have been a reminder to them of the light of God’s presence. In the billions of candle flames and torches and multi-colored lights of this season, may God give you spiritual eyes to see the One to whom they bear silent witness  and to let in the true light of Christmas… the One who lit the stars, the One who lights up our darkened hearts with his grace and truth, the One who calls us to follow him today with unshakeable hope, the One who said, “I am the light of the world, the one who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

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