The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:5 (NIV)
Tonight we will light candles and crack glow sticks along with Christ followers around the world. All of this is a Jesus birthday celebration, and what birthday would be complete without candles? By the way, if these are birthday candles, that makes us the cake.
The candle you’re holding tonight is more than a birthday candle. It is a representation of the difference that Jesus Christ makes in a world full of darkness, for a people walking in darkness. We who were walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2) and that’s something to celebrate. Jesus is, after all, the Light of the world. A man named John wrote about this Light, reminding us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).
I’ve spent the whole day overcoming darkness. When my alarm went off at 5, I instinctively looked at my backlit phone, filling the bedroom with that blueish hue that squints the eye. I turned on a lamp, filling the room with even more light, a yellowish/white hue that gave off just enough light to make it to the kitchen and fire up the coffee pot — a small green dot of light ensured me that hope was alive. When I got into the car, the headlights illuminated the way (since this is Michigan in Winter and the sun doesn’t rise until sometime after 10:30am). I walked into a dim office and turned on the lamps, chasing away the darkness and starting a new work day. You and I are good at chasing away the darkness. We don’t even have to think about it.
When John wrote that the light shines in the darkness and that the darkness has not overcome it, he wasn’t talking about physical darkness, though thinking about it this way helps us understand the deeper significance of darkness — especially spiritual darkness. Human beings, created in the image of God, are unlike any other part of creation in that we have an awareness of the fact that something isn’t quite right, things are out of balance, broken, and a little crooked. We feel it — this darkness — when we witness the suffering and poverty of the world, the epidemic of loneliness and anxiety, and in our feeling of separation from God. These are the kinds of darkness that John is writing about. The light shines in the darkness (world suffering, personal suffering, separation from God) and the darkness has not overcome it (it’s there, but it won’t win).
A few months ago I was waiting with my wife in the Emergency Department at Bronson Hospital. Kidney stones struck again. As she and I waited in the big waiting room, I noticed a gentleman standing near the entrance, holding his pants up. I locked eyes with him, said hello, and proceeded to get Emily to a comfy spot to wait until she was called back. The guy came over to me and asked for a ride to the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission. I replied that I couldn’t leave my wife there alone. He asked for money, but I didn’t have any. He hoped they would give him a belt at the Mission. A belt? That I had. I offered him my belt, which he gladly accepted, though he needed help getting it looped through. At that point, everyone was looking at us, some uncomfortably so, as I carefully fished the belt around his waist, his pants soaked by probably not rain. In that moment, I didn’t have the power to make homelessness or poverty disappear. I didn’t have a ride to offer or a dollar to give. But I had a belt. I believe it was a holy moment, because God was there and because a little bit of darkness was being chased away by a little bit more light.
Followers of Jesus believe that light disrupts the darkness of suffering and poverty. We support and serve where a servant is needed, bringing fresh water to places like Sierra Leone, backpacks full of food for students at Woodland Elementary, and Christmas parties at the Colonial Acres community. We pray, we seek, we do. Jesus came to be a servant, and to give His life as a ransom for many. The Light of the world pierces the darkness, and that has to look like something if it will truly bring the healing that the Kingdom of God promises.
This isn’t a candle. It’s a reminder that Jesus actually cares about the suffering of the world. This darkness bothers Him more than it does me, since this is not the world God intended. He says of His followers you are the light of the world — let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify God (Matthew 5:8). It’s a good Word, a good challenge for the whole year, but it’s especially fitting at Christmas as we spend billions on gifts for, well, us. Writer and Pastor Michael Slaugher reminds us in his book of the same title that Christmas is Not Your Birthday. We are called to be the generous, loving, and bright light of Christ in the darkness of the world around us.
There’s darkness in the world around us, no doubt. But we also have to acknowledge that there’s darkness inside of us. We see it in two growing epidemics: loneliness and anxiety. We live in this hyperconnected world where we broadcast our lives on social media, text and tweet, and share games and interests on Discord. Yet people experience the despair of loneliness at level’s we’ve never seen before, accompanied by that echoing ache of isolation, the loss of perspective, and feeling that it’s just me that feels this way/thinks this way/does this or that. Our connection on the internet is an ironic connection, in that we have more opportunities for community and yet experience it less and less. Where is God in the dark of loneliness?
Corresponding with our loneliness epidemic is the growing number of mental health issues, seen in escalating rates of addiction, depression, and anxiety. I had a candid conversation wth a school counselor this week, and they shared that what we’re seeing now in the student population is like nothing we’ve ever known. Students as young as 5th grade are experiencing significant mental health issues. Statistically, nearly half of all Americans will experience some kind of mental health issue in their lives. Shockingly, half of all mental health issues begin by age 14, and three-quarters manifest by age 24. I am increasingly aware of how difficult the holidays are for a number of families that dread getting together with relatives because of dysfunction. Christmas isn’t a joyous time for everybody, especially for those who are experiencing their first with a notably empty chair at the table. Where is God in this darkness of loneliness and mental health issues?
Jesus is the Son of God, and Christmas songs include the word Emmanuel for very good reason: Emmanuel means God is with us. Jesus knows what it’s like to be human. He knows loneliness, when he spends time alone in the wilderness under heavy temptation by the evil one. He knows isolation on the cross. And He knows anxiety, as the scripture tells us that his agony before the crucifixion included sweating drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Jesus knows the pain of losing a loved one, seen in the tears of Jesus as he weeps for the loss of His friend Lazarus (John 11:28-37). Here is a great mystery: Jesus, the Light of the world, puts on human flesh and becomes one of us, experiencing the highs and lows with us. He is Emmanuel, not just in location but in sharing in our pain and anxiety.
The darkness of loneliness is overcome by seeing and being with Jesus, the Light. The darkness of anxiety is overcome by Jesus, the Light. In Jesus, we get a complete picture of God the Father, which is the cause of much of our loneliness and anxiety. In Jesus, we get a complete view of ourselves because we can see clearly in the Light that which was once obscured by the darkness of self. Jesus is the Light of the world. Jesus is the Light of my world. And, we pray, of ours. The Light speaks to the darkness inside of us and illuminates the way to wholeness because we can finally get a real view of ourselves.
We don’t take mental health as a simply spiritual problem anymore than we do a broken arm. No matter what health issue we’re talking about, we seek God and pray for healing while we’re on the way to the hospital. If mental health is a chemical/physical issue, it seems that God would want us to pursue balance for the chemistry of our minds just as He would a cast for our arm.
There is, however, a spiritual issue that can only be treated spiritually: the darkness of our separation from God.
The scripture says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are born into spiritual darkness, separated from God because, try as we might, we can never be good enough, nor do we have the power to overcome our darkness by ourselves. Sin separates. Jesus, the Light of the world, the Light of salvation (John 1:6), the Light of grace (John 1:16-17) sets us free from sin and death. His Light lavishes grace and forgiveness onto our broken and stained souls, uniting us again with God the Father. Yes, sin separates and brings darkness… but Jesus reconnects and brings light, a light that cannot be overcome by darkness.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus (again, we are the birthday cake holding the birthday candles), but we remember that He was born to us, born for us, and born to die (Hebrews 10:5-10). His death on the cross defeated our sin. His resurrection from the grave defeated death. And we who have received this gift of light are no longer distant from God. This is the good news of the gospel, and the ultimate point of Christmas. When the angels say a Savior has been born to you — He is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11), they were serious! Our greatest need is felt in our deepest darkness: we need to be saved from sin and death, the very sin and death we brought upon ourselves in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).
The spiritual darkness may seem the most esoteric and philosophical compared to the tangibles of personal struggle and world suffering, but our sin is the root of every problem. This is not the world and we are not the people God originally created. Instead of leaving us in our darkness, He came right to the epicenter with a blinding, dazzling, overpowering Light that defeats every kind of darkness!
The candles you hold in your hands represent the Light of the world — Jesus Christ, born to set us free. As we share this light together, we remember what Christ has done to set us free and what Christ continues to do as we carry His light into the dark world. There is hope. There is Truth. There is healing. There is light.
Do you know this Light? Not just about Jesus — do you actually know Jesus? Have you received this Light into your soul? Tonight is the perfect night to say “yes, I’m walking in darkness, and I need the Light.” It’s Christmas Eve, after all. Let Him be born in you today. And may you carry the new Light in your souls to the dark world.
The world is desperate for this Light. May we continue to spread this Light until Christ returns and brings His Kingdom. A little bit of light will crush a little bit of darkness and will not be overcome by darkness. Good news: darkness loses, Light wins.