Light and life at Christmas

Text John 1:1-9 Time 11 12 13 Place Childs Baptist Church
Let's begin by talking about Christmas trees. The origins of the Christmas tree is lost in antiquity although the connection with Germany is definite. It is from Germany in the nineteenth century that the Christmas tree along with other traditions came thanks to Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert. It probably goes back to the pagan past there and the winter tradition of bringing evergreens into the home. This tradition continued even after the Germans stopped worshipping trees and began to worship God under the influence of missionaries like Boniface.
It is said that Martin Luther began the tradition of putting lights (candles then) on the tree. One Christmas, it is said, he was walking in snow covered woods and noticed how the snow shimmered in the moonlight. Back at home he put candles on a fir tree and told his children an appropriate story. By the way, it was 1882 before the first electrically lit tree appeared – in New York unsurprisingly. Luther's idea was that the tree stood for darkness and the lights for Jesus the light of the world.
Of course, if you live in the northern hemisphere, the very nature of things means that at this time of year you get long dark nights (December 21 is the shortest day) and this is relieved by increasingly sophisticated and ubiquitous lights. The ideas of darkness and light are not difficult and come this time of year in the UK it is everywhere.
I say all of this because of the verses I want us to focus on tonight. The verses are verses 1-9 of John Chapter 1. They use the word light some seven times and the word darkness comes in verse 5: The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Now clearly John is using the word light (and darkness) in a symbolic way. He does it all the way through the Gospel (think of Nicodemus coming by night and Judas stepping out into the night). It is well known that John begins his Gospel reflecting the beginning of Genesis – In the beginning was God ... In the beginning was the Word .... Genesis goes on to speak about God saying Let there be light and John says Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. Generally speaking, light is good and darkness bad, light stands for knowledge and goodness, darkness for ignorance and evil. What happens in Genesis 1 has a symbolic as well as a literal meaning.
We want to say four things from these verses.
1. Realise that the Word has life and is the light of men
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
John begins by going right back to the beginning. To speak of the second person of the Trinity, the one we most often refer to as The Son, he uses the word Word. He says several slightly overlapping things about the Word.
1. In the beginning was the Word. If you go right back to the beginning the Word was there. He existed then. He has always existed.
2. And the Word was with God. Being there from the beginning The Word was with God who was also, of course, there from the beginning. He was with or towards God – face to face with him.
3. And the Word was God. Not only is it correct to say that he was with God but he also was God just a she is God now.
4. He was with God in the beginning. Just to re-iterate in part right at the beginning the Word was face to face with God the Father.
5. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. Everything that was created was made through him. Nothing has ever been created without him. He had a hand in it all. One reason we know he is not a creature is because of this statement.
6. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. This follows on from the statement about everything being made through him. He has communicated life to every living creature. Any life it has comes from him. As Hebrews 1:3 puts it, he sustains all things by his powerful word. John reports later how Jesus says (5:21, 24-26) For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. Or what about John 11:25, 26? I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. John adds back here that life was the light of men and that is another I am saying – John 8:12 I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. That phrase light of life comes up many times in the Old Testament and the words light and life are obviously linked. To be alive is to see the light. Once the light goes you are dead.
So to recap, the Word is God and yet there is a sense in which he can be with God. It is as God and with God that he created all things and continues to give life and light to all. This Trinitarian theology is so important to keep to the fore in our thinking. Without that we are left with no incarnation and no gospel to share.
2. Understand that the light shines in the darkness of this world and is not overcome
That brings us to verse 5 a slightly difficult verse to translate The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it or better overcome it. The word used is best understood as referring to the darkness failing to overcome the light. This world is pictured as being in darkness – standing for ignorance and wickedness. Nevertheless the light of life continues to shine in it. The darkness is not able to choke out the light, it cannot extinguish it. When you want to put out the Christmas tree lights you switch off the power. If it is a candle, you can easily snuff it out and there is darkness. The light from God, however, is not anywhere as easily removed. It goes on shining even in the darkness of this world. Think of all the evil there has been in the world. Sometimes it overwhelms us it is so much. But the light goes on shining. Increasingly, day after day the light shines more and more brightly as we approach the perfect day.
There's something to give thanks for! It is there to encourage us. Sometimes it seems as though the night is closing in on us and the light is about to be snuffed out. When we begin to think like that we ought to stop and think again. That is not the reality. What is that verse from Isaiah quoted in Matthew 12:20? A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. Or think of Romans 13:12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.
3. See that John the Baptist was not the light but bore witness to it as we must
Verses 6-8 are helpful in getting the difference between a prophet and the Word of God clear in our minds. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
We like to drive down to Oxford Street at some time around this time of year to see the lights. Now if we go down and see the lights and then tell you “They're really great this year. You should go and see them” then it is pretty clear that we are witnessing to the lights. Even if I say something like “I've seen the lights. Hey they're good” my point should be clear. I suppose I could wear a t-shirt with “I've seen the lights” on it or write it up for my blog. I might become such an advocate for the lights that people might even say it's the West End lights man. I suppose there is someone who gets it all organised. Do they ever say “He is the West End lights”? I don't know.
Well, John the Baptist was a man sent by God. Some did think he was Messiah but he wasn't. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe says John. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. Like all the prophets before him he was not the light as such but one who pointed to the light and to the Lamb as he so famously called him, the Lamb of God.
That's our job too as Christians be witnesses to the light, to point people to Jesus Christ.
4. Praise God that the light of men has come into the world
The last verse I want to look at tonight is verse 9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. This is where John has been heading. He is talking about the Word of God and he has said that he is The true light, The true light that gives light to every man
Now he says he was coming into the world. His light was already in the world, nothing could stop it shining. But now the Light himself was coming into the world. He was shining in his own world and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. As John puts it so strikingly in verse 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. As he says elsewhere they preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. Nevertheless, just as the darkness could not overcome the light so to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. They were supernaturally born again.
Verse 9 says The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. Verse 14 says the same thing in a different way - The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. The light idea is not dropped entirely - We have seen his glory, John says the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. Verse 18 sums it up No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.
What a reason to praise God. God has not left this world in its darkness of ignorance and evil. The light has not only shone but the light itself has come into this world and shone here on earth. How can we picture it? It is one thing for a you to be lost in the dark and for a helicopter to shine down its beam of light to help you see. It is another for the helicopter to land and for the crewmen to get out and take you by the hand and lead you as he shines his powerful torch in front of him. Every illustration breaks down. Here it is that we do not have a man with a torch but one who is light itself, a human torch as it were.
A light can lead a person astray. It can lead nowhere or into danger. It can be as we say a mere flash in the pan. A true light, however, is a guiding light. It leads away from the rocks and safely to harbour. Christ the Light of the world is the one to look to now and always.

Keeping the festival and walking in the Spirit

Text Numbers 9 Time 13/05/12 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
We are looking at the Book of Numbers and we come this week to Chapter 9. You will see from the headings there in the NIV that this chapter contains two main things.
First, in verses 1-14, something about the Passover, and then, in verses 15-21, something about the cloud above the tabernacle.
  • 1-14 In verses 1-14 we are told how God spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai in the first month of the second year after they came out of Egypt and told him to Have the Israelites celebrate the Passover at the appointed time. As in the previous year when it was celebrated the first time, it was to be celebrated at twilight on the fourteenth day of that first month, in accordance with all its rules and regulations. We read in verse 5 that The Israelites did everything just as the LORD commanded Moses. This was the first festival following the erection of the tabernacle. There was a problem though. Some were unable to celebrate on the day as they were ceremonially unclean on account of a dead body. These people came to Moses and Aaron to ask what to do. They felt they shouldn't be kept from presenting the LORD's offering with the other Israelites at the appointed time just because they happened to be unclean that day. The answer given was that in such a situation or, if unable to keep the festival because away on a journey, for example, they are still to celebrate the LORD's Passover. In such case they are to do it on the fourteenth day of the next month in the normal way. This was not to be turned into an excuse for keeping Passover when one fancied. If you didn't keep the festival at the right time without good reason then you must be cut off from your people for not presenting the LORD's offering at the appointed time. They will bear the consequences of their sin. Verse 14 adds that A foreigner residing among you is also to celebrate the LORD's Passover in accordance with its rules and regulations. You must have the same regulations for both the foreigner and the native-born.
  • 15-21 In verses 15-21 Exodus 40:34-38 is more or less repeated and we are told how On the day the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony, was set up, the cloud covered it. The cloud it seems was not just over the tabernacle but over the Holiest place in the tabernacle. At night the cloud looked like fire and during the day like a cloud. Verses 17 and 18 say that Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the LORD's command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. Sometimes the cloud remained in one place a long time and at others only a few days or even only from evening till morning. Long or short the Israelites always stuck with it. 21b-23 Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the LORD's command they encamped, and at the LORD's command they set out. They obeyed the LORD's order, in accordance with his command through Moses.
So these are the two things here. It is quite interesting I suppose but what has it got to do with us today? Are we supposed to keep the Passover still? Should we expect to see a pillar of cloud over our meetings? Surely not. So what is there to learn? There are at least two things.

1. Remember to keep the festival with the bread of sincerity and truth
There is an interesting New Testament reference to the Passover in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. There Paul says Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new batch without yeast - as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the bread of sincerity and truth.
Passover is very much connected with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Paul says their boasting is like yeast the yeast of malice and wickedness. Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed so fulfilling what the Passover pointed too. The right response for his people is now to turn from boasting, malice and all other wickedness.
Here the Israelites are reminded of how certain things may prevent them from celebrating Passover. They are to be determined still to celebrate it, however. Nothing is to be allowed to get in the way. They are also reminded that it is not just for Israelites either. Any foreigners with them are to celebrate it too.
That raises some questions for us then. Christ our Passover Lamb has already been slain, are you determined to keep the Festival by living lives of sincerity and truth? We must not let anything stop us doing that. We must also encourage such sincerity and truth in others who live with us or who we come into contact with in other ways. We must point them to Jesus Christ the Lamb of God in whatever way we can. Remember how John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and he said Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! We also must seek to draw attention to him and let nothing else get in the way. Remember to keep the festival
2. Remember to walk in the Spirit and keep in step with him wherever he leads
Then what about this phenomenon that the Israelites were led through the desert by God's presence manifest in this pillar of cloud and fire? May be you find such a thought very attractive. “I wish we had a pillar of cloud and fire guiding us every step of the way through the desert of this life” you say.
But before we are too quick to envy them let's take note of what Paul says again in 1 Corinthians, this time in Chapter 10. The chapter begins
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.
And so Paul takes opportunity to warn against idolatry, sexual immorality, putting Christ to the test and grumbling. So, he concludes (12) if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!
So we are unwise to envy the Israelites the cloud and their other blessings!
When it comes to the matter of how we should live then, when we come to the New Testament there are also again some very interesting verses, this time in Galatians 5:16-26, where Paul talks about walking by the Spirit, being led by the Spirit and keeping in step with the Spirit.
So I say, live (lit walk) by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Now the connection is not immediately apparent but I think that it can be established that Paul has at the back of his mind the exodus from slavery in Egypt. In 4:8 he says Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. His point is (4:3) that It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Having left Egypt, they are now free to walk in step with the Spirit.
This view would seem to be confirmed by verses like these
Isaiah 63:11-14 Then his people recalled the days of old, the days of Moses and his people - where is he who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock? Where is he who set his Holy Spirit among them, who sent his glorious arm of power to be at Moses’ right hand, who divided the waters before them, to gain for himself everlasting renown, who led them through the depths? Like a horse in open country, they did not stumble; like cattle that go down to the plain, they were given rest by the Spirit of the Lord. This is how you guided your people to make for yourself a glorious name.
Nehemiah 9:19, 20 Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them.
Perhaps you noticed in the hymn we sang
Come, Holy Spirit, fire by night,
pillar of cloud by day
lead for I dare not take a step
unless you show the way.
So here is a second point. Having said that we must keep the festival with the bread of sincerity and truth, we can also say that we must be determined to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit and to keep in step with him. The Israelites would not so much as move if they were not led to it by the pillar of cloud and fire. We need that same sort of commitment too today to the leading of the Spirit. We are not talking here about knowing what to do in the sense of guidance as we usually think of it but of the matter of obedience. To keep instep with the Spirit is to obey him, to do what pleases him, unwilling to grieve him or quench his work in our lives. We are going through a desert and we do not know the way as we have never passed it before. We need the Spirit of God to lead us. We must look to him. We do not have visible signs like those Israel had but we know we have the Holy Spirit within and he gives us every encouragement to obey the Word of God of which he is the author in every way. We should increasingly be seeking to do that. The key to that is knowing God's Word and putting it into practice.