“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”
Late Monday night we started our Christmas celebrations in darkness – and with one lit candle – and we recognized a kind of fragility. A slight wind could blow the first candle out. And yet that flame passed from one person to another…and soon the whole church was aglow with the warmth of candlelight. I think we find it so beautiful in part because we know intuitively that this act is full of meaning – in a way we understood the incarnation without words by this at a deep level. But maybe I can put some words to it.
Monday night worship began from one lit candle only. Imagine the hopes of the world resting upon the birth of a single infant in a manger, born in a violent time, born in poverty among animals?
Imagine God choosing this way to bring light to every person in Creation. Can you think of a better way? Let’s think about it…for the rest of our lives!
But even before we began that service, those who went had some expectation of what would happen there. I hope we have come this morning with the same expectation – to have an encounter with the living God. The preparation that we had before we came here today is a figure of the preparation of every human being beforehand for the Light which was to lighten the world.
- Paul writing to Jews in Hebrews, reminds them that they had been prepared: Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the Prophets. Just one example of that is from Isaiah – unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. But in our daily readings around this time of year we are reminded of the many preparations in the prophets.
- But there were also preparations elsewhere beyond Israel and in many cultures for the coming of a Messiah, of a salvation from beyond. Virgil, a Roman poet, spoke in his poetry to the Roman empire of the dawning of a golden age through the birth of a child only a generation before Christ was born.
- And many Christian missionaries through the ages in their first encounters with civilizations new to the Gospel have spoken of cultural expectations that God gave these peoples to prepare them for the acceptance of such a Saviour.
But those who went to the candlelight service were prepared not just by knowledge (“come to the candlelight service”), but by being given a candle when they arrived. Just as each of them had a candle with a wick ready to be set aflame – so by our very creation, do each one of us have the possibility today to be set aflame by God, or to have that flame grow more intense.
- John says In the Word was life, and the life was the light of men…and he describes Jesus as The true light, which gives light to everyone. [John 1:4,9] It is not cattle that receive this light, it is human beings who can perceive and be filled with wisdom. [Augustine, Sermon on John 1:1-5] (Although cattle and all Creation will benefit when we receive that Light.) It is our souls that are ready, being made in the image and likeness of God – capable of being illuminated from above.
So into a world prepared by our very nature and by prophetic promises – that God takes flesh in one person, Jesus Christ, to be the Light that lightens every person. Paul says of Jesus in today’s Epistle, that he is the radiance of the glory of God. [Hebrews 1:1-12]
And Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount that we his followers are the light of the world.
The lighting of our souls happens as the mists that darken our hearts – the guilt, the shame, the hurts, the sins – are cleared away – it is the pure in heart who see God [Matt 5], and Paul assures us that Jesus made purification for sins before he returned to the Father [Hebrews 1:3]. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:5] As these mists are dispelled from our hearts – we can be bearers of the divine light, filled with wisdom, and we can reflect it, and so kindle it in others who come near.
What does it mean, that God chose to come to us in this way?
God could have chosen to start earthly rule in the way many nations and governments establish rule – but God chose this humble way because he needed to strike at the heart of what holds us from God – our pride. Humility is what is needed from us, and so he shows us a far deeper humility than we could ever imagine. [Augustine, Sermon on John 1:1-5]
God comes into our midst and shows us as a human being what we as human beings can be. He became a candle as we are candles ready to be lit. Jesus’ life shows that God is interested in the personal and in the individual. He shows us that every human—human encounter is loaded with possibility. It is not our wealth, not our job or position in society, not how we look, not our education – these are not key, but whatever gifts we do have, what is key is are we loving one another, and so loving the God who made us.
The simple human encounters between Jesus and individuals are what have been recorded for our learning – how did he respond to his friends and to his enemies, how did he respond to questions and to challenges, how did he walk? What matters to God is very concrete, very much in the here and now:
- How did I treat that person in church…today?
- How did I treat the person at the shop or on the street…today?
- How did I treat my spouse, my child, my friend, my enemy…today?
- What words came out of my mouth…today? Were they words to encourage or to discourage, did they build up or did they tear down?
- Have we apologized for our failures to one another, have we confessed our faults that we might know forgiveness?
When we look at these things up close, in the light of the Light that has come into the world, we can claim no self-righteousness. Before we get to blaming the problems of family, of community, of Church, of society, of nations on others, we begin with the problems in my own soul. The salvation we desire for the world, begins one person at a time, within ourselves first, and then with all those we meet.
How can we make sure we receive these benefits? How can we make sure that the candle that is our soul is lit – giving light and warmth to others?
In Advent we’ve been looking at that preparation – through faith, hope, and love:
- It is through Love that we are prepared for Jesus coming to us. Paul says, Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Jesus says, If you love me, you will follow my commandments, and the Father and I will come to you, and dwell in you. Will we return that love we’ve been shown by God and share it with others? [Advent 1]
- It is through Hope that we are prepared for his coming – Do you hope for more than you have now? Are you earnestly seeking glory? Jesus says, seek and will find, knock and it will be opened, ask and you shall receive– Jesus is ready to give himself to those who want Him. Are you hoping for more, even to be filled with the living God? [Advent 2]
- It is through Faith that we are prepared for his coming – John says today, To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, to them he gave power to become the children of God. You had faith to come here today – we’ve drawn near to receive this Light. Are we placing our trust in this One, and so drawing near, that our souls might be enflamed? [Advent 3]
- And last Sunday Erik reminded us about Joy as a prerequisite for His coming – will we allow joy, or are we holding back, afraid of being fooled again, fearful of allowing divine joy to invade our souls.Our Saviour is in our midst – will we allow for joy? I think we have allowed it today, as we continue to celebrate Christmas together and with Christians around the world. Let this joy remain with us always, the Lord is very close! [Advent 4]
Faith, hope, love and joy – preparations on our part, but also, each one of them, divine gifts from above – we need only receive them that we might be ready to receive Him.
Today, we are very near to that living Flame. Are we ready today to receive him? We need only confess our neediness, confess our sins, and come forward with open hearts and hands, with faith, hope and love. Jesus says, take and eat this, drink this, for the clearing away of the mists in our minds, and for the warming of the coolness of our hearts. And joy is the consequence!
Here, Candle lights candle, God becomes incarnate in us, and the work of his incarnation continues to spread.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, is coming into the world.