By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 1:1-9
Hear this scripture from Luke, chapter 1, verses 78-79: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
When I was in the 6th grade, I slept with a glow-in-the-dark Jesus. Allow me to explain. I can’t recall where it came from. But it was a cardboard tri-fold picture of Jesus that could stand up on my dresser. Before I went to bed, I held it up to my lamp for several minutes to “recharge it,” so to speak. Then, when my light was turned out, the picture of Jesus continued to glow. Now, it wasn’t that I was particularly afraid of the dark. I was in the sixth grade and hadn’t had a nightlight in years. But there was just something so reassuring about falling asleep each night with the face of Jesus shining on me. There in a darkened room, in the stillness of the night, his face was all that could be seen.
It may not surprise you to know that we really don’t know the date of Jesus’ birth. After all, it’s not as if first century Galilean peasants were issued birth certificates. In ancient Palestine, childhood mortality rates were very high. One Cambridge researcher found that nearly 50% of children did not live to see adulthood; little wonder they didn’t pay much attention to birth dates. So then, “how did we arrive at the date of December 25,” you ask? (Or, maybe you don’t; but I’m about to tell you anyway.)
Well, it is most likely that the date was set based on the time of the winter solstice. Pagans within the Roman Empire celebrated what was known as the Festival of the Sol Invictus or, in English, Festival of the Unconquered Sun – sun with a “u” as in the sun in our sky. Their festival was designed to coax the sun god into bringing more light into the world. But when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the celebration of Christmas replaced the pagan festival of Sol Invictus. It made perfect sense based on scriptures like this one from the opening of John’s gospel: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
It is tough for us to deal with darkness in our world, isn’t it? I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. In a nutshell, our bodies use sunlight to produce Vitamin D which regulates our serotonin levels which impact things like sleep, energy, cognition, and mood. Or, to put it really simply, we need light to feel alive; to have the energy and mindset to deal with all that life throws at us.
And so, even as we age, we shun the dark; no longer because we think there’s a monster under our bed, but because too much darkness can leave us feeling depressed, exhausted and overwhelmed. We need light for life.
It is tough for us to deal with darkness in our world, isn’t it? When it seems our world is darkened by fear and selfishness, prejudice, sickness, violence and suffering; all settling over us like a shroud.
And so, we light the Advent candles. We place lights on our trees and around our windows to remind us that there is a light that pierces the darkness; a light that cannot be overcome by the darkness. And that that light entered our world in Jesus, who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[i] It was the prophet Isaiah who first called to God’s people:…[C]ome, let us walk in the light of the LORD![ii] Walking, in this sense, is not about the physical action of my legs transporting me from point A to point B… although we obviously need light to do that safely lest we trip or bump into something, fall or hurt ourselves. But walking here is metaphorical; it refers to the way we live and how we conduct ourselves; it refers to whether or not our lives are being guided or directed by God. You might recall that, during the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, whenever they traveled at night, a pillar of fire, the symbol of God’s presence, lit their path and guided them on their journey. All throughout Scripture, God’s Word – which in Jesus is made flesh – is compared to light. The Psalmist writes, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”[iii]
And so Jesus, the Light of the World, delivers us from darkness. He is God’s Word made flesh that lights our path. His light is life… if we do in fact choose to walk in that light. Medical research has shown: our bodies struggle to function optimally without sunlight. And our scriptures remind us of our spiritual need for the true light which guides us, dispels our fears, and reveals things as they truly are.
In the ancient world and today, we recognize the connection between sight and insight. We ask questions like, “Do you see what I mean?” When someone teaches us something new – when they “shed light” on something – we might say, “Now I see what you mean.” Light leads to insight and understanding. When we walk in the light, we see things as they truly are, no longer shrouded in the darkness.
But, to see clearly and to walk in the light, requires us to be close to the light. If you take a flashlight camping and get up during the night to go to the restroom, but do not bother to take your flashlight, you will likely get lost in the woods. A flashlight left behind in the tent cannot light your path through the woods.
So we must draw near to the Light that is Jesus. Spiritual practices, such as prayer, reading scripture, meditation, worship, and serving the vulnerable, draw us near to the light that is Jesus. And they are not practices to be rushed through, as if we are checking the spiritual box.
Do you remember my opening story about the Jesus who glowed in the dark? As much as I enjoyed seeing that lit up face of Jesus as I drifted off to sleep, some nights I was impatient or weary and I didn’t take the time to hold that cardboard tri-fold in front of my lamp for very long. Then, before I even had a chance to drift off to sleep, the light, insufficiently charged, would fade to darkness.
Likewise, we are called to seek time in the presence of Jesus, our Light. It is not about how many words you say when you pray or keeping track of how many needy people you’ve helped. It is about attentiveness: sitting patiently in the presence of the light so that, over time, our life’s path becomes illuminated. We absorb the light like my cardboard cutout of Jesus.
Right now, it seems that many of us have so many prayer concerns and I’ve had some recent conversations with folks about how to pray for others. We know exactly what we’d like God to do for them, to them or with them and we become frustrated when our prayers appear not to be answered. But perhaps we can find greater peace this Advent season by praying a bit more simply, something like: “Jesus, I lift Bill or Sue or Bob… or whoever into the light that is you.” It is a simple prayer, but a big one, right? Jesus is the light that has come into the world and cannot be overcome. He is the light that is life. He is the light that illumines our path. What could be a better thing to pray for those we love, as we long for them to be delivered from the darkness of sickness or addiction or mental illness; as we long for them to live life to its fullest; as we long for their lives to move in a better direction? Lord, I lift Mike or Sally into the light that is you. Perhaps you may even want to close your eyes and imagine that the two of you are sitting, together, in the peaceful presence of that light.
“I am the light of the world,” says Jesus. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[iv] That light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Come let us walk in the light.
[i] John 8:12
[ii] Isaiah 2:5.
[iii] Psalm 119:105
[iv] John 8:12
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