A Christmas message 2011
The light shines in the darkness
When Jesus was born that first Christmas, it was dark
He was born to a people under foreign occupation
The law of God, all that was right and true, had been trampled underfoot.
Evil and fear and death ruled.
It seemed as if God, if he existed, had abandoned them.
But then, John writes, ‘The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world’. (John 1:9)
For many people, particularly this year, things can feel quite dark
• Anxiety overwhelms you: exams, someone you love is sick; maybe you are facing serious illness
• Financial worries – not sure whether you will get a job when you leave school; you’ve been made redundant; not sure about your job; the pension is not going quite as far as it used to; and people talk about economic melt down and a repeat of the great depression.
• Facing Christmas alone – someone has walked out on you; you’ve been bereaved; the children have moved far away
• Deep disappointment – with a god who we professed to believe in, with others, or maybe with ourselves. We know that we’ve deluded ourselves. We’ve let others down: there have been too many compromises. We think back to the dreams, to the pledges and vows and we look at the reality. And we consider our lives and we realise that we don’t know where we are going. We are lost.
When Jesus was born a star appeared.
The nearest star (apart from our sun) is 4.2 light years away: that is only 25000 billion miles away. The furthest known star is a mere 78000 billion billion miles away.
Stars are phenomenally bright. We think our sun is fairly bright. But this year they have discovered a star, estimated to have a mass 225 times larger than our sun. They’ve called it by the very special name R136a1! It is 8,700,000 times brighter than our sun. But we can’t see it – unless we have an amazingly powerful telescope. Why? Because it is 165000 light years away - a billion billion miles away!
So even though these stars are phenomenally bright, if you are in the middle of London, you won’t even see them.
If you are in one of the villages near Bury St Edmunds, you might see them shine quite clearly
But it was when we were out in a remote part of Tanzania, and looked up, that we saw the most astonishing night sky.
You can really only see a star when you are prepared to turn off all the lesser lights, to go out into the darkness, to accept the darkness, and to look for the star.
When Jesus was born, a star appeared.
The thing was, nobody saw it. Oh they saw it up there, but they didn’t actually see it. Nobody except some wise men. But they were looking for it.
They had read the ancient Jewish scriptures, and they had come across prophecies that a star would arise which would announce the birth of a king, who would be born to rule the earth.
And so they set out on a journey to ‘follow’ this star – to see where it would lead them. And eventually, after turning again to those same ancient Jewish scriptures, the star led them to Bethlehem, and to the place where Joseph and Mary were staying, and it led them to Jesus.
And when they came to Jesus, those wise men did something astonishing. They stopped looking up at the stars, and they looked down at a different star. They stopped following the stars, and they began to follow a different star. Not a star up there, but a star lying in a cattle feeding trough. And they offer him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And they kneel down and they offer him themselves.
Very few people saw the star in the sky.
Very few people saw that the baby in the manger was the ‘true light’ come into the world.
The problem is not that the evidence is not there.
The problem is that we are not prepared to go out into the darkness to look.
There are several ways of dealing with the darkness.
The first is to celebrate darkness: to honour all that is shameful and evil, all that strips people of dignity and value and respect and life. It is to say that there is no god, no ultimate value, no final judgement – and basically whatever you want to do, whatever drive is in you - do it – providing you are not caught out. It is the ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die’ philosophy.
It is also the ultimate form of escapism.
It is also the ultimate form of escapism.
The second is to pretend that the darkness does not exist. It is to pretend that I will never die, to sentimentalise death to death with wishful thinking: ‘Oh they are going to be with granny’. And this denial of the darkness is to pretend that I never sin (well not in the ways that matter). It is to clothe myself in a righteous morality that can be so shocked when others fall (but of course loves to talk about it), without seeing the filth that is in me. Jesus spoke to people like this. He called them ‘white-washed tombs’. They looked great on the outside, but inside they were dead.
There is a third way. It is much harder, but far more honest. It is to go out into the darkness and to look: to look at death and to realise what death is. One of the things that I admire about the new atheists is that they are prepared to look death and non-existence in the face. My challenge to them is that they then do not live the logic of that reality. But if we are to go out into the darkness we also need to be prepared to look at the darkness that is within us – the fears and anxieties that drive us or paralyse us, the lusts that make us treat other people or objects as things that exist to satisfy our desires, the self-centred pride that means that we think that we are the most important thing in the universe, the sentimentalism which weeps at films but hasn't got time to visit our elderly shut-in neighbour, the judgementalism and unforgiveness, the cold heart. To go out into the darkness, is to realise that the darkness is there, and that it has a dreadful hold on us.
And if, this Christmas time, we are prepared to look beyond the fairy lights on the Christmas trees, beyond the glitter and the tinsel, and all the things that this world offers – and if we are prepared to go out into the darkness, and look, we might just, like the wise men, glimpse the glory of a star.
Because the message of the Christmas is that the darkness does not have the final word.
There is a star. Not a star up there in the sky; but a star which is described by Peter as the word of God, a star which ‘rises in our hearts’ (2 Peter 1:19)
It is hard to see, but not impossible.
Some people suddenly see it. It is like a star exploding into existence. Those are the people who are dramatically converted. For many others this star just gets gradually brighter. They know they couldn’t see it, but now they do.
But however it happens, we become aware that there is something more powerful than the darkness; that God exists and he has not abandoned us; In his love, he has stepped into our dark world; Another name that Jesus was given was Immanuel, and Immanuel means ‘God with us’. We hear the message that because of Jesus we are forgiven. And we hear the message that death is not the end – not because we wish it to be so – but because Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And we hear the message that this Jesus is alive and that we can know him, as those wise men knew him.
At first this light seems very faint, but as we focus on it we realise that it is brighter than all those stars put together. It is, in fact, the source of all light, of all creation, (even of the Higs bosun!). And when the sun has ceased shining and when all the stars up there have been extinguished, this light will continue to shine. This is the light that is the life-source for all things.
At first this light seems so far away – thousands of light years away - but as we focus on it we realise that it, that he, is closer to us than our very breathing.
And I urge you to be like the wise men; to have the courage to go out into the darkness and to look for the star; seek Jesus, the true light that came into the world; and when you see him, I beg you, for the sake of your eternal soul, welcome him, kneel down and offer him yourself.
In our fear, he offers peace
In our guilt and shame, he offers us forgiveness and a new start.
In our emptiness, he offers fullness
In our confusion, he offers focus and identity
In our meaninglessness he can bring purpose
In a world that offers us no hope, no future, he can offer us an eternal destiny
In a world of death, he alone can offer us life.
In our darkness, he really does offer light and joy.