If asked for my favourite passage in the Bible I would be torn between Philippians 2:5-11 and these opening verses of John’s gospel. I lik-e the language, the play on words and the fact that it states the light shone in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it/cannot extinguish it/has never put it out/did not comprehend it. The last translation is from the New King James Bible and links with what is said later about the world not recognising the light and that he was not welcomed among his own people. It is the fact that the light could not and cannot be extinguished or overcome that stands out.
In this dark time of year, both seasonally and because of Covid, it is an important message. Yes we have the hope of a vaccine being rolled out, but let’s be honest, normality is still months away and we are not sure how immune people will be yet. We hope it will work, but our ultimate hope in the face of the sin of the world that leads us into dark places, is the light of Christ. The light of Christ has shone through the centuries and to pinch from Paul in Romans,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution
or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Or Covid 19?
The light has not been put out. We have all found this to be an extremely testing time, but the light of Christ still shines and we proclaim it at Christmas.
As John opens his gospel, he points out that for the Christian everything is centred on God: God was before all things. His opening words remind us of the opening words of Genesis, ‘ In the beginning, God…’ What is more, the Word whom John identifies as Jesus, was there at the beginning of all time with the Father. John is making the important point that Jesus was and is eternal. He wasn’t a created being before the world was brought into being. He wasn’t adopted as the Son at his baptism. Jesus was always present with the Father, from eternity. The Father and the Son were and are one and so the world was brought into being through the Son – ‘without him nothing was made that has been made.’ So John takes us back to the creative work of God, where everything begins.
The writer of Genesis made a proclamation concerning the decisive act of God in bringing the world into existence and bringing its creatures into existence. If the inspiration for Genesis came during the period of the Babylonian exile, then what is said here is hugely significant, because it is asserting the uniqueness of God in creation over and against the prevailing mythical understanding and dominant culture. It is standing against the culture that taunted the Israelites concerning their ‘chosenness’ and the uniqueness of YHWH. It is challenging the prevailing worldview and the defeatism of the people of Israel who couldn’t fathom why God had allowed their defeat and exile. The Babylonians were declaring that their gods were stronger – this is a very contemporary situation. How often do we hear that we no longer need the old religious views and traditions – except perhaps to provide some sort of cultural anchor and make Christmas Christmassy. That is all faith is there for and in the real world it can be discarded.
However, the so called ‘real world’ drifts anchor-less and groundless as it increasingly seeks to be free of restraint in the name of diversity, choice and individualism. As the world has ever sought do, so 21st Century people still seek to be in control of their own ships,and as a result, reject the Son of God and replicate the sin of Adam and Eve. When crisis hits there is no firm foundation on which to stand and our mortality looms large. If we reject any concept of God and life after death, then the world becomes purposeless, an accident in space rather than the creation of God who shows his love and commitment by coming in Jesus. If we reject God there is no light in the darkness.
In the creative act, God brings order out of chaos. This is reflected in the structure of Genesis 1: there is time, command, enactment, evaluation, and then time. The emergence of the world progresses in order, light dispels the darkness and the water – the source of chaos and fear – is put in its place and contained. In fact all things have their place and there is a sense of purpose in what is happening. This is not random but the design and purpose of the God who brought it all into being. Jesus was there through it all, says John. More than that, the source of life was and is in him and this source provides light to the human race.
The light shining in the darkness, and this is also an allusion to Genesis 1 in which the creation of light banishes the darkness; in fact darkness cannot do anything else but fade away in the light. This of course was illustrated in the ministry of Jesus when he came up against opposition and time and again the teachers of the law failed to get the better of him. It was illustrated as he overcame the effects of sin in a fallen world – whether it was encountering sickness, demons or those who were outcast. Ultimately it was illustrated by Jesus’ resurrection and the explosion of the church into the world. Even today, in the western world, the light of Christ has not been extinguished in spite of our increasing rejection of him; in spite of not understanding or comprehending his mission; in spite of the increasing secularism of our age. In other parts of the world Christ’s light is growing brighter.
The conflict between light and darkness is picked up in John 3:19-21 and is linked to rejecting Jesus as the Son of God.
This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
The tension between light and darkness is a metaphor that resonates down through the centuries. The link with good and evil had been made in so many situations. The fear associated with darkness is seen in the child who is afraid when the light goes out but comforted when the night light comes on; or the adult who will not walk down a dark street, but feels much happier where there are street lights and all can be seen. The clear message of the gospel is that Jesus has come to banish that darkness and fear in people’s lives – but it comes through accepting him and believing in him as the Son of God, the Saviour. This is underlined in John 8:12 where Jesus says,
‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have
the light of life.’
Again it is linked to following Jesus, accepting who he is and what he has done in coming into the world.
John the Baptist’s role in all of this was to point to the light of Christ, to bear witness to him so that others might believe. Of course not everyone did or does believe. The point is made that Jesus, through whom the world was made was not recognised. Jesus was rejected by his own people – which can mean the people of his home town who sought to throw him off a cliff; or the people of Israel who colluded with the imperial authorities and had him crucified. In 3:19 the rejection of Jesus is said to be caused by the fact that people loved darkness, because their deeds were evil.
There are echoes here of the Garden of Eden: because of the choices made by Adam and Eve they seek the shadows so as not to be seen. To be fair to them, they were aware of the fact that they had done what was wrong in the sight of God and felt the need to hide. But in reaching out for the fruit, they rejected the rule of God, and so arises the need for redemption. This redemption came and comes through the Word of God made flesh. In becoming human says John, he made his dwelling among us. Jewish readers would have read the word dwelling and quite possibly thought of the tent of meeting, the tabernacle of the wilderness wandering of Israel. The word translated ‘dwelling’ means ‘pitched a tent’, just as God ‘pitched a tent’ in the wandering community of Israel. The point being made is that just as God lived among the people then, he has come to live among them now. The difference is that in his grace and mercy his tent is human form.
In his grace and mercy God doesn’t need to be approached through a mediator, but each person can approach him directly. Sometimes though, we need the help of a mediator to bring us to Jesus. We struggle to understand; we have lost our way; we feel we are unworthy; obstacles have got in the way and we need help clearing them. Our role as believers is to be those mediators. But we can also be like Bartimaeus and call out directly to Jesus and he will receive us. John was a mediator, pointing to Jesus, the one whose sandals he was too unworthy to untie. He also recognised that once he had pointed to Jesus, he needed to fade into the background so that people could meet him fully for themselves.
In v.12 John says that if we come believing in his name, this gives us the right to be children of God. It involves accepting the teaching and revelation of God – which is why I have emphasised the importance of reading and being familiar with the gospels. Where else are you going to learn about Jesus? In this verse about receiving Jesus, there is anticipation of those who in the unfolding gospel will believe in him, and those won’t. Those who will actively follow him and those who will actively oppose. This has always been so. However, the invitation of Jesus the incarnate Word of God; the one who was there before all things and through whom all things were brought into being is this:
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my
yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find
rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’
John chapter 1 is read at Christmas because after we have heard the familiar accounts, which perhaps get lost in the re-telling and familiarity, we have the statement of purpose: the light has come into the world to banish the darkness of sin. The Word has become flesh to bring grace and mercy. All who receive him and believe in his name will become children of God.