It’s almost Christmas, and as we start off the final month of the year, I’d like to ask us a question;
QOD; What do you love most about the Christmas season?
How many people said the food? You get to eat either certain types of food, or certain portions of that food that you would not normally do. How many said hanging with family and friends? How many were less spiritual and more pragmatic and mentioned the fact that offices are closed and you can get a few days away from work? How many were even more practical and said less traffic on the roads? You’re like, “Why can’t people just stay in shags and clear up our roads?” When the songwriter said that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, they really weren’t joking. There are so many things that make it very memorable.
An interesting phenomenon I have observed about Christmas is that it is also a time of selective amnesia. It is a season when we chose to conveniently forget the resolutions we made at the beginning of the year. We planned to lose five kilos, but when you step on the scale in December, you have an additional three. But somehow that doesn’t stop you from eating all the nyama choma you can find. You had planned to save as much as you possibly can, but as the year winds down, not only have you not met your goals, you have now been tempted by a Bonfire Adventures ad for a holiday to the Coast you know will leave you even broke next January than you were when you started out. Christmas is a season when gyms are emptying. Church attendance is thinning. Bank balances are disappearing, and all the wonderful things we planned for the year are, if even for a season, forgotten. In the words of the popular Kenyan poet and philosopher, “Tunaweka shida chini, tunatupa mikono juu, kisha tuna ba ba banjuka tu”.
It’s a season when many people want to numb themselves, and anaesthetise themselves from the issues of life – drown their sorrows as it were. Maybe it’s been a long year, there are unmet expectations, dashed hopes and unfulfilled promises. This is a season we try to forget that there are problems we cannot solve, deadlines we may never meet, people we may never see again, and relationships we may never resurrect. So the question we ask, as we head into Christmas is this, how are we to approach this season?
Today we start a new series titled THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING. Through the series we look at different narratives told throughout the season of Jesus’ birth, and try to understand what impact, if any they have on us. As we do so, we discover one simple event that has the potential to change everything about us – an event where God sent His son into the world to become the center of history. If you grew up in church you may know that at the beginning of the New Testament there are four gospels. There’s Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and they all contain different accounts of Jesus’ life. Matthew, Mark and Luke have fairly similar accounts, but John’s is very different. A couple of things are fascinating about John’s account.
Firstly, unlike some of the others, John does not start with the birth of Jesus. This is curious since when Jesus was crucified, and as he was dying, he says to a much younger John, “John, I want you to take Mary, my mother as your mother, and Mary, I want you to view John as your son.” We don’t know how much time John and Mary spent together. There are those who say they left and eventually went to a city called Ephesus, and he took care of her until she died. As a result, John must have heard the birth narrative over and over. Yet he never mentions it.
A second reason it is fascinating is because by the time that John was writing his account, he was a very old man. As a result, his account was actually written last. When John sat down to write his gospel, he may have been thinking, “I better write this down because I don’t have a lot of time left, and I want to make sure these stories are passed on for future generations”. At his age, he had probably told these stories dozens of times before to many Jesus admirers. Imagine if you are somebody who sat at the feet of Jesus, how popular you would be with Christians. Anywhere John went, Christians would say, “Tell us what it was like? We’ve heard the stories, but you were an eyewitness.” So, we know he’s told these stories many times.
In addition, John’s advanced age meant he had lived through numerous world events, and had experienced loss like you cannot imagine. He’s lost friends. He’s lost family members. In some ways, he’s almost lost his whole society and his whole culture. You see John was alive when Roman Emperor Nero went from town to town, slaughtering thousands of Jewish people, and sending tens of thousands of men, women and children into the slave markets. John lived through that. John was around the city of Jerusalem when, for seven months people starved to death, plagues broke out and the Roman army built a ditch and a wall all the way around the city, trying to get inside and ransack it. In 70 AD there was a Jewish war, and the temple was burnt to the ground. John was there. Over a million Jews were slaughtered. Over 100,000, slaves were taken from the city of Jerusalem and flooded the Roman slave markets. By the time John was writing this, Nero had executed his friends and co-workers Peter and Paul. And through all of that bloodshed, and through all of that loss, and through all of that chaos, even though he lived in a time of such darkness, John never lost faith.
In spite of what John had seen, in spite of what John had smelled, in spite of what John had experienced at the end of his life with the destruction of everything important to him, and the loss of just about everyone important to him John still believed that the entry of Jesus onto the scene, even as a toddler, would change everything. So when he begins his gospel he doesn’t begin with the birth narrative. If anybody had had the opportunity to say, “Mary tell me what it was like one more time. Mary what was it like when you discovered you were pregnant? Mary what did you feel when the angel appeared? Mary what was it like to know that you bore the Son of God?” When John begins his gospel he doesn’t begin with a manger, he doesn’t begin with Egypt, he doesn’t begin with Herod and the slaughter of children, little boys in Bethlehem, he begins with the significance of the birth of Jesus. This is how John chooses to start his narrative, here are the first five verses of his Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
(And then what he says next is fascinating, especially if you consider how much death this old man has witnessed, and how much darkness he had experienced in his own life since he met Jesus.)
4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
He starts with In the beginning.. ladies and gentlemen this is profound because it is a connection point between the old testament and the new testament. He ties in the coming of Jesus with the works of God in the beginning. He places Jesus at the centre of everything. He takes away the mortal perspective and makes him immortal. He makes him no longer just a miracle son of a virgin but the son of God long before creation and present during creation. In the beginning was the word.
When John wrote this, he had lived through some very dark days. It would have been understandable if all the sorrow and madness he had experienced through the years to kill his spirit. All the death this old man had witnessed especially because much of it was caused by Jesus Christ. But as on old man who ‘s seen so much loss, he speaks of the entry of Jesus using words such as ‘light’ and ‘life’.
As we come to the close of the year and closer to the Christmas season, I don’t know what this past season of your life could have been like. I wonder, if like John, you too have experienced and lived through seasons of darkness; times of when uncertainty and doubt slowly begin to invade your space. I wonder if 2016 threw some serious curve balls your way and in some ways left you disappointed. I wonder if all your loved ones made it through the year healthy and strong. I wonder if in 2016 you have experienced the darkness of the world.
Even though this old man, who had seen better days, sits down to write the narrative, he begins his Jesus’ story this way – “In him (Jesus), was life.” John is trying to put into words his life experiences and perspectives into words – he’s had all this time to think about it, the things he’s seen, the people he’s seen born and died, the destruction of everything that was important to him, and yet he summarizes it this way, “When I think about Jesus the best way I know to put it is, in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.”
It’s amazing that this is John’s introduction, and he starts it by saying, “Jesus is the light, and this light always shines in the darkness”. At this moment John thinks about the unimaginable darkness he has lived through and he says, “In spite of everything that’s happened, everyone who’s died, everyone who was executed, everyone who was crucified, everyone that was taken away; in spite of the fact that the whole Jewish nation is basically out of business at this point, in spite of the fact that the temple, the sacrificial system is out of business and never to be restarted, in spite of the fact that everything I’ve grown to know and love is gone. In spite of that, this light shines in the darkness. And he goes on to say, “And the darkness has not overcome it”.
It’s easy to understand what it means for light to shine and expose what was in the darkness, but it sounds as though this darkness is trying as hard as it can to put out the light. To snuff it out, to overwhelm it, to seize it, to imprison it, to surround it. Yet “the darkness has not overcome it.” This is a man who got news that the Apostle Paul had been executed. That Peter has been executed. Perhaps he was the last Apostle alive. And with a grin on his face, I’m sure he wrote, “In spite of everything this world has tried to do to eradicate the light that is life, the darkness has not overwhelmed it.” It has not put it out. Cesar couldn’t do it. Tiberius couldn’t do it. Nero couldn’t do it. The destruction of the temple didn’t do it. Even the death of Jesus himself hadn’t done it.
This was John who raced to the tomb the day that he had heard Jesus had risen from the dead. The John that peered into that empty tomb. Yet here he was, absolutely convinced that no matter what happens in this life, and that no matter what we face in this life, and that no matter how deep the heartache and no matter how extreme the fear and no matter how deep the depression, that there is a light that shines in darkness and there is no amount or type of darkness that can put it out.
As we come to the Christmas season, and the end of the year, what darkness has 2016 thrown your way? What impossible situations have you faced this year? Is it the bitter disappointment of goals you had set but not accomplished?
To pursue a certain academic course. To settle down and get married. To get a child. To get a job, or start a successful venture, or take your business to the next level? Maybe the darkness that has surrounded you is disease, maybe yours, or that of a loved one. Maybe it’s estrangement, or broken relationships or a lost job. Maybe even death in the family. In what ways has darkness tried to put out your light this year? How has the darkness conspired to snuff out and overwhelm the light of Christ that shines in and around you?
As Christmas approaches, maybe we need to approach the birth of Christ the same way that John approached it. With a great sense that the reason Jesus came, the reason he was born amongst us is simply this – to change everything! It was so that even in the midst of what seems like the deepest darkness, that Jesus is life, and Jesus is the light who overcomes darkness.
Today the world seeks to see this light. And maybe in the thickness of the darkness the light has seemed dim. In the thickness of the darkness we lost focus of the light. That light is shared with all who accept it. That light is available to all who seek it and the world is longing today to see that light.
The Scriptures say in Romans 8:19 that creation is yearning for the revelation of the true sons of God, the revelation of the carriers of this light.
As we enter into 2017 which I pray you are already seeking God for, As a born again believer ask God to renew his light in you because it is he who said a light is not hidden under the bed. Too many believer have hidden their light under the bed. It is time to bring it out and let that light shine in the darkness. The thick darkness around us can be dispelled by the light. Let that light shine. For those that have not taken in this light it is time to embrace this light. The light that warms with love, the light that reassures with hope, the light that spreads kindness, patience, love. But most of all the light that dispels the darkness.
It is time to embrace this light while he may still be found and begin a journey of impact and purpose. The realization of who this light is and the fullness of his power changes everything.
John knew something that I suspect he would love to pass on to each of us today – what makes Christmas the most wonderful time of the year is not necessarily what’s happening, but what happened when your heavenly Father and mine sent his son into this world. Because in Him, “In Him,” John says, “was the light of all mankind. And that light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Not then, not now. And not ever. And that, ladies and gentlemen, changes everything.