Eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah foretold His coming with these words: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
When considering this passage, Martin Luther, the great reformer, said that darkness here refers to evil, unrighteousness, false notions about God’s Law, errors rooted in relying on human wisdom rather than God’s wisdom, and religion that wrongly believed that we can be saved by being good or doing good.
By that measure, the world is still a dark place. There are still people who ignore God’s command that we love Him and our neighbor and instead, treat others with disrespect or violence...still people who don’t understand that we are saved from sin, death, and pointless living only by faith in the Child Whose birth we celebrate tonight...still people who live in the darkness of unbelief because Christians have not obeyed the risen Jesus’ great commission to make disciples.
But Isaiah prophesied exactly what has happened through Jesus. Though we live in a world covered in darkness, we have seen a great light, the light of God has dawned on this world, bringing a new day.
Luther says that the light Isaiah is talking about here is two things.
First, the light is the Gospel, the good news that, in Jesus’ words spoken to a Jewish teacher Nicodemus in the darkness of a Judean night: “...God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]
God has pierced our darkness with His Son and offered life to all who will surrender to Him. Jesus comes to us as the Light of the world.
In Him, we can see God clearly despite the darkness that so often engulfs our souls and this world.
In Him, we can see our sin and God’s willingness to forgive the repentant.
In Him, we see that God is good and loving, that He wants to be reconciled with us for all eternity in spite of our sin.
For some, the offer of the Gospel isn’t enough to incite surrender to God or belief in Christ. They rebel at the thought of a life with God under Christ’s lordship.
In fact, that’s the inborn inclination of everyone here tonight, including, I can assure you, me.
Like our ancestors, Adam and Eve, we want to “be like God.” But, here’s the deal: When we human beings live out our desire to be like God, we can only plunge ourselves and the world we touch into darkness, absolute, dead, eternal separation from God.
And, let's be honest, part of us loves the darkness. I know many people who want enough of Jesus to be saved from death, but not so much of Jesus that they’re forced to make any lifestyle changes. They want to keep most of their lives in darkness, off-limits to Jesus and His Lordship.
If you’re doing that, please take it from someone who's been there, know that, no matter how well you may be fooling yourself, you’re not fooling the risen and living Jesus one bit!
He knows all about our love of darkness. He also tells Nicodemus in John 3:17-19: “...God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
Jesus, the true Light of Christmas, is the Gospel, the good news of new life for all who turn from darkness and entrust their lives to Him.
The second thing that the light in our passage from Isaiah is, Luther says: the Holy Spirit.
The news from throughout our world this past week has been dark: the unchallenged Russian/Syrian slaughter of civilians has brought about the devastation of Aleppo; an ISIS-related terrorist drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing twelve and injuring 48; the Russian ambassador to Turkey was gunned down at an art exhibit.
Absent the power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of believers, Christians would seem foolish for trusting that Christ will have the final say about this world, that evil will one day be destroyed, that death will be swallowed up by God.
But let me tell you something: We are not foolish for trusting in Christ! Hundreds of Jesus' first followers--disciples--risked their lives, with nothing to be gained in this world, to tell the world the truth that Jesus rose from death, conquering sin and death.
Today, the Holy Spirit, Who comes to us in our Baptism and reminds us through the Word of God, the sacraments, the fellowship of the Church, and the stubborn commitment of Christians to love and care for their neighbor in spite of everything, the Holy Spirit assures us, reminds us, and connects us to God so that we can believe, we can know, that Jesus has conquered sin, death, disease, and human savagery.
Through the Holy Spirit, God gives us the power to believe the promise of the risen Jesus: “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)
Through the Holy Spirit, we can trust in Jesus and know, with the apostle Paul that “...we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)
And because of the Holy Spirit’s witness to Jesus destroying the power of sin and death on the cross, we can share in the faith confessed by Job, that Old Testament figure who lost all of his children and property and then was afflicted by disease: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God…” (Job 19:25-26)
There’s a lot of unbiblical nonsense associated with Christmas. There's also much romanticization of the baby Jesus. Look, babies are wonderful. Their lives are precious. Every human being is sacred in the eyes of God and should be in the eyes of the world.
But it was for far more than the birth of another baby that the angels celebrated and praised God on the night of Jesus’ birth, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
Of all the things Christmas is, cute isn't one of them!
Christmas, in fact, was God’s D-Day assault on this sin-imprisoned universe. Just as Europe in the 30s to mid-1940s was imprisoned by evil, so this entire world in which we live is imprisoned by the darkness of the devil and our own sinfulness. Christmas was God’s light piercing our darkness!
The baby Jesus grew to be a Man--true God and true Man--Who would face down temptation and sin to fight for the eternal lives of every person in this sanctuary, every person who has ever lived on this planet, to fight for you, so that by His death and resurrection, He could usher all who believe in Him into the pure, dazzling daylight of God and His everlasting kingdom!
Despite the obstacles presented by this world--a census, Roman rule, a jealous Jewish king and selfish religious authorities--Jesus was, miraculously, born in Bethlehem.
I can imagine the devil writhing in agony on the night of the birth. Even though He would fight Jesus all through His earthly life and fights Jesus and His people to this day, the devil had to know on the first Christmas, just as perceptive Germans knew on D-Day, 1944, that the jig was up.
This baby was God’s foothold in this world, God's beachhead among a people He intended to save.
Christmas was the beginning of a war which God would go on to win on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
The Light of the world has come to us through the Gospel--the good news of everlasting life with God for all who believe in Jesus--and the witness of the Holy Spirit.
That leaves us with the most important question of Christmas.
Not “What should I buy for so-and-so?” “Can I prevent Uncle Louie from talking politics?” or “Can I take this back?”
This is the question with which Christmas presents us: “Do I prefer the darkness of the light? Will I welcome Him as my God and King or live in darkness?"
Each day, choose the Light.
Choose Jesus Christ.
That’s the Christmas gift God wants to give you today and always.
Take it; it’s free. You won’t regret it.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]