“Light Dispels Darkness”
December 8, 2019
We walk in all kinds of darkness; Jesus brings us one true light.
I. The true light shines in the darkness (John 1:4-5))
II. The true like dispels the darkness of self deception (John 1:9-13))
III. The true light dispels the darkness of sin's attraction (John 3:16-21))
IV. The true light dispels the darkness of a broken world (Isaiah 9:1-7))
V. The true light does not allow believers to remain in darkness (John 12:44-46)
What was the longest night of your life? I’ve had several long nights in the course of my life, but the one I remember most vividly was more than fifty years ago. It was when I was in Boy Scouts, before I became a Christian. It was on a camping trip, I can’t remember where. One thing I remember clearly is that it was cold and it had been raining. We’d had a campfire. We’d gone to bed. I think my sleeping bag must have been wet. I’m sure I slept for a while, but it wasn’t long before I woke up, cold and miserable. And I could not get comfortable no matter how tight I curled up, and I could not get back to sleep.
At some point I got up, hoping morning was near. But when I crept out to the stone-cold campfire, there was no light of dawn in the sky. It was as dark as I can remember. Invisible dark clouds blocking the whole of the sky, so dark that the silhouettes of the tall surrounding trees could not even be seen, so dark that I could still see the slightest trace of deep red coal light in the fire pit, though the ashes gave off no perceptible heat. You have to realize too that in 1967 nobody had a phone and not everybody had a watch. I had no idea what time it was and no idea when dawn was. At one point I remember being so deeply cold that I crawled back into my sleeping bag. But I still couldn’t get to sleep, and before long I found myself out by the fire pit again, the stone seat draining the remaining heat from my body, and my eyes aching, aching to see something, anything, some hint of dawn through the darkness.
At those times – and it’s not the only time this has happened to me – your eyes begin to play tricks on you. You stare so hard at the horizon you start imagining light, imagining just the slightest tinge of grey in the surrounding blackness, and you hope you’re facing east. But then it seems to disappear again, and your despair wells up and you think again that this miserable night, this miserable darkness will never end. You think bad thoughts of the others and the leaders of your troop, all making sleep work for them. You wonder if you’re broken, that everyone else seems so happy and self assured, and you’re so miserable. And you’re ashamed of yourself, ashamed of your thoughts, ashamed of things you’ve done, convinced there is nothing and no one in the world for you. And still the darkness presses and oppresses, still your eyes strain, still the cold drains. Then, when hope seems lost, one of those dim illusions of greyness begins to show some staying power. You begin to think that just maybe that line is the line of the horizon. And those lines are the trunks of trees. Maybe, just maybe this is the dawn, the real thing.
This morning we are looking at one of the most beautiful of all Christmas themes, one of the great words of Good News. We’re looking at light, the word light and the thematic import of light in the Christmas Scriptures and the Gospel of John. And light is always a contrast to darkness. You don’t appreciate the light until you know how dark the dark has been. It’s a key metaphor in Scripture, pointing us to hard realities and deep needs in our own lives. What we’ll find is that while we walk in all kinds of darkness, Jesus brings us one true light.
My premise is that we do walk in all kinds of darkness. If I did my job right with that opening illustration, you found yourself not only sympathizing with the discomfort of that younger Bob DeGray, but also comparing that situation to situations you’ve been in. Furthermore, you may have thought of situations that feel like darkness without actually being dark. The big one is depression. Just this week I was reading a biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright, and the author talked about the years of darkness, of depression that their sister Kathleen endured after the death of Wilbur when he was only 42. Depression feels like darkness, and it may be a darkness you’re in, or have been in.
But other things feel like darkness too. Not just depression but oppression. External forces and circumstances. Maybe it’s a family situation, a relational situation, a sense of futility, a lack of opportunity. Some of the things going on in our culture, things that are blatantly anti-God or things are harmful and hurtful to all kinds of people, to innocent children, that’s darkness. Spiritual oppression, where the enemy’s forces work to narrow your vision, distort your thinking and block out the light. On another level, much of our darkness is brought by our own choices. We can be self-absorbed, or self-deceived, refusing to see the true light, remaining in the darkness of sin, selfishness and self-destructive behavior. But in all these kinds of darkness Jesus is the one true light.
We begin where we left off last week. Our key verses are John 1:4-5, but I’m going to read last week’s verses too. John 1:1-5 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John’s gospel unpacks the contrast between light and darkness more fully than any other book of the Bible, though many, many books allude to this contrast in some way. Here he contends that this word, who was in the beginning, who was God, who created all thing and who is the source of life also gives light to human people. The implication is that people are in darkness, and in fact verse 5 says that this light is shining in darkness.
So our key verse teaches us three key things. First that the Word who was God brings light. Jesus, God the Son, brings life and light to all humankind. But, second this light is given to those in darkness. People need this light because however we unpack the metaphor it’s clear that light is good and darkness is bad and the status quo of humanity was and in many ways is darkness. We were in darkness, we needed light. Third, the light given by Jesus to us, has not been overcome or comprehended. Light by nature dispels darkness. Darkness by nature cannot dispel light. No matter how powerful the darkness is in and of itself, the smallest light overcomes it. Jesus is that light, the light of the world.
But the New American Standard Version, along with the New International Version and the old King James translate the word as comprehend, as in understanding the light, grasping what it meant. This is another legitimate sense of the word, that the forces of darkness, and even people who remain caught in darkness do so because they do not grasp the meaning of the light that has come. We’ll see both implications in our verses in John. The New English Translation aims at both nuances by using the word ‘mastered.’ Their note says “To seize” or “to grasp” is possible, but this also permits “to grasp with the mind” in the sense of “to comprehend.” In the same way “to master” may be used in both contexts, as “he mastered his lesson” and “he mastered his opponent.”
So we begin with this simple contrast between light and darkness, but with the understanding from the get-go that light dispels darkness, that light overcomes and masters darkness, and that darkness doesn’t get what the light is all about. Let’s look at a few of the other places where John teases out the implications of light and darkness, unpacks this metaphor and this imagery and shows how the darkness we experience can be dispelled by the one true light.
A few verses down, John 1:9 we read The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
John emphasizes that Jesus is the true light. The word means 'real' or 'genuine'. John applies it to light, but also true worshippers, the true bread from heaven, the true vine, and even the true God. Others may claim to be these things, but Jesus is the real deal. The word also implies “ultimate” or “final.” The contrast isn’t only with what is false but what is earlier and partial in God's revelation. Any reader of the Old Testament can see that God gives light, but the Word who became flesh is the light, the genuine and ultimate self-disclosure of God.
'Coming into the world' or being sent into the world is used of Jesus repeatedly in John’s Gospel to point to the Son, the Word. We’ll see it again in a moment in John chapter 3. In this verse it is the Word, the light, that is coming into the world, in some act distinct from creation. As Don Carson says “Few could read the Fourth Gospel over again without recognizing that the coming of the Word into the world, described in the Prologue, is nothing other than the sending of the Son into the world, described in the rest of the book.”
In coming into the world the true light has invaded the created order he himself made. But because of the fall of man into sin, the world is not a positive or even neutral place, but a place set against God. The light is on a rescue mission into the darkness. Later when John tells us that God so loved the world, this love is to be admired not because the world is so good but because it’s so bad and he loves it anyway. The true light comes to the dark world and “gives light to every man.” John is not saying that every person receives the light, but that everyone sees the light and must then make a choice between the light that has come in Jesus and the darkness in which he or she has been dwelling. As Carson says, this is “the invasion of the 'true light'. It shines on every man, and divides the race.” That’s what we see in the next verses.
Verse 10 “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” The light has come, but the world, which he created and called good, is now so broken and marred it will not recognize the dawn in his coming. Verse 11: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” The Word came to his own place, in brilliant personal self-disclosure, but his own people did not receive him. This points especially at the Jewish nation, which as a whole rejected him in an act of willful ignorance. The light that their own prophets had spoken of had come, but they were so much into their darkness that they turned away from the light, and would not receive it. In one sense that rejection and willful misunderstanding of Jesus is the story of this whole Gospel, right up to the resurrection. “You search the Scriptures,” Jesus once told them, “because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Out of self-absorption or fear or pride they covered their eyes, refusing to see the light and life of Jesus shining in their faces.
But are we, our culture, any more receptive than they were? Many of our scholars, for hundreds of years, have specialized in casting doubt and darkness on the plain revelation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In recent years this has become so extreme that, no longer even recognizing Jesus as a good moral teacher, huge parts of academia label him a patriarchal menace.
This cultural preference for ignorance of the true light wears off on us and wears us down. A retreat into darkness disguised as ordinary doubt carries thousands off every year who have grown up in the church and under the Word. Paul says that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” In this eye covering blindness, many of us reject the light that is right in front of us.
But verses 12 and 13 revise this picture of wholesale rejection. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” You don’t have to stay in darkness. The response God desires is that you and I receive Jesus, believing in his name. To receive him is to turn in faith toward his saving work. It is to turn to light from the darkness of disbelief and to trust him for new life. To those who thus believe he gives the right, or privilege of becoming children of God. This phrase briefly transports us from the imagery of light and darkness to the realm of relationship, family. God’s goal and our reward in this sending of his only Son was to make us sons and daughters by faith. We are adopted sons and daughters, children not born into this eternal family by genetics and bloodline, not by human merit or aptitude, but by the will and the work of God.
All this is sharpened in a most famous section of this Gospel, John 3:16-21, which emphasizes the darkness of sin’s attraction. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Here it is not the Word or even the light that has come into the world, but the Son, God’s only begotten son, his unique Son. Everyone who believes in him does not perish but receives the gift of eternal life. Faith alone divides the human race. Whoever believes is not condemned, but is saved through him. Whoever does not believe is already condemned because they have not believed in the only Son of God. The emphasis on believing as the way of salvation dominates John’s Gospel, seen some 85 times across 20 chapters. We are saved by faith, and no work or merit is required in this Gospel or in our salvation
But on a human level this faith is a personal choice, and many choose to remain in the darkness because of a preference for our own sin and selfishness. Verse 19 “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Two things are true: (1) that the world is dark and broken. It oppresses and depresses us, pushing us away from the light; and (2) we ourselves embrace that darkness, we love it because in the dark we can hide, even from ourselves, the evil of our thoughts, words and deeds. Verse 20 “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” This is fallen human nature. We don’t want to be shamed. We don’t want our guilt to be revealed. We lie, justify, blameshift and run away to avoid taking the responsibility and experiencing the shame of our own sin, our own wicked thoughts, words and deeds. If you are in darkness today, it may be due to circumstances or external realities. But don’t discount the possibility that you are fleeing the light. Verse 21 “Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” God may be calling you today to flee the darkness into the light that dispels our willful ignorance and the darkness of sin’s attraction.
But the light also lightens the burden of a broken and evil world. Leaving the Gospel of John for a moment, we’ll celebrate this in the wonderful Christmas passage of Isaiah 9. But I want to start in Isaiah 8 to establish the contrast. Isaiah 8 is talking about those who falsely represent the truth of God. Verse 20 To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. 21They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. 22And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. Those who reject the light, those who shake their fists at God experience only distress and darkness, gloom and anguish. Furthermore, they inflict distress and darkness, gloom and anguish on those around them.
But, Isaiah 9, there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. 3You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. 4For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
This is such a beautiful prophecy, assuring us that even in a world lost in gloom, light dawns. Even in Galilee, where the oppression of the fist-shakers may have been focused, there will be light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah celebrates the restoration of the land, and by extension the restoration of the whole broken world. Oppression has been lifted. Light has shown. Harvest has come. People rejoice. And how has this happened? True light has come into the world through a child born to us, a son given to us, one who will rule and reign in justice and righteousness on the throne of David. Of the increase of his peace there will be no end. This is Jesus, the light of the world, its wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father and prince of Peace. This is God’s big idea. God with us in this child, and it is his own zeal, his sovereign energy and desire which will accomplish this.
So the metaphor of light and darkness applies not only to us but to the world. The mission of Jesus is not only to rescue us from the darkness of depression, self focus, oppression and sin, but to rescue the whole world from the evil effects of the fall, the brokenness and injustice and pain and tragedy that came with sin into a perfect world and distorted it almost beyond recognition.
The story I began with does not, of course, end with the faint hope of dawn, the possibly illusory straining vision of a horizon line or a tree trunk. Dawn has never failed yet. Light promised is light that comes. So even that night, cold and miserable had to come to an end, and I watch the light appear. Slowly, to be sure, with imperceptible growth from moment to moment. Yet a moment came when the darkness was clearly not absolute, when the landscape was grey, not black. And a moment came when the horizon had color, red instead of grey. And a moment when leaves were ever so slightly green. And a moment when the clouds revealed themselves broken at the horizon, and the promise of sun shown there. And a moment came when that blaze of sun touched the tops of the trees overhead. Finally, the moment came when the light reached my still shivering but now awestruck figure, and darkness became a memory. Light dispelled it and became the reality I’d longed for.
This is what Jesus promises. The light will not fail. No matter how deep the darkness we walk in, whether through tragedy or tragic self-deception, there is a moment when, by faith, Jesus pours out light. This is his promise, and I close with it. John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And John 12:44-46 Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.
Jesus says to you and to me today “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” This is the good news of Christmas. This light is for you and for me. We need not remain in darkness.