BIBLE READINGS:††† Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 †††††John 1:6-8,19-28 †††††
"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters" (Genesis 1:1-3).
So begins the book of Genesis, with the story of God's creation of the universe out of nothing.
To the author of Genesis, the image of "the formless void" looked very different from anything you or I would imagine. Most of us, I suppose, picture "the void" as something very much like outer space - that black emptiness we can see on our TV screens when we see transmissions from space.
To the Hebrews, however, the eternal void before creation was a limitless ocean, dark and oily black - no sun or moon or light of any kind.
The Hebrews were not a seafaring people, and to them the ocean was the most horrific place imaginable. That's why the writer of Genesis, describes the void before creation as a dark eternity of ocean waves.
Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.
Into this formless watery place bursts a brilliant light, revealing the dark formless waters that had never before been exposed. That's how creation begins - with the light.
That's how it begins for the gospel-writer John as well:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1-5).
To John, the world of his day seemed as dark as the watery void before creation. Not dark in a literal sense - but spiritually. John saw the people of the earth as drifting aimlessly in the darkness, floating on the sickening swells of self-centred existence.
Then there comes "a man sent from God, whose name was John" - John the Baptist:
He came as a witness to testify to the light....The true light, that gives light to everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:7a,9).
That "true light" is Jesus Christ.
Light is comforting, life-giving. John, writing in the first century, didnít have the slightest idea of modern physics - yet it's amazing how relevant his image of light remains.
First of all, the scientists tell us that the speed of light is a constant in the universe; its speed does not vary (This is generally accepted Ė though there are some who argue differently). They say that if you were to fire a bullet from a moving car, the bullet would travel faster than if you were standing still. Yet if you shine a flashlight out of a moving car, the beam of light travels at exactly the same speed, whether you are speeding down the highway or standing in one place. You can't add the tiniest fragment of a second to the speed of light. Light is constant, unchanging.
So, too, is Jesus Christ. He is "the same yesterday, today and foreverÖ"(Hebrews 13:8). Nobody can increase the grace of God, we receive in Christ. No one has an inside track to salvation; the grace of God is freely available to all who turn to Christ - no matter what we've done or failed to do, no matter how late in life we may make the decision to welcome him into our heart.
Secondly, scientists tell us that light is never defined over against something else. Space and time can be compared to one another - and, in Einstein's theory, they may even influence one another - but light simply is.
So, too, God simply is. God was, when earth and heaven were a formless void. Without God - and without God's living word, Jesus Christ - "not one thing came into being." Thirteen hundred years before John wrote those words, God spoke to Moses out of a burning bush, saying, "I am I am" (Exodus 3:14).
Thirdly, one of the paradoxes of light is that we never see it as it truly is. We see it only reflected in other things. If you or I were to gaze directly at raw, unmediated light - to stare, for example, at the sun - the receptor cells on the back surface of our eyes would be permanently damaged. We would never see again.
So, too, there is an ancient tradition that God can never be seen directly. Moses was warned he couldnít look on the face of God and live - and so he hid in a cleft of the rock as God passed by (Exodus 33:17-23). When the prophet Elijah, racked with despair, needs a sign of God's presence, God dispatches an earthquake, wind and fire - but God is not in any of these powers of nature (1 Kings 19:11-12). And so the prophet wrapped his face in his mantle (so as not to be blinded by God's glory), and stepped cautiously out of his cave. He doesnít see a thing - but hears only "a sound of sheer silence" (or, "a still, small voice"
Just as we canít look directly at the sun, so too we canít gaze directly upon God. Our vision of the almighty is of God's reflected glory - in nature, in the scriptures, in other people.
In Jesus Christ though, we not only see reflected light - we see divine light embodied, incarnate. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," John says. Jesus Christ is the very light of God; in him "we have seen [God's] glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
No longer do we need to shield our eyes, fearing that God's glory may strike us blind; for in the manger at Bethlehem lies not some strike-you-dead God but a baby, as helpless and as human as any other. Shepherds, wise men and angels alike looked upon that innocent face, and went away knowing life in all its fullness.
Finally, light can also carry information. More and more of our telephone conversations are carried not by electrical signals along copper wire, but by beams of light flickering fibre optic cables.
The mathematical properties of light can be translated into language. And that is exactly what happens with Jesus Christ. John calls Christ logos - word. Not only does the Creator send light shining into the watery nothingness; God also speaks a word: "Let there be light!" And when the people are stumbling in spiritual darkness, God speaks another word - to a teenage girl named Mary: "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus" (Luke 1:31).
Now John, sitting there in the first century, doesn't know a thing about the physical properties of light - but he doesn't need to. Without ever opening a physics textbook, John knows that light is among the most important properties in all the universe.
Christmas and light are intertwined because Jesus is as vital to our lives as sun, moon and stars. In Advent, we light candles and look out - hopefully, expectantly - for signs of his coming. To the eye of faith, even the lesser lights of the season - the "city streetlights, even stoplights, blinking bright red and green" - point the way, suggesting the greater light.
This Advent, take time to see the light. Even the lesser lights can point the way to the greatest light of all, Jesus Christ - the light who is coming into the world.