A few weeks ago Becky and the kids and I went to celebrate both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family in Ohio. It’s something we do every year. And we have a tradition on the Friday after Thanksgiving of going to the Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo. It’s really a lot of fun. We still get to see most of the animals, but the grounds, which are also a botanical garden, are covered with Christmas lights, and Christmas music is playing throughout the zoo. They say there are over 2 million led lights in the display. I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into putting up all those lights. It really is spectacular. But this year, as I walked around the zoo with my kids and nieces, I was struck by the role that light plays in our celebration of Christmas. Light plays a more prominent role in our celebration of Christmas than any other holiday, doesn’t it?
We put lights up in our yards and lights on our houses. We put candles in our windows and more lights on our Christmas tree. We spend hours wrestling with knotted masses of Christmas lights that won’t work when we plug them in, and so we go down the line, checking each one of hundreds of bulbs one by one trying to make them work because we have to have light in our Christmas decorations. Many drive the city streets looking for the best light displays. In worship we light the advent candles, and in a few minutes we’ll all be holding candles in our candlelight service.
Although our celebration of the birth of Christ comes at a very dark time for us here in the northern hemisphere, we celebrate Christmas with light for another reason. We celebrate with light because we celebrate the coming of the one who would one day say of himself “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Now first, I want you to notice something about a word that Jesus chose to use here. He did not say “I am A light for the world.” He said “I am THE light of the world.” When he used the article “THE,” he was excluding any other possible source of light. In Ohio, we call that one university THE Ohio State University, and we emphasize the word “THE.” We do that to distinguish the university from all of the other universities in Ohio, and other universities that have the initials OSU, like Oklahoma State and Oregon State. If you watch primetime NFL football, when the starting lineups introduce themselves, former Ohio State players always emphasize the word THE when they say that they played at Ohio State. “A” leaves the door open for others. “THE” closes the door. Jesus said “I am THE light of the world.” There is no other light.
We live in a world with a lot of darkness. Shootings are becoming too numerous to count. Terrorists seem to be multiplying and thriving both here at home and around the world. Frightening, lethal diseases are cropping up for which we have no cure. Presidential debates seem to be highlighting the reality that people are searching, screaming for answers. And voices offering answers are plenty. “We need more gun control.” “No, gun control won’t help. We need better security.” “We need better mental health care.” “We need to deal decisively with ISIS.” “No, that will just anger radical Islam and create bigger problems.” Our search for answers, for light, has divided us into groups that are shouting at one another, trying to impose their will, their answer on the masses. The blind leading the blind.
Just for a moment, I want you to close your eyes and imagine that you are blind. Now, let’s complete a few basic tasks, like separating medications, using the right button on a microwave oven or knowing which side of the street to catch the bus. Think of all the questions you might have because you can’t see. Light illuminates. Light helps us to see. Jesus said “I am the light of the world.”
He goes on to say that those who follow him are the ones who will step out of the darkness and walk in the light. Many people today think that’s an arrogant statement. And it IS arrogant, unless it’s true. It is arrogant if we do what so many have done in the past: try to hoard the light, or control the light, or look down on those who are walking in darkness, and may not even know it. You see, if I walk around in the darkness long enough, my eyes will adjust, and I’ll find that I can sort of see. But my perspective is off, and things are distorted. Even when my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can’t see clearly. That’s what it’s like without the light of Christ. We may have some good ideas, some good answers, some good thoughts, but at best they’re shadows, distorted versions of what we can see in Christ. It is only in Christ that we can see clearly to navigate the personal and social challenges and obstacles that we face.
But Jesus goes farther than just saying that in him we walk in the light. He says that we ourselves BECOME the light. In Matthew 5 he says “YOU are the light of the world.” Now, we aren’t the light of the world without Christ. We aren’t the light of the world on our own. But we are made to receive and transmit the light of Christ. People have come up with all kinds of analogies for this. I can remember one that pictured Christ as the sun and us as the moon. Did you ever see that on those cheesy ‘90s Christians t-shirts? “Be like the moon, reflect the son.” With sun spelled s-o-n. I’ve gotta be honest. I’m kinda glad Christian t-shirts have gone away. The church can certainly stand to become less tacky. But beyond the tackiness, I don’t really think that analogy got it right.
You see, over and over again in the New Testament, St. Paul talks about Christ living in us, Christ living through us. His point is that as disciples of Jesus, he actually begins to inhabit us, to infuse his life into us. He uses the analogy of being formed into the image of Christ. He isn’t saying that we become Christ or are somehow enveloped into some weird mystical universal oneness in Christ. He IS saying that as we follow Christ, over time, his light shines more clearly through us.
I think better analogy is to think of ourselves as lamps. By ourselves, without a source of light, we sit in darkness. We’re useless. But we weren’t made to just sit there in the darkness. Like this lamp we were made to light up a space. Christ is the bulb. He is the light. Paul actually uses the phrase “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We don’t become Christ. Without Christ I’m just a dumb lamp, collecting dust and taking up space. But with Christ in me, I become what he has intended me to become … a lamp transmitting his light. My job isn’t to shine. My job is simply to stay connected to the bulb. Lamps themselves come in many shapes and sizes, and are put to many different uses. Some light up a great space. Others provide a little light in the darkness. But the light is the same in all.
What is the first thing most of us put on our Christmas tree? The lights, right? I would guess that we all use light in our Christmas decorating in some way. There’s a reason for that. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the one who IS the light. What he’s looking for, are the lamps.