PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: A Christmas essay: What the world needs now DECEMBER 11, 2019 BY ERIC REED
Tourists packing into the tiny mausoleum at Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy must be disappointed at first. Billed as the most spectacular and best-preserved mosaic in Christendom, the ceiling depicts Jesus surrounded by sheep in a green pasture. Travel guides and academics alike hail its artistic beauty. The mosaic was commissioned by a Roman emperor for his sister’s burial place 1,500 years ago, so you can imagine no expense was spared. But tourists packed into the space block the narrow windows, and it’s almost impossible to see the mosaic. Straining into the darkness as their disappointment sinks in, the pilgrims are suddenly blinded by brilliant light and rich colors of the pastoral scene dazzle their senses. Someone has dropped 300 lira into the coin box; the spotlights have popped on. Their eyes dart about seeking where to focus—sky, star, sheep, Jesus—for a few seconds. Then darkness again, deeper than ever.
A coworker of mine at a pastor’s magazine included a version of that story in a preaching article a dozen years ago. I have thought of it on occasion, usually after a midnight toe-stubbing in a pitch-black room. If only someone would drop in another 300 lira and rescue me from this darkness.
I’ve had the same thought about the world in recent years—politically and culturally. The postmodern era is proving to be no great enlightenment. Headlines on the news feeds serve mostly to prompt head shakes and tongue clucks, and the wonder, Can it get any worse?
At times, what Paul called “this present darkness” in the first century seems to be just as present in the twenty-first. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).
Some days it seems not a lot has changed since then. And we could go back further.
Long before Jesus’ birth, the Egyptians and the peoples living in Canaan sought to explain the physical world with a troop of gods each responsible for an aspect or two of nature and the weather, but their gods proved to be angry failures unable to control even their own supposed creation, or to alleviate their subjects’ suffering in cycles of flood and drought, plague and destruction.
Rather than seek out the true God who truly is over all, they turned to other gods and more gods. The gods multiplied and specialized under the Greeks and later the Romans, but the panoply did not brighten the heavens and mountain tops where they lived. Theirs was endless revelry celebrating their most wicked natures, blind to their own debauched state. In the time leading up to Jesus, the strict religion of the Jews served to show the complete depravity of humanity and the ultimate inability of man to assuage the due wrath of Deity or to atone for man’s own iniquity. The Law existed to prove we are unable keep the Law.
It was a dark time.
In some way, darkness has characterized every age, beginning with creation when darkness was over the face of the deep. The Dark Ages, so named in retrospect, saw the retreat of religion and the near death of knowledge in the Western world. The Middle Ages were little better, except that their failures were better catalogued. The Renaissance promised advance, but The Enlightenment served mostly to question faith more than bolster it. And the accomplishments of mankind became the impetus for many to celebrate themselves, rather than the God who made it all possible.
Great cathedrals were built with purgatory payments, and empires were borne on the backs of poverty. Louis XIV declared himself Sol, the Sun God. There were few courageous enough to refute it, except from the blackness of their solitary cells. The Huguenots, like the Puritans, were persecuted in their time for bearing the gospel truth and shedding its light on the evils of their society and religious hierarchy. (Sol, indeed.)
Even the modern era, which was supposed to bring truth to light and lasting peace to man’s war with himself and with others, has instead produced civil wars, world wars, cold war, culture war, drug war, genocide, infanticide, and ISIS. The world seems dark—even now.
In fact, scientists have discovered a galactic darkness so dark that it feeds on light. Black holes in remotest space so deep that their depth cannot be fathomed. Black holes without bottoms.
But into this cosmos, Jesus still declares, “I am the light of the world.”
It is a cosmic reality so profound, so deep, so universe altering, that even our brightest minds can hardly grasp it. Many can’t.
What light is capable of breaking through dark matter, dark minds, dark hearts, dark sin, dark failure? What light is there that cannot be overcome by these great and terrible darknesses?
Only the light of Christ.
Here I am
“Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness…” the popular worship song says. And lit it up, we could add. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). This is a bold statement coming from John in the first century. The light was victorious, triumphant, undefeated. Some translations say the darkness did not “comprehend” the light, and certainly that is true. C.S. Lewis borrowed an allegory from Plato and used it to explain a Christian truth. He tells of people who lived in a cave. All they knew of reality was shadows on the wall cast by a light source behind them. It was a campfire in Plato’s version, and these people were confined to chairs since childhood, not allowed look around or behind them. What they saw were only hints of what was out there. Confined to this darkened cave, they had no way to measure whether what they imagined might be true. Shadows were all they knew.
That is man in his unregenerate state, seeing only shadows of the truth, unable to determine what is reality. And the same may be said of the whole world before the advent of Christ. To a culture bumbling along with its multiplicity of angry, failing, self-absorbed deities, Yahweh sent a word of hope—many prophecies, in fact—glimpses of a brighter future.
Isaiah’s prognosis sums it up well:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness” (Isaiah 9:2).
Did the shepherds on a hillside outside Bethlehem know their Scriptures well enough to understand that Isaiah’s prophecy was happening to them when an angel praise band fractured an inky sky and made their holy declaration? “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 KJV).
We often hear that shepherds were the lowest rank in their society, but many Jewish boys went to Hebrew school (or, as they called it, school). Maybe one among them knew the prophecy from 700 years earlier that connected God’s promised One to light itself. But whether or not they comprehended it at that moment, they witnessed the cosmic miracle. “The true light that gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9).
The Messianic prophecy was all about light, and the announcement was made in heavenly light. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
With that contemporary songwriter mentioned earlier, we would say, “Open my eyes, let me see.”
Brilliant guidance system
British composer Tim Hughes says he was praying over a few verses of Philippians 2 when the stanzas to “Here I Am to Worship” came to him rather quickly. But then the writing stopped. He asked himself what his response should be to this incredible, selfless act on the part of Jesus. He left the glory of heaven, all rightly his own, to bring his light to earth. Surely there must be a chorus for this song.
Six months later Hughes returned to the verses with an answer: “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down…” And we sing it in many churches on many Sundays. Hughes’s popular song has stayed in the top twenty worship songs for going on twenty years.
The Magi beat Hughes to the answer 2,000 years earlier.
Following the star a great distance, they arrived in a tiny nowhere town and discovered the birthplace of the Savior well marked from above. The Psalmist had promised that the word of God would light the path of the pilgrim like a lamp on a roadway (Psalm 119:105). In their case, these wise seekers found not a proverb in general, but a promise in specific that the Messiah would be coming into the world. Herod’s own wise men unwittingly told the travelers where, and starlight took them there.
Their response? Life-changing worship.
Matthew reports because of their concern for Herod’s intentions, they went home “a different way.” We might say Matthew was giving a GPS summary, that the Magi avoided Jerusalem on the return trip, but anyone who has seen the Light and worshipped him can say they also have left the worship experience personally different.