Sunday 29 January 2023

The Light Shines in the Darkness

Micah was a prophet of the eighth century BC who prophesied in Jerusalem against those who were ruthlessly exploiting their fellow citizens, he prophesied against the tyrannical ruling class, against the rapacious landlords and the injustices that took place in the courts. The prophet Micah, also spoke out against the priests in the holy city of Jerusalem, those priests who were motivated by personal gain, those priests who used their influence as men of God to support the highest bidder: those who would pay them the most to publicly preach what they wanted to hear. Micah prophesied that all of this wickedness would lead to God’s punishment, the destruction not only of Samaria in the north but also of Jerusalem itself, but in spite of all these dire warnings, Micah said that there would come a time; a new age when the ruined Jerusalem would be redeemed by God and that a saviour for Israel and the world would be born in Bethlehem. Through Micah God said:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,

are only a small village among all the people of Judah.

Yet a ruler of Israel,

whose origins are in the distant past,

will come from you on my behalf. (5:2)

There is an interpretation of these words in that well known carol:

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight

I mention this because this carol is inspired by that particular text from Micah (5:2), his prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Hundreds of years later, after Micah, Israel was under Roman rule. But the prophecy had not been forgotten and indeed there was an expectation that Christ would be born in Bethlehem, that the birth of the Messiah was imminent. Indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew we have that account of the Magi, the wise men seeking that child who was born the King of the Jews and we remember those chilling words of King Herod, by whom they were summoned. Herod said, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back, and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

Chilling words we know, because Herod was later to send soldiers in and around Bethlehem to kill all the male children who were aged two years and under. Herod’s vain and bloody attempt to forestall the prophecy. Herod’s attempt to undermine what had been divinely ordained, Herod’s attempt to undermine God. Herod failed to kill the infant Jesus as we know. Thus, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, Jesus of the royal line of David, in the town of David, Israel’s greatest king.

 Mostly at Christmas we revisit the Christmas story, the two stories actually, the first one as you know, from the Gospel of Luke, the visit of the shepherds to the infant Jesus, lying as the angels said he would be, in a manger and then of course the later visit by the Magi who brought the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Turning now to the Gospel of John which offers no nativity story. But rather with John, we are provided with a spiritual portrait of Jesus as the light, thus:

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness can never extinguish it.

God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

John in his gospel, his account of the life of Jesus, wanted his readers to know for sure that John the Baptist, although he had a great following and his own disciples, that John was not the Christ, but that he was only a witness to the life and future ministry of Jesus: the true light, Jesus, the light of the world. What John wants us to know, is that in that event he writes about, that night in Bethlehem; God was breaking into human history. Jesus the Son of God was born and was the light that the darkness could not overcome. This is John’s spiritual portrait of Jesus. Jesus was not just born simply as the fulfilment of a prophecy, not just born from the line of David the greatest king, but born of God, born of the Holy Spirit. Both man and God, flesh and spirit, this is what the Gospel of John tells us, this is who John tells us Jesus is.

John said that Christ came into the very world he created but the world didn’t recognise him. He said that Jesus came to his own people and even they rejected him. Let’s think about those dark narrow streets of Bethlehem, and another kind of darkness, the darkness of sin, the darkness of cruelty, the darkness of the crimes against humanity and all the things wrong with the world. The darkness of sin; everybody, even the worst sinners, want to have a good opinion of themselves, to be praised, to have nice things said about themselves. We all do. Nobody wants to be told what their faults are or even wants to face up to the fact that they are less than perfect, the truth is we are much worse than that! Far less than perfect. When you live in that kind of darkness, and are confronted by holiness it’s like coming out of a dark room into intense sunlight, when confronted by holiness, it’s too much to bear when that light of truth, that revealing light comes to shine on us. So, Christ came into the world, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. Perhaps it was just too much for most people. Even so, John said:

But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.

O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born in us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel Amen


Photograph by Gustave Doré - Bible by Doré, Public Domain,

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