Advent thoughts–December 18

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1—read Isaiah 60:1-7).

The contrast of light and darkness is one of the great recurring themes of the Bible. The first thing God created when he made the heavens and the earth was light, and then God separated the light from the darkness. John begins his Gospel writing about the Word, who is the light and the life of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it. Isaiah said that the people sitting in darkness have seen a great light. Both Isaiah and Simeon called Jesus a light to enlighten the nations. Now Isaiah calls upon God’s people to arise and shine, because our light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.

Jesus told his disciples that they are the lights of the world. Jesus also declared himself to be the Light of the world. He is the primary light; his disciples are secondary lights. He shines like the sun; we shine like windows through whom the sun shines. When Jesus shines through us, his light enlightens others. As we share his promises and the good news of his victory over evil, we do our job as windows, letting his light shine into the lives of others.

Without Jesus we cannot shine. His light comes first and passes through us. Along the way, his commandments reveal our flaws and our faults. When someone washes the windows on a cloudy day, the streaks and smears might not be visible. When the sunlight shines brightly on that window, every missed spot and every speck of dirt can be seen.

We might not want Jesus to shine on us and show our sins. But the light of Jesus does something that sunlight never does to windows: his light removes the dirt and makes us pure and holy. When his light shines through us, we become clean; and because of that cleansing, the light is all the more able to shine through us to enlighten others.

Isaiah pursues that theme as he describes the nations coming to the light of Israel. Isaiah even mentions the nations bringing gifts of gold and frankincense. The wise men who followed a star to find Jesus in Bethlehem were the first of the nations to seek the light in Israel. Centurions in the Roman army also sought help from Jesus during his years of ministry, and one came into the Church early in its history through Peter’s ministry. An Ethiopian official was told about Jesus and was baptized by the deacon Philip. Paul preached to Jews and to the nations, to whomever would listen, and over the course of three hundred years the Roman Empire became a Christian nation. Now the Gospel continues to be spread throughout the world. As missionaries teach about Jesus, people hear and believe and are saved: God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done. Thanks be to God! J.

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On light, windows, and living backward

Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12). He also says to his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). I consider Christians to be windows through which the true Light shines. The Bible also is called “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105); but—as I heard in several sermons when I was a child—“Today you may be the only Bible that some people read.”

Some windows exist only as decorations, but most windows exist to allow light to shine into a room. For this reason, people try to keep windows clean. A window coated with dirt and grime cannot do its job. The dirt must be removed so light can shine through the window.

The brighter the light shines, though, the more visible the dirt on the windows becomes. Clean the windows on a cloudy day and they may seem completely clean. Look at the same windows on a bright sunny day and you will see every streak and every spot that you missed. Literal windows do not care if they have spots and streaks, but figurative windows like us are embarrassed by every mark that shows that we are not perfectly clean.

One response to that embarrassment is to hide from the light. If the light does not shine so brightly, the streaks and spots will not be visible. The problem with that approach, though, is that a window cannot do its job apart from the light. The only other response is to let the light shine through the window, but to pay attention to the light and not to the spots and streaks and stains. Jesus, the Light of the world, is a light that actually cleanses windows by shining on them and through them. Those who look at themselves or at each other can still find the spots and streaks; but those who bask in the Light know that he is cleansing and purifying his windows.

For this reason, I often say that Christians are people who live backward. In T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, and in the musical Camelot which is based on that novel, Merlin is said to live backward. In the musical, Arthur says that Merlin “remembered things that hadn’t happened better than things that have.” People who live life forward are convinced that the past shapes the present, but in the present we can shape the future. We cannot correct the mistakes we already made, but we can create a better or worse future for ourselves by the choices we make today.

Not so for Christians! Our past sins are erased by the purifying work of Jesus, the Light of the world. Those sins no longer trouble us in the present or in the future, because Jesus has removed them from our lives. At the same time, our future is guaranteed. When Christ appears in glory to raise the dead, to announce his judgment, and to make everything new, he will welcome us into his Kingdom, the inheritance he earned to give to us. We do not need to doubt our place in the new creation: it is guaranteed to us, not because of anything we do for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

For this reason, we live lives of confidence today. With past sins erased and future glory guaranteed, we do not need to fear the present. This good news is not license to sin. This good news is power to resist temptation and evil. The Light of the world shines on us and through us. Rather than adding streaks and stains, we use his energy to be windows, so his light can be seen wherever we are. To Jesus, not to us, be the glory. J.