December 21, 1997
Jesus: The Light that Gives Life
1.What Kind of News is Christmas? Odd News or God News?
The word “gospel” means “good news.” Christmas is about really good news. So what kind of news is Christmas? Well, that all depends because there are two kinds of news.
One news is the kind that reports something has happened that is completely unexpected, unherald, totally out of the blue. It surprises us even as it strikes us like lightning. It can be the sudden news of a loved one’s accidental death, or the news that you just won the state lottery.
A second kind of news, though, reports something has happened that we eagerly expect, that we’ve been told beforehand would happen. It too surprises us, not like lightning but like graduation day or your wedding day. Your very knowledge that its coming heightens your surprise when it is here.
To change metaphor, the first kind of news is like hearing that an apple tree was found bearing a pineapple. The second kind of news is like hearing that the first ripe apple has come on the August orchard. Two kinds of news that report two kinds of miracles. The first is the miracle recorded in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. It sends chills up your spine. It is the miracle of the odd. The second kind of news also records a miracle. It is the miracle recorded of God’s promises fulfilled. It is not the miracle of the odd but the miracle of God.
Now what do you think most people have an itching ear for: the first or second kind of news? Yes, you’re right -- it is the miracle of the odd. And many would think that the news of Christmas, the miracle of God becoming man, is just that -- something odd. But I contend that it is not odd, it didn’t come like lightning, but it is the news of God. The news of Christmas is like the news of the first fruit appearing in the Orchard which we have long awaited, which was foretold long ago and those who have listened have eagerly anticipated.
Now you may be asking: What has all this to do with our passage today? The answer is everything. Had v.14 followed v.5 we might have thought that Christmas was odd news not God news. And this apostle knows that talk about Jesus can easily fall into the whirlwind of mysticism and speculation. John begins his gospel of Jesus in the high and intoxicating stratosphere of eternity “in the beginning was the Word . . . “ but he no sooner has us mount the heights of heaven than he quickly fastens our thoughts of Jesus to earth, to the solid, bedrock of God’s prophetic word in history. And how does he do it? By telling us that Jesus was preceded by John -- the Baptist.
2. Who was John? The Frame for the Face of Christ
Who was this John? Listen. John’s was the frame for the face of Christ. What do I mean by “fame”? I’m not thinking of a picture frame, but something more. Let me give you an illustration.
In your sermon notes you’ll find a picture. Now what do you see? Oh, some of you say: “I see a ____________” and others of you say, “I see a ________________.” Yet, I say it is impossible to say for sure what it is a picture of until I “frame” the picture; that is, until I set the picture into its rightful context. And the context of any picture is the context for a word -- it is a story, the Big story.
So if I begin to tell you that this picture is about the story of a funny duck named Quacky I have ruled out your seeing a rabbit. Or, if I tell you this picture is about Bilbo the bunny then you see only the bunny.
What have I done? I’ve framed the picture, I’ve given it its rightful context so that you can be sure of what your seeing. And that is why the apostle John frames the face of Jesus by telling us about the prophet John -- the Baptist. John the Baptist is shorthand for the Big Story. John is not merely a prophet, but the last prophet, the spokesman for all the prophets, who gives the final OT witness to Jesus as the Light who gives life. Let prove my point.
1] John was a prophet. The apostle says “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.” What does that mean? Well, a “man sent from God” is a Jewish way of saying “a prophet of God.” Of false prophets, God says in Jer. 24.21 “I did not send these prophets.” And of true prophets God says in Jeremiah 7.25 “. . . Again and again I sent you my servants the prophets.” So John the Baptist is a prophet, a man sent from God. But he is more.
2] John is the Last Prophet. Jesus himself tells us in Mt. 11.13 “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until and including John.” As the last of the Old Testament prophets John was the bridge between the Old and the New. With John the Old Testament stops. And he points to the beginning of the New Testament --ushered in by Christ. And that is our third point:
3] John witnessed to Jesus not merely as the Messiah but the Messiah who would usher in a New Age. All the prophets gave witness to the Christ, but John especially so. John’s message was not merely that Christ was coming, but that he was coming soon, right after him, and when the Messiah came he would bring in a new era, a new age. This was not only evident by what John said, but by what he did.
John baptized in the Jordan river. When we think of the Jordan river, it is to us simply that -- a river and being a river, with water, it is to us the logical and suitable place for John to be to baptize people.
However, if you were a Jew, you would think quite differently about a prophet baptizing people in the Jordan, or in one of the streams that feed the Jordan. It was not the most practical place to be. Moreover, if all he needed was water, water could be had anywhere in Palestine. Why didn’t he choose among the thousands of wells, or the Sea of Galilee, or the Mediterranean Sea if all John wanted was water?
No, any Jew (an anyone who has carefully read the Bible) would soon see that John’s baptizing in the Jordan was a symbolic act of an approaching new era. How so? Well, ask yourself: What river did the Jews cross over to enter the promise land? That’s right -- the Jordan. And when they did whose authority was transferred? That’s right -- authority transferred from Moses to Joshua which interestingly enough is Hebrew for Jesus).
But there is more. What prophet passed on the mantle of his ministry to another? That’s right -- Elijah to Elisha. And with mantle in hand, what river did Elisha cross? Right again -- the Jordan.
So do you see? The Jordan in the mind of the Jew is the place of new beginnings. And John the Baptist was heralding a new beginning. He was gathering a new people to be a New Israel to enter God’s new promises. He was preparing them to follow a new leader, as Moses pointed to Joshua, and Elijah pointed to Elisha, so John the Baptist pointed ahead to Jesus -- the true, final, and promised light of which all the prophets prophesied.
Do you see now? John frames the face of Jesus. John (the spokesman for all the prophets before him) says when you look at this picture this is the only story that fit. John ties this Jesus down to this book, these prophecies and no other.
Apply: Why is this so important? Let me ask it another way? Who is the real Jesus?
A number of years ago on a cold and rainy night in San Diego, I visited a Hindu worship service. It has been Westernize a bit, and that made it all the more challenging to discern the counterfeit.
The congregation sang hymns and songs to tune that sounded like ours. They worshiped singing “You are the Incorruptible, the highest end of all knowing, the support of this vast universe. You, the everlasting ruler of the law of righteousness, the Spirit who is and who was at the beginning.”
They sang to “the Lord, the Lord, the Lord.” And there was little they sang that could be sung in any Christian church.
Then the “minister” stood up and began to speak. He told a joke I still remember. He told what the good books say and he warned about all manner of sins, especially of adultery. He told the sad story of a woman who used to attend the Wednesday morning meditation circle and who came regularly to temple, but who fell into adultery and defiled herself and now has wandered away. And all the people nodded their heads and agreed with what was said and determined with all their strength not to neglect the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path of right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration.
And in it all I heard nothing that is not frequently taught in Evangelical Christian circles. We may call it by a different name, like the Book of Virtues, but it is the same message.
And that night when the service was over and most the people attending remained to chat with their friends, I walked out into the rainy night, the sea was in the air, the streets were wet and glistened with the shining oil, and I walked for a long time thinking.
And this is what I thought? What is the difference? Change the terms: temple for church, and meditation for prayer; keep the singing, the condemning of sin and commending of virtue and what is the difference between that gathering at Paramahansa Yogananda’s Ashram and those gather at Faith Center, First Baptist, First Presbyterian or even Rock Mountain Community Church?
It was a question that burned within my heart and mind. And was something of a defining point in my life as it drove me back to this book, to this Jesus. You see, there are many Jesus’ out there today: You have the Jesus the divine guru, Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the great moral teacher, Jesus the good Republican, Jesus the great Democrat, Jesus the greatest salesman, Jesus the regular guy who looks and acts and thinks just like you and me. And it made me ask: Who is the real Jesus?
And that is what John is answering. That is what John the Baptist witnessed to -- the true Jesus, the Jesus whom all the prophets foretold, the Jesus who fits no ones conception, who disturbs everybody’s expectation, because he is the Jesus coming right out of this book. He is the Jesus, the Light, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”
3. What does the Light do?
a. Bring to Light. If John gives witness to the Light, what does the Light do? John gives a twofold answer. V.9. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. The main idea? The true Light was coming into the world. But the important idea is what the light does when it comes into the world. John says it Agives light to every man.”
Now let me offer a better translation. The word ( fwtivzei) translated here as Agives light” can mean either Ato give light” or Aenlighten” or it can mean Ato bring to light.” And it is this latter meaning that better fits John’s use here and in his gospel. John’s point is not that the true light gives light, but that the true light brings to light every man, that is, the true Light bring to light what is true about every man. And what is that? Listen to John 3.19-21.
19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
The true light brings to light every man. And what does it bring to light. That men loved darkness rather than the light. And that is exactly what John means in v.9 and explains further in v.10-13.
First, v.10 the world rejects the Light. Jesus, the Light, was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” The word Arecognize” here has the force of refuse, reject. The world, though made by the Light, God’s son, rejects God’s son.
Second, v.11 Jesus’ own home and people rejected him. (Using my translation) AHe came to his home and his own did not receive him.” What, the Jews rejected Jesus the Christ? Yes, says John, they did not receive him.
Why does he tell us this? Is John anti-Semitic? Not quite. He is himself a Jew as was Jesus. The apostle’s point is something deeper, simpler, yet sobering. If the Jews, God’s own people, rejected the Christ, if the Jews who were entrusted with: the very words of God, the covenants, the promises, and the prophets, rejected Jesus, then how great is the darkness of every man, woman, and child’s soul?
Let us not forget that Christmas is about light shining in the darkness. Let us not forget that along with shepherds and wise men are the darker stories -- King Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, the midnight flight to Egypt, and these all portending of the great gift Christ will get from us, Jews and Gentiles, -- a crown of thorns, crucifixion, the cross.
Yet, if the story of Christmas ended here in telling us of the darkness of our souls, we’d be left merely saying AHe’s right.” The Light has made us seen what we feared to see. We are all dead in our sins. But John’s book is a gospel, after all. And it is only wise he tell us the bad news first, to prepare our hearts to heard the good news last. It is only wise to tell us about the darkness, to that we will come to and receive the Light. For the gospel is this -- the Light not only brings to light the sins of dead men, but the Light gives life to the dead!
b. The Light That Gives Life. Listen: v.12-13 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
While there are those who reject Christ, others receive him. And God gives to them the right to become children of God. That is the highest blessing of the covenant. It is to have God as your Father and you as his son or daughter, his child.
Now you might ask: s some reject Christ and others receive him. AI’m glad I was smart enough, wise enough, insightful enough to see and receive Jesus. Yes, and I’ve claimed my right to be God’s child.”
That is a very natural, human response. But the phrase Agives them the right” doesn’t carry with it the 20th century view of Arights.” In our language, a Aright” is something a person is entitled to. We owe it to him or her. They can demand it from others.
But here the word Aright” is something we aren’t entitled to. It is a privilege and statue that is not only unearned but undeserved. It is a gift. A mercy.
Now look again at v.12. John equates Areceivers” with Abelievers.” Receivers of the Light are believers in Jesus’ name. And receivers, believers, are given a gift -- the gift to be children of God.
Yet, in case someone might still think that this gift is earned, or deserved, or gained by human strength or intelligence or will, John sets us straight. Look at v.13. v.13 [these] Children [are] born not of natural descent, nor of a human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Who are the children of God? John answers first with three Anots.” 1] They are children not born of natural descent. That is, your ethnic background doesn’t make you God’s child. Not even being a descendant of Abraham, a Jew, guarantees this gift.
2 & 3] The second and third Anots” are: They are children not of human decision or a husband’s will. That is, no one becomes a child of God, a receiver, a believer in Jesus by a simple exercise of their will. As one preacher said, the problem with Awhosoever will” is that nobody won’t -- nobody will receive Jesus the Light, nobody seeks God, nobody will believe in Christ except God work a miracle, unless they are born of God.
And that is the good news! The new birth! The prophets not only tell us that who Jesus is, rooting him in history, but they tell us that the God of history, is also the God who makes history! And the history he loves to make is the making of new men and women and children. The history God loves to make is the taking of those who once walked and loved the darkness and making them those who now walk and love the light.
That is what Christmas is all about. Christmas is about Jesus the Light of the World and The Light that Gives Life. May that message make you prophets like John as you give witness this season to the Light that gives light. May you, as the song says, Go, tell it on the Mountain.
 The Bhagavad Gita, 11.18, translated by Juan Mascaro (New York: Penguin Books, 1962) p.90
 The Greek here is interesting. It reads: John 1:11 eij" ta; i[dia h\lqen, kai; oiJ i[dioi aujto;n ouj parevlabon. The neuter adjective idion is to be distinguished from its masculine idios. Particularly, the phrase eij" ta; i[dia has the sense of Ato one’s home.” this is attested in the gospel elsewhere, Jn. 16.32; 19.27; as well as in the LXX, Esther 5.10, and in the LXX apocrypha, 3 Macc. 6.27,37; 7.8.