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The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light

Each year we revisit the Christmas story, stunned by the scandal of it all: a king born in a feeding trough for goats and donkeys, the Son of God born to a teenage girl still a virgin, heaven’s angels singing to dirty, insignificant shepherds. The humiliation of our Lord’s incarnation humbles us in all our pride, as we remember that we follow a savior who was nailed to a cross. And yet, what appeared to be weakness proved to be nothing less than the power of God.

But allow me to draw your attention to another strange, striking, even frightening image: the darkness of that holy night. When Jesus was born shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night.” There were no streetlights overhead, no flashlights, no smartphones to light their way. They stood in the cold darkness of a black night, squinting to watch sheep in a field they could barely see, all for the sake of keeping the sheep fed, all for the sake of keeping their sheep safe. Then, out of nowhere, the sky exploded with light. An “angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they [the shepherds] were filled with great fear” (Lk. 2:9).

Suspended in the sky, a creature from another world appeared, a being who was so luminous the shepherds must have covered their faces with their hands, peering through the gaps in their fingers to see such an angelic being. With the glory of God blazing bright, their eyes may have felt like they were burning, like when you’ve been asleep all night and someone suddenly, unexpectantly turns on the light. After listening to this angel announce the birth of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord, the glory they so feared burst once more. This time a multitude of the heavenly host appeared, an angelic choir, praising God (Lk. 2:14).

Of course, the shepherds were not the only ones who experienced a light so resplendent it pierced through the darkness. After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a group of philosophers from the east sat in the dark—night after night—staring into the sky. Unlike the shepherds who were caught by surprise, these men were wise, studying the stars, learning their enigmatic patterns. One dark night, the sky lit up with light from a star brighter than all the others. They stared at this beam of brightness only to discover it was moving. Could it be leading them somewhere? Could it be leading them to someone? As promised by the prophet Micah, this shimmering star led them through the darkness each night until they reached Bethlehem, where they found the newborn king who was “from of old, from ancient days” (5:2). While we were lost in the darkness of death, the radiance of the glory of God descended to give us the light of his life. Click To Tweet

Without light Christmas would not be the same. In the coldness of the night, we decorate our houses with lights, spreading Christmas cheer for all to see. In the quietness of our homes, we adorn our Christmas trees with lights from top to bottom. And against our better judgment we even wear Christmas sweaters, some of which flash red, blue, and green. And yet, as marvelous as these external expressions of light may be, on the inside people everywhere remain in darkness. Sin hovers over our hearts like a black thundercloud, blocking out the Son of God. Although God poured out the supreme generosity of his goodness by creating us to radiate his image, we have rebelled against him, loving idols crafted within our own hearts, trying with all our might to extinguish the light of his glory all around us.

And when the Son of God himself condescended so low that he was made flesh, we shunned him in our irrationality, claiming he must be from the prince of darkness himself. Clinging to our self-righteousness, desperate to buttress the false security of our self-assurance, we stood at the foot of the cross and cried out, “Crucify him!” And when he breathed his last the sky cracked as darkness covered the land (Matt. 27:45). Here is the verdict that no one can escape: “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn. 3:19).

With all this gloom, why then is Christmas such a season of hope, such good cheer of good news? No doubt you have heard many different answers this year, but only one explains why that dark night was so holy: while we were lost in the darkness of death, the radiance of the glory of God descended to give us the light of his life. Have you ever noticed how Matthew begins the ministry of Jesus? Quoting the prophet Isaiah he says, “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matt. 4:16). Jesus said the same to his disciples, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).

I fear too many celebrate Christmas without knowing who this Light is, however. According to the apostle John, the Light who descends into this dark world and gives light (Jn. 1:9) must be none other than the one who was with God and the one who was God. Jesus may have been born as a babe in a manger, but from all eternity he was the offspring of the Father, says Athanasius. Never was there a time when the Son was not. Could the Nicene Creed be more applicable than at Christmas? The Savior we worship is true God of true God, begotten, not made. But we should not forget what else that ancient creed says: as the only begotten Son of God, he is Light from Light. But we should not forget what else that ancient creed says: as the only begotten Son of God, he is Light from Light. Click To Tweet

What else would we expect from one who is, as the author of Hebrews says, the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature, far superior to angels (Heb. 1:3)? Do not be fooled: if this Jesus is not God himself then he cannot shine the light of his life into this dark, dead world. For only one who is begotten from the very essence of the Father from all eternity—Light from Light—can enter the blackness of this fallen world and grant us the light of his eternal life. As the psalmist says, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (Ps. 37).

Some may think this is all too incredible to believe. You are not alone. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him his barren wife would give birth to a son named John, the prophet to prepare the way for Jesus, Zechariah (the priest!) hesitated to believe. But when his son was born, he praised God’s tender mercy and prophesied that very soon a “sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:79).

Our great God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). If you have received the life of the Son, then you are the light of the world.

Go and let your light shine before others (Matt. 5:14, 16).

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Lk. 2:14).

Merry Christmas.

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is the executive editor of Credo Magazine and the host of the Credo podcast. He is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Canon, Covenant and Christology; and None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God.

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