Monday night the Caston family went out for my 49th birthday dinner. Afterward, we toured a neighborhood in Cumming, GA that is known for its holiday lights. Here is our favorite that we proclaimed the “winner.” It’s not full-scale Griswold-esque, but it is still impressive.
As we drove through the winding neighborhood with what seemed to be countless cul-de-sacs of decorated homes, we found ourselves “Oohing” and “Ahing” over and over.
On another night this week about 10:00 p.m., my notoriously spontaneous bride suggested that we load up the minivan and drive to town. We didn’t need anything from the store. The purpose of the trip was simply to circle the square three or four times, enjoying the lights.
There is something enchanting about lights.
And when are they most beautiful?
At night. Against the backdrop of darkness.
In the beginning of John’s gospel, the apostle uses the metaphor of light to describe the incarnation of Jesus.
Just like we light our Christmas trees, homes, and town squares, the birth of Jesus was God’s “lighting of the world” – a light that would shine against the backdrop of darkness.
And yet, while we find holiday lights beautiful against the backdrop of darkness…
In verse 14 of John 1, we learn that Jesus came, as the light, “full of grace and truth.” It is the light of truth that I often resist, especially the truth of my personal darkness, which the Bible calls sin.
When folks come to visit my home, rather than head down to the cold and dark storage room in my basement, I prefer they experience the warmth of the living room. A comfortable sofa. A gentle fire. Soft music.
There is a part of my life that I am willing to expose. But not the dark places. Not the basement where my junk is stored.
Of course, the junk I’m talking about isn’t old bed frames, empty paint cans, and boxes of faded childhood memorabilia. It is my sin—my shameful thoughts and guilt tainted actions.
I resist the exposure of those truths.
But, as the light of truth, this is what Jesus does. Because he loves us, he will not let us keep our junk in the darkness.
Instead, he exposes my temper, my jealousies, my need to boast in my success and accomplishments, the insecurities that cause me to do anything for the approval of my peers, my worry, my addictions and ultimately my failure to love others well without needing them to reward me for my sacrifice.
At the deepest level of all, he exposes my self-idolatry, the radical self-oriented desire for self-glory and praise, which we call self-righteousness.
The word we often use to describe the exposure of sin is conviction, where the Spirit of God brings the truth to light, compelling us to be honest about what we tend to hide.
I want it to be clear that conviction is to be distinguished from condemnation.
You see, God intends conviction to be a gift that draws us out of hiding and into the light—not into the light of judgment, but into the light of unexpected mercy and grace, where there is not only forgiveness but inspiration for what is possible through a renewed, grace-empowered life.
Where is God convicting you? For some, it may be a conviction that your constant worry reveals a lack of trust in God as your sovereign Father.
Where is God convicting you?
Remember, conviction is a gift, because…
If the first aspect of the light is to expose my sin, the second is to reveal God’s grace. Remember, Jesus, as the light, came full of truth and grace.
In order to face the truth of my sin, I need to believe in the truth of Gods’ grace. I have to be convinced that when I come out of the darkness through confession of the truth that I will be met with the light of mercy.
The original text of the New Testament was written in Greek. The Greek word that John uses in verse 14 for “grace” is charis. It is the word from which get the English word “charity.” Charity, as we know, is a gift that is given without condition or expectation of repayment. And that is the simplest definition of grace—a gift.
What we learn from this Greek word is that the gospel—the good news of God in the person of Jesus—the gospel is charity. It is a gift for morally impoverished sinners who can do nothing to rise out of their spiritually destitute condition.
Therefore, if you are going to be a disciple of Jesus, then you will be a charity case, or you will not be a Christian at all.
It is at this point that some of us not only resist the truth, but we also resist grace. We don’t want to be charity cases. For some reason, I don’t mind being a sinner in need of grace in the past, but the fact that I haven’t outgrown that need is so frustrating. The result of that self-righteous frustration is that I resist simply being a saved sinner with nothing in which to boast except the grace of God to me in Jesus.
My flesh is so strong that, even as a pastor for almost 25 years, I continue to struggle with defensiveness in the face of conviction. Although I preach grace, I resist actually living by grace.
And so, would you help me? Let’s help each other kill the root of self-righteousness with the reminder that it is not only okay to be a charity case, but that we must be charity cases to be Christians.
This is the message of the cross. After all, it is in view of the cross we discover that…
John makes this clear in verse 5, saying, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Light is more powerful than the darkness.
On a dark night, all we need is to find a match or a flashlight, because even a small flame can illumine an entire room, effectively pushing back the darkness.
In the same way, the light of God’s mercy is stronger than the darkness of my sin. The mercy that was manifested at the cross is able to forgive and reconcile the seemingly unforgivable.
A website called the “Experience Project” describes itself as the place to share “life experiences from people like you.” Visitors to the site are asked to answer questions like “What does loneliness feel like?” or “What is your favorite pastime?” In one post, readers were asked to respond to the following statement: “Do you prefer light or darkness.” A young woman going by the online name “Beyond Repair” offered a particularly honest and insightful response, saying,
“I prefer darkness over light. The darkness allows me to hide who I am and what I truly feel. In the light all things have a chance to be revealed …. Darkness makes it easier to hide.”
I think this describes each of us at some point in our lives. You may feel “beyond repair” tonight. But the message of Christmas is that you are not.
A friend of mine wrote a blog post several years ago entitled “Who is Jesus For?” He says,
Whatever it is, you are not beyond repair, because even when the rubbish of my sin is exposed in the darkness along with my fears and doubts, the cross reveals the light of God’s mercy, where Jesus took the complete weight of my sin upon himself, enabling me to be free from the fear of condemnation.
Let’s let that soak in. Free from the fear of the just condemnation my sin deserves.
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can be forgiven by God… we can be reconciled to God and be reconciled with each other.
This is what living in the light is all about. Yes, we are exposed as big sinners. But as the cross is revealed, we discover that we have an even bigger Savior, whose blood covers the totality of my sin, past, present, and even future sin.
This assurance gives us the confidence to be real, to be honest about what exists in the darkness, and empowers us to come out into the light, welcoming conviction as a gift; embracing conviction of the truth not a foe, but as a friend who leads us over and over again to Jesus as our Savior and Sanctifier.
When Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, Norena’s home was one of many that received extensive damage. The elderly woman received an insurance settlement, and the repair work began. Yet, when the insurance money ran out, so did the contractor, who had not reconnected her electricity. After the storm, Norena lived without power and without lights for the next fifteen years!
Until in 2007, when the mayor of Miami-Dade received a tip about Norena’s circumstances and hired an electrical contractor to fix the power and return light to the house.
CBS News reported that upon having power restored, she said, “It’s hard to describe having lights to [turn]on,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”[i]
Light. So many of us take it for granted.
But maybe you can relate to Norena’s story. Not living without electrical power and enduring dark nights at home, but living under the darkness of guilt and shame. Spiritually lonely. Fearful of exposure and emotionally isolated.
If you can relate to this spiritual condition at all, then Christmas is for you.
Christmas tells us that the risen Jesus was born as the light of the world, but willingly suffered our darkness so that we can live in the light of his mercy and love that shines upon us from the cross.
The question is, will I live in that light? Will you? Will you step out of the darkness and into the light of the finished work of Jesus, knowing that any sin that is exposed has already been covered? Knowing that forgiveness is not something you can earn or deserve, but is a gift full and free and complete? It is a gift you just receive by confessing your need with empty hands by simply stepping out of the darkness of guilt and shame and into the light of God’s unlimited and immeasurable grace.
[i] KUTV, “Woman Turns Lights on After 15 Years in the Dark,” KUTV.com (2-17-07)