[The sermon began with a 30-second clip from the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," performed by Michal Bublé.]
I really like the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I don't know if they call it a carol, but it's one of my favorite Christmas songs because it presents a particular vision of Christmas. A cozy, familiar tight circle of friends and relatives who are near to us and who are dear to us and who have gathered around us. It's one vision of Christmas that I would call a good vision of Christmas. Our Gospel reading this morning from John 1 provides us with a different vision of Christmas that doesn't negate the first vision of Christmas.
Think of it this way. The song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is like taking a camera zoom and zooming in on one tight group of people around Christmas. The Gospel of John zooms out and gives us this huge, cosmic, global picture of the Christmas story, another vision of Christmas. If we were to write a song about that we might call it "Have Yourself a Global Little Christmas." I know it's not as catchy, but that's the theme of John 1:1-18.
I don't know if you noticed but there's all kinds of references to all people and everyone.
Verse 3: "All things were made by him."
Verse 4: "He is the light of all people."
Verse 5: "He's the true light that enlightens everyone."
Verse 12: "To all who received him he gave power to become children of God."
So, there's this huge global perspective. Have yourself a global, little Christmas.
I want to look at this global angle, this wide angle, zoom out with John and look at what it means to have a global Christmas message. What does it mean to believe in a global Savior? What does it mean to be global Christians? I am going to make two simple points based on John 1. First, Christ is the light that shines on everyone. Second, Christ is the One who offers grace to all people—life for every person on the earth, grace for every person on the earth.
Christ is the Light that shines on everyone
If you're not familiar with this passage you might think, Who is this Word that John mentions over and over again? Well, the Word was actually a phrase taken from Greek philosophy that has some great background to it. But let me just cut to the chase and go down to verse 17, because John will finally tell us who the Word is. He says, "The Law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." So everything that's ascribed to the Word in the first three verses is talking about Jesus. Then notice verse four, "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people." There's that global perspective. Jesus is the light of all people. Then look at verse nine because he says this again in a different way. He says, talking about Jesus, "He's the true light which enlightens everyone, who was coming into the world." Christ is the true light that shines on everyone.
Now that's a pretty astounding claim. I mean does that mean that Jesus is shining on Buddhist, Hindus, atheists? What does that mean? In what sense is he shining on them? In the original language it's in the present tense, which means this is an ongoing process; he is still shining on everyone. Again, I'm not sure exactly what that looks like. But let me tell you a story of someone that I met when I was in Jos, Nigeria, which is in the center to eastern part of Nigeria.
I met an Anglican priest named Father Tounde. I just assumed, he was raised in a Christian family. But as he told his story he said, "I was actually raised in a very strong Muslim family, and I'd never really heard the name of Jesus." Then Tounde told his story: "This is how I came to know Christ. I had a dream in which Jesus appeared to me, and he was holding a lit candle shining bright. And he brought me into this room, and in this room there were all these candles that were not lit yet. And Jesus said, 'You must take my light and you must light all these other candles.'" He said that was the first step on his journey towards Christ. He had other dreams about Jesus. He came to accept Christ as his Savior. He was disowned by his family, kicked out of his house as a young man, and was treated as dead. But he kept following Christ.
Now, Tounde's story is really interesting because nobody shared the gospel with him. Jesus appeared to him in a dream. Now it doesn't always work that way, as we're going to see. But Christ was drawing him. Christ was shining on him. Christ's light was appearing to him in his dreams. When somebody comes to Christ, who doesn't know Christ, I believe that based on this passage they're not meeting a complete stranger. They're meeting somebody that was already seeking them, already wooing them, already drawing them to himself. Theologians sometimes call that prevenient grace, the idea that God's grace goes ahead of us and draws us to himself. Christ is the light that shines on everyone.
Look at verse 5—there's another example of how the light shines—it says, "The light shines in the darkness" or literally translated "the light is shining on in the darkness." The word "shine" is a strong verb. We could even translate it "The light is shining on even now in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." It's another very powerful claim about the Person of Christ.
One of the things that profoundly moved me over and over again is the way the church in Nigeria, the Christians in Nigeria, respond to suffering and persecution. Certain states in the northeast of Nigeria have been seeing the presence of Boko Haram, an extreme Islamic terrorist group, which is causing intimidation. They're the ones that kidnapped the couple hundred girls and basically sold them to other Muslim men for brides. Recently, they moved into a village of about two hundred people and completely wiped out the village just in the name of fear, cruelty, and intimidation. So Boko Haram is there.
While we were there a bomb went off in the main market district, because the goal of Boko Haram is to cause as much carnage as possible with one suicide bomber. Thirty-two people were killed; fifty to sixty others were injured. But what really moved me about that experience was watching the fellow Christians, our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, of Nigeria respond to that. They're human beings. They were sad. They were worried. They were anxious. They get angry. They want this to stop. They want the military and the police to do their job. Yet, in spite of the darkness that hovers over Jos and further to the north and the east, these followers of Christ are absolutely committed to sharing the light of Christ where they are. It was a powerful demonstration to me of the power of the light overcoming the darkness. This is not an impersonal force. This is the presence of Jesus Christ as the light of the world who is shining into this dark place.
Let me just pause for a minute and bring it back from Jos, Nigeria to us, because I know Christmas is not always easy for people. Sometimes it's actually a time where people experience darkness and brokenness. Maybe the darkness in your own heart, the darkness in your family, the darkness of difficult relationships, or the darkness of grief and loss overwhelms you. Let me say that maybe this verse is for you this morning as well, not only for some far off place, but for you. Maybe sometime during this service it's appropriate for you to pray, "Lord Jesus, you're the light of the world. Shine your light into my heart. I need your light in my heart. I got some dark things that feel like they're overcoming me. Would you come into my heart and would you shine on me, and may the darkness never overcome your light within me." Maybe that's a prayer you need to make this morning.
Christ is the One who offers grace to all people
So Jesus is the light that shines on everyone. He also offers grace to everyone. There's a second part of this global look of the Gospel of John, this global Christmas story.
In 2005 Bono, the lead singer for U2, responded to an interview questions about his view of religion or spirituality. He answered with an absolutely profound and gospel-centered answer. Bono said that there are basically two ways to live your life: karma or grace. Karma is the idea that what goes around comes around. You get what you deserve. But then Bono went on to say there's another concept that completely upends this concept of karma, and that is the Christian biblical concept of grace. Grace meant that we get gifts that we do not deserve. Bono continued, "I'm glad that at the end of the day karma is not going to be my final judge." Because he said, "I've done some stuff that I'm ashamed of, and I've failed in a lot of ways. And I've failed to love God and I've failed to love my neighbor. But in the end I'm not going to be judged by karma. I'm going to be judged by a God of grace." Then he went on to say, "I'm banking all my hope on the fact that Jesus carried my sins on the Cross, and I'm going to be judged by his grace."
Now that's a beautiful, powerful, gospel-centered statement. It fits within the context of these verses in John 1, because John is talking about the way of grace. John compares and contrasts the way of ascending to God, unaided by grace, and the way of God descending to us, purely out of grace not based on our merit.
Look what John says in verse 14, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father's only Son full of grace and truth." Remember, the Word is Jesus. So because we could not ascend our way to God based on our moral righteousness, our moral effort—being a good enough person, being a Christian enough person—God in the Person of Jesus, the Word became flesh, real flesh in a real place in a real city in a real village came "among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father's only Son."
Now, John tells us that there's two ways to respond to this descent of God. Verse 11 says this, "He came to what was his own." He came to his own people, the people that should have known him the best. And what happened? His own people did not accept him. This is one of the saddest verses in the entire Bible. "He came to his own people …" the people that knew the promises of his coming. They knew the covenant. They knew the Law. "… and they did not accept him." One way to respond to this divine descent of grace is to say, "I don't want it. I don't need it. I'll do it on my own."
Here's the second way to respond to God's grace as found in 1:12: "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood …" And literally in the Greek here it's three nots: "… not of blood, not of the will of flesh, not of the will of man, but of God." In other words, human beings did not work their way to God. They received it as a gift. "And to all who received him, [Christ] he gave them power to become children of God."
When I was in Nigeria I went to this small village two miles west of the city of Jos. Once you go a couple of hours outside of Jos village life is still pretty much the way it's been for hundreds of years. So we drove out two hours west, and we went to this tiny village of 150 people called Ratsu. In this village there's an Anglican priest named Father Andrew and his wife Patience, who have planted St. Barnabas Anglican Church, this beautiful, simple, rustic, little church with wasps flying around in the rafters. (One of the priests told me, "Don't worry. They're born again wasps. So they won't sting you." And they didn't, which was nice.)
In this village we were visiting with some of the kids. And I saw a ten- or twelve-year-old boy chasing a ten- or twelve-year-old girl. The boy was really angry about something. Now, the kids speak Housa, the local language, so I couldn't understand what was going on, but I could tell he was angry and he was bent on getting her. So he caught up to her, and he violently kicked her in the back, and she went sprawling face-first into the hard, red-clay earth of rural Nigeria. She's lying on the ground, and she's obviously hurt and humiliated. She's just lying there and weeping. I'm looking around thinking, Adult? Does she have a dad? Well, Fr. Andrew later told me that the dads have two or three wives, and they have lots of kids, and a lot of them are getting sloshed on corn beer, so they're not always around. The moms do a lot of the work in the village, and so they're overwhelmed and they are taking care of a lot of other kids. So there she is lying in the dirt alone.
It was a picture of utter desolation. What do you say? I don't know the language. What do you do? I don't want to do anything inappropriate here. If I would have known Housa and if I would have been at the top of my spiritual game, after gently picking her up and drying her tears, this is what I would have liked to have said based on this verse. "Do you know there is a God in heaven who loves you right now? You are not alone." Based on the good news of Jesus, the One who has descended for us, which she's heard about in the church, "Do you know that this Jesus gives you incredible dignity as a girl, as a young woman? And if you call on his name he gives you power, not just good advice, not just lessons, but he gives you power, spiritual power to become a daughter of this heavenly Father." That's the message of the gospel.
You know as I began to think about that, that's not any different than how any of us come to Christ. We might think, Well, we have resources. I was born in a good family. I was born in a Christian family. I'm a part of this church. We come to him exactly the same way. When we come to Christ, we receive. It's like getting a Christmas gift. We usually get gifts because we kind of deserve it. Maybe we've done some good things, but the gift of God is utterly without merit. It's a free gift to us. That is the grace that is offered to us, the same grace that's offered to you.
If you're trying to somehow find your way to God, ascend to God, get right with God, get your act together unaided by grace, let me just say, there is a better way to do it. Actually, it's the only way to do it, because notice in this passage Jesus isn't just one of many lights. He is the true light, and he's the One that has come down. He's come down to you, and he's offering you a gift of salvation, the power to become a son of God, the power to become a daughter of your heavenly Father. He's offering that power. The only way to get it is to receive it as a free gift.
We are a witness to Christ's light and grace
What is our response to this—the light that shines on everyone, the grace that's available to everyone? Remember how I talked about zooming in on the cozy, small picture of Christmas, which is good. But then the Gospel of John chapter 1 has us zoom out and get this global view. Our response is found in another character in this Gospel reading, that at first glance I'm not sure what he's really doing in this story. Notice verse six. So it's talking about the Word. It's talking about how the Word made everything and Jesus is the true light and all this global, cosmic stuff.
Then it focuses on this one guy named John the Baptist. "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light." Then John appears again in verse 15, so John is woven throughout this incredible, global story of Jesus' light and grace.
What is John doing there? He's kind of like a relative that just won't leave after Christmas. You know, we already got him like three times before Christmas, and now here he is again after Christmas. Well, John is a witness to the light. John is like us. He's like you and me, because here is how God has chosen to get this message of light that is available to everyone out. John is the one who is called by God to share that message, to proclaim it, to get it out there. It's a very powerful message.
I think a lot about Father Andrew and his wife Patience living in that village of Ratsu He wants to spend the rest of his life there. They've started a little agricultural farm where they grow tomatoes, beans, and spinach, and it provides food for their village. It also provides food for other villages in the surrounding area. His goal is to have a bunch of chickens all over the place and to provide jobs for people in his village and jobs for people in the surrounding villages. I mean, it's this incredibly holistic vision of ministry. Then the church is there. He's sharing the gospel.
I think about Father Andrew and remember how he's in the middle of a very dark place. I mean, Boko Haram could come. That is exactly the kind of village that gets wiped out in one night, and it takes the police or the military about forty-eight hours to get there and respond to it. They have no cell phone coverage. There's no internet. There's no electricity. There's no running water. There's no one to call for help. He's utterly vulnerable. Yet he wants to be there. He's chosen to be there. He's not afraid to be there, because for him and his wife Patience that's where they are called to be a light.
Now, we're in different places. We're scattered into businesses, schools, homes, and neighborhoods. We have jobs as social workers, or accountants, or auto mechanics. You wonder, Well, where am I called? Well, you're called just as much as John the Baptist. You're called just as much as Father Andrew and Patience. You are called in the place where God has put you to share the light of Christ.
So let me encourage you to pray two prayers during this Christmas season. Prayer number one is this: "Lord, send me. Send me. I'm not the light, but I want to bear witness to the light. So, Lord, I want you to send me." You may have no clue what that's going to mean; no clue where he's going to lead you; no clue who you're going to talk to. But start praying, "Lord, send me today. Send me to somebody today. Send me some place this week where I can speak a word of encouragement in the name of Jesus, where I can love somebody in the name of Christ, where I can pray for somebody that's far from God." That's the first prayer, "Lord, send me."
The second prayer is a prayer for the church, and that is us as a church family. "Lord, send us. Make our heart beat, make our lives align with this global message, this global Savior, who wants to draw all people to himself, who wants everyone to come to know his grace. Make us a truly global church."
So pray, "Lord, send me" and "Lord, send us." What does it mean that we are globally connected? I hope Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I hope they are merry little days for you. I hope this Christmas season is a merry little Christmas season where friends who are dear to you will be gathered near to you, as the song says. I pray that it is a zoom in kind of Christmas. But then I also pray that we would have a merry global Christmas, that we would zoom out and that we would be people and a church that say, "Lord, send me. Lord, send us."
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.