Are you naturally a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person? If your outlook is optimistic you will probably concentrate on the positive and play down the negative. If pessimism gets the better of you, then no doubt life will look darker. A good balance probably lies somewhere in between, but I suspect many of us tend to sit one side or the other. There is a joke that while the optimist and the pessimist argued over whether the glass was half full or half empty, the opportunist drank it. Fortune often favours the one who seizes the moment and goes for it. There is much at the moment to provide evidence for whichever natural tendency we have: dark clouds seem to be mustering in the spheres of politics, economics and security. And yet we will exchange gifts as tokens of love and the carols lift our hearts along with the sparkle of candlelight. Signs of love and goodness abound.
When John wrote in the prologue to his gospel that “the light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5) he was writing in a world of violence and persecution. This was not merely an academic study for him, but a reflection amidst real darkness and therefore a sign of real faith and hope. It would have been easy for him to decide that not only is the glass empty, but there isn’t a glass. He does not; rather he knows in his bones that God in Jesus Christ fills the world with being and purpose, and so the darkness is already banished. The light dispels the darkness because it fills it. It is his profound faith that no suffering, no troubles, negate this, in fact they fit into a much bigger context and so there is ground for hope. John builds this on a reflection on the created purpose, which stems from God. So as one chink of light, one moment of energy, is the riposte to nothingness and the absence of everything, so no darkness can remove the great hope we have. In the beginning the Word exists and brings into being, so nothingness is banished, is filled, is denied its silent false victory. There is a glass and this cup overflows (Psalm 23).
John’s is a deeply philosophical gospel. He reflects on ultimate purpose and takes us to the foundation of all things. This is the light that shines. The miracle of Christmas is the miracle of existence at its core. That there is anything rather than nothing is the most amazing miracle of Creation. And the Hebrew Bible has a special word for the Creation, for creating (bārā), and it only uses this for God’s act of bringing all into being, so special is that act. For other forms of making different words are used. In the Genesis creation narrative, the act of creating brings something where there was nothing. And the first creative work is light. Without light there is no creation and it immediately fills the whole created order. Light, as we know, is energy, and so, in the language of the physicist Brian Cox, the first work is the release of energy which contained the potential and intention for everything that emerged including life. For the Biblical writers it is spoken into being, by the Word, which means it is the product of God’s will, words expressing as they do the inner thoughts of who we are. Words are communicative, and in so being they bring dynamic energy into the frame. In the beginning the Word creates light, energy, brings into being something rather than nothing. The absence of all is itself nullified by the presence of all that there is and it stems from God. Light shines in the darkness.
So the fundamental question John poses by light shining in darkness and darkness not being able to overcome it, is where are you going to align yourself? And it is a question he raises precisely in a world where violence and persecution are around him. Will you side with God’s creating will, which fills existence with the essence of existence, or will you ultimately seek the collapse of all things into nothingness and oblivion? It is the choice between ultimate truth and ultimate falsehood. And truth is a concept linked with justice, its expression in action, with love which is its purpose, and hope which is its song of celebration.
When we choose the light, the truth, justice follows. We live lives which exude love and the fruit of that is seen in what builds, what brings life, what joins in with creating. When we reject these our actions align with nothingness and death, hatred and all that seeks to destroy. Those who seek to bring about their deluded vision of how to live by death and destruction, violence and terror, as we have seen, are those who think the darkness can overcome light and it can never do that because it is at its core a denial of the creative will of God. Blessing is that which brings life and so to bless is to enliven, to love. They might try, but they will not succeed.
All of this purpose behind creating, the speaking of the will of God, is said by John to have been concentrated and enfleshed in the child who became the man Jesus (v14). His teaching has authority because it is of the essence of this truth that brings something rather than nothing, that nullifies the nothingness with love and being. This is the beginning of John’s Gospel and so he is setting out his stall for what will follow. It is a giant call of ‘listen up’ because what is coming will connect with the very creative purpose of the universe, of the purpose of life itself.
In a world of violence and persecution, of terror and fear, the light which shines out tonight is the light of loving hope and purpose, which calls us to live in harmony with that creative will. We are to be people who nullify the nothing by shining light and bringing life, bringing blessing. We are to be people of grace, who celebrate the gift that is the fabric of all that exits. We live this when the hungry are fed, when we respond with love rather than hate, when we liberate the oppressed, when the inherent dignity of all people is affirmed and celebrated without distinction, when the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is opened up and new life offered.
The image of light shining in the darkness connects at a most basic level with us. It is why Christmas has an instinctive feel and appeal for us. It is easy to get lost in the trimmings, but its sparkle and its magic touch the very fabric and purpose of the Creator who brings something rather than nothing. That there is anything is the wonder of Christmas and it is God’s presence that brings this about. The light does shine in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it because the existence of the dynamic energy itself fills its void. All that tries to work against that is fundamentally a lie and it will not succed because by the very act of God’s creating its emptiness has already been filled.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness is not able to overcome it. The call is to align how we live with that creative purpose and be light. When we want to know how, the Word is among us in Jesus Christ and following him is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Christmas Midnight, 24th December 2016