Finding Christ in Our Christmas Lights
Houses all over my neighborhood are covered with outdoor Christmas lights, but what does it have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Let’s go back and look at where we got the tradition of Christmas lights.
I. Origins of Christmas lights
For centuries, Christmas lights meant lighting candles.
The tradition of putting up Christmas lights began with putting candles on Christmas trees. Christmas trees originated in Germany by the 16th century, from several different traditions. Some Germans actually burned an evergreen tree in the town square and danced around it. There is a popular legend that Martin Luther, the German Protestant reformer, began the tradition of putting candles on Christmas trees. The legend says that one crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth. (Accessed on the Internet on December 5, 2013 at: http://www.christmas-tree.com/where.html).
Whether or not this is true, we know that the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Henrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor who worked with the urban poor in Germany. The children would ask every day if Christmas had arrived, so Wichern built a ring with evergreen and candles to candles to light the 24 days in December before Christmas, and large candles to mark the Sundays. Later this was simplified to four candles for the four Sundays, and a Christ candle in the middle for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The custom of lighting an Advent candle did not spread to America until a century later, in the 1930s. (Accessed on the Internet December 4, 2013 at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent_wreath).
II. Modern Christmas light traditions
On December 22, 1882, Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, displayed his Christmas tree with 80 red, white and blue electric lights bulbs the size of walnuts, at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This was the first time a Christmas tree had been illuminated with electric lights, but the idea spread quickly. Three years later, the White House Christmas tree was covered with electric lights. By the early 19th century, it became popular to put lights on buildings, not just on Christmas trees. In the 1960s, with the construction of so many subdivisions in American communities, it became the custom in American neighborhoods for many families to cover their houses with lights. This custom has spread around the world, and is particularly popular in Japan. (Accessed on the Internet on December 4, 2013 at: http://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/Christmas_lights).
As I mentioned at the beginning of this message, Christmas lights cover waterfronts, caverns, skyscrapers and shopping centers today. Some even use synchronized timers to have their lights flash to music.
Yet while many American homes are covered with Christmas lights, many of the families who live inside never go to church. Christmas lights are popular in Japan, but a very few Japanese are Christians. So what do Christmas lights have to do with Jesus Christ and His birth? Actually, it has everything to do with Christmas!
III. The light of Christ
The Bible uses light as a symbol for Christ in both the Old Testament and New Testament.
In Numbers 24:17, the prophet Balaam said, “A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel.”
The prophet Isaiah said, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD shines over you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance…Caravans of camels will cover your land… They will carry gold and frankincense and proclaim the praises of the LORD.” (Isaiah 60:1, 3, 6).
The Gospel of Matthew shows how these prophecies pointed to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived unexpected in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Perhaps the eastern star-gazers had been studying the Hebrews scriptures. Perhaps they read Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17 that a star would come in Israel. We don’t know what star they saw. Astronomers say that there was a convergence of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7-6 B.C., and a Comet in 5 B.C. Since our calendars are off a few years, we now know that Jesus was born about 4-6 years earlier than 1 A.D., so it is possible that they saw one of these astronomical events. Yet God could well have produced a supernatural light. According to Matthew 2:9, the star moved and then stopped moving. “After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen in the east! It led them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.”
Perhaps the wise men read Isaiah’s prophecy that nations would come to his light and caravans of camels would bring gold and frankincense to praise the Lord. For look at what it says in Matthew 2:11, “Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling on their knees, they worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Matthew’s gospel shows us how Jesus fulfilled the prophecy and is represented by the light. John’s gospel makes the application to you and me. John 1:4-5 says, “Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it.”
Let’s take a closer look at this, because every line in these two verses is expanded on later in the Gospel of John.
John 1:4a says, “Life was in Him.” John 5:26 says, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, so also He has granted to the Son to have life in Himself.” Jesus, the Messiah, has something powerful within Himself: life. He is able to give abundant life and eternal life to His followers.
John 1:4b says, “and that life was the light of men.” John 1:5a continues, “That light shines in the darkness.” We read in John 8:12, “Then Jesus spoke to them again: ‘I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Do you see how John 8:12 explains John 1:4-5? If you want to have real, abundant, eternal life, you need to come out of the darkness of sin and this evil world, and come to the light of Jesus Christ.
Now look at John 1:5b: “yet the darkness did not overcome it.” The Message says, “the darkness couldn’t put it out.” The NLT translates, “the darkness can never extinguish it.” In John 12:35 we read, “Jesus answered, ‘The light will be with you only a little longer. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you.’” The word translated “overtake” in John 12:35 is the same Greek word translated “overcome” in John 1:5.
So what does this all mean? It means that there is a great spiritual battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Jesus warns that darkness can overtake you. You and I can be consumed with evil and sin and defeated. But Jesus is the light of the world. And if we come to His light, the darkness can never put it out. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus calls us to shine His light to a dark world that does not know Him.
Let me tell you the tale of two sons. It is a true tale. Both families have given me permission to tell their stories.
Mitch and Amy Ambrose are members of First Baptist Church of Rincon. Their son, Joshua, was two years old when he got sick, but he loved Christmas lights. He had several surgeries that next year. When he was almost three years old, he was going to have to go to the hospital for brain surgery. It was the middle of November. He asked if they were going to have a Christmas tree with lights on it. They said yes, and Amy they put the tree up in the middle of November, and put lights on it the day before they went to the hospital, so he got to see the lights. The morning after the brain surgery, he had a seizure and lost consciousness, which left him totally physically disabled. He couldn’t respond to his family at all, so the doctors labeled him as blind. But when he was about eight years old, he was lying on his play mat on the floor, and the Christmas tree was up with the lights on. When Mitch and Amy came home from Wednesday night church, Josh had crawled up under the tree, trying to get closer to the light, unknown to the caregiver. To this day, Josh still loves to come to church and see the Christmas lights.
Nick and Brenda Revette are my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Their son, our nephew Brian, was two and a half years old, about the same age as Josh, also right before Christmas. Brian was struck with spinal meningitis, and almost died. He survived, but was left blind. He wanted to see the Christmas tree, but he couldn’t see it that year, because he was blind. He was afraid of the dark. He would say, “dark is bad.” But people continued to pray for Brian, just as people prayed for Josh. A few months after Christmas, Brian remarked that he saw a horse on the TV, and they realized that his eyesight was coming back. The next year, Brian got to see the light on the Christmas tree again.
Both of these young men, Josh Ambrose and Brian Revette, are now in their 20s. Josh still cannot speak. Brian can see, but he continues to have seizures and is limited in his activities. But the thing they have in common is that they have both wanted to see the Christmas lights, and they both did. Josh saw the lights right before his stroke. Brian saw the lights after he recovered from his stroke. Jesus said in Revelation 22:16, “I am the Bright and Morning Star.” And because a star stood over Bethlehem, and because Jesus came as the light of the world, one day both of these young men will see Jesus face to face in the brilliance of all His glory in heaven.
Yet there remain billions of people who have yet to see the true light of Christmas.
It is interesting that almost every nation celebrates Christmas, even nations that are not Christian. The Japanese, for example, love the lights and music of Christmas. Post-modern Europe, which is largely post-Christian and has forgotten Christ, still loves to celebrate Christmas.
The 6.8 billion people in the world are ethnically grouped into 11,626 people groups. Of these people groups, some 3,352 people groups have no one who is spreading the gospel among them. No churches, no missionaries, no gospel.
The nations are waiting. The light has dawned at Bethlehem. As we put up our Christmas lights, let’s make sure that we share the light of Christ with the nations. Their eternal destiny depends on it.
When I asked Brian’s mother, my sister-in-law Brenda, to share how she feels about Christmas lights, she said, “God was not in the dark. God was in the light. God sent us His light, the light of the world that first Christmas. God’s miracles are great. When you look at the Christmas lights, remember the true light!”
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