Bible Reference: John - 12:46
Yes, it's that time of year again: Christmas, when we spend more money, eat more food, get less sleep and go to more parties than any other time of the year. As one of our friends wrote to us a couple of weeks ago, " 'Tis the season to be jolly' - jolly busy!"
But there is more to Christmas than the trappings of commercialism and hedonism. Traditionally Christmas is the time set aside in the Christian calendar when we celebrate the arrival in our world of Jesus Christ, sent from God to save us.
In September  Michelle and I took some friends to Jenolan Caves and marvelled at their subterranean beauty and majesty. A couple on holiday with their son, 11, and daughter, 7, took a similar cave tour. As always, when the group reached the deepest point in the cavern, the guide turned off all the lights to dramatise how completely dark and silent it is beneath the earth's surface.
The little girl, suddenly enveloped in utter darkness, burst into tears. Her brother turned to her and said, quietly, "Don't cry. Someone here knows how to turn on the lights."
TURNING ON THE LIGHTS
Why Christmas? Why did Jesus come? He came to turn on the lights. In John 12:44-50, Jesus concludes his public ministry that has developed over about three years with a summary of his message to humanity.
In verse 46, in one sentence, Jesus tells us why he came: "I have come into the world as a light," he says, "so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness."
Just like that little girl in the cave, you and I don't have the intelligence or ability to turn on the lights for ourselves. We need someone else to do it for us, and that person is Jesus, "the Light of the world" (John 8:12).
Why are we naturally in the dark, needing the light of Jesus to illuminate our lives and lead us to our destiny as children of light? The Bible teaches that a cosmic battle is being waged between God and the evil forces led by the devil, and through free choice our first parents became embroiled in this battle.
They disobeyed God and lost the innocence they had possessed, and sin entered the world of humanity. Wherever there is sin, there is darkness; wherever there is sin, there is decay and death.
This deeply grieves God, and he set in place a cosmic plan for the eradication of sin, and the defeat of death, and the expulsion of spiritual darkness from our world and from our hearts.
In Genesis 3:15, we find the first Messianic prophecy, in which God promises to send a Saviour to rescue us from our predicament. To the serpent in Eden, in whom Satan lurked, he said, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."
That was fulfilled when Eve's greatest descendent, Jesus Christ, was born in Bethlehem, and went on to achieve a comprehensive victory over Satan and all the forces of darkness through his death on the cross.
But scattered right through the Old Testament are similar predictions and inferences and glimpses of the coming Deliverer, the coming Saviour, the coming Light-bearer.
A SPECIAL CHILD
In his account of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, one of Jesus' disciples, refers specifically to Isaiah 7:14, Micah 5:2, Hosea 11:1, and Jeremiah 31:15, as well as general Old Testament allusions to the birth and mission of Jesus.
All these Old Testament prophets looked forward in time, as we look back, to the birth of this special child.
Around the time of Jesus' birth, other supernatural events and messages heralded this unprecedented and eternally significant event. An angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to marry Mary his fiancee, and telling him that her baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was to be given the name Jesus, "because he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21).
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to Mary with similar news: of her unborn son he said these startling words, "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:26-38).
"God could have come as a preformed child, found, like Superman, in a field somewhere - arriving not from Krypton but from heaven. Or God could have immediately created a whole body, as he did with Adam when he formed his flesh out of the dust . . .
But God chose a more time-consuming process of human formation: In solidarity with this human race, God entered this sphere of reality in the womb of a human creature . . . For nine months the Creator was kept alive by a creature in a state of nourishing protection, dependent on Mary's care - the food she ate, her digestive system, her blood."
And then came the wonderful moment when Jesus was born, and the Messiah entered the world.
Another angel appeared to shepherds near Bethlehem bringing news of "a Saviour . . . Christ the Lord," and his message was followed by "a great company of the heavenly host" saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours" (Luke 2:8-14, NRSV).
This was no ordinary child! But there was more.
A UNIQUE CHILD
Wise men living far to the east of Bethlehem saw a star heralding one who was born king of the Jews, and they travelled a great distance - not as members of a diplomatic mission, but to worship the child-king (Matthew 2:1-2).
And Luke tells us that an old man named Simeon, whom the Holy Spirit had told would not die "until he had seen the Lord's Christ," was moved by the Spirit and went into the temple just as Jesus was being presented according to Jewish custom.
He took the baby Jesus in his arms and prayed, "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).
The prophetic announcement of Jesus' birth was truly miraculous, although no more so than the historic reality of his birth. At the time of Mary's conception she was possibly in her early teens, and Joseph was possibly aged about 18.
Joseph accepted the embarrassing situation and brought forward their betrothal period, but did not consummate the marriage until after the birth of Jesus. Their parents probably did not believe the story.
As far as we know, Mary had a normal pregnancy and delivery, and some shepherds joined the new parents in giving thanks to God. The baby was named 'Jesus' (cf Matthew 1:21) and circumcised according to Jewish tradition on the eighth day.
Joseph took Mary and Jesus to the temple 40 days after birth for ritual purification (cf Leviticus 12:8), where Simeon and Anna identified him as the Messiah.
The family returned to Bethlehem, were visited by the magi (astrologers from Persia or Arabia), and fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod the Great.
Herod had met the wise men and knew their mission; when they failed to report back to him he ordered all boy babies born in Bethlehem under two years old to be killed.
Egypt was a safe haven where there was a large Jewish community, and where Herod had no direct authority. Returning to Palestine after about two years, Joseph wanted to settle in Bethlehem, but the influence of Herod Archelaus led them to settle in the more stable region of Galilee (Matthew 2:22-23).
TURNING ON YOUR SOUL'S LIGHT
We have seen the prophetic announcement and the historic reality of Jesus' birth. While we can affirm these, they don't necessarily touch our lives. But the soteriologic significance of Jesus' birth does - and must - touch us.
In the words of Charles Wesley's carol,
Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.
Jesus came to illuminate our darkness, to reveal God's heart of love to us all, to save us from our sins, and to conquer the evil that oppresses and enslaves us.
Jesus said, "I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness" (John 12:46). Will you open your heart to Jesus' light and love this Christmas? Will you believe? Will you let Jesus lead you from darkness into light?
you gave to eastern sages long ago
the wisdom to follow a new star
to its destination and their destiny.
Give us that wisdom,
that we may seek with all our energy
and arrive at that place where your light
gladdens the heart and inspires the soul,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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