Date: December 25, 2019
Festival: Christmas Day
Text: John 1:1-18; Matthew 13:23
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #384 Of the Father’s Love Begotten
Grace, mercy, and Merry Christmas to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The sublime glow of candlelight at an evening service conveys a feeling of peace. The dazzling lights of a Christmas tree radiate joy. Shining lights this time of year symbolise an important aspect of the Christmas message: enlightenment. The Good News we celebrate on this day every year is that Jesus Christ brings true enlightenment, and with it peace and joy. God’s incarnate Word dispels the darkness of sin and brings the light of grace and saving truth.
This connection between Word and light is brought out in John’s gospel message. He writes, “In the beginning was the Word… All things were made through Him… In Him was life and the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Then he writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” [John 1:1, 4, 5, 14].
Jesus brought true light into our dark world of sin. Jesus gives God’s true enlightenment as the Word of God in the flesh.
Today, we gather to hear God’s Word and, like Mary, ponder its enlightening impact on our lives in a world that’s perpetually filled with darkness.
Our Unenlightened World
But do we really have a problem with darkness today? I don’t mean a physical darkness as in the absence of physical light. In John’s gospel he says “the light of men” was in Jesus, which means a world without Jesus is a world living in darkness. This darkness has to do with knowledge. That’s why I’m using the term “enlightenment,” because we have long used it to refer to knowledge and understanding, such as the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century.
Enlightenment philosophers included our American forefathers like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. They believed humanity could be changed only through the improvement of rational thought. The American and French revolutions were actually inspired by this Enlightenment philosophy. They believed that only through rational improvement could humanity progress and, in that sense, become enlightened.
Were they right? Let’s see, in many ways, one could say our modern world is more enlightened than ever. There is nearly unlimited and virtually instantaneous access to information. First it was on the radio, then television, and now it’s in the palm of our hands [hold up iPhone]. Instead of calling someone on a house telephone, we can call or text on a cell phone, even do video calls on FaceTime or Skype.
If you need a quick piece of information, what do you do? You Google it! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this. Because Emilia is from Finland, she’s used to the metric system and doesn’t know the imperial system very well. I’ll tell her it’s 25 degrees outside and she’s like, “What’s that in Celsius?” I have no idea, so I Google a Fahrenheit to Celsius converter!
We can do the same thing with learning where a place is located or trying to find a good restaurant to eat at. You can either Google it or use an app on your smartphone, such as Yelp. Need a Christmas recipe? Use Pinterest or YouTube!
I could go on and on. Our technological advances are certainly helpful in a lot of ways. They even aid the Church in proclaiming the Gospel. Yet the Age of Enlightenment that made all this possible has ironically only brought further darkness, in some ways more than ever. Rational enlightenment has only caused further spiritual darkness in the world, but especially in the hearts and souls of human beings.
Every human era has had its own technological advances, and technology has never solved the problem of darkness in human hearts and souls. These technologies continue to improve the physical standard of living, but they have also given us new ways to be selfish and more efficient ways to hurt one another.
Technology has literally brought on new criminal activity called cybercrime. Technology has provided criminals the ability to steal peoples’ identity and credit card information. We can hurt one another more efficiently, too. Go on Facebook, read any well-intended comment with a harmless opinion, and you will easily find somebody who mocks that person and even makes efforts to demoralise them. Every social media comment section is filled with people who are just looking to be hateful and hurtful.
In this sense, then, we could say rationality has actually provided more opportunity for human destruction and hatred more than it has human progress and improvement. The Age of Enlightenment sought human progress through rational improvement, but our rational improvement has only brought on the devaluation of human life. We care for animal life more than we do for human life, even human life in the womb—people who are made in God’s image.
Why is this? Why are we seeing such a vast decline in the value of human life? Because human enlightenment has only enlightened sin. This is actually unsurprising, considering the vast majority of Enlightenment leaders have been humans with unregenerated hearts—that is, hearts untouched by the Holy Spirit. Thomas Jefferson himself cut out the miracles of Jesus in his Bible because they aren’t “rational.”
We are by nature ignorant of God’s will and grace. We are also by nature rebellious against God. Is it so surprising, then, to find ourselves so “enlightened” by human thought that we actually end up finding ourselves being darkened against and disenchanted from God’s Word?
Darkness Revealed by the Word
The words of our Johannine text reveal the depth of this darkness. St. John writes of Jesus, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him” [vv. 9-11].
This is incredible to think about. God’s human creatures cannot recognise their Creator. Not even God’s chosen people, Israel, could identify their promised Messiah. The so-called enlightened, religious experts of Jesus’ day could not recognise the prophecies Jesus fulfilled.
That’s the problem with darkness: You can’t see. To live in darkness is not to know what you ought to know. Paul hints at this in the beginning of Romans, “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse” [1:20].
The existence of the Creator is so obvious in creation itself; therefore, everyone is without excuse not to be aware of their Creator. Yet humans are so darkened that they cannot see their Creator unless He Himself intervenes and enlightens us.
Enlightenment in the Word of God
Therefore, the true light entered the world, the Word of God made flesh as a human baby, whose name is Jesus. As the angel told Joseph when he was in the dark about Mary’s pregnancy, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” [Matthew 1:20-21].
And from John, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” [vv. 12-13].
All those who believe in Christ have not been “enlightened” by so-called human rationality and progress, but we have been enlightened by the Spirit of God Himself in Christ Jesus—God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.
And those whom God has enlightened—those who are born of God—what do they believe? They believe that in the hour of darkness on Good Friday, Jesus, the light of the world, defeated the forces of evil when He died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the whole world. There, when darkness fell, He died for your sins. His death paid for every one of your sins.
When He rose in the glorious light of Easter, God revealed this enlightening truth that in Jesus Christ God has brought to us the light of eternal life. That is the enlightenment of the Word made flesh in which we rejoice this Christmas morning!
The Word Enlightens Our Lives
We rejoice in this Light of God with confidence in the power of God’s Word to overcome all darkness. As we’ve been reflecting on His Word in our Advent services this year, we have acknowledged the fact that we face powerful enemies who want to keep out God’s enlightening Word and keep us rather in sinful ignorance—in the so-called “enlightenment” of the world.
The Unholy Trinity of the Devil, our sinful nature, and the fallen world work arduously to keep God’s Word out of our hearts and minds. But thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit is always working wherever that Word is being given to create faith that bears the fruits of life and salvation.
As Jesus says in His parable about hearing the Word of God, the Parable of the Sower, “The one who hears the Word and understands it… he indeed bears fruit” [Matthew 13:23]. In other words, as we confess in the third article of the Apostles’ Creed regarding the Holy Spirit, in the words of the Small Catechism, the Holy Spirit, by the power of the Word, “has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.”
This is the enlightenment of Christ we receive in the ministry of Word and Sacrament this Christmas morning and every Sunday. It is also the enlightenment we receive in meditation on the Word of God and prayer in our daily lives. Because the gifts of the Holy Spirit of life and salvation have enlightened us, we can receive the blessings modern technology brings to both bring us the enlightening Word of God as well as communicating with our friends and family across the world.
We actually have an example of this in our own church heritage. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, which allowed Luther nearly 80 years later to mass produce the Word of God in his writings as well as translating the entire Bible into German, which was previously only available in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, which only church scholars could read. If it weren’t for the technology of the printing press, the Lutheran Reformation likely wouldn’t have been so successful. We still benefit from this technology today as we open our Bibles and devotional books and hymnals and read them in our homes and workplaces. Not to mention the benefit of smartphones and the Internet.
The important matter, though, is that we remain focused on God’s Word no matter the resources we use, from memorised Bible passages, to reading a printed Bible or a digital one, to hearing a recording or watching a video of someone sharing God’s Word.
Through God’s Word comes true enlightenment that reveals the darkness of sin that leads to repentance and shines forth the Gospel that gives faith, which guides life in God’s kingdom to bear witness to His saving grace and truth in a world too darkened to see its Creator. As this happens, the body of Christ, His Church, continues to bring the light of life and salvation at Christmas time and throughout the year until Christ comes again in glory.
Amen, and Merry Christmas from Christ our Saviour, the Light of the world who has enlightened you with His gift of life and salvation.