Advent: Light

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I have a tradition that I started in seminary of reading Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” every Advent season. Athanasius is considered to be one of, if not the, greatest Christian theologian, a sort of godfather of Christian theology. Athanasius was from Alexandria, was nicknamed “the black dwarf” because he was a black African from Egypt, an early center for Christianity, and he was short. Athanasius oversaw the 1st ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325AD out of which came what is known as the Nicene Creed. While I am not Roman Catholic, I grew up in the Catholic Church, and remember reciting the Nicene Creed every Sunday during mass. The council and creed were responses by orthodox Christianity to the teacher Arius who believed and promoted the belief that Jesus wasn’t equal to God the Father, that God the Father and Jesus the Son are of similar nature and essence but not the same meaning that Jesus isn’t coeternal with God the Father but rather was created and came into being. Arius denied the Trinity in that He denied the deity of Jesus. Despite the council and creed promoting what the Christian world considered orthodox and declaring Arianism to be a heresy, Arius’ beliefs spread. People aren’t familiar with Arianism today in that if you asked the typical person who Arius was, you would likely get a blank stare. However, if you clarified what Arius believed and promoted, there are striking semblances in the Jehovah’s Witnesses which started in just the last century and there are certainly some similarities in some branches of liberal Christianity.

One verse from the Nicene Creed goes,

(We believe in one God…) And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made…

Any time I had difficulty remembering the Nicene Creed as a kid, I would remember the easy bits like, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God…” However, what I’d like to focus on for this post is the “Light from Light” bit. It sounds good, but what does that mean? It comes from a deuterocanonical book not included in the Protestant Bible today called Wisdom. Wisdom 7 refers to God as an eternal Light and having a certain radiance, or brightness. The same word used for radiance or brightness in Wisdom 7 is used to describe Jesus in Hebrews saying Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of His nature. The point being that God the Father is the Light and Jesus is the brightness of that Light. There is not separating the brightness from the Light nor the Light from the brightness of it. They go together. So, “Light from Light” shows the same nature of Jesus to that of God the Father. As the eternal Light, God the Father has always existed, so the Son has always existed and existed with God the Father.

Advent is a word which means simply “the coming.” The traditional topics for Advent sermons are Light, Hope, Joy, Peace, and they represent the coming of light, joy, hope, peace into the world in the person of Jesus Christ as they celebrate the incarnation. Christmas is a holiday which commemorates in Christianity the incarnation of God the Son in the person Jesus Christ in which God took on flesh and dwelt among us as a human being. God the Son already existed, but was born, and it was God’s will to send His Son into the world to experience the pain and suffering of the world and being human firsthand, to face the temptations and trials that people often face in life, yet, overcome them. And it was ultimately God’s purpose to send Jesus into the world in order to die on a cross for the sins of humanity, and being fully human Jesus was able to die, yet being fully God, He was able to rise from the dead. This post is about the coming of Light and what it means that Jesus is the Light of the world.

To comprehend the true meaning behind the coming of the Light, it is helpful to understand why Light is needed in the first place.

The prophet Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 9:2,

The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

Ever since humanity disobeyed God’s Word and took from and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 the world has been under the shadow of darkness and that darkness is sin. Exile from the presence of God, the Light, and the penalty of death accompanied the disobedience of Adam and Eve, called sin, in the Garden. As a result all humanity are sinful by nature and sinful by choice. Humanity are born sinful and thus born exiled from God’s presence and under the penalty of death as a consequence for their sin. Humanity also are sinful by choice. An example is a small child playing with a toy and another small child walks over to play with the same toy, and at which point the first small child either grabs the toy away at once, declares the toy is their own and no one else can play with it, strikes the other child, or does all of the above. That behavior isn’t learned, it is natural showing that even from a young age humanity are sinful. We are inclined to sin because it is in our nature, but we also choose to sin meaning when we know what we ought to do and what is right, we are guilty of even one time choosing to do what is not right. The Old Testament is a history of humanity becoming increasingly more sinful and longing to get right with God but failing because humanity valued their sin more than God, and because humanity was incapable of making themselves right before God as sinners. Sinful humanity couldn’t justify themselves because they were sinful, they needed someone who could justify them before God who is Holy, but there simply wasn’t anyone throughout the whole Old Testament. Even the heroes such as Joseph, Moses, Abraham, David, and others were flawed human beings marred by sin. People often take issue with the Bible because those Old Testament “heroes” committed horrible sins and since it’s in the Bible, they believe the Bible is promoting such behavior. However, their negative examples in the Bible are not intended to show what Christians should do, but rather are examples of how even such standout individuals were still sinful and examples of what not to do. They show us that even the best people were deeply flawed and there was a need for someone who wasn’t flawed, someone who could justify humanity before God who wasn’t sinful. There is deep darkness over the Old Testament and that deep darkness over humanity is the shadow of sin and death. This is the darkness of which Isaiah was speaking.

And yet, a great light has come, and that light has shone on those who dwell in darkness. That is to say God, the great light, has come to shine before and upon sinners. Luke 2 shares one birth account of Jesus, and says lowly shepherds were in the field watching their flocks at night, when it was dark, and an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them as the angel proclaimed the good news of a Savior, the Christ, who would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew 2 shares his birth account of Jesus with wise men coming from the east having followed a star, a light, which leads them to Jesus in a manger as the star rested over the place where Jesus was born. Then, in John’s gospel, Jesus says in John 8:12, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'” Then, 1 John says, “This is the message we have heard and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)”

So, Jesus is the Light of the world which means Jesus is God with us. Light played a significant part in both birth narratives of Jesus in the gospels, and John’s gospel shows Jesus proclaiming He is the Light of the world and those who follow Him no longer walk in darkness, showing a strong fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 9:2, that the light promised in Isaiah is Jesus and this light cleanses people who follow Jesus, walk in the light, from their sins. So, the coming of the Light of the world is the beginning of the end of darkness. If darkness is sin, then the Light is God but is also God’s salvation from sin for humanity. Rather than humanity endlessly trying to be good and failing (Old Testament), God decided to send His Son into the world to make humanity right with God, satisfying God’s demand for justice for sin at the cross for all humanity, and defeating it being God, so that those who believe in, trust in, and seek to follow after Jesus in their lives have the condemnation that was upon them because of sin removed, transferred to Jesus at the cross. So, those who were walking in darkness who had the light of Christ shine upon them, who believe the Gospel of Jesus and follow Jesus, are free from being slaves to sin, and by faith receive the gift of eternal life in Jesus who defeated death at the cross Himself, but the eternal penalty He then defeated for all who believe and follow Him. The darkness that once consumed the human heart has met it’s end in the life-giving Light of Jesus Christ who has come to put an end to sin, death, and all that is wrong with the world. The coming of the Light of the world is the beginning of the end for all that is wrong with creation because of sin.

So, when you light a candle for those candlelight services on Christmas Eve, you are remembering symbolically that the Light of the world has come and as that flame spreads from candle to candle to illumine the room/sanctuary, suddenly it’s bright and the darkness has gone because that one light has spread everywhere, and so the Light of Christ which illumines one heart by grace through faith is spread throughout the world as the good news of the Gospel of Jesus spreads illumining the world, putting out the darkness that once ruled and dominated so much of it.

Jesus is the Light of the world, Light from Light, God with us, and He has come for the purpose of saving humanity from sin, but also to show by His perfect life what it looks like to be light in a dark world, and so as we look to Jesus we discover how we are to walk, to live in this world. We aren’t perfect, and that’s okay. God sent His Son to be perfect on our behalf. However, we are called to follow after the One who is perfect because we have been shown grace by God and so as we follow Jesus however imperfectly, we show grace to one another as we are children born by the grace of God by faith in Jesus Christ. We remember that Jesus is the Light of the world, and we remember as Christians our responsibility of sharing that Light with the world and of walking in the Light ourselves.

There is much darkness in the world today. There is Covid-19, families divided over politics, corrupt political leaders, corrupt employers, social media has not been encouraging to many, the news often reports bad things going on in the world, and at times if we’re honest it can feel like the world is just a dark place with no good left. It’s in times like this and times like we find ourselves now feeling isolated, alone, distancing because of Covid-19, and struggling with fear of what the future may or may not hold, that we need to remember that the Light of the world isn’t a politician, isn’t a stable job, isn’t the perfect spouse, isn’t the best circumstances we can imagine, but rather the Light of the world is Jesus and that Light is something that nothing in this world can take away. No matter how bad things may seem or actually be, we have a hope, a joy, a peace, a light that cannot be extinguished. Romans 8 says nothing in heaven or earth can separate us from the love of God in Jesus which means if we believe the Gospel and follow Jesus, nothing can separate us from our joy, hope, love, peace, and the light of Jesus, not even ourselves. We can be encouraged that while darkness may appear to reign supreme, especially in winter when there is little light, the beginning of the end for darkness has come with a baby being born in a manger and that beginning of the end to darkness and sin has a name. His name is Jesus. He is the Savior, the Christ, who takes away the sins of the world, and He is the Light of the world.

If God works all things for the good, why is there so much bad in my life?

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There have been no shortage of abuses and misrepresentations of Romans 8:28. People in the church often use it out of context to comfort one another through whatever crisis they may be presently experiencing as if Paul were basically saying, “If you’re a Christian, than no matter how challenging, difficult, or confusing life may seem, take comfort in the fact that God will make everything work out alright.” This has led many to think God will make all manner of things happen in one’s life ultimately to serve the individual’s own selfish desires in life’s present circumstance.

So, if there is financial hardship for example, they would claim God would give you finances in order to be financially stable. If physical illness, God would give you healing so you might have the ‘good’ of not experiencing said illness or affliction, etc. Not only have people in the church taken up this misrepresentation of Romans 8:28, but many Christian books and publishers have jumped on board to further abuse this verse which in truth is a priceless gem of Scripture and genuine encouragement regarding the goodness and faithfulness of God.

So, what does Paul mean when he writes, “… all things work together for good”?

The first thing to note is that Paul doesn’t mean our good or simply whatever desire we may have for ourselves. The ‘good’ Paul writes of is not our good, although it is good for us and to our benefit. For example, when a good, loving parent raises a child, the parent may provide things that the child presently desires such as candy or desserts or a toy, however, the parent will not give the things to their child whom they love all the time even if their child desires them all the time. A loving parent provides and withholds out of love for their child, that is, for their good. It is not good for the child to get what they want all the time, so a loving parent sees that a child receives things that will nourish it and help it to grow, that will keep it safe, and things that will make it feel happy, healthy, and loved. So it is with our relationship with God that we, not unlike small children ever needy but rarely wanting what we truly need, will ask God to give us the desires of our hearts and then become, like a child, frustrated and angry with God when we don’t get what we want.

Does this mean this verse is wrong and God doesn’t work all things for the good?

Absolutely not! It means that we have misunderstood the passage and misunderstood God. God is perfectly good, loving, and faithful. So, we can trust that if something doesn’t seem to work out in a good way in our lives that God, our Loving Parent, has a good purpose for it in our lives that we likely don’t see or recognize as good in our present circumstance. God is omniscient as well as omnibenevolent, so while we may think we understand our lives well as we live them better than anybody, our perspective in comparison to God’s (aside from being sinful and flawed, and God being perfect and sinless) is like seeing the shape, color, and size of our favorite flower and believing that we know that flower better than anyone when in reality God not only knows all we know of that flower but knows all the universe down to the subatomic makeup of the earth and every single flower in the past, present, and future from before time began as the Creator of all things and sustainer of all things.

When God’s greatness and power and love and understanding is then applied to our lives, we can begin then to grasp how things may not appear very good for us but also that God is working behind the scenes for our good which may not because of our selfish, sinful nature correspond with what is good to us in the moment. Our thinking is as one solitary flower when God’s is more vast than the universe, deeper than the subatomic, and as expansive as all of time past, present, and future, and even before time began, so we can most certainly trust God with the circumstances of our lives even when we can’t comprehend how something could possibly be for our good or even when something is clearly bad that God will use it for the good of His all-loving, all-benevolent, all-knowing purpose in our lives.

The ground for Paul’s statement in Romans 8:28 is in the following 2 verses in God’s activity in the past, present, and future in regards to conforming the follower of Jesus to the image of Christ. Now, the Apostle Paul doesn’t provide this encouragement without qualification. He begins, “… for those who love God…” which is to say those who have been bought with the blood of Christ, the redeemed, those reconciled ones who no longer are enemies of God, those who supernaturally have such a transformed heart that they can, by no power in and of themselves, but purely by God as His Spirit gives the ability can claim to love God.

As John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10),” and later, “We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).” So, those who love God can only do so because God has changed their heart of stone to flesh (See Ezekiel 11:19) and by His Spirit caused them to turn from a life of sin to the Gospel of grace in Christ Jesus. The ‘good’ Paul writes about is for those who love God, but that is not the only qualification Paul provides in Romans 8:28. Paul also writes, “… for those who are called according to his purpose.” So, the ‘good’ that God works is for those who are called by God and works according to His purpose.

What purpose?

That is to be conformed to the image of Jesus for the glory of God the Father (vv. 29-30). The reality of a follower of Jesus being conformed fully to the image of Jesus will not come to fruition until after Jesus returns and brings about the new heavens and new earth where genuine followers of Jesus will dwell with God. Therefore, the ‘good’ is a future glory that awaits those who persevere by faith and it is certain indicated by the wording “glorified.” So, there may be a great deal of suffering and bad things that happen in the life of a follower of Jesus which should not be at all surprising, I mean, look at what happened to Jesus’ first disciples. However, the encouragement for the follower of Jesus is not in a change in their temporary circumstances that they may be facing as severe or harsh as they may be, but in the reality that as clouds parted and dissolved by the bright sun the bad that we face and experience will not last forever in that all we face is preparing us for a future glory where there is no more suffering, evil, tears, sin.

A ‘good’ that is beyond all present worldly comparison is a good that Christians can hope for and that doesn’t evaporate like the false interpretations of Romans 8:28 which anchor a hope in a change of present worldly circumstances being the ‘good,’ but rather in a ‘good’ that is fixed in the activity of God, that is certain, that nothing can change or take away. This is a hope that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven, and more precious than gold (1 Peter 1).