In part two of our Christmas series, God Moved into the Neighborhood, we begin looking at how the process of transformation unfolds. Initially, it’s not very comfortable. In order to fix the system, we first have to see where and how it’s broken. Keep reading to see how this works and how to overcome the biggest challenge to it happening.
Light to Live By
Have you ever gotten unwanted advice before? Now, probably there are some folks out there who are far more gracious than I am, but usually when I get unwanted advice my first thought is, “Buzz off, Mr. Busy-Body!” Who’s with me? There’s just something a little cynical in most of us that thinks, “You know, they probably mess up at this just as much as I do. They are in no position to be giving me advice.” But, there is an exception to this rule. We as a culture are slavishly reliant on the advice of experts. If we think someone is an expert, we will listen to just about anything they say. This phenomenon explains how we got shows like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. They were both regular “experts” on Oprah who became popular enough to get their own shows. And perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, “Well I certainly don’t listen to those quacks! You can’t really trust anything you see on TV anyway.”
But come on, you know you listen well to your own preferred set of experts. Imagine for a minute that you were at a public park somewhere cooking out some hamburgers and all of a sudden you heard a voice from behind you say, “You know, if you would only turn those burgers once they would taste a lot better,” and when you turned around Bobby Flay was standing there. Or, imagine you were at a coffee shop using your computer and suddenly heard, “You know, there are a lot more efficient ways to run your operating system than that,” and when you glance over your shoulder, there was Bill Gates. Or, imagine you were at Home Depot in the paint department trying to match swatches of paint to your living room throw pillow when out of nowhere you heard, “If you’ll go with the lighter blue it’ll make your room look a lot bigger,” and when you looked up, there was Joanna Gaines with Chip making faces behind her. In each of these situations our natural gut reaction of cynicism would be halted because these are recognized experts in each of those fields. Indeed, when busy-bodies turn out to be experts, we generally try and listen.
So, last week we embarked on a brand new series that is going to take us up to Christmas called “God Moved Into the Neighborhood.” The idea for this series is that when our world was broken beyond repair God didn’t abandon us to our own devices. He could have, but He didn’t. He loves us way too much for that. Instead, God in the person of Jesus, moved into our neighborhood, our world, in order to set about the hard work of transforming the world to be once again what He designed it to be from the beginning. Theologians call this great truth the incarnation, a term that comes from a Latin word that means something like “the enfleshment.” It refers to the process of God taking on human flesh, becoming fully human in the person of Jesus, and coming to earth as a baby. This is the whole reason we have a Christmas.
Anyway, while the very idea of the incarnation, this God-moving-into-the-neighborhood, is pretty remarkable in its own right, when we understand what God the Son left behind in order to become, first a bundle of cells, and then an embryo, and then a totally helpless baby born to a poor couple, it becomes all the more remarkable. God the Son, the pre-incarnate Christ, dwelt in full glory being properly praised as God every second of the day. He was limitless in power. He was unencumbered by the limitations of human physicality. He had everything. And He stepped away from all of that for our sake. Putting that another way, He used His glory for us. He moved into the neighborhood in order to transform it.
That’s all what we looked at last week. This morning we are going to start the process of seeing how this transformation began to unfold once Jesus got here. Well, when you are going to tackle the challenge of transforming a system that isn’t working, one of the first things you need to do is to shed some light on the problems. Until you understand how and why it’s not working you really can’t go about fixing it. Appropriately then, when God the Son came to earth He is described as bringing with Him light. This light was intended to help us see the difference between death and life so that we can choose the latter. It was geared toward helping us see the places where death and the brokenness that leads to it were running the show in order for us to throw them out. Death is usually associated with darkness and so it makes sense, then, that Jesus declared Himself to be the light of the world. Jesus brought with Him the light of life; light to live by. Now, when we say that Jesus is the light of the world, we don’t mean He’s radioactive. Instead, we mean that, again, by His words and actions He helps us to see the difference between the kinds of behaviors and patterns that will lead to death in our lives and the kinds that will lead to life. In doing this, though, He is necessarily commenting negatively on the way we are currently doing things.
This, then, is where we run into the problem: Jesus wasn’t dealing with some inanimate system that He could press a few buttons, write some new code, and which was going to be totally receptive to try anything He suggested. He was and is working with people. People like you and like me. As you might expect, dealing with people is an infinitely more complex task than dealing with machines. Even if thinking about trying to turn on a computer makes you break out into a cold sweat, people are harder to transform. With a computer you simply put in some new parts, replace a hardware item or two, and you’ve got yourself a new machine. But changing a heart? That’s something that only God can tackle. We’ve already talked about the reason for this. People push back. We are cynical of even sincere attempts to help. We want to be left alone to figure things out on our own. Unless we are absolutely convinced someone is an expert—and that’s a hard thing to sell if they aren’t on TV or didn’t write any books—we really don’t want to hear what they have to say.
So then, who is this Jesus to tell us how to run our lives? Well, it may seem like the answer to that question is pretty simple, but it only is if you’re thinking like a church person. You see, we may have talked about God the Son stepping down out of glory to move into the neighborhood in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but when people were dealing with Him on an in-person basis, all they saw was some guy being a lot more forward with His ideas about how other people should run their lives than He ought to have been. And, until we are convinced someone is qualified to give the advice they are giving, we generally don’t trust them. So, while church folks may believe Jesus was the glorified second member of the Trinity come to earth to give us some help (in part at because we’ve been told that all our lives), people then didn’t. What’s more, church folks may be aware of this truth since we have had some exposure to church, but there are a lot of folks today for whom Jesus is just some other religious leader who has about as much credibility as the rest of them for dispensing with life advice. So the very good question that folks both ancient and modern are asking about Jesus is this: Who was He to say what He did?
The answer actually comes to us by way of the apostle John. John was one of Jesus’ closest friends. He was the guy to whom Jesus entrusted His mom when He died. If you’re on your death bed…or tree …you don’t give your widowed mother into the care of some stranger. You put her in the hands of your closest friend, the guy you trust more than any other person in this world. Well, for Jesus that was John. Needless to say, John knew Jesus pretty well. And in the opening lines of His memoir of His time with Jesus, John begins by making the case that He really was and is somebody whose advice we should heed. Listen to what he said as I read from The Message this morning: “The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.”
Now, this part of John’s Gospel is in poetic form and draws on old imagery that’s sometimes hard for us to wrap our brains around. When John, faithful Jew that he was, spoke of “the Word,” he was drawing on a rich body of imagery both Jewish and Greek. For Jews, the word of God is what He used to call creation into being. God’s word is powerful and effective. The prophet Isaiah declared that God’s word always accomplishes its goal. It goes out from Him and never comes back void. For the Greeks, this idea of God’s word, or logos, as they called it, similarly conveyed a sense of power and wisdom. By the time John was writing this, near the end of the first century, people had begun associating Jesus with the Word such that his audience immediately knew what he meant. All that’s to say, what John is doing here is poetically declaring Jesus to be equal in identity and eternality with God the Father.
And our well-churched, or well-secularized, brains hear that and think, “Okay, that’s nice.” But that’s not the right reaction. Remember: John started his life as a faithful Jew and, but for embracing the new, non-Jewish, identity given to Jesus followers in Antioch around AD 50 would have still thought of himself in those terms. Why does this matter? Because the Jews were the first and most aggressively monotheistic people in the world. For these folks, calling Jesus God would have been blaspheme of the highest order. In fact, His self-identification of equality with God the Father is what pushed the Jews over the edge to demand crucifixion for Him in the first place! First century Jews would have much rather died than admit anyone else to be divine. Many of them did die because they wouldn’t acknowledge the much more “tolerant” Roman paganism. All of this means that given who John was and what John believed, his equation of Jesus with God should cause us to pause and think, “Well, if that guy believed this maybe there really was something to it.”
So then, Jesus was God. Like…GOD. That sort of uniquely qualifies Him to shed some light on living that we are expected to utilize. But, just in case your cynicism meter is working extra hard and you’re sitting there thinking, “Okay, so He’s God. Big deal. It’s not like He knows how everything works.” Well…actually…yeah, He does. And in case that doesn’t seem totally explicit yet, John goes on to make it more so in the next verse. Come back to the text with me: “Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!—came into being without him.” So just let that sit with you for a minute. I said last week that Christ was the medium of creation. What’s a medium? Well, most folks hear that word and image a group of people sitting around a crystal ball holding hands. The medium is the person who is helping connect them with the great beyond. That’s not at all what I’m talking about, but it does point us in sort of the right direction. A medium is the channel through which something else happens. In the economy, or ordering of duties, of the Trinity, the Father declares what’s going to happen, the Spirit is the power by which it happens, but the Son, the second member of the Trinity, is the one who actually does it. God the Father may have spoken creation into being, but it was God the Son, the Word, Jesus, who did the actual creating. So yeah, Jesus knows how everything works because He made it.
All of this, then, allows John to bring us back around to where we started. When God moved into the neighborhood, one of the first tasks before Him was to shed light on the ways and places where the system was broken in order that the solution might be made clearer. And this was not for His own knowledge. He already knew. Rather, it was for our benefit since He intended for us to be a part of the solution instead of merely remaining a part of the problem. And the solution was life. The reason for this should be obvious. Apart from Christ this world is marked by death. Since God is the author and source of all life and the world is separated from and opposed to Him, death is all this world can produce. Well, death is not what God designed the world for. He designed it for life. Thus, and come back to the text with me in v. 4 for this one, when God moved into the neighborhood, “what came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.” Indeed, Jesus brings light to live by. The little baby born and laid in a feed trough was the light of the world not because He glowed but because everywhere He went He pointed people in the direction of living real life, not all the shadowy substitutes we settle for most of the time. Jesus brings light to live by and if we’ll receive His light we’ll find ourselves really living. Jesus brings light to live by.
Listen for a minute to some of the light He shines. Let’s look at the light He shined on the darkness of broken relationships. We have old grudges against people that act as kind of a constant chain around our neck, weighing us down, and adding years to our lives before we have a chance to live them. This is a point of darkness in our lives. Jesus shined some light: “If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” That blows out of the water our normal approaches to working things out in the dark, doesn’t it?
Or, how about another place that broken relationships are wreaking havoc on our culture? Marriage. The institution of marriage is in shambles today. Now, there are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the big ones is that the pornification of our culture has left young people clueless as to what realistic expectations for marital fidelity should look like. Jesus shined some light here too: “You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.”
Or, how about the way we think about enemies? In spite of 2,000 years of Christian witness, people still pretty much operate on the principle that enemies should be treated like…well…enemies. But, all that accomplishes is an entrenching of divisions. Jesus shined even more light here: “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.” He also fired off some generic advice: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
And with our church-tuned ears we hear that and go, “Hear, hear! That’s great advice Jesus. Stick it to ‘em!” But, what if you’re somebody who’s been wounded or who’s wounded someone else? What if you’re married and struggling with porn? What if you have some enemies with whom you don’t really want to reconcile? All of a sudden, Jesus sounds a little less like a dispenser of heavenly wisdom and a lot more like one of those busy-bodies telling you how to run your life. It almost makes you want to close your ears and run away. It makes you want to join in the chorus screaming “Judgmental!” at the church every time something hits a little too close to home. Jesus brings light to live by, but if you feel like you’re pretty content in the dark, the light hurts. Many mornings, Micah and I are the first ones out to the living room. When I turn on the light, he immediately starts hollering, “Too bright! Turn it off!” And yet it shines on. Look at v. 5 there: “The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.” There is no darkness so deep the light can’t shine in it. Jesus brings light to live by and in spite of our best efforts His light won’t be put out. He may come across as an unwanted busy-body when He’s shining light into the dark places in our lives that we’d prefer to stay a little dark so we can comfortably indulge our little sin fetishes, but He’s not going away. Jesus brings light to live by.
Here’s why: He’s not just some run-of-the-mill busy-body. He’s not a nosy neighbor looking over your shoulder suggesting that you do this or that a little differently to suit His comfort level. This is why the ordering of the verses here is so important. Jesus isn’t a garden variety busy-body because He’s God. He’s God moved into the neighborhood. He’s the one who designed and built the whole world. He knows better than anybody else—including you—how the world is supposed to work. He’s knows the patterns of interaction that will lead to life. And He’s not satisfied with just a little bit of life. He doesn’t want a patchwork creation with some live spots and some dead spots. He wants it to be all life all the time. As John later records Jesus declaring, He came into the world in order to save the world from death. The creator became a creature in order to save creation. Jesus brings light to live by. He brings light so that we can see the places where the darkness of death reigns and choose light and life in those places instead of darkness and death. Jesus brings light to live by.
So here’s what we need to do and then we’re out of here. We need to walk in the light. We need to take the advice. When we feel our cynicism meter starting to fire up because something Jesus has said is hitting a little closer to home than we’d like, we need to intentionally turn it down. In fact, with Jesus we just need to turn it off. Here’s why: He created the world. Remember? Not one thing came into being without Him. When He shines light into darkness it’s because He knows the darkness isn’t supposed to be there. There is no life in those places and He wants us to live at every place in our lives. He wants for you to be transformed fully into your God-created self. Jesus brings light to live by. In Jesus God has moved into the neighborhood in order to transform the neighborhood. He starts by revealing where the problems are that need to get fixed. Our best bet is to listen and obey. Jesus brings light to live by. This Christmas season immerse yourselves in the words of Jesus in order that you might see the light and start to live. Let His words reveal the dark places still inside of you in order that they may be illuminated and purged of death so that life can flourish there. This Christmas season walk in the light of Christ in order that you might live. Jesus brings light to live by. I hope you will.