By Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson, Crosswalk.com
We lived at one time on Unst (find it on a map, if you can—a clue to its whereabouts is that in the dead of winter there are only five hours of daylight). One overcast night, I placed my hand in front of my eyes—and I could see nothing. I realised then that, as a former city-dweller, I had never until then experienced real darkness. The memory of that night returns whenever Matthew’s words are read in Christmas services:
The people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region
and shadow of death [the same Hebrew word as Psalm 23:4],
on them a light has dawned. (Matthew 4:16, quoting Isaiah 9:1-2)
For Matthew, the coming of Jesus was the dawning of redeeming grace, breaking into deep spiritual darkness. Our world is still engulfed by it. Even the best people—like the theologian Nicodemus—can listen to Jesus with minds so spiritually darkened that they respond (as he did), “I cannot see this. How can it be?” (see John 3:1-14). To such people Jesus came—and comes—as the Light of the world (John 8:12). He opens our spiritual eyes and brings us out of our darkness to sing with John Newton and the blind man whose words he echoed (John 9:25):
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
As Matthew put it: “a light has dawned.”
A Light in the Secular Darkness
Christmas is a time of light. This year, as every year, trees inside and whole houses outside will be covered in lights. In our post-Christian world, Christmas is an annual reminder that deep within the human heart is the need for light—spiritual as well as physical—in order to have life. So, thankfully, Christmas continues to be celebrated. And the ongoing celebration of the festival is like a parable reminding us that unbelievers borrow, however inconsistently, from a Christian worldview in order to lighten the darkness of the implication of a secular humanism: namely that, ultimately, life has neither inherent nor transcendent meaning, purpose, or goal. Why? Because it is impossible to live consistently with that intolerable perspective.
I remember, at the end of my first term at university, standing in the bookshop at the end of my first term and overhearing the voice of one of my lecturers enquiring, “Do you sell Christmas cards here?” A perfectly normal question in December, you might think. But the voice belonged to the vice-president of the British Humanist Association! It is, apparently, not easy to live consistently with secular humanism. People still want and need what Christmas offers. My professor certainly did not want to live in a Narnia-like world where it is “always winter but never Christmas.”
Pull on the Threads
This Christmastime you too may encounter people who reveal similar “loose threads” in their thinking, speaking, and living. Our task as Christians is—usually gently!—to pull on those threads until the truth unravels, and our friends realize their deep needs. For we know something about non-Christians that they characteristically deny about themselves: they cannot escape the knowledge of God and therefore must find ways of suppressing and repressing it (Romans 1:18-22). But they cannot either destroy or fill “the God-shaped gap” every divine image-bearer experiences. For our existence depends on him. We are created, after all, “in his image” (Genesis 1:26-28).
So, if you see these loose threads appear this Christmas, pull on them, knowing that you have good news to share. For Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). God loves to bring light into dark places. He did so at the original creation when he said, “Let there be light.” It was in the darkness of Mary’s womb that the Light of the world was conceived who later, in the darkness of Calvary, died for our sins, and who then, in the darkness of the garden tomb, rose again. God continues to shine into human hearts to enable us to see his glory “in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
So today Jesus, the Light of the World, tells us, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Christians are miniature reflecting lights, illuminating the path that leads to Christ. He becomes visible in the speech, demeanor, relationships, and family lives that reflect him. By these simple means he draws others—often unwittingly and at first unwillingly—to himself.
Christmas, then, is a time to celebrate that Jesus is still the Light of the World. And it is a time to pray that the way we celebrate him will reflect his love to others and that some who approach this Christmas in spiritual darkness will experience for themselves the great joy of the dawn of redeeming grace.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Diego Grandi
Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson is a Scottish pastor, author, conference speaker, Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor's Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. His new advent devotional, The Dawn of Redeeming Grace is full of insight and application, and will help you to arrive at Christmas Day awed by God's redeeming grace and refreshed by the hope of God’s promised king.