It’s 4am on Saturday morning, and I’m wide awake & alone in the darkness. Yesterday I was diagnosed with COVID, so that means 10 days of quarantine—alone in a room, cut off from human contact, with meal plates stacked outside like a prison cell. This isn’t how I remember it. As a kid there was always something strangely magical about being sick. Sure, there were the chills and coughs and upset stomach, but there were also perks: The extra attention from Mom & Dad, staying home on a school day and watching a movie, drinking ginger ale, and—for some reason—all of the “Chicken-in a Biskit” crackers I could eat.
But this feels different. Away from family, away from church, with little but my own sick body and scattered thoughts to keep me company, one thing is abundantly clear: Darkness is very real, and at times it seems overwhelming.
And yet, here in the midst of the wintry darkness, we have this strange promise from God which defies all reason and logic and evidence to the contrary (John 1:5): “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Darkness takes many forms in our world today.
To say we live in divided times is a massive understatement. No longer do we simply disagree with one another (this has been true throughout all of human history), but now we demonize and vilify those who think differently from us. We’ve lost the capacity for empathy. It’s much easier to dismiss people than to do the difficult, painful work of slipping into their shoes. Dignified discourse has given way to anger and outrage, and if you’re anything like me, you find yourself peppering your sentences more and more with extreme language: “I don’t get how ANYONE could EVER think that way…” or “I can’t even begin to fathom where THOSE PEOPLE are coming from…” or— in extreme cases—“Those fools! Why can’t they see reason!” Jesus, however, had a stern warning for people like this (Matt 5:22):
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister “Raca" is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. It’s impossible to be angry at someone and still see them as one for whom Christ died. Our sin-hardened hearts aren’t just angry, but murderous.
It turns out, then, that the darkness resides closer to home than we thought.
And yet God’s promise stands: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
For others of us, the darkness takes a different form. Christmas can be an incredibly painful season for many. Some are grieving the loss of a loved one, and death feels a bit like losing a limb; a part of you seems gone which can never be replaced. Or maybe your grieving is pre-emptive—bad news from the doctor has turned your world upside down and a shadow now hovers over your future. Everything that once seemed bright has lost its color, and you find yourself surrounded by only muted hues. Sickness of mind, sickness of body, sickness of heart. All of these can be overwhelming, threatening to block out every last ray of hope.
Yet even here, in the darkness of this sin-sick, disease-ridden, death-infected world, God’s promise refuses to retreat: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Perhaps the darkness you face is an entirely different kind of monster. Maybe it’s fear of the unknown, or worry about how and when God is going to provide. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s on the rocks, where the gap seems just too big to be bridged. Maybe it’s a nagging voice at the back of your head reminding you that you’re not good enough; that you’re not being all you should be and doing all you should do. Maybe you’re battling feelings of guilt over past sins that won’t stop haunting you. You’re not meeting everyone’s expectations. Or maybe temptation is what you’re facing, fighting against the desire to do something you know you shouldn’t, or vice versa. Perhaps these same desires have waged war within you over the course of your lifetime. Or maybe the darkness you’re facing is just that: Darkness. A safe place to hide where the truth will never be exposed.
And yet, whatever the darkness may be, God’s promise still stands: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Though it takes many different shapes, shades, and forms, there is one thing universally true about darkness: It can only be chased away by light. This is easily proven. Turn all of the lights in your house OFF and then flip the switch in the bedroom ON. What happens? The light spills from the bedroom and floods the hallway, overwhelming the darkness. But the reverse is not true. Turn all of the lights in your house ON and then flip the switch in the bedroom OFF, and what happens? The darkness from the bedroom does not penetrate the light in the hallway. Light can pierce darkness, but darkness cannot pierce light.
Whether it’s a nighttime campfire, a lantern in the woods, or the front porch lights guiding you home, the imagery of light shining through the darkness is one we’re all intimately familiar with.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and the fellowship have just survived the Mines of Moriah, where they lost their good friend (and leader) Gandalf to a battle with a Balrog—a demon from the ancient world. Weary and grieving, they enter the woods of Lothlorien, where the elven queen Galadriel provides them with shelter and protection while they recover. And she gives Frodo a gift. It’s a glass phial which emits a powerful light: the star of Earendil. She knows the dangers that lie ahead for Frodo and the enemies he will face, so she gives him these instructions: “In this phial is caught the light of a star…it will shine still brighter when night is around you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” And—true to her promise—the phial effectively wards off many deadly attacks of the enemy.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There is no shortage of darkness in our world. Wherever we look—both inward and outward—the forces of human nature, sin, and Satan are hard at work, trying to snuff out all light. But God’s candle is not so easily extinguished. His promise is not some vague light at the end of the tunnel that we may or may not reach. In fact, God’s light has a name: Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and always. His brightness does not dim. His flame will not be snuffed out. And one day soon, he will burn away all of the darkness so that not even a memory of it will remain.
There’s a reason the first words God spoke at the beginning of Genesis were “Let there be light.” In the Creation narrative God brings order out of chaos, form out of the void, and light out of the malevolent forces of darkness. But here’s the thing about those words (“Let There Be Light”): God is not done speaking them. He is still speaking them, each and every day, into your life and mine.
“Let there be light,” he says as he forgives your sins.
“Let there be light,” he says as he brings you to the end of yourself so that he can raise you to life again.
“Let there be light,” he says as he removes your guilt and shame and replaces them with confidence and freedom.
“Let there be light,” he says as he dies on the Cross in your place and mine.
“Let there be light,” he says as the stone rolls from the empty tomb to reveal that death has been defeated forever.
“Let there be light,” he says as he casts out demons and raises the dead and shows himself Lord over every sickness and disease.
“Let there be light,” he says as he chases the night away with the dawn.
“Let there be light,” he speaks to each and every one of our hearts, today.
The light is always coming, always shining in the darkness, and that is good news for you and me. Amen.