(Teaching notes for Christmas on Union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines)
John is trying to explain the significance of Jesus birth. This is one of the most important events in human history. We measure time from Anno Domini – the year of the birth of Jesus. This is AD 2013. John begins with an explanation that would be clear to people familiar with Greek Philosophy. Their idea of God was wisdom which Greeks described as The Word. Once he has their attention John moves on to connect the birth of Jesus to being like a light coming into the world. Let us get a grasp of what John means by light coming into the world before we move on to look at the meaning of Jesus birth.
1. Isaiah reminds of what it was like to live in darkness
He uses the image of a “yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders and the rod of their oppressor” (9.4) This prophecy was written down either just before or after the Hebrew people were taken into Captivity by the Babylonians in modern day Iraq. The Hebrew people were punished by God for 80 years. They lost their freedom. They lost their sense of God being with them. For the first time in hundreds of years they felt abandoned by God. They had lost their hope in the future. They were like many people in our time who have lost their faith in God and who have never had a personal experience of God working in their lives. This describes the situation that Jesus was born into. The old religious customs were maintained by the priests. Most people had some sort of religious life. But many had given up on waiting for the promised Messiah. Like many of us they only had the distant history of relationship of the Hebrew people with God. Most did not have any personal experience of God. It was only the poor and desperate that continued to cry out to God for help. And they were not disappointed.
This light would ‘increase their joy’ and shatter the yoke that burdened them. Because Isaiah mentions a child being born we can assume this was not about the sad return of the Babylonian captives to their shattered nation. The child is obviously the Messiah. Government is to be on His shoulders. Not that military and political government that many expected, but a much greater and more cosmic establishment of spiritual order. The new spiritual order that Jesus would establish is our Baptismal Covenant or the Eucharistic Covenant that we renew each time we participate in the Eucharist – the celebration of what Jesus accomplished by His life, death and resurrection. It was the sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross that shattered the yoke or the bar across the shoulders that burdened all of humanity from the time of the Fall. Human sinfulness separated us from God. Only a few very holy people were blessed with personal experiences of God. Everyone was under the dark shadow of knowing they would eventually die and cease to exist. We were without hope of a personal relationship with God. Jesus was like a light coming into the world that changed human fear and separation into joy and relationship. This is what the Apostle John was trying to explain when he describes Jesus as being like a light coming into the world.
3. The Apostle John tells us how to receive the light of Jesus
This is a very condensed overview of cosmic history. He begins with the story of John the Baptist. John the Baptist lived in a time very much like our own. Religious practice had become ritualistic. Many church leaders had become corrupt. In fact John had to get right out of Jerusalem and escape to the wilderness to purify himself and establish a powerful prayer life. He describes the clergy sent to investigate as “snakes”. The message of John the Baptist was to prepare to receive the coming Messiah by repenting past sins and being baptized as a sign of new spiritual birth. Jesus himself went through this baptism to model this as a way of entry into new spiritual life. With this introduction the Apostle John gives us a summary of his Gospel and the bottom line for entering into this new and eternal spiritual life. He contrasts the sad news that Jesus came to Hs own people – the Jews, and many of them rejected Him; with the God News that “all who receive Him, to those who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God...born of God” (Jn.1.13) All of us can chose to come out of the darkness of separation and fear and enter into the eternal spiritual life in the light of Jesus. This requires a serious choice to put our trust in Jesus. For many it is a long struggle of reading the Bible and prayer before we are ready. The Good News is we are not alone. Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to open our spiritual eyes and help us see and give us personal experiences of God that make it real in our lives.
May God Bless you this Christmas as you stand in the light!