The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Christmas is apocalyptic.
Now, I don’t mean that in the Mad Max sense—I mean in it the biblical sense, where that which is truly apocalyptic throws open the curtains of our every day lives and reveals the cosmic realities that are at work behind it.
Take my favorite Christmas passage, for example: Revelation 12. It involves a woman who is about to give birth in the heavens, clothed in the sun, standing on the moon; a dragon who wants to devour her child, whose tail sweeps a third of the stars out of the sky; and a final cataclysmic, cosmic war between St. Michael the archangel and that dragon.
Please put this on your Christmas cards next year!
Unfortunately—or fortunately, in God’s providence—we’re not in Revelation 12 today. We are in John 1.1–18. And yet I hold that it is every bit as apocalyptic as Revelation because it reveals who Jesus is and how his incarnation is part of God’s plan to conquer sin and death and renew all things.
St. John begins this revelation with the words, “In the beginning,” bringing us back all the way to Genesis 1. And so, following his lead as he was led by the Holy Spirit that is where we will begin today, too.
II. Christ — Creator, Sustainer, Victorious Savior
II.A. Christ the Creator
Genesis 1—the liturgy of creation. It begins with a call to worship: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But then we read that “the earth was chaotic and desolate, darkness covered the sea, and God’s Spirit hovered over its surface.” God said, “Let there be light!” Light comes into being and it invades the darkness.1
This pattern of call-and-response continues throughout the liturgy: on days 1 through 3 God overcomes the chaos by shaping it into ecosystems with order and beauty; and on days 4 through 6 God defeats the desolation by filling those habitats with flourishing life. Finally, God creates human beings—his images, his icons—and he places them in Eden as royal priests. With a benediction, he sends them out into the rest of creation to continue his work of cultivating order, beauty, and flourishing.
But things go wrong, don’t they? Adam and Eve believe the serpent-hissed lie that true flourishing comes in exercising their own autonomy apart from God. They disobey God and sin enters the world bringing chaos, disorder, and desolation back with it.
Now, all of this is the background that St. John has in mind when he reveals to us that Jesus, born to an unwed mother in an insignificant town, was both with God before creation and was also God. Jesus not only saw the dawn of creation, he himself was the Word through whom all things were created, who conquered that chaos and desolation, who brought order, beauty, and flourishing into the world.
II.B. Christ the Sustainer
Well, St. Paul, as you might expect, agrees with John. In the epistle to the Colossians he says that not only did Jesus create all things but he also adds that Jesus himself holds all things together. He sustains all things.2
As Mary was cradling the infant Jesus in her arms the second person of the Trinity was ensuring that every single atom in every single molecule in the entirety of the universe held together and staid its course.
Jesus was with God, was God, was the creator, and is the sustainer of all things.
If that’s not enough, St. John continues: “In him was life; that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…[Jesus], the true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world…but the world refused to welcome him…his own people rejected him.”3
II.C. Christ the Victorious Savior
So, on one hand, St. John victoriously declares that the darkness can not extinguish the light. But on the other hand, he says that Jesus, the true light, entered into the darkness of a sinful world and was rejected. Indeed, he was crucified.
This tension is the crux of our faith. How can a crucified Messiah also be a victorious savior?
Because that’s what we believe, right? That victory comes through a crucifixion.
Well, we have to understand that the only solution to sin is that death has to be overcome. And death cannot be defeated by not dying. That’s like claiming you won a gold medal despite never having been invited to compete in the Olympics. Death can only be defeated in participation—by dying and resurrecting only to never die again.
When Jesus was born there was already an expectation that, when the Messiah came, he would overthrow the earthly empires—particularly the empire of Rome. After that, he would rule over his faithful people in a new heavens and a new earth. What they never considered was that this act of salvation and restoration would actually come in two stages. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ was stage one.
In the incarnation Jesus did not come to overthrow the earthly empires, but to overthrow the empire behind those earthly empires: the kingdom of Satan, sin, and death.
III. Christ Overcomes Sin & Death
Jesus, the only sinless one who could escape death by right, had to die so that he could be victorious through his resurrection. Darkness had to appear victorious for just a little while; Jesus had to be rejected and crucified so that he could conquer sin on the cross and death in his resurrection. And, in doing so, Jesus took the judgment for our sin and he opened up a new and better way of participating in death: by participating in his death and in his resurrection, by faith.
Now, the Fall had a tragic irony that echoes throughout the ages. The serpent told Adam and Eve that in exercising their autonomy they would gain a deeper knowledge of good and evil.4 And they did indeed gain a deeper knowledge as they recognized their guilt and their shame before a holy God. In response, they hid from God in order to hide their guilt and they tried to cover their shame with sewn-together fig leaves.
You might be thinking, “How foolish!” and you would be right. But we ought not think too highly of ourselves, either, because in all the millennia that has passed since that time, we are still hiding our guilt and our shame by sewing our own fig leaves.
We are still born into the kingdom of sin and death; born with such a corruption of our core being that St. Augustine described our post-Fall nature as non posse non peccare—unable to not sin.5
In his graciousness, God exposes our sin as an invitation to confess and repent. He did this with Adam and Eve with the simple, but probing, question, “Where are you?” And, he does this with us through his Law. Yet, in our sinfulness, this exposure causes a chaos to erupt in our hearts. We run, we hide, we sew our fig leaves, we do anything we can to suppress the exposure of the light and slink back to the comfort of the darkness.
You see, the Law exposes, it kills, but it cannot resurrect. It diagnoses our problem but it offers no cure. God’s Law is gracious but it is limited. Thanks be to God that in Jesus we have a grace piled on top of that grace6—because apart from that grace given to us in Jesus we will always return to and choose our fig leaves over forgiveness. We will come back again and again to the serpent’s lie, “Did God really say?”
Some of us believe the lie that a loving God would never judge us or our sins—not seeing that if this were true then there is no true justice in this world and that God is actually unloving because it would allow things like murder and sexual predation to ultimately go unpunished.
Others believe the lie that if God is fair, yeah, those people will be punished, but not those of us who are trying our best to be good. Yet Scripture says that, with respect to God’s standard of perfection, no one is good enough.7 We minimize our sin, making out our cosmic treason to be bad habits that have to be overcome.
Still others believe that the forgiveness God offers in Christ means that our holiness isn’t that important. “God will just forgive us anyways,” we say, cheapening the death of Christ8 and making God out to be a liar when he says, “be holy for I am holy.”9
And finally, there are those of us who agree with God’s judgment of our sins through the Law, but believe the lie that our sin is too horrible for God to forgive us. Others, sure. But God could never love someone like me.
The incarnation exposes whatever fig leaves we’ve sewn for the lies that they are. It proclaims to everyone that God’s grace and forgiveness is made available to all in Christ Jesus.10 Jesus lived the life we should have lived, he died the death we deserve, and gained the resurrection we so desperately need. And the Gospel says that he gives us his life, his death, and his resurrection when we are united to him by faith.
St. John writes, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—not through natural birth, but by being born of God.”11
The son of God became a human being so that sinful human beings could become sons and daughters of God in whom he is well pleased.12
In this new birth God overcomes our sinful nature, he unites us to Christ in his death, he promises that we will share in his resurrection, and he reserves our place in the renewed creation—the very same new creation whose gates will be permanently shut to chaos, disorder, desolation, sin, and death, but whose gates are flung wide open to welcome all who come believing in his name.13
The serpent continues to hiss his lies, but God sent his son, the incarnate Word, to speak a better word: “I am the good shepherd,” he says. “My sheep hear his voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.”14
And again, he says, “I have said these things so that in me you might have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have over come the world.”15
And so I ask you: How much easier is it for Jesus, who overcame the chaos and desolation of Genesis 1.2, to overcome the chaos and desolation of our own sinful hearts? Can not the One who stilled the waves that stormy, chaotic night on the Galilean sea not also say, “Peace! Be still!” to our disordered souls?16
On the cross Jesus took upon himself the chaos and desolation of God’s judgment for our sin,17 so that we could find in him the peace, and the beauty, and the flourishing that is found only in God’s forgiveness in Christ.
By faith, he removes our fig leaves and clothes us in his righteousness.
By faith, he stills the restlessness of our hearts and leads us to find our rest in him.18
Friends, take heart. He has overcome the world.
In the name of the Father, the ☩Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Genesis 1.1–3. In Genesis 1.2, the phrase “without form and void” (NRSV) translates the words ṯōhû wāḇōhû, understood to mean something like “chaos and desolate.” ↩︎
Colossians 1.15–17 ↩︎
Cf. John 1.4, 5, 9–11. Vv. 9-11 was excerpted from author’s own translation. ↩︎
Cf. Genesis 3.1–5. ↩︎
St. Augustine, Treatise on Rebuke and Grace, XXXIII. ↩︎
Cf. John 1.16–17. ↩︎
Romans 3.9–18; cf. Psalm 14.1–3, 53.1–3, and other citations. ↩︎
“What then are we to say? Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Romans 6.1–4 (NRSV). ↩︎
Leviticus 11.44–45, 19.2, 20.26; 1 Peter 1.16. ↩︎
Titus 2:11–14. ↩︎
John 1.12–13, author’s translation. ↩︎
Matthew 3.17, Mark 1.11, Luke 3.22; John 1.12; Galatians 4:4–5; Ephesians 1.5. ↩︎
Revelation 21. ↩︎
John 10.14–15, 27–28. ↩︎
John 16.1. ↩︎
Mark 4.35–41, Luke 8.22–25. This miracle of Jesus intentionally recalls Genesis 1, affirming St. John’s claim in John 1.1–5. ↩︎
In Jeremiah 4.23–27, the prophet describes God’s judgment against Israel in terms of de-creation; this poem is the reversal of Genesis 1, from order and flourishing back to chaos and desolation. ↩︎
St. Augustine, Confessions, book 1, I.1. ↩︎