“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The story of Christmas is the story of God coming among us and affirming the life of the world – the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
It is very easy to lose sight of this positive message from this ancient story – this message of hope: God cares about what God has made!
So often I believe the Christian story has been dominated by a more negative narrative. Looking back through 2000 years of Christian history and theology we find tales of judgement, of who is going to the good place and who is going to the others place, of who is in and who is out, and we find stories of moralism and exclusion. The good news is only good for some.
I believe that this negative narrative can so easily shape our whole world view, our approach to life and our proclamation. So often we use the negative narratives that surround us to feed the negative narrative of the church as if by this people will turn to God.
I confess there have been many times that I have bought into this kind of negativity. I wonder whether the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s famous book “The Population Bomb” which coincided with the year of my birth in 1968 has contributed to my willingness to listen to the so-called prophets of doom. Or maybe it was assassination of Martin Luther king Junior or the Vietnam War and the shadow of the Cold War. This was the world that I was born in to.
But since then the prophets of doom have been so many especially in relationship to the issues of climate and over-consumption and finite resources.
For me John Carroll’s book “Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture” as well as Clive Hamilton’s book “Requiem for a Species” were certainly formational. These books fed the concerns that I have for the way that we are conducting ourselves as a human species. Since reading them other books like “Climate Code Red” and Paul Gilding’s “The Great Disruption” have also feed these negative narrative.
Now, let me be clear I do not doubt the seriousness with which these authors raise concerns for us. As human beings living on this fragile planet we are very much in a precarious situation – the future feels uncertain and I do not put much faith in human beings.
The fears and concerns that I have, and no doubt that many of you share, are fed by the constant news cycle which likes to sensationalise and play on our fears. Anyone who reads or watch the news whether it is online or in more traditional formats will be aware of the weight that the news corporations place on our shoulders continuously.
The negative narratives sell and the temptation as a Christians is simply to say, "See we do need God" as if somehow we are above or beyond all these problems – but we in church are as complicit with the problems of the world as the next person and this is ironic since we are supposed to have a story which is meant to be good news. Good news which we celebrate on Christmas Day.
Jesus' birth is God’s commitment to what God has made – life. This is good news “the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
On this Christmas day it would be easy for me to be sentimental and say to you we just need to love each other more, or to say that the negative narrative of God's wrath and judgement will be countered by your personal salvation but I believe God’s vision is far bigger than the salvation of individuals and God's very nature is love.
God’s desire is for the life of the world. The closing chapter of the scriptures provide us not the vision of a destroyed creation but of a new heaven and earth – a coming kingdom dominated by God’s peace
One of my good friends and mentors was the Catholic Bishop Michael Putney who always used to speak of looking for times in which “peace breaks out” to look for the signs of God at work renewing and recreating the world.
To put it another way he was encouraging me not to listen to the negative narrative, which is a particular predilection for Protestants, but to listen for the positive presence of the Prince of Peace, Jesus: who was born in Bethlehem and who has walked and who now walks among us.
As I contemplated this notion of the positive presence of Jesus with us I was reminded of the research of the Swedish Doctor Hans Rosling shared on the TED website. In a talk from a few years ago Rosling points out that less people are being killed by natural disasters and fewer people are living below the poverty line. A report put out this year by the World Bank tracking development goals recently confirmed again that fewer people on the planet live below the poverty line.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” People are getting access to greater wealth and I believe that this will lead to better lives. John 10:10 says that Jesus came that we might have life and life abundantly.
Alongside this good news I came across a statistical research video produced by Neil Halloran which looks at the number of deaths caused by wars and conflicts from World War 2 until today. World War Two stands out as a travesty in human history but what was really interesting is how since World War 2 that overall we are killing each other less as a species.
In 1989 John Lewis Gaddes coined the phrase the Long Peace to reflect the changes that have taken place in significant world conflict since the 1950s. Whilst through this period and into our present time there have been continued conflicts statistically the number of people killed in these conflicts has reduced dramatically.
Don’t get me wrong, anytime Cain raises his hand against Abel, when we kill each other in war or in times of peace it is a travesty. But the good news is that we are getting better as a race. This is not to diminish the serious situation that has been unfolding in Syria and Iraq but overall we are doing better and we should hear this as good news
“What has come into being in him was life!” Life is a precious gift and we need to continue to learn to value the lives of others more deeply for it is in others we meet Christ presence with us.
And finally, the recent Paris Climate Agreement has given us some hope in the area of the warming of the planet. The will and the commitment to meeting this challenge for all humanity is changing.
God’s desire for us is life and the promise of God is that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
The positive presence of the Word of God becoming flesh does not mean that everything is going smoothly. The scriptures tells us that he came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him. God’s presence alongside us does create conflict within us and confronts us with the problems of our own lives and of the community of humanity in which we live.
Sentimentalising Christmas does not take the Word becoming flesh seriously, neither does focussing on a negative narrative proclaim the hope of Christmas. On this day we remember that God’s desire for us and the whole creation is life and life in all its fullness and on this day I would encourage to seek out the signs of this promise - to see where peace is breaking out as Michael would have said!
This is indeed the good news: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
It is my hope and prayer for you this Christmas that you will encounter in your own life the positive presence and power of the Prince of Peace, the Word of God made flesh. And, that this encounter will help you to live in with hope.
(Photo: Courtesy of Rod Shea Instagram)