John 1:1–5 (NIV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
If it’s not yet obvious, get comfortable here for a moment, as we linger in John 1 for a bit. These verses hold so many profound truths about God that become life-shaping realities for us when we let them, that we just can’t pass them by too quickly. In these verses, the gospel’s author poetically describes the fullness of God, creation, Christ’s nature and purpose, and what it means for us in a way that is beautifully simple, and profoundly overwhelming at times, as we attempt to understand it all. When I reflect on its revelations, I too find myself struggling to put into words the very nature, character, purpose, revelation, and relationship of God. You may have sensed me stumbling to put into words the fullness of this passage over the last few days.
However, the “with” and “was,” “with him” and “in him,” that can often be overwhelming, are brought to swift clarity for me in verse five. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The hard to describe relationship between God, and God with us, is suddenly and succinctly defined in the relationship between light and dark. Though it’s not named this way in any of the Bible’s technical translation, the way I remember this verse in my mind sounds like this, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” I don’t know if I remember it that way because of some Sunday school curriculum in our tiny church basement, or if I’ve simply remembered it that way because of the strength I find in it. Regardless, it has served me well to hear that Christ’s light has not, could not, can never, or shall not be overcome by darkness.
Bear with me for a moment, but I am a life-long United Methodist. My father was a United Methodist Pastor. I am a United Methodist Pastor. My husband is a United Methodist Pastor. My aunt is a United Methodist Pastor. And my father-in-law and mother-in-law are United Methodist Pastors. (See, I come by it honestly.) Because of that, I’ve had to attend the annual business meetings of United Methodists that are our “Annual Conference” every year, from my childhood until now. Though I certainly learned a lot at Annual Conference, it would be within a few years of attending conference as a young pastor that I learned a very important distinction about matters of law and legislation. That is, the slight but significant difference between may and shall.
For example, if someone presented legislation naming expectations for a clergy person, it may have said something like this, “every clergy, in good standing, may attend annual conference sessions.” And as that legislation was presented, debated, and analyzed before the body, at some point, someone would step up to the microphone and ask, “Should this legislation say they may, or they shall?” And in that simple ask, a hum would sweep over the room. Essentially, may was a suggestion, and shall was a command. I’m either asked to attend, or I’m instructed to attend. One is a well-wishing thought and the other is a final directive, something that is expected to happen. Saying a clergy “may” attend annual conference each year, giving permission for them to attend, is very different than saying a clergy person “shall” attend annual conference each year, requiring them to attend.
In verse five, with command, clear definition, and expectation, we’re told that darkness has not, will not, shall not, overcome the light of Christ. With commanding certainty, the Word is reassuring us that darkness has not won, and won’t start now. Not that it “may not” win, but that it “shall not” win. Darkness has a way of faking the win, making it seem as if its power is greater, and its reach all-consuming. When you’re in the dark, and it’s really dark, it’s easy to believe that any flicker of light will be quickly snuffed out as the dark expands its reach. It’s easy to feel the totality of darkness instead of the flickering possibility of light. As we walk through the darkness of uncertainty, anxiety, pain, grief, isolation, fear, crisis, and trauma the darkness convinces us of its power, and any glimmer of hope seems to fade into the uncertainty of fear and doubt.
As Gabe and I walked through our darkest moments of the sudden still-birth of our miraculous daughter, there were times where I resigned myself to a pit of despair, and believed I may never climb out. And often, the only thing that held back the power of the darkness, was the truth of God’s prevailing promise. When the feelings of darkness swirled around me, the rational reminder of God’s promise pushed back the darkness’s growing edges. When I reminded myself that the light of Christ has not been overcome, and will never be, I found strength to hold back the darkness to try to stand again. Not based on my own strength, but on the strength of his promise.
That’s the difference between promise and possibility. The light of Christ, the life, hope, and salvation found in him, that is the light of the world, is not something that may happen, it’s something that has already happened. It’s a committed, fulfilled certainty that rings as a declaration for those who will retain its promise.
When darkness overwhelms, it will not overcome.
When darkness declares victory, it has not won.
Finding ourselves in the light of Christ this Christmas, the kind that “breaks in” through us, white knuckles that truth with everything we’ve got, and builds a foundation of promise that steadies us through any darkness; not because we’re simply strong enough to declare it, but because his life and power made the promise a reality. Because life and light is the very nature of God, and radiates out from his very nature, it is more than a possibility, it is the power of divine promise fulfilled.
That beautiful advent song, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” rings in my heart and mind today as it names for us the prayer to be released from the darkness of our fear and sin, for the life of Christ to rule in us, and with longing for Christ to come again—fulfilling that divine promise once and for all.” If you’ll bear with me, I’d love to sing it with you from Our Great Redeemer’s Praise, hymn #163.
Almighty God, we join the gospel in declaring with power the promise of your victory. We claim it as a source of strength when darkness tries to deceive us, and believe the life and light you bring has already eliminated the dark. Forgive us where we’ve forgotten, questioned, or diminished what you have done and found ourselves defeated and overwhelmed by the darkness. May this Advent begin to break through in us with truth, confidence, and assurance that we might be changed by your love in tangible ways. Overcome the darkness that consumes us as we awaken to your light. In Jesus’s name, amen.
Is there a difference for you in the “may” or “shall” of this promise? Have you seen it more like a possibility, or a promise fulfilled? When you’ve found yourself pressed in by darkness and uncertain of God’s victory, what fears do you find yourself struggling with? Do those fears feel more powerful in the dark than out of it? Where do you need to find strength by claiming Christ’s victory over darkness? Name the places and begin holding them before Christ’s light.
For the Awakening,