Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of the passing of Nelson Mandela. As remembrances came across my computer screen, I was reminded of a visit to Zimbabwe some years ago where I had the privilege of hearing him speak. Robert Mugabe was also on the platform that day and I remember being struck by the great difference in the receptions afforded the two men. While Mugabe was greeted with polite (faint) applause, the room filled with ululations and other expressions of appreciation and admiration as Mandela stepped to the podium. Mandela, on that day, praised the missionaries who had been so influential in his walk with Christ and he insisted he would not have been the man he was if not for his faith. I pray that followers of Christ who are reading this today might honor Mandela (and, more importantly, the God he served), by celebrating what Christ has done for us and by working each day for justice, peace, forgiveness, and righteousness wherever the Lord calls us.
Mandela famously said, “I knew, as I walked from prison, if I didn’t forgive them, I would never be free.”
If there is anyone reading this today who has not met Jesus, I pray you might take note of how a walk with Christ may transform your life as it did Mandela’s. I pray you might invite Jesus into your life, celebrate your first Christmas with great joy, and know the all-surpassing peace of the Lord all your days.
Image: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
From 46 years ago comes a story about the power of light. Darrel Dore was working on an oil rig one day in the Gulf of Mexico when suddenly it began to wobble. Before too long it tipped to one side and crashed into the water. Darrel found himself trapped inside a room on the rig. As the rig sank deeper and deeper into the sea, the lights went out and the room where Darrel was trapped began filling with water. Thrashing about in the darkness, Darrel made a life-saving discovery: a huge air bubble was forming in the corner of the room. He kept his head inside that bubble of air and prayed that someone would find him.
As he prayed, Darrel knew he wasn’t alone; he felt the presence of Christ there with him. For 22 hours, the presence of the Lord comforted Darrel, but at the same time Darrel knew that the oxygen supply inside the bubble was slowly giving out. Soon he would be dead.
Then Darrel saw a tiny star of light shimmering in the pitch‑black water. Was it real or, after 22 hours, was he beginning to hallucinate? Darrel squinted to see. The light seemed to grow brighter. He squinted again. He wasn’t hallucinating. The light was real. It was coming from the helmet of a diver who was coming to rescue him. His long nightmare was over. His rescue was at hand.
This true story helps us understand Christmas. Sin had wobbled our world, tipped it to one side, and sent it crashing into the waters of spiritual disaster. Darkness was everywhere. The human race was drowning in sin, facing certain spiritual death. Then people turned to God. They prayed in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, you are angry and we are sinful, all of us have become unclean…Save and deliver us.”
And they waited for the One promised to them: The Messiah. Then, when the night seemed darkest, something remarkable happened: a star appeared in the sky heralding the arrival of the Light of the world.
Into the darkness came the Light. The Savior appeared, Jesus, the Light of the world.
Perhaps we all have stories of how precious is light when all is dark about us. Luci Swindoll tells about a friend who, along with six strangers, was caught in a stalled elevator during a power failure. Fear was quickly turning to panic. But then Luci’s friend remembered that she had a tiny flashlight in her purse. When she turned it on, the fear in the elevator dissipated. For forty‑five minutes, these strangers sat around the light and talked, laughed, and even sang. The light brought comfort when they needed it the most.
And just when the world most needed God’s light, a baby was born in Bethlehem, translated from the Hebrew (House of Bread). And this child, Jesus (whose name means Savior) was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger (a feeding trough). The Bread of Life. The Light of the World.
The great truth of Christmas, the great message of Christmas, the great promise of Christmas, the great joy of Christmas, is all wrapped up in one word, Emmanuel… which means God with us God is always with us! The true Light is with us. The Light of Bethlehem is with us and, as we have received Christ, that Light is in us and shines through us.
Let’s recall again, as folks do this time each year, the events that occurred in Bethlehem when the Messiah—the Light—came into the world.
A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all people should take part in a census. Everyone returned to his or her own hometown to be registered. Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. Joseph was from that town, the city of David, and while they were there, Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Luke tells us there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks. Luke writes, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
You can visit the place where it is believed the shepherds were that night. It is a vast pasture area still today where shepherds still take their sheep there to feed. You can stand in those fields and see Bethlehem in the distance. In that place, the shepherds were surprised and terrified as “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
But in Psalm 27, we read that, The LORD is our light and our salvation — so why should we be afraid? The Lord is our stronghold of our lives so we need not be afraid. In Isaiah 41 we are urged not to be afraid, for He is with us. He is our God. He will strengthen us. He will help us. He will uphold us with His victorious right hand. And in Isaiah 51, we are told that sorrow and mourning will disappear, and that those who follow the Lord will be overcome with joy and gladness.
The light of Bethlehem still shines on us.
One of my prayers this season is that we might all be surprised again by the light, surprised by the joy, surprised by the blessings, surprised by Christmas! That we might not just let the passages sit on us and fall off us but that we might take them in and be illuminated by them in a new way, in a startling way, in a joy-filled, light-filled way. I pray also that we might carry Christmas with us all through the year.
Some years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Pennsylvania, I suggested that folks leave out or up some reminder of Christmas all year round. One woman told me that she and her family had decided to leave out their nativity scene—I think it was probably a Fisher Price set. Her little daughter, Lilah, called the figures in the set her “guys” and she would often walk around carrying her Jesus. She spent so much time holding on to him that a lot of his features rubbed off. Would that we all would keep Jesus so close, that we would all hold Him so tight, that lots of Jesus would rub off on us!
We can learn so much from children in their simple, yet profound, expressions of faith. Sometimes, in the rush of the world, we forget to hold on to Jesus. Each year at Christmas, the church in Pennsylvania had a live nativity on the property, complete with barn animals. Then one year, I suggested we put that display on a flatbed truck and take it on the road for the city’s Christmas parade. We gathered all our folks and lined up at the starting point, but then it dawned on us: we were missing the baby Jesus. We came up with the last-ditch idea of using my knitted gloves bundled up under the swaddling clothes as stand in for Jesus, but then one father of young children [bless his heart!) saved the day—running home and arriving back in the nick of time with a baby doll. In all our careful preparations, it wasn’t until we looked at the empty manger, until we looked at our Mary’s empty arms, that we realized how desperately we needed our Jesus. How’s that for profundity? Too often, we do the very same thing at Christmas – leaving Jesus behind.
I must note that our presence in the parade—our nativity scene—turned out to be the only true Christmas presence in the sea of marching bands; beauty queens; antique cars; politicians; clowns; storybook, movie and TV characters; floats advertising local businesses; and—of course—Santa. I must say, however, our nativity scene rivaled Santa in popularity. People all along the route literally squealed with delight when they saw us…and old and young yelled, “Look, it’s Jesus!! It’s the baby Jesus!!”
A dear friend, Tom Graffagnino, who is an author, poet and visual artist, wrote a lament that aptly summarizes what’s happened to many contemporary celebrations of Christmas:
Christmas now means TV Specials, Hopeful Fridays in the black. Sleighs and reindeer on the rooftops… Santas with their bulging sacks.
We’ve got busy elves and grinches, We hear workshop “Ho-Ho-Ho’s!” Deca-dancing through the malls, sir… Where there’s more wind yet to sow.
Huge parades in front of Macy’s Have a Hollywoodish spin. Talking heads all reading prompters, Pantomiming stars with grins.
Giant Garfields floating by us… Frosty blow-ups on the lawn. Nonsense from the Tow’r of Babel, That just babbles on and on.
There are bowl games in the offing, And, O, my!…They bring us Joy! Celebrations in the end zone… Barbie dolls and tinker toys.
Yes, we covet Golden Calves, son, That our neighbors bought this year. In the meantime, we’re quite certain That there is no God to fear.
* * *
Is it really any wonder That, my friend, we’ve lost our way? We’ve lost sight, and now we wander Blind in fog of 50 Grays.
* * *
Truth appeared in flesh before us, True Light dwelt in time and space. Now we scoff our way through Target… And ignore Amazing Grace.
Ah, but still, the Light shines. The light of Christ never stops shining. Our parents and grandparents saw the Light’s glow in the darkest hours of the depression. Our soldiers have seen the Light’s glow even on distant battlefields. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The Light shines in prison camps. The Light shines in hospital rooms and funeral parlors. The Light shines amidst poverty and the Light shines into sunken rooms on oil rigs. The Light shines in every manner of heartache and hardship. Nothing can stop the Light of God’s love for humankind from penetrating the darkness.
As John declares so beautifully in verses 4 and 5 in the first chapter of his gospel, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of humankind. The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Jesus is the Light of the world. That Light cannot be extinguished.
Let this light of joy give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people.”
Do not be afraid. Why? Because of this good news of great joy. What is the antidote to fear? The opposite of fear, the antidote to fear, the cure of fear, is joy. The joy of Christmas will keep you from being afraid. A deep, profound trust in the gift of Bethlehem will keep you from being afraid.
Armed with the joy of Christmas, this light of joy shining around you, you can stand against anything and everything that would threaten you. Courage means we know who we are, in spite of everything we face, and we can face even those things which threaten to destroy us.
In December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the German army surrounded some Americans in the village of Bastogne. The German commander sent a message ordering the Americans to surrender. The American commander sent back a one-word message, “Nuts!” It was one of the greatest responses of military history.
That is the message of Christmas for every Herod and every heartache and every hatred and every hardship and everything that would destroy you — Nuts! Or, as the angel put it, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.”
Let the light of Christmas give you courage. The Savior—the Light of the World, the Author of Joy, is your best gift at Christmas. He has come to save the world and He has come to save you.
As you travel about in this season, look at all the lights strung to illuminate the darkness and ponder the beauty of it all, ponder what the world would be without Light and remember that we have the privilege of sharing the Light. That’s our job when we leave this place. Let the light of Christ shine through you. Let this light give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy!”
Prepare Him room and receive the joy that illuminates the world.
Perhaps you might wish to lift this prayer:
Gracious God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we come to You, the faithful One, who stands with us in and through all things. We rejoice this Advent season in the sure and steadfast hope that is ours in Jesus the Lord. As we draw closer to Christmas, keep us growing ever stronger in mind and spirit. Enable us to walk each day in holiness and purity. May our lives express such devotion to the faith that has claimed us that there would be about us no wavering testimony but instead a witness of love that will be clearly understood by all we encounter. Lord, make us shine like the stars. May we do everything without complaining or arguing as we hold out the Word of Life. May we be glad and rejoice in You.
May we hold on tight to you, Jesus, and may Your Holy Spirit fill us to the brim. May we rejoice in your Presence and walk in Your Light. In the name of the Savior we pray. Amen
In closing, I’d like to share one more poem by Tom Graffagnino:
He’s the Reason for the season, He’s the Reason for them all… He’s the Truth, the Living Water, Spring of Hope beyond The Fall.
He’s the Reason there’s a harvest, He’s the Firstfruit, He’s the Seed, He’s the Word the Father’s sowing Through the Bride…the Bread we need.
He’s the Light of dawn we long for, Justice truly…and the Scale. He’s the Shepherd by still water, He’s the Truth beyond the veil.
He’s the Reason there is reason, And the Reason there is Good, He’s the Reason why you ought not, And the Reason why you should.
He’s the Reason for amazement, He’s the Reason why there’s awe…. He’s the Reason why we trembled At the sunset that we saw.
He’s the Reason that now Heaven Is a place that we may be… And the reason, friend, is simple: It’s a place called Calvary.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And now unto Him, who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord before all time, now, and for evermore. Amen.