Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ during coming Christmas and New Year.
2020 has been a complex, confusing and sometimes difficult year. Our reactions have been equally mixed – fear, frustration, anger, relief, grief, selfishness, pride, joy and disappointment, among others. Are we glad that our society has been spared the worst (so far at least), or do we mourn those who have died, or who live in circumstances far worse than our own? Is self-protection paramount, or should we risk our safety for the welfare of others?
You could say that our bubble of invincibility has burst, a perpetual lesson going back to the tower of Babel. In Genesis 11 God scattered people across the earth. In 2020 we hunkered down. Essentially, we could only deal with the disease by hiding from it, and our governments quickly became very good at making us do that. Soon, with the help of vaccines, we might just re-establish enough control to return to business as normal – or close to. Human beings are great adaptors. And, at least in Australia and New Zealand, our lifestyles will probably be largely unchanged, except for a few things like travel.
What have we learned from 2020? Once we know the answer to that question, we will know how wise or foolish we have become. I pray for wisdom – the wisdom of knowing that we are not our own gods, but there is One, whom we know as Jesus Christ, who is Immanuel, God for Us. And knowing him, and having faith in him, who was born in the Bethlehem manger, is the way to eternal life, whatever the ravages of this present life.
Our faith is not reliant on our security in this world. It does not rely on successful systems which meet all our needs. It does not depend on maintaining the comforting, familiar structures of society and church. God would still save us without all these things.
When the people of Israel, devastated and fearful, found themselves caught between a pursuing army and the impassable waters of the Red Sea, Moses said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’ Then God cut through the waters for them and they walked through on dry land.
Our dry land, the bedrock of our faith, is Jesus Christ. The devil and the world have already done their worst to him, and he has overcome it all, even death. To paraphrase Moses, we now need to stand firm in our Saviour and keep still while the Lord fights for us. When distressed, Martin Luther would comfort himself by repeating, ‘I am baptised! I am baptised!’
When the world tries to destroy us, tempting us to abandon Jesus and justify ourselves, we too can reply, ‘I am baptised! God has given me faith in my Saviour Jesus Christ. In his name I am washed clean.’ We can still stand together confidently today as God’s baptised, redeemed family of sinners and saints. With him there is enough love, and enough power, to save the whole world.
Thank you for supporting and praying for your church this year, locally, in your district, churchwide and worldwide. In the LCANZ churchwide office we have been grateful to receive many expressions of support from wonderful people across this great community of ours. God bless you all in your Christmas worship and preparations for 2021, if God in his mercy grants us yet another year of grace.
I have included a prayer and a reflection with this message for those of you who may care to use them.
Yours in Christ our Saviour,
Bishop John Henderson
Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand
Adelaide, 18 December 2020
O Lord our God we ask for faith and wisdom to trust you and to know what is right. We are grateful for your protection this year and praise you for the mercy which with you comfort and console us in our need. But please, save us from selfishness and pride. May we truly come to love others as you do. We pause now to pray for all those who suffer extreme pain or are close to death because of COVID-19 and the many other diseases that afflict us in this world. We remember people without access to health care, who are isolated from their families and loved ones, and all those who suffer. We remember the victims of abuse and violence. Please be gracious to your people. We ask you for loving hearts and generous hands that reach out to those in need. Help us challenge injustice where we see it, knowing that your love overcomes all evil. Fill us with so much joy this Christmas that all our fears are banished, and we have the faith and courage to reach out into all the world with your love. In Christ our Lord, Amen.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
In Genesis 1, God’s first creative act is to say, ‘Let there be light’. With that Word light came into being and God separated the light from the darkness.
In the opening verses of St John’s gospel, we read, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ God, who in creation is beyond all created things, now comes into the world as a human being. In John 8 Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’
In matters of salvation, as in creation, God still separates the light from the darkness.
The familiar Christmas reading from Isaiah 9, contains the same theme: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’; and, ‘those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.’
Isaiah is referring to the waywardness of the people of Israel, but the spiritual reference is to human sin, which blinds us all to the light. By nature, we live in darkness because we have allowed sin to separate us from the loving God who created heaven and earth. Without God we cope as best we can, but we cannot find our way towards the light.
The light does come to us, but not out of the darkness of the world. It comes from beyond this world and shines into our darkness. Pure and clean, light exposes things that the darkness wants to hide, including those we try to hide inside us, the idols with which we replace God, particularly our egos, that keep us from knowing God as God wants to be known.
The Bible’s message about light and darkness tells us that we don’t make up the meaning, purpose and morality for ourselves. Currently, we are living through the age of the individual in which reality is measured by my own self-assessment of who I am and how things should be. In other words, the ego is number one, and everything else serves my purposes.
By contrast, Christian faith points beyond the ego, to the one who is the creator of heaven and earth, and in whom, as St Paul quotes in Acts 17:28, ‘we live and move and have our being’. God is the source of all life, meaning and morality – the one true God of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can only find our true selves in him. Through God’s Word we discover not only who God is, but also who we are.
The theme of light and darkness continues throughout the gospels, including the Christmas narrative. Jesus was born in a stable – presumably at night (see Luke 2:8) – bright angels in the heavens, a star streaming light leading the magi to the manger – and in all cultures, including highly secularised ones, it’s obligatory for Christmas celebrations to feature lights of various kinds.
We believe that God’s call to humanity is to live in the light of Christ. But, people wonder, how can we be sure this unlikely tale is the true light? Why look to a baby? They are special, sure, but commonplace. Why not look to our own endurance, our scientific and social achievements, or the vastness of the cosmos? Surely God is somewhere in these things, waiting until we are smart enough, technologically advanced enough, and independent enough to find God where God is?
But if that’s where we look for God, faith tells us that all we will find is merely a larger, flawed version of ourselves. Darkness will remain, because it cannot recognise the light. (Another way of translating John 1:6 is, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not understand it.’)
The true light of Christmas is the light of the baby. Look there and see how God enters the world, unremarkably, delicately, normally, without fanfare or the usual scenes of wrath and destruction we associate with the coming of God. The baby is so unassuming that the world hardly notices him – and still doesn’t. Even at Christmas the Christ child is constantly gazumped by glitz, sentiment and consumerism. But here, amazingly we believe, is your God. It’s where he wants to be found. The light that shines in the darkness has come into the world, from beyond this world, to give us the life for which we are intended, gently, intimately and eternally.
For now, we can only see this by faith. We are not yet ready for anything else. God is here, right there in our hearts, the centre of our beings. A light truly has shone on the people who lived in deep darkness, including you and me. That’s been God’s plan from the beginning, from the first act of creation when light came into being. God’s light never has gone out, because the darkness cannot overcome it. And once again, it is Christmas. Jesus is born. Thanks be to God.