Conquering the darkness
As I type this, the sound of flute-playing is filling the house. There is something bright and rich in the music, as it wafts its way happily through the Manse. Lewis is home, and has spent most of the day practicing a Bach Sonata. In a couple of weeks, he will return to University and resume practicing along with a pianist, in order that they might perform the full piece together. At the moment, I am enjoying part of the music, knowing that a fuller version of the same will come later.
I am working in the Study, music providing a delightful background to my preparation. Lewis’s playing has reminded me of our Advent series in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. The opening paragraphs of the Apostle’s literary masterpiece have been likened to an overture for an Opera. It contains all the melody lines which are developed more fully later in the Gospel. Similarly, as I listen to Lewis’s flute playing, I hear the melody lines; yet know that there is more to the music, for it ought to be performed with a piano, and so I am only hearing part of something that will later be developed more fully.
To change the metaphor, so much of what we read in the early verses of John’s Gospel are but introductory threads that will be woven into a fuller tapestry as the Gospel proceeds. For example, we read of the Word that ‘In him was life and the life was the light of men.’ Life and light in Christ are introduced in chapter 1, and then later developed, not least when Jesus brings light to the man born blind and claims to be ‘the light of the world’.
John begins his Gospel by warning us that although Jesus came to his own people (the Jews), they would not receive Him, although there were others who did trust in Him and received great blessing: ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ Having struck that note in chapter 1, it is struck again throughout the gospel, louder, with greater intensity, so that rejection of Christ becomes a tragic theme of the Gospel and reaches a cacophonous climax at the crucifixion.
Yet, at the same time, there were also those who received Him, who believed in his name. There are countless stories in the Gospel of those who trusted Christ and, believing in Him, were given the right to become children of God (so could call God ‘Father’). Think of the Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at the well. (John 4) Here is a woman who, under grace, was changed from being one whose life was totally disordered, abused and morally compromised into a woman whose testimony was so effective that many of those who lived near her and knew her came themselves to believe in Christ. This tells the story of a woman whose life many of us may well have discarded and dismissed, yet a woman who was so completely altered by the grace of God that she was the instrument of revival in her own community.
In these, and many other ways, themes are introduced in the opening paragraphs of John 1, only to be developed and expounded later. The melody line is introduced and then we hear it developed as we listen through the Gospel.
One other such theme is that of witnessing. We read of John the Baptist about whom we are told, ‘He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.’ (John 1:7-8) It was John’s task to point people to Jesus, and he did so in a very literal sense later in the same chapter when he cries, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29)
In point of fact, we are introduced to John the Baptist immediately after reading, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ There is great darkness in the world and Christ knew great darkness through opposition during His ministry, yet that dark antagonism could not overcome (or ‘master’) the light of Christ. It seems that the Gospel writer wishes us to understand that the reason the darkness cannot overcome the light is precisely because there is always a witness to the light, the first example being John the Baptist.
The story of the early church, as we read of it in the Book of Acts, is the story of the growth of the Church, amidst determined and violent opposition. It is the story of deep darkness, yet a darkness that cannot extinguish the light of witness to Christ. There were those (not least Saul of Tarsus) determined to destroy the church and stamp out all proclamation of Jesus as the risen Messiah. There was much darkness, and yet the darkness could not overcome the light, for there was always a witness to Christ.
This has been the story of the church down the ages; a story of much darkness and yet of a darkness unable to overcome, impotent to master, the light. There has always been a witness, so that the Lord’s affirmation is fulfilled that he will build His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It may be that, in our own day, we are living through a period of unprecedented persecution of the church. It is certainly true that the last 150 years have seen more martyrs than all the previous centuries added together. Yet, at the same time, the church has never grown so much.
In 1948 in China there were perhaps 1 million believers, and there followed a systematic attempt at destroying the church village by village, town by town. Today, far from being destroyed, conservative estimates put the number of believers at 90 million.
There is much darkness, yet it cannot overcome the light. There is much darkness in our own land today, much that may dismay or discourage, yet we recall how our Lord boldly stated, ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ (MT 16:18)
The point is that it is you and me who are to be the witnesses, and whose witness holds back the darkness. Think of the Samaritan woman whose life was shrouded in the darkness of moral compromise. (She had sought fulfilment in a series of relationships, having been married five times and was now living with a sixth man.) Yet when her eyes were opened to the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, she believed in Him and we read: ‘So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him.’ (John 4:28-30)
The effect was dramatic. She was the instrument of revival, for later in the chapter we are told: ‘Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” (John 4:39)
The challenge is for us: by our daily choices and quality of life; by our words and our actions, are we pointing to Jesus? Are we the witness we are called to be, holding back the darkness? Do not simply bemoan the darkness; point to the light! To whom will you say this week, ‘Come to Dalry Trinity and hear of the Christ’?