From the first day of Advent until Christmas Day, I’m podcasting a daily devotional. You can listen by clicking on the playhead below.
Devotional Text: John 1:1-5
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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s December 21, 2017, and this is Day 19 of my series of Advent podcasts. You’re listening to the band Jethro Tull, and a song they wrote and recorded about—well… this very day: December 21, the winter solstice. This song, “Ring Out, Solstice Bells,” comes from the band’s 1977 album Songs from the Wood.
My scripture today is John 1:1-5, which I’ll read now:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Do you remember that scene in Back to the Future when Doc Brown is introducing Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox’s character, to the wonders of his time-traveling DeLorean? Brown shows McFly an LED-based instrument built into the car’s dashboard and explains that you simply enter any date in the past that you want to travel back to and—voila!—that’s where you’ll end up.
At one point he tells Marty, “We can go back and witness the birth of Jesus Christ.” And then you see Doc Brown punch in the date December 25 of the year “0000.”
And at this point, many people in the audience groaned. For two reasons. First, there wasn’t a year “0.” According to the calendar that the church created, which divides history between the time before Christ and the time after Christ was born, the calendar changed from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1.
And the second reason some people watching Back to the Future groaned is because Jesus wasn’t born on December 25—or I should say, there’s about a 1 in 365 chance that he was born on December 25! If you’ll recall a podcast I did last week, my amateur astronomer friend believed that Jesus was born some time in April.
But the Church chose the date of December 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth for an important reason: Under the old Julian calendar, it marked the winter solstice, the so-called “longest night of the year”—or, put the other way, the day with the least amount of sunlight. Just think: for the next six months, each day will be marked by progressively more daylight.
And in ancient times long before the birth of Christ, people attached religious significance to this day—thanking their god or gods that the solstice marked the “end of gloom and darkness and the victory of the sun and the light over the darkness.” Because of this pagan association with the solstice, even some Christians today have misgivings about celebrating Christmas.
I certainly don’t share these misgivings. Even if under the old calendar December 25 was a pagan holiday, I would say that the day has been redeemed—like so many other things, including our very lives—by Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton agrees with me that the solstice is a fitting symbol of Christmas. He writes:
Many believe that when Christians in the fourth century settled on a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they chose the date not because it was a pagan holiday, but because the heavens themselves declared at this time the truth of the gospel. The winter solstice represented astronomically what John’s Gospel proclaimed was happening spiritually in the birth of Jesus Christ. Just as darkness was defeated by light, so in Jesus, God’s light would defeat the darkness of sin and death.
As I read earlier in today’s scripture, “The light shines in the darkness”… I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
These words couldn’t be truer for me. If anything, I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing the world differently, thanks to this bright light of Christ’s redeeming love, that I take for granted how different my life is today—A.D.—than it was B.C.
Now, if you’ll indulge me, here’s one important way my life is different thanks to the light of Christ:
I am someone who is a naturally fearful person. For example, growing up, I was afraid of dying in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union—Russia. In fact, I was fairly certain that I was going to die in a nuclear war.
The early eighties, after all, were a scary time for fearful kids like me. For example, when I was in eighth grade there was a made-for-TV movie called The Day After starring Jason Robards, which imagined the world after the Russians dropped the bomb on us. For weeks, news about the movie was all over newspapers, magazines, and TV news.
Sting had a hit song about nuclear war, in which he wondered “if the Russians love their children, too.” We played video games like “Missile Command.” Remember this game? You’re in command of a missile silo, and your job is to protect six cities from being hit by fast-approaching nuclear missiles. And these missiles just keep coming, wave after wave. You have to shoot them out of the sky. And no one wins in the long run: eventually all your cities get reduced to rubble!
Around the same time, President Reagan was talking about building a real-life “missile command” system that could destroy Russian nuclear missiles before they landed on U.S. soil!
We also watched movies like WarGames, in which a young Matthew Broderick is a computer prodigy who hacks into the Pentagon computers and nearly launches World War III—by accident.
And you may be wondering, “Brent, you’re a pastor now! Instead of being afraid, why didn’t you just place your faith in God, and trust that he would take care of you?” After all, Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Jesus also said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’” In other words, there is a healthy kind of fear that we’re supposed to have, and it’s the fear of the Lord, which comes from believing and trusting in him as our Savior and Lord. If we do that, we don’t need to worry about all these other things! God will take care of us!
And I believe these words are true from the bottom of my heart now. But back then… I didn’t know Jesus as my Savior and Lord. I wasn’t saved. So I was even afraid that when I died, I wouldn’t be prepared meet the Lord, because I hadn’t yet received the gift of forgiveness, salvation, eternal life that he freely offers us.
But that changed one weekend in February 1984, when I went on a winter youth retreat to Black Mountain, North Carolina, with my church youth group.
The gospel was preached in a way that finally made sense to me: I understood that I was a sinner whose sin had separated me from a holy God. As scripture says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I understood that because of my sins, I deserved death and hell.
But just as importantly, I also understood that God loved me—that God loves all of us—way too much to let us die in our sins. He wants to save us. He wants to have a relationship with us—both now, in this life, and in eternity. I understood that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
I received this gift of eternal life that weekend, and I’ve never been the same. For one thing, I’m not nearly as fearful as I used to be. I have peace of mind and a sense of security and belonging. And it’s because of Christ.
What about you? Does your life have “before Christ”? Can you point to real differences that Christ has made in your life?
If not, I worry that you might have gone through the motions of church at some point in your life. Your life has been influenced by what one pastor calls “casual, non-serious churchianity” rather than dramatically changed by the truth of Christianity. In our Methodist tradition, for instance, this often happens to 12- or 13-year-olds who go through confirmation class as if it’s a rite of passage, like getting a driver’s license or graduating high school. It’s something that happened once upon a time, but you haven’t thought about it much since then.
Anyway, if this describes you, I have to ask: Have you received Christ? Are you genuinely a Christian. Have you invited him in to your life to be your Savior and committed yourself to follow him as your Lord? Do you know for certain that you’re saved—and that when you die you’ll be with the Lord for eternity. I want you to have that assurance.
If you need that assurance, will you pray this prayer with me? The words of this prayer aren’t magic and merely reciting them to yourself won’t save you. Rather, Jesus Christ will save you, Paul says, as you “confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” This prayer expresses your confession and faith.
Almighty God, I confess to you that I am a sinner in need of your forgiveness. I know that because of my sins I deserve nothing better than death and hell. But I also know that you loved me too much to leave me this way. I am sorry for my sins and with your help I am turning away from them now. I believe that your Son Jesus is Lord. I believe that through Jesus—through his death on the cross and through his resurrection form the dead—you are offering me forgiveness and eternal life. Enable me to receive that gift now. I promise, by your grace and power, to be a faithful follower of Jesus for the rest of my life—in this world and in the world to come. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
If you prayed this prayer, how about reaching out to me and letting me know. My email address is found in the “Episode Notes” of this podcast. I’d be happy to offer you more guidance as you begin or renew your journey of Christian faith.
1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 126.
2. Ibid., 127.
3. Ed Stetzer, “Narnia and Camelot: A Tribute to C.S. Lewis,” 22 November 2013, christianitytoday.com. Accessed 21 December 2017.
4. Matthew 6:31-33 ESV
5. Matthew 10:28 ESV
6. Romans 3:23
7. John 3:16
8. John Piper, “The Legacy of One-Point Calvinism and Casual Churchianity,” 19 July 2016, desiringgod.org. Accessed 21 December 2017.
9. Romans 10:9-10