Israel was a nation waiting for the light. Isaiah had promised it; looking forward to the time when idolatry and disobedience would plunge Israel into darkness, he said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a land of shadows, light has dawned.” That light, he saw, would come in the birth of a child, a child who would re-establish David’s kingdom, breaking the power of Israel’s oppressors and reigning in peace with perfect justice and righteousness. In the darkness of exile and foreign rule, Israel waited for the light.
Malachi had promised the light, too. In the darkness of a nation dominated by evildoers grown arrogant in their evil, the light would come. For those who rejected the Lord, it would come as a flash fire through fields of stubble, reducing them to ash; but his faithful worshipers would see the sun of righteousness rise with healing in its wings. They would go out restored and re-invigorated, leaping and dancing like cattle released from their stalls, free to move and exulting in their freedom. The righteous would dance for joy, exulting in the light, while their former oppressors would be nothing but ash beneath their feet. In the darkness of Roman oppression, Israel waited for the light.
And in God’s perfect time, the light came. Israel had been waiting so long, they’d fallen for a lot of false lights over the years; but now, at last, came the true light, the one whom God had promised so long before. This wasn’t another fraud, or delusion, or false hope, this was the one for whom Israel had been waiting. Indeed, he was the one for whom the entire world had been waiting, though many didn’t know it. This was the giver of all life, the light of all people, the hope of the world.
And when he came, they didn’t recognize him. He came into the world—the world he made—and the world didn’t have a clue who he was. Not just the world at large, either—which is understandable, since they hadn’t really been looking for him—his own people didn’t know him. “He came home,” John writes, “he came to his own people, and they rejected him.” He was the long-awaited king come at last, and the door should have been thrown wide open for him; instead, it was slammed in his face. This was the purpose for which God called Israel, but when the time came, they refused it. The writer and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner has a wonderful little sermon from the point of view of the innkeeper in which he has the innkeeper say, “All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come—we all of us do—our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.” That’s Israel’s story: when he came, they missed him.
Of course, not everyone did; there were those who recognized him, however imperfectly, and believed in him. To them, John tells us, Jesus gave the right to become children of God—which is an interesting statement. First, note that word “gave.” John doesn’t say, “Those who received him earned the right,” he says that Jesus gave us the right. This isn’t something which can be earned by works—even by the “work” of faith in Christ; it’s something which can only be received as a free gift of God’s grace. Indeed, even our faith is not our own work, but God’s gift to us as he enables us to respond to what he has done for us. Second, the word here translated as “the right” is a word which we most often translate “authority” or “power”; here the idea is one of status, that those who believe in Jesus are given a new status as children of God.
Third, that change of status is a process; it doesn’t say “to be children of God,” but “to become children of God.” This is an important point, because there’s a tendency to think of salvation as just something that happens at a particular point in time: I give my life to Christ, I’m saved, OK. There’s truth to that, to be sure, but that point in time isn’t an end, it’s a beginning. When Christ gives us the right to become children of God, from that point on, the rest of life is about that becoming. In theological language, the terms are justification and sanctification. Justification is the point where our sins are wiped away and we are given that new status as children of God; it’s the point where we are spiritually reborn. Just as physical birth is the beginning of the process of growing up, justification is the beginning of the process of sanctification, of being remade holy in God’s image, as our new heart, the new life within us, transforms us from the inside out.
The truth we tend to lose sight of here is that this story isn’t just about what has already happened. Jesus came, and he has saved us, but that’s not the end of the story, or the end of his work; that will only come when he returns. We have been saved, we are being transformed, we are being made ready; what we are is not the point, but what we will be. What has happened points us forward to what is yet to come. That’s why, as I said last week, this season of Advent isn’t just about preparing our hearts to celebrate Christmas, to welcome the child in the manger—it’s also about preparing our hearts to welcome the conquering king on a white horse, the one who will overthrow the nations and all earthly powers, and reign over all creation forever and ever.
Which is why we need to keep ourselves ready for his return, to live in anticipation. We are waiting for the light to break fully upon our sin-darkened world, for the sun of righteousness to rise with healing in its wings; and the dawn for which we wait will be the last, as the promises and warnings given through Isaiah and Malachi will finally be completely fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven will be established on earth at last. We are waiting for the light, just as Israel was waiting; and just like Israel, we must keep faithful watch if we want to be ready when Jesus comes. As he said in Matthew 25, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. . . . Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Keep awake, Jesus tells us; keep alert. Remember that the Light of the World has come, and is coming again, and that when he comes, all that has been done in secret will be revealed for all to see. Remember, and do not lose heart, for to you who received him and believed in his name he has given the right to become children of God, who have been born anew by his Holy Spirit. This is not something that you have earned, and therefore it is not something you can lose; by his own grace and love he has given you the right to become children of God, and he has put his own Spirit in your hearts who has the power to make you children of God. The gift is yours, the work is his; and he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it, to make you ready for the day when he will come again to bring you home to be with him forever. This is the promise of the gospel for you this day, and every day.