The Light Shines in the Darkness

This is an adapted form of the “Blue Christmas” sermon I preached this afternoon. Blue Christmas is a special service designed for people who find the holidays especially difficult, perhaps because of the death of a loved one, or a painful diagnosis, or some other loss or suffering. The gospel text was John 1:1-14.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Vincent van Gogh was a nineteenth-century Dutch painter. He has become well-known and beloved for his skill with bold colors and dramatic brushwork, and his depth of imagination.

Van Gogh is also well-known for his suffering. He lived with debilitating mental illness, and he was impoverished throughout his life. He sold only one painting in his lifetime; nobody recognized his genius until after he had died by suicide at age 37. It is remarkable that nevertheless he was able to find such depths of hope and joy.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

What many people don’t know is that Vincent van Gogh was once visited by the Doctor. I speak of the title character of the science-fiction television show Doctor Who. The Doctor is an alien who has a ship that can travel throughout time and space. He often travels with human companions, defeating evil creatures and helping wherever he can. In an episode first aired in 2010, the Doctor and his companion Amy went to nineteenth-century Paris to meet van Gogh. They had an eventful visit there. They got to know him, and saw him paint. They got to see his depression first-hand. They saw how desolate he was, completely ignorant of how his work would one day move people. And of course, since it’s Doctor Who, there was also an alien monster in Paris. After defeating the monster with Vincent’s help, the Doctor and Amy led Vincent into their ship, to take him on a special trip.

They landed in the present-day at a museum which had an exhibit of van Gogh’s work. As they entered the exhibit, Vincent was shocked at how many of his paintings surrounded him, and how many people were admiring them. The Doctor walked up to the docent, and within earshot of Vincent, asked him: “Where do you think van Gogh rates in the history of art?”

The docent replied:

“Well, big question, but to me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly, the most popular great painter of all time. The most beloved. His command of colour, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world. No one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

Vincent was amazed to hear this. He said to the Doctor, “This changes everything. I’ll step out tomorrow with my easel on my back a different man.” The Doctor and Amy returned him to his own time, and then left. Amy convinced the Doctor to take her back to the museum in the present day. She was convinced that they had changed history: Vincent would no longer die by suicide, and so now there would be many more of his paintings there. She was wrong. Their visit had not changed history. Amy said to the Doctor, “No new paintings. We didn’t make a difference at all.”

The Doctor replied to her:

“I wouldn’t say that. The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”

This is all fiction, of course. But within fiction sometimes lies great truth. The great truth here, I believe, is that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Giving Vincent van Gogh an incredible day of joy and hope may not have cured his depression, but that glimpse of joy and hope was not wasted. The darkness he lived in did not overcome it. The hope was always, always there. And we need only look at “The Starry Night” or his other paintings to see that van Gogh did indeed know hope in his real life. Hope that he was able to share with the whole world.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. You know the darkness. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this afternoon. The promise of Christmas is the promise of the light that shines. The light is not always a cure for an illness. The light does not always take away grief. The light does not always provide happiness. But the light is life. The light is hope. The light is peace.

John tells us that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and what has come into being is light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

That is the promise of Christmas. The promise isn’t just about a baby in the manger. It’s the promise of God’s Word become flesh, bringing light and life to all those who live in darkness. The promise that echoes throughout scripture.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.”

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in deep darkness, on them light has shined.”

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing will spring up quickly.”

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

This Christmas season, my prayer for you is that you see the light that is there. The light that shines in the darkness. The light that says to the darkness, you shall not win. The light that will never be overcome.

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