This is a copy of my talk given at the Community Carol Service at Emmanuel Church on Sunday 10 December 2017.

I wonder how many of you have decorated the outside of your home with lights, or even door bows, this Christmas? It seems, with each passing year, displays are becoming more extravagant as neighbours, and sometimes whole streets, compete to ‘out do’ each other and, as they do, give an amazing display of seasonal decorations. I don’t do this myself, not because I’m a miserable old Scrooge but because I can’t afford the electricity bill at the end of it!

But I love the ways in which people make such an effort to brighten things up this time of year. Some folk suggest that Christmas lights are a bit OTT, but if people are wanting to make the extra effort to decorate houses, and the Town Council our shops and High Street, then it’s got to be good thing.

Although not, it has to be said, for poor old ‘Mr Stumpy’ who had his lights removed last week and was felled this morning – no reprieve for inclement weather! (I was reminded afterwards that ‘Mr Stumpy was mentioned in the Bible reading from Isaiah 11:1 “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”  How did I miss that?)

There is a lot of love for ‘Mr Stumpy’ on social media – it’s amazing what draws a community together.  I recently won an online poll of ‘selfies’ taken with Mr Stumpy (which was rather unexpected, and slightly ironic to win a popularity vote, in that I’m the one who’s had to make arrangements for the tree to be felled!) and was awarded a commemorative plaque and a bottle of Prosecco!  Thanks Matt.  But I’m all in favour of lights at Christmas which is why I love services by candlelight and the fun of Christingle on Christmas Eve.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is the darkest time of the year and some of you will suffer quite badly from a lack of light. Except when it snows and brightens things up. Many of you will leave for work before sunrise and arrive home after sunset. Those of you whose jobs involve staring at computer screens, or being huddled in meetings, may feel that you never see the sun. And for some the seasonal gloom becomes even worse with the arrival of Seasonal Affective Disorder, that affects their lives with an even deeper winter.

Talking about SAD syndrome, most of you will know that I’m from Sunderland and yes, as painful as it is, I still have a soft spot for my hometown Football Club. They play their football at the ‘Stadium of Light’ but the way results have gone for us these past two seasons: relegation from the Premier League; now bottom of the Championship and not having a won a home game for over a year – 21 games, the worst record ever (we’ve played 1890 minutes and only led for 7 minutes) it’s now known as ‘The Stadium of Darkness!’ One of the consolations for me at the moment, living in Billericay, is that it looks as though West Ham will be joining us next season!

Anyway, we all require light in our lives in many different ways and I want to suggest three areas where light is particularly important: Light gives us life; Light lets us see; Light sets us free.

1. Light Gives Us Life.
Biologically, almost all living things depend on plants which grow by drawing energy from the sun. Shroud the earth in darkness, through some terrible disaster and within months the only living things would be bacteria/fungi and weeds! I say weeds because as any gardener knows even when we have no rain, and the lawns are parched brown, weeds still seem to grow!

Psychologically, though, light is important for us all. Even if we haven’t been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder many of us find ourselves feeling ‘down’ in December.

And it’s interesting that if you listen to anyone who’s feeling low describing their state of mind they will, almost inevitably, use the language of light by mentioning the ‘gloom’, the ‘darkness’ or the ‘shadow’ that has fallen over them. And at a spiritual level, we all need something that brings hope to the soul.

2. Light Lets Us See.
Without light in the physical world we find ourselves in trouble. We’ve probably all had the experience of wandering around the house in pitch darkness, perhaps as a result of a power cut, or walking up the stairs without switching on the light – accumulating bruises and scrapes as we trip or collide with furniture that wasn’t there before!

Symbolically, the language of light is used whenever people talk about resolving difficult issues. We read how ‘light has been shed’ on some mystery, how research has ‘illuminated’ our knowledge or even how someone had a ‘bright’ idea. Indeed, when we struggle with some unknown problem/situation we may admit that we are simply ‘in the dark.’

The presence of light allows us to see more than hazards or problems: it allows us to see both the beautiful and the ugly.

Imagine yourself standing in a room full of pictures and works of art, perhaps  somewhere like the National Gallery, but unable to see them because of darkness. But when the switch is thrown on, and the room flooded with light, the beauty becomes visible. Conversely, light can also allow us to see things that are wrong or dangerous and, whilst some people prefer darkness, light allows us to avoid danger.

Light, of course, plays a large part in the Christmas story. The prophet Isaiah said: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.  God’s angelic light shone into the midst of the darkness of that night on a Judean hillside, as the angels proclaimed to the shepherds the good news that Christ the Saviour was born.

The Wise Men followed a bright star from the East, because they believed it heralded the birth of a very special king.  Jesus, the light of the world, began to shine into the darkness of human life.

In John’s Gospel it is said of the coming of Jesus: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4–5). Another gospel author, Matthew, writing about Jesus, says: ‘The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’ (Matthew 4:16). And Jesus said of himself: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness’ (John 8:12).

This coming Thursday ‘The Last Jedi’ is released. For those of you who ‘not in the know’ it’s Episode VIII in the Star Wars series. The recurring theme through all the Star Wars films, of course, is the constant struggle between the light side and the dark side of ‘The Force’. We know ‘The Force’ can be used for good or for evil. Star Wars aren’t Christian films but they could well be couldn’t they? In the films the characters have to make a choice whether to follow the light side or the dark side.  It’s a constant battle in our own lives too, isn’t it?

Our reading from John’s Gospel makes this point: This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

The darkness is simply as absence of love and as we look around us on TV and newspapers, we see the overwhelming darkness which exists in some parts of our nation and in many places across the world.

Many of Jesus’ own people, who were living in darkness, didn’t accept him. They chose not to receive His light. So they crucified him to a cross hoping to extinguish the light he radiated once and for all.

The Bible teaches that if we choose to push God out of our lives, light becomes absent and we’re left with darkness (Romans 1:21). It’s true that our eyes adjust to the absence of light and we can become accustomed to darkness – and that’s as true physically as it is spiritually. Have you, I wonder, become accustomed to living in darkness?

3. Light Sets Us Free.
All too often darkness brings with it something enslaving or oppressing. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of lying awake at night, struggling hopelessly with some problem or worry and then, as dawn breaks, finding that we can now see it in a new perspective and break free from it. Darkness symbolises the very worst aspects of life: imprisonment, fear and despair.

I guess you, like me, become a little fed-up hearing the same old Christmas songs playing in shops this time of year. The likes of Slade and Wizzard have enjoyed a very wealthy retirement based on one Christmas song released over 40 years ago!

Many Christmas pop songs are pretty cheesy aren’t they?  But one song I never tire of listening to, if I dare admit it, is a song Frankie Goes To Hollywood (first released in 1984). ‘The Power of Love’  The song includes the line: “Love is the light scaring darkness away.” That could be the Christmas message in one sentence.

What about this line from Coldplay’s ‘Christmas Lights’ “Oh Christmas lights, Light up the street, Light up the fireworks in me. May all your troubles soon be gone. Those Christmas lights keep shining on.” 

In every way – biological, psychological and spiritual – we need light and without it we’d struggle to survive. Faced with a darkened world, I’m glad Christianity talks about light. Light frames the Bible: at its start we read how God created light (Genesis 1:3) and at its end we are promised a city where ‘there will be no more darkness’ (Revelation 22:5).

Light gives us life; Light lets us see; Light sets us free.

Many of you here this evening belong to organisations/groups which serve the community of Billericay, and further afield, to bring light, love and hope into people’s lives. May you, and each one of us here, resolve to continue that good work as, together, we follow the Christmas story of allowing God’s light to shine in the darkness to bring light to others, this festive season and throughout the New Year.

May God grant us the light of Christmas, which is faith.
The warmth of Christmas, which is love.
The radiance of Christmas, which is purity.
The righteousness of Christmas, which is justice.
The belief in Christmas, which is truth.
The all of Christmas, which is Christ.  Amen.