The closing portion of our church’s Christmas program always includes a candle lighting service. It takes my mind back to the first time I ever witnessed it. Years ago, my wife and I attended the Christmas program of a fairly large church, and as the service began to conclude, the lights began to dim and we discovered the purpose of the candles we were given on the way in. Everything was quiet as the pastor walked to the center of the auditorium holding his unlit candle. As the lights continued to dim, I thought about an experience I had as a young teenager during an impromptu family road trip to the Blue Ridge mountains.
An Unexpected Adventure ~
My step-dad had seen a billboard advertising a tour through some nearby caverns and unexpectedly decided to take us there. Soon we were following our guide along some twisting passageways that seemed to wind downward forever. Eventually, the narrow rock walls opened into a huge cave filled with fascinating formations. I accurately identified them as “pointy things hanging down” and “pointy things poking up.” The guide informed us that they should be called “stalactites” and “stalagmites”, but my terms were much more descriptive so I stuck with them.
I was already feeling appropriately amazed when the guide said that now we would get to see what the caverns looked like in their natural setting. That was confusing. I had thought that’s what we were already doing and didn’t understand what he was talking about. Then he turned off all the lights.
The Lights Go Out ~
As blackness engulfed everything, the guide explained that we were “seeing” dark that was as dark as it was possible for dark to be. I’ll never forget how paralyzing and frightening it was to be in darkness that was that absolute. The black filling the atmosphere was almost tangible. I wondered what it would be like to be trapped down there alone. My eyes seemed to have stopped working altogether, and the sensation was both mesmerizing and deeply disturbing. It left me with a sense of fascination and lingering curiosity.
The sense of fascination with the significance of light and darkness born in that cave decades ago was about to get an update as the program continued to unfold. The church auditorium wasn’t as dark as that cave when the lights were turned off, but the contrast from its former brightly lit condition was powerful. After a couple of minutes to give our eyes time to adjust to the darkness, someone struck a match and lit the pastor’s candle, and even though that tiny flame only illuminated the small space immediately around it, even those in the back row of the upper balcony could see it.
Lessons Began to Unfold ~
From our perch in the balcony, we watched as the little flames were passed from one to another and the light moved slowly across the auditorium. The scene was hypnotic. Little by little, the darkness began to retreat as hundreds of tiny flames proved themselves invincible against the darkness that fled before them. By the time the last candle was lit, tears of joy were filling my eyes at the realization of the miracles God could work if we would simply replicate that process with the flame of His invincible Spirit. As we gazed transfixed at the glowing auditorium around us, the candles began to illuminate more than our surroundings, and lessons they taught began to hit home:
- It was the light that dispelled the darkness—not the people holding the candles.
- The flame didn’t care whether the person holding the candle was old or young, male or female, black or white, married or single, conservative or liberal, rich or poor.
- No one was forced to either give or receive what the flames had to offer.
- The darkness didn’t flee because of the personality, education, social status, appearance, or spiritual gifts of the people holding the candles.
- No one’s flame was more capable, more qualified, or more important than anyone else’s.
- The flame’s potential to spread light was not depleted because it was used to light another candle.
- There was no limit to how many candles a flame could be used to light another.
- The age, size, color, or shape of the candle had no bearing on the purpose or power of the flame.
- No one person could claim credit for all the light that filled the room.
Given what we saw that night, it occurs to me that maybe we ought to shift the focus of our attention. Instead of whining and complaining about the spiritual and moral darkness enveloping the land or waiting for God to send some charismatic leader to turn on a huge flood light of spiritual radiance, maybe we should take another look back at Bethlehem and consider how God responded to the darkness threatening His people.
God’s Response to Another Dark Time ~
The spiritual lights were pretty dim in Israel when God sent Gabriel to a small, nondescript Judean village to meet with a young Jewish girl who was a religious, political, and social nobody. The nation had once again been subjugated by a foreign invader. The Romans oppressed God’s people with their military might, and the pagan cultures implanted by the Greeks plagued them spiritually. Corruption and moral darkness were rampant in the ruling classes everywhere. Against that dark backdrop, God sent a Light powerful enough to illuminate the world. But He compressed that incredible light into a tiny human body in the virgin womb of that obedient little nobody Gabriel had met earlier. The Prophet Isaiah envisioned what that small Light would become and said this:
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. (Matthew 4:15–16 NKJV)
“Great” in the context of Isaiah’s words, refers to the power, not the size or intensity of the light God would send. And to the very dark world awaiting Him, the “Light” God delivered that night in Bethlehem didn’t seem “great” or powerful at all. It seemed like a very small flame that could be easily ignored, dismissed, or extinguished altogether. But to the living God, the size of the flame wasn’t the issue. The question was whether it had the power to ignite the multiplied millions of dark, cold, lifeless, wicks needing to be touched by a fire they couldn’t create on their own. Thousands of years later, we have seen the impact of God’s strategy. The living flame of life and love wrapped inside those swaddling clothes in a Bethlehem manger has illuminated sin-blinded hearts and eyes in every generation since then. The Light of His grace found its way into the darkest corners of this sin-cursed world. Moving from one “candle” to another, His Light has crossed oceans, traversed deserts, scaled mountains, and endured everything hell could do to extinguish it. Now it has come to us, and we have the responsibility of passing the flame along. What Jesus said so clearly to His followers back then applies to us now as well:
You are the light of the world… (Matthew 5:14 NKJV)
A Simple but Effective Plan ~
The plan for illuminating the church at the close of their Christmas program that night years ago didn’t involve having somebody stand up front and throw lighted candles at the crowd, hoping to connect with somebody else’s candle. They didn’t pass out matches or butane lighters or set up a burner down front and make it a do-it-yourself effort. They simply lit one person’s candle, and that person light another, and so on. It was simple, personal, non-threatening, and effective. Those who had a flame offered to share it with someone nearby whose candle wasn’t burning and the result was amazing. It was a graphic illustration of what God had in mind when He initiated that event on Pentecost:
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. (Acts 2:1–3 NKJV)
We may be a very small light in this very dark world – but what we do with it could change everything.
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- “In that cave, we were “seeing” dark that was as dark as it was possible for dark to be. I’ll never forget how paralyzing and frightening it was to be in darkness that was that absolute. The black filling the atmosphere was almost tangible.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “The little flames were passed from one to another and the light moved slowly across the auditorium. Little by little, the darkness began to retreat as hundreds of tiny flames proved invincible against the darkness that fled before them.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “By the time the last candle was lit, tears of joy were filling my eyes at the realization of the miracles God could work if we would simply replicate that process with the flame of His invincible Spirit.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Against that dark backdrop of corruption and moral darkness, God sent an incredible Light powerful enough to illuminate the world and compressed it into a tiny human body in the virgin womb of that obedient little nobody that Gabriel met earlier.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “The living flame of life and love wrapped inside those swaddling clothes has illuminated sin-blinded hearts and eyes in every generation since then. The Light of His grace found its way into the darkest corners of this sin-cursed world.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “The Light of His grace found its way into the darkest corners of this sin-cursed world. Moving from one “candle” to another, His Light has crossed oceans, traversed deserts, scaled mountains, and endured everything hell could do to extinguish it.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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