It’s one of those classic stories that countless speakers have told over the years.  I think I first used this illustration in a sermon during my tenure at Crossroads, a church I planted in Santa Rosa, California immediately following my graduation from seminary.  Since then I’ve been drawn back to this moving account on numerous occasions in various settings because of the message it delivers.  It’s a message of hope …..and that’s something people always seem to need!

     The story is about an artist who is being featured in a public exposition in an outdoor market.  It seems obvious from the start that the artist is very talented. His skill is on display as he begins to paint a scene set along one of those rugged coastlines you find in the Pacific Northwest.  A little cottage is set on the top of a forested bluff overlooking the ocean. The cottage itself is all but surrounded by the tall fir trees, as is the solitary path that leads to front door.  The artist uses dark and dreary colors to depict one of those stormy nights where the wind is howling, the rain is coming down in sheets, and debris is flying all around.  The moon and the stars are invisible, but a lightning strike in the background over the ocean is used by the artist to apparently lighten the scene enough so that you can see the details of the dark and lonely image he is creating around the solitary cottage.

     People who are standing around watching the exposition are impressed by the artist’s skill, but find the picture he is painting somewhat depressing.  With each stroke it seems the scene is getting more and more foreboding.  The grays, blacks, browns and dark forest greens create a feeling of hopelessness and hardship.  The dark, empty little cottage seems to be a statement about loneliness and despair.  As talented as the artist seems to be, no one in the audience would be inclined to buy such a depressing work of art to hang in their home. 

      You can almost see the hint of a smile on the artist’s face as he picks up one of his smallest brushes to add the next and final detail to his painting.  He takes the small brush and dips it into the yellow paint, a color he has not even touched to this point in the process.  With a deft hand he uses that yellow paint to highlight the windows in the small, dark cottage.  The effect is dramatic!  Suddenly the entire scene is changed.  The light in the windows now transforms this dreary scene into something warm and welcoming.   In the midst of the storm, the cottage now appears to be a respite from the wind and the rain.  You can almost imagine a weary traveler feeling the relief when he sees the lights on in the cabin as he makes his way home.  The appreciative audience now sees a message of hope, even in the darkness.  Suddenly the painting becomes a work of art that almost anyone would like to display in their home.  The “light” made all the difference.

     As I write this blog it’s the Christmas season.  I absolutely love this time year for lots of reasons, as do most of you.  The music is incredible, the decorations festive, the food is amazing (especially if you don’t count the calories), and the worship experiences are priceless.   The fact is, I even like the hustle and bustle of shopping in the crowded malls, which may make me somewhat unusual.  But perhaps the thing I like most about the Christmas season (outside of celebrating the true reason for the season) are the lights that adorn our tree, line the houses in our neighborhood, and create a truly beautiful atmosphere in our church building.  There’s just something about these lights that change so much in our home, in our neighborhood and in our church during the Christmas season. 

As I walked my dog late last night long after most people had gone to bed, I couldn’t help but notice once again the lights on our house and so many others.  That was still on my mind when I got home and sat down in my favorite recliner in our family room, just enjoying the sight of our Christmas tree.  The “light” makes all the difference! 

      Years ago as a youth pastor I first tried an experiment to get across the meaning of what God brought to us all that first Christmas so long ago.  I would take the group into a room with all the windows darkened out. When we were settled I had the lights turned off and asked everyone to be quiet. As the eerie silence would engulf us you could almost feel the darkness.  If you’ve ever been in a completely pitch black room you know what I mean.  Then I had arranged for one of my leaders to light a single candle somewhere in the room.   It might have been the first time anyone had ever really seen the power of one solitary candle in the darkness. The whole atmosphere of the room changes instantly.   The light dispelled the darkness and gave everyone a sense of security. 

     As I see the lights that adorn my tree or light the houses in my neighborhood I am reminded once again that the light still shines in the darkness. This year has certainly been filled with a foreboding sense of darkness, much like that artist’s painting.  The storm and winds of chaos and turmoil have, at times, been overwhelming.  There’s been political unrest, racial tensions, financial distress, and a global pandemic on top of the stress and pressures of everyday life in a normal year.  The world around us has been turned upside down, shaken to its core by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.  Like that little cottage in the darkest of nights, without the light things can look pretty grim and gloomy.  Fortunately, the “light” is still on. 

     Hope is one of those things you can’t really quantify.  You can’t really get “too much”,  but you certainly can have “too little”!  Without hope we lose sight of why we’re doing what we need to do or where we’re heading in the future.  We need that sense of direction, even when we’re walking through a tough season in our lives.  The storms may be raging all around us, but if the “light” is on we have the assurance that things are going to be OK. The peace that settles in around us in such moments is hard to explain.  Our focus moves away from the chaos and an inward sense of peace calms our spirit.  We bask in the warm glow of the light because we know it’s going to be alright despite the storm we may be walking through.  I love those moments when I take advantage of that privilege.

      Jesus once told His disciples that He was the “Light of the World”.  I don’t think that was a coincidence.  There is something universal about our need to see the light in the darkness. The ugliness of the world we all live in can leave us all a bit shell-shocked and weary.  None of us are immune from the bitter rhetoric and harsh realities of our everyday experience.   As a result of such circumstances many are left with a sense of emptiness and hopelessness. But hope is not gone!  Yes, the world around us is dark and dreary, but despair is not inevitable.  Christ came as a “light of hope”.

      On my walk late last night I couldn’t help but notice one particular house.  The house was tastefully decorated with Christmas lights that created an appealing entrance to their home.  But in the front yard was a singular small tree lit completely with white twinkle lights.  Underneath the tree was a simple nativity scene featuring Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.  Besides the nativity scene was a lawn sign that said “Keep Christ In Your Christmas”.   2000+ years after His birth, the Light still shines!

    When I walk into the sanctuary of our church building this year I am greeted by the tasteful decorations of trees and wreaths, also decorated with simple white lights.   It’s a gorgeous setting that has already been used to help folks in our congregation settle in to focus their hearts on the true message of Christmas. But as beautiful as those lighted trees and wreaths are,   they are not the focus of why we gather there.  The light that shines the brightest is the one that’s depicted by the empty cross on our wall.  If the world ever needed that Light, it’s now!  May we all do our part to bring the true Light of Christmas into our homes and communities this Christmas! 

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