(This is a sermon, not really a blog post. Merry Christmas, readers!)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him
was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
If the only gospel we had was the fourth one, the Gospel According to John, things might look a lot different today. We might not be celebrating the birth of Jesus; we would have no crèche adorning the chancel, no star-banners twinkling above us, no carols about babies sleeping in hay amid lowing cattle and bleating sheep.
If all we knew of Jesus’ origins were these words at the beginning of John’s gospel, we might celebrate his life differently. Perhaps we would be more mystical; perhaps we would pay different attention to words about The Word.
Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Theological Seminary, says this about John’s prologue. “This text plays a trick on us. When we begin reading it, it suggests as a backdrop an infinity the size of all creation – earth and sky and solar system and planets and stars. The language is grand, otherworldly…. Think the opening credits to a Star Wars movie. Think comets and black holes and the spaciousness of the cosmos. It is the world’s largest show and we are the spectators.
“Then comes the trick: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ We’re led by this text to expect something ethereal and otherworldly; and then suddenly the cosmic becomes intensely personal.” (“Unwrapping Advent: Questions and Answers for Contemplation at Advent and Christmas”; the 2018 Advent Devotional, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary)
Isn’t that a lovely thought – that the cosmic becomes intensely personal? And if that is true – and I like to think that it is – how does that happen, or what does that look like? Perhaps we find the answer in the text itself. The cosmic becoming personal looks like light shining in the darkness.
Of course, when we look at the night sky and see the stars twinkling (a rare occurrence in the rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest) the stars are remote and cold, and the light we see is hundreds of years old. There’s nothing personal in that.
But there is something deeply personal about a candle glowing in a window, or a campfire in the remote wilderness. There is something personal and reassuring about leaving the light on over the stove at night in case anyone gets up in the wee small hours. I’m so grateful to all those who put lights on trees and houses in the dark, rainy nights of the season.
Light shining in the darkness works as a metaphor too, when we consider the good in the world piercing all that is wrong and unjust.
-The ceasefire in Yemen is a spark of hope for a nation that has experienced so much suffering in the past few months.
-In 2018, there were only 28 cases of polio around the globe; like smallpox, it is a disease that will soon be eradicated. (worldvision.org/christian-faith-news-stories/reasons-hope-2019)
-In The Hague, Bethel Church is nearing their 60th day of a worship service in order to protect a refugee family seeking asylum in The Netherlands; the family cannot be removed during worship, so pastors from all over, and members of the church, and neighbors near and far have stayed in continual worship for over 1400 hours, all to protect one family. (theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/21/dutch-round-the-clock-church-service-keeps-hopes-alive-for-asylum-family)
There are these and so many other stories of light shining in the world. And as we know, light both illumines and warms. It illumines so we are able to see, to see the good, and to see what is broken so we will know what needs attention. It warms so that we are not shivering in the cold, or freezing to death.
You and I can be light in the darkness, and we are. Every time we stand up for what is just; every time we help one another; every time we offer grace instead of condemnation; every time we choose love over hate, love over apathy, we are shining light.
As theologian Karl Rahner has said, “The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because his manifestation in the world must be through us. Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing Epiphany of God, catch and reflect [God’s] golden light. Ye are the light of the world – but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the one Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.”
Christ is our light, and by that I mean that in hearing his teaching and in following his ways, the path of our days is illumined. We see differently in His light. It is as C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Because of the illumination of Christ, we do not say, “This is a waste of a human life under that tarp, in that tent, pushing that shopping cart.” No! Instead we say, “This is a beloved child of God. This is my neighbor, whom I am called to love and serve.”
Because Christ is the light of the world, we do not say, “The toils on the other side of the globe are not my problem. I share nothing in common with those people – not a nation, not a language, not a faith.” No! Instead we say “my brothers and sisters, these people who live on the same earth that I live on – this earth created by God and given to us all – they are suffering and I cannot live fully in joy until that suffering is alleviated. I share in their pain until God makes all things right.”
Because what has come into being through him is life, the life that is the light of all people, we do not say, “Everything is meaningless. We live and then we die and nothing matters.” No! Instead we say, “This life, this span of years or decades that we have, is a gift to be opened and shared, an opportunity to gather in grief and celebration, an invitation to tell the truth about love and fear and failure and hope.”
In an Advent devotional I used this year, I read the most amazing sentence. “Remember that no matter how far you stray, God leaves a light on in the window to welcome you home.” (Krin Van Tothenhove, Presbyterians Today 2018 Advent Devotional, “God Lifts the Lowly”)
If God is our home, we know that we wander away. Sometimes, like the younger son of the parable, we wander far away, to get out from what we perceive to be our parents’ tyranny, to live the way we want, even if it brings us ruin.
Sometimes we wander from home because we weren’t paying attention and suddenly we’re lost. We weren’t paying attention to wrong turns that led to dead ends, to friendships that hurt rather than encouraged, to choices that took us to dark corners that hid danger and disease.
And sometimes we wander from home because we have intentionally set out into the darkness in search of something or more likely in search of someone. We go to those places that frighten us, those places where we ourselves are in danger because someone we love is there, and if they won’t come home to us, then we will go sit with them in the darkness.
And when we do that, we have confidence that whenever we are ready to turn around, and make our way through the darkness again, and start that journey home – we have confidence that Someone is expecting us, waiting for us, leaving that light on so we can find them again.
A few months ago Gregg and I were going up to our family place near Mt. Rainier. We had a commitment at church that afternoon, and we weren’t able to head up till early evening. When we set out, it was dusk, the sky was cloudy but it was dry. As we left the highway onto the state road, unlit, night had fallen and the heavens had opened. It was pouring. Were it not for the reflectors in the middle of the road, we would not have known where to drive.
Finally, after two tense hours of gripping the steering wheel and peering into the darkness, we turned into the driveway. The caretaker of the property knew we were coming, and he had unlocked the gate and opened it, turned on the lights at the front door, and turned up the heat. We were so grateful to come home to that welcome. The caretaker had been expecting us.
God is expecting us, too. This God who created the infinity of the universe and those cold, distant stars; this God who existed before time and history; this God is the one who makes that immense journey from the cosmic to the intensely personal. And we know that because we have deep faith that God is expecting us to come home. God is leaving the light on. And that light is Christ.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overwhelm it.” Thanks be to God. Amen.