(a sermon for January 3, 2016, the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, based on John 1:1-18)
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In case you missed it, that’s the verse that’s read every year just prior to our lighting candles together on Christmas Eve. Admittedly, it is a bit of scripture that does tend to get lost in our tradition on that night of telling of the larger story of angels, shepherds and a baby born in a manger; and yet, for me, this verse from John’s gospel is the one that gives both the story and our worship its proper perspective. For after all, what is Christmas if not our celebration of God’s light shining unto the world in the Christ child; and indeed, our times of worship over these past few weeks have reflected this. From the lighting of advent candles one by one and week by week, until finally the Christ candle was lit and shared amongst us all as we sang “Silent Night” together on Christmas Eve, in our sanctuary here there was this beautiful tableau of ever-increasing light in the darkness; proclaiming a message that’s as clear and immediate as it is overwhelming: that in Jesus Christ, “the true light, which enlightens everyone” has come into the world!
It’s an amazing and wholly spiritual moment; one that as your pastor I look forward to all year, and I know so many of you feel the same way.
Of course, it’s also a moment that can’t last forever. At East Church, we will linger in the glow of that candlelight for as long as we possibly can; we’ll make it last through prayer and even a reprise of “Silent Night.” Eventually, however, there’s a benediction and sending forth and when the “house lights,” as it were, come up, the candles all have to be extinguished. In all honesty, our concern at that point is for fire safety, along with the awareness that now that the service is over everyone’s going to be milling around and greeting one another before heading off to their own celebrations of the holiday; so it just kind of has to be that way. And yet, I suspect I’m not alone in wishing – just a little bit, mind you – that we could just keep on dwelling in that candlelight all through the night and into Christmas Day and beyond.
In fact, I remember several years back in a former parish there was this young man who was determined to do just that. After worship on one Christmas Eve, he decided that he was not going to extinguish his candle (as he was instructed in the bulletin!) but that he was going to take it home with him so he could light a larger candle his family had standing on their mantle! His explanation to me was very simple: this light was the light of the Christ candle, and “you said, Rev. Lowry,” that this light needed to be taken out into the world, so that’s what I’m going to do! And so very carefully this young man shielded the candle flame as he walked through the narthex and left the church that night; and then held the candle in the back seat of their family’s car all the way home across town as the parents watched nervously through the rear view mirror; but this young man was determined, to say the least, and as I understand it the light of our Christmas Eve Service that year continued on in this family’s living room all through the next day!
Now, at the time as a practical thinking grown-up and a fellow concerned parent, I shuddered to think of all that could have gone wrong with that scenario; but as a pastor I have to tell you I loved it! In fact, that might well have been the most perfect parable of Christmastide ever (!); the idea that even though after Christmas Eve the darkness outside continues, by faith (and a steady hand, I might add!) there is no extinguishing the light that has come into the world in Jesus Christ!
It’s a parable that serves as a good reminder for you and me; especially right about now as, with the coming of the New Year, our Christmas celebrations are pretty much coming to a close (and lest there be any doubt about that; there’s already lots of Valentine’s candy to be found on store shelves!). Yes, another holiday season is winding down and our attention is drawn in other directions; and yet, the truth of this “holy day” we’ve celebrated is that light – “true light” – has come into the world. The question becomes, then, is how we move forward living in that light that’s come into the world? Can it be truly said of you or of me that we have the faith, determination and the steady hand to “go on with our lives” in this new, while not leting that light that has come to us be extinguished?
After a fashion, that’s the exhortation found in this morning’s scripture reading, which is taken from the first chapter of John; which is often referred to as the Prologue to his Gospel, in that John’s account of the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ start at the beginning: the very beginning. First thing we’re told is that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” There’s also an echo of the Book of Genesis as John goes on to say that “All things came into being through him, and without not one thing came into being,” and that in and through the Word that was God, there was life and that life was “the light of all people.” And this is the light that, as The Message translates it, “blazed out of the darkness; [and] the darkness couldn’t put it out.” And then it goes on to talk about John – John the Baptist this time – who was not the light that was the come into the world, but was there “to show the way to the Light.” All of this to finally proclaim the coming of “the true light” coming into the world.
This week I came across a quote from one Rev. William MacCord Thigpen, an Episcopal priest out of Atlanta, Georgia, who refers to this as “John’s Nativity Story,” which is actually an appropriate reference. For whereas John says nothing at all about shepherds, angels and wise men from the East, he says everything that needs to be said about, as we like to say today, “the reason for the season.” These first few verses of John’s Gospel affirms for us the birth of a Savior was not some random event that occurred merely by happenstance; but was ever and always the intent of God! The same God “who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness [and who] said ‘let there be light,’ the same God who was from the beginning… [was] this same God [who] became flesh and blood and dwelt among us… this God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness but shines in the very midst of it.”
In other words, by God’s own plan the light is meant to shine on; Christmas – true Christmas, that is – does not end on December 26 or on New Year’s Day, any more than the story of Jesus Christ concludes at the moment that the magi decide to go home from the manger by another way! If Jesus Christ is the true light who comes into the world and into our hearts and lives, then that light is meant to linger in and through every day – and night – that comes.
John’s prologue goes on to address this in some verses to which, soon enough, we’ll return; about the time we’re in this sanctuary extinguishing light on Maundy Thursday: “He was in the world… yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him…” But… “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” By the way, I love how The Message words this: “Whoever did want him,” it reads, “he made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.” There is an understanding, you see, that carrying this light that we’ve been given, receiving that true life that we’ve been given as our own by virtue of God’s good grace, that’s what makes every difference as to who we are and how we’re known as we walk through our days now and eternally. This is our center as God’s people, friends; it is truly where our heart belongs: it is letting the mysterious God who became flesh and blood and lived among us be the light that burns brightly, and continually, within us!
One of the things I noticed as I went about my work as a pastor during this particular Advent and Christmas season is that that this year there seemed to be this profound awareness of darkness. Some of it had to do with all the news out there about violence and terror and a sense that the world’s been spinning out of control; and for some, it was personal: there were folks among us who were dealing with illness and grief and all those private inner struggles that people go through this time of year. A few expressed to me that in many ways, this year it didn’t feel like Christmas; though more often than not what I was hearing is that now, maybe more than ever before, we truly “needed a little Christmas” in this world. I think that was true; and moreover, that ours is a time when the light we’ve been given needs to shine, and brightly!
It seems to me, beloved, that especially as this new year begins, our part in what’s been called “the struggle for the soul of Christmas” has less to do with what’s printed on a coffee cup than it does with how you and I seek to live out of that light that has come into the world; how we allow Jesus, the “Word made flesh” to, if I can quote MacCord Thigpen once again “become enfleshed in our hearts and minds and hands, enfleshed in our relationships and care for the stranger… [and] for those in any need or trouble; enfleshed in our struggle for justice and peace among all people.” It has to do with carrying the light out of this place and into our homes, our lives… and into our world.
The thing is, friends; it takes some care to bring that flame to where it needs to burn. For us to live “as the light” we’ve been given means that it needs to be shielded from that in and around us that would seek to snuff it out. And, yes, it’ll need to be taken precisely into those places where you’re not at all sure it’s going to be seen, or appreciated, or even noticed – it’s going to have to burn there amongst family, and friends, at places of work and play, during the times of ease but especially while there’s struggle and sorrow going on around you. In other words, it’ll take faith to do what needs to be done here… some fair amount of determination to keep the flame burning… and a steady hand every step of the way; knowing that the way of light may not always be an easy pathway, but it is a pathway that is right, and good… for this light; the light who is Jesus, light of the world, is the “Word made flesh… and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And it’s a light that will increase with every step you and I take!
Beloved, my prayer in this new year is that each one of us will carry the light of Christ out into the world; that the light we received on that warm and glowing Christmas Eve will be the same light that reveals each one of us as Children of God; and what a bright and enveloping light that will be for all those around!
Happy New Year, my friends… and let it shine!
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry