(I asked people to turn and exchange a greeting with the person next to them or behind them, and then talk about this with one another: Which Christmas carol or hymn best connects with your life right now? The activities in your life, perhaps, or maybe the general spiritual state of things for you right now?).
When I asked this question a week or so ago during our communion service at the Grande Ronde Retirement community, there were a variety of responses. One woman said that “Silent Night” was the carol which most resonated, as she was going through a relatively peaceful and calm season. Quite the opposite response from another, who said she felt like she was currently doing a lot of “dashing through the snow” Jingle Bells style! We just sang the carol which has connected most with me this season—that’s the benefit of being the pastor—I get to choose the carols! “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has a line which has been repeatingin my ears: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
What a year 2013 has been for holding together hopes and fears! I don’t know how your year has been, but in my life, loved ones have been dealing with cancer and divorce. In our congregation, four long-time, beloved members have recently died, and our prayer list has stayed full all year, with our deep concerns for people far and near. The natural disasters and incessant violence around the world, and the seemingly intractable divisions in our national life continue to affect us all.
We take all of the news and stories in, and then we come to this season of the year. It is a season of stark contrasts. The beauty and wonder of celebration, set right next to the pain of grief and emptiness of loss. The warmth of “family” coming together, set right next to the pain of estranged relationships. The light of a star over Bethlehem, as we move through the darkest days of the year.[i]
We hear the contrasts again as the prophet Isaiah announces: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Isaiah spoke these words to God’s people in ancient Israel during a season darkened by war and political oppression. The people had lost confidence in their leaders, and they had lost confidence in God. Their hopes for the future were dim. But into this darkness, Isaiah proclaims that the light has shined and the burden of oppression is broken. The light has shined, and “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” The light has shined, and peace is at hand.
This is a pretty astounding claim, no matter what era it’s made. Scholars think Isaiah first spoke these words at the coronation of a new king, whom Isaiah believed would rule with righteousness. Generations later we might hear these words with a sense of the dangers of overconfidence in earthly leaders! Yet Christians also believe they point to Jesus the Christ, whose birth we now celebrate, and we can get caught up in the stirring confidence of that list of titles: Wonderful Counselor! Mighty God! Everlasting Father! Prince of Peace!
But if we look closer, we see another challenging contrast in Isaiah’s words. “For a child has been born for us…” he says. A child. The great world-changing hope comes to us in a child. A child is such a small thing. Think of any baby you have known. Imagine the vulnerability. Imagine the dependence babies have on their caregivers to provide everything they need to live and grow.
And it makes me stop and wonder: What can a child have to do with breaking the rod of the oppressor, or halting the boots of tramping warriors? Our children represent the hope of the future, and we are all too aware how fragile it is. How small and helpless is our hope against the scope of the darkness!
There is a scene in the The Hobbit Part 2, where the wizard Gandalf comes face to face with the evil Lord Sauron. Holding tight to his staff, burning with a faint light, Gandalf creates a small circle of safety. But Sauron, personified as a sinuous black cloud, presses him sorely, declaring, “Light cannot conquer darkness!” The scene leaves us wondering what will happen next.So do our lives, as we try to hold on when the darkness presses in.
There is another scripture we will read tonight from John’s gospel. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Those words seem more modest than Isaiah’s. Isaiah says, “The light has shined and endless peace has come!” But John just says “The darkness could not conquer the light.” Like preacher Scott Black Johnston,
I’m not sure I like the modesty. He writes, “I want [these words] to declare that when the light comes into the world it obliterates the darkness. It takes the bleak mid-winter with every sadness, every despair, every raw deal, every horrendous tragedy, every evil plan, every god-awful, life-sucking disease, and tosses the whole mess into the cosmic trash bin. I want the light to arrive and to win, and I want it to win big.”[ii]
But that’s not what happens, is it? The light comes in a child, born in poverty and pain, a child who is laid in an animal feed trough at the far corners of an empire where kings are preoccupied with their own power. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. The light comes in a child who will grow to be a man, a man who refuses to march into Jerusalem at the head of a political revolution, but instead rides in on a donkey to end up on a cross. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
On the cross, it looked to all as if “light cannot conquer darkness,” but three days later the light shines through, brighter than ever, the resurrected Lord Jesus breaking the darkness of death forever. The light of Christ could not be overcome. The light of Christ did and does and will shine in the darkness again and again.
I was once on a tour of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, when our guide turned out the lights. We waited a few moments in a great, heavy darkness like I’d never experienced. It was hard to breathe. And then, just one light flickered on, a little thing, but the cave was transformed. It was still dark, but I could see friendly faces, people with me down in that dark place.
When Jesus was born, a star poked a great rent in the heavy fabric of darkness, not conquering it, but transforming it. The greatest hope of the world comes with the tiny fragile light of a child, a child who becomes a man who walks with and for and among us, that we may cast off our own darkness and return without shame to the loving arms of our Maker.
Tonight, we will have communion. We will take and eat a small bite of bread and sip of juice, and it might seem like not much of anything. But we believe that the Spirit joins us to the body and blood of this child, this man. We believe the Spirit joins us with every other who prays in Christ’s name for a reign of righteousness and everlasting peace. We believe Christ’s life is born in us, giving us the hope, peace, joy, and love we need to be Christ to one another and to the world.
It may not seem like much, but think of it as eating a coal or a star, a light which will settle inside of you and not go out, no matter how the winter dark presses in. And then, stretch out your arms to hold up and share that burning light, transforming the darkness of the whole world. Amen.
[ii] same as above