We gather tonight as do people throughout the world to hear the Christmas story. Many of us, like our Chancel Players, know it by heart. And yet we have come here this evening anyway because the story is about the God we long to know better and the people we seek to become.
The Christmas story is about the Glory of God, about which angels sang, shepherds gathered and kingdoms trembled. But it is our glory and our story too. For God came into the world as a human. The glory of God at Christmas shines through humanity. The Christmas story is about a God who lived and led among the people. In a manger, on a cross, in a font where water is poured, at a table where bread is broken, in the hugs of children and the embrace of life-long friends.
And so as we gather tonight to experience the Christmas story, it reminds us that if God’s glory shined through the birth of a baby, it can shine through you and through me. Let us pray. Gracious God. On this miraculous night when the light shined in a manger as never before, we ask that the light of the star, the light of the world, the light of Christ, might shine in each of our hearts. Amen.
Last Saturday evening, our family needed to let off some steam so we got in our minivan and headed out to see the Christmas lights throughout Bethesda. Every time we passed a house with lights, our two year old twins would shout, “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.” They didn’t need to say “Christmas lights.” To them Christmas was all about the lights. That’s because like many of you, a few weeks ago we put lights on the tree in our living room. Ever since, everything they associate with Christmas has to do with the lights. That will likely change tomorrow but for now it’s all about the lights.
These lights were helpful recently in combatting a fear of the dark at our home. We all have things we are afraid of. Some people fear heights. Some fear change. Some of us are afraid of the dark. The remedy for our five year old has been for the two of us to “camp out” on the floor of our living room. We’ll put down sleeping bags on the rug, near where the Christmas lights could keep us company. Now on my living room floor the illusion that I am young again lasts until about 3:00a.m. when I awake with my back aching and move to the sofa for the rest of the night. Being together near the lights helps us when we are afraid of the dark.
In Jesus’ time, before electricity, fear of the dark was a significant issue. For the ancients every journey after dark was potentially a harried one. Theologians Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan note in their book The First Christmas, that Jesus was born in the deepest darkness.[i] We affirm in our holiday music that the incarnation came upon a midnight clear, that Jesus was born on a silent night, a holy night, while the little town of Bethlehem was in a deep and dreamless sleep. They explain that Pope Julius declared December 25 as the date for Christmas around 350a.d. to go along with the solstice, the darkest day of the year. People disagreed about the actual day Jesus was born but all agreed with the prophet Isaiah and with Luke that the Messiah came to those who lived in deep darkness. Israel had been yearning for its savior for centuries. People in Palestine and Judea yearned for freedom from foreign oppression. For years after Jesus’ birth and death, a persecuted church longed for Jesus’ return. I find it comforting to know that Jesus appeared at the time of deep darkness.
But on this dark and silent night, there was also something calm and bright. In the little town of Bethlehem, the silent stars rolled by. On this holy night the stars were brightly shining. And just two verses before Luke’s birth narrative, Zechariah declared that “the…sun will come…from heaven to shine on those living in darkness.”
Jesus said that our light is not to be placed under a bushel or like a city it should not be hidden but this evening your light might be hidden under a basket of business or weighed down beneath the elephant of someone else’s expectations. You may be missing his voice or her smile or their laughter this year. You may be struggling to afford the mortgage or rent let alone the presents. It could be that a dull pain in your body or your mind which won’t go away is diming your spirits. Or that you have simply spent the last month getting ready for Christmas and find your life so full of demands that you lose touch with the light inside you. The part of you of which you are most proud. The light you had at another time in life that made everything else around you seem brighter.
But even when our relationships seem in the dark, our job situation seems in the dark, our health seems in the dark, and we are afraid, we are reminded on Christmas that a light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
We come to this ancient story to be reminded that there is something divine in the universe, something which came through humankind, something which since the beginning of time has come into even the deepest darkness, that is available to us. This is the “great light” which found Paul on a road to Damascus and changed his life. That light may find someone here tonight who is well down the road towards addiction or apathy or despair. Yet we affirm on the streets of Bethesda as in Bethlehem that “in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” Theologian Douglas John Hall put it this way, “The authentic light for our darkness is one that is granted in that darkness. . . for God meets, loves, and redeems us precisely where we are.”[ii]
The birth of Jesus is that light coming to meet us. Isaiah referred to the coming Messiah as “the light of the nations.”[iii] The forerunning prophet John said that the “true light was coming into the world.” And Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world.”
Then around his Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world.” Theologian William Barclay calls this “the greatest compliment that was ever paid…”[iv] He notes that “the primary purpose of light is not to be seen but to help other things be seen.” We don’t primarily look at the sun; we see what it illuminates. In John’s Gospel the word becoming flesh was Jesus and his life was the light of the world because Jesus makes God visible to humanity. Much like a lamp allows us to see, Jesus allows us to see the divine in a form that we can relate to and learn from.
Barclay concludes, when the Messiah, whom Isaiah, John and Jesus identified as the light of the world, said to his disciples “You are the light of the world, he is saying that they and we are like him.” That we bear resemblance to the image of God. He is saying that you and I are never alone in our darkness for we carry a light that can shed a glimpse of the divine to the world.
According to the book of Genesis, what were the very first words which God utters? Darkness covered the face of the deep and God said, “Let there be light.” Crossan and Borg note that this was not the light of the sun, the moon or the stars, those were created on the fourth day, but a deeper light that connects all living things to the glory of our creator. The light that is within you and me. The light which makes us like Jesus. The light which we come on Christmas to rediscover.
For our wedding ten years ago Bridget and I received a sculpture of a Buddha from a friend who travels abroad a lot. When I was camping on my living room floor with my five year old recently the light that came in the window from the streetlamp shined right on that Buddha and made me think of a story I heard on a trip we once took to Thailand. In 1957, a group of Buddhist monks had to relocate a clay Buddha from their temple to make room for a new highway in Bangkok. It was so heavy that when the crane lifted the giant idol it began to crack. Concerned about damage to the sacred Buddha, the head monk decided to lower the statue back to the ground and cover it with a large canvas tarp to protect it from the rain. Later that evening he returned to check on the Buddha, shined his flashlight under the tarp and noticed a little gleam shining back and wondered if there might be something underneath the clay. He had a chisel and hammer from the monastery and began to chip away at the clay. As he knocked off shards of clay, the little gleam grew brighter and after many hours of labor, the monk stood face to face with a twelve foot tall, solid gold statue, weighing over five tons and valued at over $200 million dollars. Historians believe that centuries before, the Burmese army was about to invade Thailand, and the Siamese clerics covered their precious golden Buddha with an outer covering of a foot of clay in order to hide their treasure. Unfortunately, none of them survived the battle, and no one knew the secret that was underneath until one dark night, a glimpse of light caught a faithful man’s eye and soon shone through.
The Buddha in our living room reminds me to try and keep what is brightest about me from being covered over. And when I lose it and become afraid that I won’t see it again, I turn to my faith, remembering that “the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”
If you find yourself here this evening too worn out to shine, the good news is you don’t have to generate your own light. My boys like the movie Ironman. He’s a super genius scientist who creates a superhero suit that helps him generate his own power and light. We are not Ironmen and women. Our task is not to produce our own light. Our task is to rediscover and reflect the light that is already in us. As Barclay put it, “the light we reflect is a reflection of the light of Christ in our hearts.”
Like fresh oil poured into a candle’s saucer, I find myself most in a mode for reconnecting and then shining here than anywhere. I know more people here who radiate a special light in this community than just about anywhere else. If this is your first time with us, come back some Sunday and see what I mean. One member of the community shared their story of growing up in a war town area and fleeing to America. Not all of the family survived the trip but those who did found refuge in a church which set them up in a nearby house. As a young person, they would sit by the house and stare out the diamond shaped holes in the white picket fence. That fence provided shelter and protection from a difficult world. When memories of challenging times of loss and pain became too great, my friend would look out the diamond shaped light coming through the fence, think of the glory that produced it and say to themselves, “Lean into the light, lean into the light, lean into the light. For God is watching over me.”
We come to church on Christmas to reconnect with the light, God’s light and ours. Because God was born among us there will always be light and hope. Jesus said that when our light shines, God is glorified. The Biblical word for glory about which the angels spoke means radiance or light. When the angels appeared the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds. And they were afraid at first. But after celebrating Jesus’ birth they allowed themselves to depart the manger glorifying God, that is, they were shining light. The shepherds did not generate light, their encounter with God’s glory led them to the light of Christ so that they could depart the Christmas experience reflecting it. In seeking God that night, they had discovered something precious underneath.
If we make our Yuletide wish, our New Year’s resolution, our Christmas prayer, that we lean into our light, we’ll uncover something that makes everything around us brighter. Follow Christ’s light, it will lead you there. Find it, claim it, reflect it, share it. Rediscover your light and let it shine. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Born and Crossan. The First Christmas.
[ii] John David Hall. Lighten Our Darkness, pp. 149, 173.
[iii] The Layman’s Bible Commentary, p. 33.
[iv] Barclay Commentary on Matthew, p. 122.