Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Light That Shines in the Darkness

December 31, 2017 – The First Sunday after Christmas Day
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Last Sunday was a long but glorious day. Because I knew that it would be 3am or later before I went to bed, I slept in a little bit—until 5:00am—before starting my usual Sunday-morning routine. After a good and satisfying observance of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I went home, ate a light lunch, and, as I often do, took a nap. When I woke up, I took my second shower of the day, put on a different clergy shirt and a different suit, and headed out the door for the evening services. As I got dressed for the second time, I wondered whether I should have worn my “Sunday best” that morning or saved it for the evening services.

Although more common in the African-American Christian community, the concept of “Sunday best” is something we understand as well. It primarily refers to that set of clothes that we save for going to church on Sundays, but it also means the hair style, the hat, the special meal, and the attitude that we associate with Sunday church. In a quaint but theologically significant way, we save our best for God, and we bring our best to worship. But what happens when our best isn’t all that great?

It was pretty dark when the 5:00pm service started, and it was completely dark when the 11:00pm service began. I got here early enough to see the gorgeous and elegant flowers placed behind the altar, hung on the pews, set around the incarnation window, and placed above the door in the back of the nave, but, by the most of the congregation arrived, the light coming through the windows had faded, and the flowers, though beautiful, were harder to discern. Before the later service, we dimmed the lights a little bit, and, by the time the prelude of anthems and carols started, the full effect of the flowers was lost. By Monday morning at the 10:00am service, the light had returned, meaning that the blossoms were on full display, but by then some of the peonies had and wilted and some of the roses had dropped their petals.

We lit the candles in the aisle at the 5:00pm service, and most of the candles had dwindled to little more than nubs by the time the service ended. We relit them for the 11:00pm service, but I don’t think that all of them had enough wax to survive the whole time. If you were here for that service, you also may have noticed that one of the globes on the pew stands had fallen and shattered in between the services. If you came to the Christmas Day service, you couldn’t miss it. Of course, despite the missing globe, God was faithfully worshipped even though one of the candles stood without its glass protection.

Because it was designed for families, the first service was an exercise in controlled chaos. Kids were squirming and chirping. Mothers were shushing and scowling. The children’s pageant was beautifully energetic with nervous angels and wandering sheep. Although I’m sure the congregation got the point, I don’t know whether anyone actually heard the Christmas story. The later service had a remarkably different feel. Instead of rambunctious children, we had a few over-enthusiastic and slightly over-served partygoers who had made church their last stop for the evening. I get more hugs from parishioners on Christmas Eve than at any other time, and I don’t think that’s because the Christmas spirit has warmed their hearts. The 10:00am service on Christmas Day was as cold and sober as any I have ever attended, but there were only seven of us, including the clergyman, the LEM, and the representative of the Altar Guild. Yes, we were there to worship the newborn king and each of us had made an effort to be there, but I admit that I was wearing glasses instead of contacts and cotton khakis instead of wool trousers, having used all the “Sunday best” I had back on Sunday.

Throughout it all—noisy children, tipsy grownups, dim lights, wilted flowers, faithful few—the light of Christ shone through the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There is something about Christmas and the fact that we set aside time to celebrate our savior’s birth that enables us to see the light that has come into the world no matter how dim it is or how distracted we are. At other times, however, that light feels harder to see. As the year comes to a close and news outlets remind us of the biggest stories of the previous twelve months, it feels like there is a lot more darkness closing in on us than light shining through it. As we take stock of our own lives, despite the abundant blessings we have been given, it is easy to let the absences and struggles and shortfalls tell our story. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to wait until Christmas to see the light that God has brought into the world.

That light is always within us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” All of creation was breathed into life by God as God spoke the Word that called it into being. That Word—that light and life—is contained within every created thing. The darkness that draws in around us cannot overcome that light, but it sure can make it hard for us to see it. Yet, if we listen to the voice of the prophets, we will hear them calling us back to that light that shines within us all.

One of those prophets is John the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” We spent half of Advent listening to the message of John the Baptist, hearing him call us to repentance and point us toward the Lamb of God. And, now that we have seen this thing that has taken place in Bethlehem, we understand what John’s preaching was all about. In his invitation to repentance, John beckoned us to look within ourselves and see what it means to turn away from the darkness and embrace the light of life. He understood that the messiah was coming, that in him the light of God would become clear, and that the only way that we would see that light is by shunning the ways of darkness.

When the Word became flesh, the glory of God shone not in the invisible realm of heaven but here on earth where we could see it in the baby boy who grew up to be Jesus. That light, which resides within us all, was uncovered in the Incarnate One. In him, all the darkness of sin was stripped away. In him, we saw again the light of creation restored to its full brightness. But not everyone was able to see that glory shining within our humanity. For some, the darkness was not something to leave behind but something to embrace. They did not heed the prophet’s warning and, thus, could not see the light that had come into the world or the light that was buried within them. But those who heard the prophets’ message of repentance, who prepared themselves to receive the light, and who believed in his name were given power to become children of God—those through whom the light of life shines brightly, scattering the darkness.

By taking our nature upon himself, God has adopted us as his sons and daughters. In the birth of God’s son, God made it possible for the light that was given to us in creation to be restored to its full, original, untarnished glory. But to see that light we must go through the darkness. We must look beyond it and see the light buried beneath it. We must turn from that darkness and embrace the light of life, the light that has the power to banish that darkness. That light is within us all, but we must search for it. As followers of Jesus, we must be a people of the light, a people who refuse to let the darkness define us. May we carry that light with us beyond this season of Christmas. May we search for its bright shining even when the darkness seems heaviest. May we bring the light of Christ with us into the world so that others, too, may see the light that shines within us all.

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