A few days ago I was driving along when the sun suddenly broke through the grayness and the whole world brightened. Those rare times that we see sunshine in our Midwestern winters are moments to treasure. They lift our moods and push back the Seasonal Affective Disorder (acronym “SAD”) that seems to afflict so many. This is, in a literal sense, the darkest time of the year—with the shortest daytimes and the longest nights.
Light and dark are powerful metaphors as well.
- Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, gave the title Night to one of his most well known books, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald.
- We refer to long stretches of spiritual impoverishment as “dark nights of the soul.”
- Star Wars fans certainly know what it means to “Go over to the dark side.”
So here it is night. What brings us out in the nighttime? What longing causes us to go to so much trouble to prepare for this evening? What motivates us to be here when it’s dark outside?
We crave light and hope.
The tradition says that Jesus was born at night in what would have been a dark stable. In Luke’s telling, the birth story starts off in a disheartening way. Joseph and Mary are forced by a decree from the Emperor to leave their home in Nazareth and make the difficult trek to Bethlehem, to the City of David, Joseph’s ancestral home, to participate in a census. When they arrived, the inn was full, so they settled in the stable. If our crèche scenes and carols are to be believed, farm animals surrounded them, the cattle were lowing. When her time came, Mary gave birth there and laid her infant in a manger, which was nothing more than a feeding trough containing hay.
Only then, the story goes on, was the darkness split and the angels appeared to the shepherds. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ (Luke 2:9-14)
In the Bible, wherever the word “glory” appears (“doxa” in Greek), it refers to a visual, non-verbal experience of God. Splendorous, luminous, bright! As our text says, “The glory of the Lord shown around them.” The night was lit up; the darkness pushed back.
The Gospel of John doesn’t have a birth story about Mary, Joseph, shepherds, or wise men. John speaks of darkness and light.
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)
The date of Christmas is not given in the scriptures and neither is the season. The earliest mention of December 25 for Christmas was in the year 400. But here in the northern hemisphere and in the western church . . . it works. We progressively light our Advent candles as the days grow shorter. When we reach the solstice, which the ancients called “the rebirth of the sun,” then it is Christmas.
The Incarnation is a celebration of light, but it’s one that begins in darkness. The starting point for faith is recognizing the darkness in which we live, comprehending what we lack, coming to the realization that we stand in need of God.
On this night we read from Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
Or as the great theologian, Arlo Guthrie, once observed, “You can’t have a light without a dark to put it in.”
The darkness of the world surrounds us where horrific tragedies, disasters, and monstrous evil deeds are regularly reported. Sometimes the dark is far away and sometimes close at hand and in our own experience. But it’s always there in the background if not right in our faces.
God sees the darkness and is heart broken. God’s heart breaks for it’s God’s intention that we have life and have it abundantly. So it is God who choses to shine a “great light” into our darkness.
Google (the Search Engine people) just put out a report they called “A Year in Search: In 2014 we searched trillions of times. What do these searches say about us?” They categorized the searches, and here’s what they found.
- People searched for hope more than fear.
- We searched for things we love.
- We looked for greatness.
- We hunted for help to make sense of things and events.
- We sought to remember those whose lives gave our lives meaning.
- And we hungered to be inspired.
Hope, love, greatness, remembrance, meaning, and inspiration. Google’s summary of our online searches sounds like a theological reflection on the Christmas story. Despite the deep darkness that that surrounds us, we are focused on the light. That’s what draws us here tonight.
In the wonderful words of Phillips Brooks, from his Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
May the light of the Christ child shine upon you, reside in your heart, and push back the darkness all your days and nights.
God bless you! Amen.