December 28, 2014, Christmas 1 – This Little Light of Mine
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In 1966, the folk duo Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded a version of the Christmas carol ‘Silent Night’ blended into a sort of sound collage with the 7 o’clock news. The speaking voice was the broadcast of the actual events of August 3 of that year. While Simon and Garfunkel sang the carol with its quiet, gentle harmonies, the voice of the newscaster reported the news: a battle in Congress over the civil rights bill, the death of comedian Lenny Bruce from a drug overdose at the age of 40, Martin Luther King’s plans for a march into Cicero, Illinois, and the Cook county sheriff’s order to call in the National Guard, protesters against the war in Vietnam, and vice president Nixon’s speech urging an increase in the war effort, and the indictment of Richard Speck, a serial killer who had murdered eight student nurses in Chicago. And as the song continued, the voice of the announcer grew louder and the music grew softer until the sounds of violence and unrest and death completely drowned out the ‘heavenly peace’ of the Christmas song.
It was a commentary on the darkness of the world, and it was an expression of bitter hopelessness – a declaration that the promise of peace and joy that the church of Jesus Christ proclaimed was empty and useless in the face of the world’s troubles. In part, the despair of the song, and the despair of that whole generation, was a judgment on a world which had turned away from God, and putting its trust in itself was only succeeding in destroying itself. But it was also a cry for light, out of the shadows of the world.
Because the world has always been a dark place, ever since the fall of man. “The people who walked in darkness,” Isaiah prophesied seven centuries before the birth of Christ, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and on those living in deep darkness a light has dawned.” In the time of Jesus’s birth, two thousand years ago, the ruler of the land was so ruthless and cruel that he ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys under the age of two. And since then, this world has seen the cruelty of the Crusades, and slavery, the Holocaust, two world wars, and today the seemingly constant violence of terrorism and religious extremism, not to mention the closer-to-home darknesses of alcoholism and drug abuse, broken homes and sexual violence and the neglect and abuse of children. The people of this world still walk in darkness; they are still in desperate need of the dawning light of Christ.
We had a lovely Christmas, both here at St. Philip’s, and at home, celebrating the very real joy of the presence of our Lord and the blessing of the nearness of the people we love. It was a time of true light. But on the day we were celebrating with our children and grandchildren, a high school student lost his father, and a young girl took her own life, and the very next day another man tried to take his own life and was only just found and rescued in time to save him. And all that was just in the small circle of our own acquaintances. It was a harsh reminder, to me, to us all, that there is still so much darkness awaiting the dawn of the Father’s love and grace.
I am sure you have all had the experience of sitting in a car on a very dark night. If you turn on a bright flashlight inside the car, suddenly you can’t see anything at all outside. If you try to look out the windows all you see is your own reflection. But if you take your flashlight outside the car, suddenly its light illuminates all your surroundings. Then your light dispels the darkness, and not just for you yourself, but for everyone around you.
John proclaimed the coming of the Light into the world – the true light that would enlighten everyone. The light came into the world, John wrote, and the darkness has not overcome it. It was a prophecy – it was a promise – that no matter how powerful or overwhelming the darkness might seem – and at many times in the history of our world the darkness has seemed utterly unconquerable – no matter what, the darkness would never, will never, overcome it. And the reason is this – that the light has come to dwell among us.
Jesus didn’t choose to shine his light in the pure, glorious confines of a heavenly Temple, where, like in our car at night, his glory would be reflected back to himself, enclosed in the brightness of his holiness. Jesus came out to live among us in our darkness, to be light in the midst of his people, from the dingy shadows of the stable in Bethlehem, to the dusty roads of Galilee, to the bloody hill of Golgotha. Jesus came, not to fix our world from on high by zapping it like a superhero, but by sharing its pain and suffering, walking alongside us, and in that way overcoming the darkness step by step, person by person. It is the way of grace, rather than law; the way of love rather than power.
Paul wrote a letter to Timothy when he was very near the end of his life, and in the letter he used a most wonderful phrase, calling the people of God ‘those who have loved his appearing.’ I think of that phrase when I think of our celebration of the Nativity, because the celebration of Christmas, the beloved, familiar carols, and the candlelight, and the closeness of friends and family, and the giving of gifts, are all such a wonderful part of our Lord’s appearing, and I love it all. It fills my heart with joy every year. We have received a gift of infinite value in the coming of Jesus to live among us, the greatest of all gifts. In the birth of Christ, we have received the light that cannot be overcome by any darkness this world holds, any and all darkness, no matter how enormous or overwhelming it might seem to us.
But even more – in receiving the gift of light we have become bearers of his light into the darkness of the world around us. Like the little candles we held on Christmas Eve that illuminated this whole sanctuary, each of us bears the light of Jesus Christ as we go out into the world. On our own we might feel like the smallest and dimmest of lights, but the darker the darkness is the brighter our light will shine, because it doesn’t come from us, ourselves, it comes from the one who is Light itself.
And there is no shortage of darkness in our way. We all walk every day among people whose lives are broken, we hear news every day of violence and suffering, we all face darkness in our own selves, the darkness of our sin or our mortality or our fears. But the light of Christ, the light that was born into the world in a dark stable on a dark night so very long ago, will not, will never be overcome.
When our children were little, we taught them that song that we all know – “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” We taught them to hold their little finger up and sing it out, and it made us smile because they were so cute. But now that I am much older, I am beginning to realize that we are all just little children in the presence of God. And I am beginning to understand, too, against all human wisdom, that in our Father’s strange and mysterious providence it is exactly these tiny little lights that we hold up, all of us, the little children that make up his church, that are his way of saving the world. The healing of our world began with the birth of a tiny baby in a stable in Bethlehem, and it continues, unbelievably, with us: one little light at a time, one step of faith, one act of kindness, one faltering attempt at making peace, one offer of forgiveness, one act of grace at a time.
When Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, he called them to live “as children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life .” This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
The thing that makes light such a perfect image for the love of God is this – that no matter how much light is shared, it is never diminished. We could have a hundred people in this room, and every one could light a candle from a single flame. The original flame would not be any less than it had been to begin with – but the light in this sanctuary would have grown so much that you would be hard put to find a single shadow lurking anywhere in this room.
Because darkness is not a thing unto itself; darkness is only a space waiting for the light. And this world is full of those kinds of spaces, individual lives and homes and villages and whole countries existing in the shadows, in desperate need of the light of the Father’s love. There are so many kinds of darkness: hunger waiting for nourishment, loneliness waiting for friendship, grief waiting for comfort, ignorance waiting for truth. The good news is that the source of all light – the Light himself – is inexhaustible, infinite, unquenchable. And the darkness cannot withstand the light of the one who came to live among us, to pass his light on to us, and through each of us to the world around us. Because he was born among us to be our light forever.