Homily for Christmas Eve 2008
Isaiah 9:2-7 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. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Titus 3: 4—7 when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, 5he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, 7so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8The saying is sure.
John 1: 1—14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He 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 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
“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.” This was a message to the people of Israel, given by the prophet Isaiah, some seven centuries before the time of Christ, giving voice to God’s message of hope. The people of Israel experienced darkness for a long time, longer even than Vancouver Canucks’ fans, unbelievable as that may seem. But like Canucks’ fans, even though they had waited for centuries, and might wait for centuries more, they still had a small flicker of hope that had remained alive. People must have grown tired of asking: When is it going to end? After a while (like Leafs fans, perhaps), you just stop asking any more, and find that you simply accept the inevitability of futility.
Most people have heard of a period of history commonly known as “the Dark Ages.” Author and historian James Michener said: “An age is called ‘dark,’ not because the light fails to shine but because people refuse to see it.” That might well be said of our own time. We seem to have developed a unique capacity for seeing the dark side, and there is so much focus on the negative and the cynical that we have developed derogatory names for people who are positive, regardless of how hopeless things seem – we call them things like Pollyanna’s, Jack Layton, Leaf fans.
This year, with all its troubles, it might not be surprising to see a sign that says: “Due to the current financial restraints and the price of oil and electricity, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off until further notice.” All the negativity threatens to become a huge self-fulfilling prophecy, because it’s very true that what you see is what you end up getting. At times it seems like we’re suffering from a large-scale case of seasonal affective disorder, which as you know is largely the result of light-deprivation. Those who can, go to Maui or Acapulco, but the rest of us need to find another source of light. And fortunately, God has provided one, not nearly so expensive or remote.
At Christmas, we are encouraged to join Zechariah in his triumphant song of praise and acknowledge that “The Dayspring from on high has visited us!” Christmas is a celebration of the coming, and continuing presence, of the Light of the world.
I recognize that, for many people, this season is not all sunshine and light and bright pathways forward. Many people struggle even at this time of year, as they move toward the celebration of Christmas still hurting from the loss of a loved one, or perhaps anxious about their economic future, etc. For many years I was involved with a Christmas Candlelight service which was offered through a local funeral home to people who had lost a loved one in the previous year. Initially, I was pretty dubious about the redeeming value of going to a “funeral home” for that kind of service. But after the first service I took part in, I sat down afterward with a young couple, and asked “So, what brings you to this service tonight?” They told me that their six year old daughter had died of an aneurysm at her birthday party that August. Stunned and humbled, I was to continue my involvement with that service for about 10 years, and never again questioned its value, especially to people walking in the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death.
If you can find ANY way to bring some light to someone like that, it’s worth doing. Over the years, many people spoke to me in gratitude about how important it was to have their grief acknowledged, but also to be encouraged to believe that there is still a way forward – light at the end of the tunnel as it were.
This season’s darkness has been personified by the case of the homeless woman they are calling ‘Tracey,’ a woman who, in lighting candles in her own dark and cold world, ended up burning to death on the street on Vancouver, ironically bringing to light, in a painful way, the plight of the homeless. I pray that her loss is not in vain, that her death may bring some light to a world too indifferent to the suffering of others.
Darkness is real for people, a spiritual, not just a physical reality. It’s a reality which drags you down, makes you afraid, prevents you from seeing other possibilities, and convinces you that your truth is the only truth. It is isolating and debilitating. It can take away your self-esteem, and make it harder for you to function. On a spiritual level, the darkness can also be a place of tremendous growth, despite being painful, confusing and frustrating, but let’s not gloss over with glib platitudes how difficult it is when the darkness is all you can seem to see. Some, like Tracey, end up so far into darkness that they no longer know how to accept an invitation into the light.
But there’s a variety of ways of missing the light:
Two cars were waiting at a stoplight. The light turned green, but the man didn’t notice it. A woman in the car behind him is watching traffic pass around them. The woman began pounding on her steering wheel and yelling at the man to move. The man didn’t move. The woman was going ballistic inside her car, ranting and raving, pounding on her steering wheel and dash. The light turned yellow and the woman began to blow the car horn, and gave him the finger, still screaming profanity and curses at the man. The man looked up, suddenly realized the light was yellow and accelerated through the intersection just as the light turns red, leaving the woman stranded to wait for the next light.
The woman was beside herself, still screaming as she missed her chance to get through the intersection. Still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the barrel of a gun held by a very serious-looking policeman. The policeman told her to shut off her car while keeping both hands in sight. She complied, shocked and speechless at what was happening.
After she shut off the engine, the policeman ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. She got out of the car and he ordered her to turn and place her hands on her car, then handcuffed her and took her to the police station where she was fingerprinted, photographed, searched, booked, and placed in a cell.
After a couple of hours, she was let out of the cell and escorted back to the booking desk where the original officer was waiting with her personal effects. He said, “I’m really sorry for this mistake. But, you have to understand, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping the guy off in front of you, and cursing a blue streak at him. I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ and ‘God is my co-pilot’ bumper stickers, and the chrome plated Christian fish [IXTHS] emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you must have stolen the car!“
You have to ask yourself sometimes: Am I adding to the light or am I making major contributions to the darkness? My sense is that there are enough dark forces out there, and that even a few people, consciously choosing to be agents of light, could make a big difference. During Advent our prayer has been an appeal to “Cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light …” Advent and Christmas are an appeal to the light – and a celebration of the presence of light among us, in all its forms. Light is many things. Light is truth and honesty; light is safety and confidence; light is the faith and confidence to keep walking even when things aren’t safe or certain; light is knowing that we matter. There is nothing like being in the light.
The other night, we went carolling and went to one of the nursing homes where it’s lights out at about 7:30. For these old folks, the light of their life is very nearly at an end. It was very quiet – quite dark — because most of the residents were alone, and in bed, and then we came in. Typically, I was modest about what we could do for anyone, but the light that shone from the eyes of a couple of the people we sang to was enough to light up the evening for me.
When you’ve connected with someone that way, each reaching out from your own darkness and isolation, transforming moments can happen – the world can seem to change in an instant. And people go forward on the energy/inspiration of those moments for a long time. Helen Keller (who, in case anyone doesn’t know, was born blind) said: “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” Moments like that make sense of the saying from scripture: “Even the darkness is not dark with God” (Ps 139:12). That is the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness cannot overcome. The Light of Christmas helps us to see each other, brings us together, overcomes our fear (which is often based on not being able to see and understand), inspires us, and brings new hope and determination. The Light of Christmas puts a song back in our life.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…” In the first years after Jesus’ time on earth, people struggled to find adequate language to express what his life really meant. People still struggle with how to give adequate explanation and interpretation for who/what Jesus was. John’s vivid description suggests a cosmic significance, and it is from John we hear an astounding link, connecting Jesus with those elemental forces of the universe, linking his life with that of the creation, that moment when God said, “Let there be light …”
“The Dayspring from on high has visited us!” People associated Jesus’ birth, his life, his death, with things like supernovas, the sun, with the light of creation; with mystics and magi; with prophets and kings and kingdoms. But Jesus, whom people very quickly began calling “the Light of the world,” instead of basking in the glow of his own reputation and status, instead of clinging to the uniqueness and specialness of such titles and acclamation, says the most astounding thing to people wanting to follow him: “YOU are the light of the world . . . Let YOUR light shine in such a way that people may be inspired by the good you are doing and want to turn their lives in the right direction too.” (Matthew 5: 14–16; Grant’s Canadian Version)
BE the light. It’s not a matter of wanting to have the spotlight on you. It’s not an act of self-aggrandizement. In a sense, it’s not about you at all. But to bring the light – to be bearers the light – we need to spend time in the light. I want to suggest that that is what we are doing by being here this evening: spending some time in the presence of the Light. And however we do that, it is bound to have a transforming effect on whatever our darkness may be. For all we know, we may be the light shining in the darkness for someone, so for God’s sake, “let your light shine in such a way that people may be inspired by the good you are doing and want to turn their lives in the right direction too.”