This is the draft of this coming Sunday’s sermon at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Dallastown, PA. I took a few ideas from John Vest’s sermon, “Who Are You?” and some things I’m working through in Catherine Keller’s new book, The Cloud of the Impossible, which I am reading to follow along with the next AUFS book event. The lections are Exodus 20:15-21 and 1 John 1:1-2:1a.
Christmas is finally here. Well, almost. The excitement is everywhere, and I will tell you it has been a little nuts in my house the past few weeks. But there is something just magical about Christmas.
In our reading today, from 1 John 1, the author writes that “If we say we have fellowship in [God] while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true,” and “[i]f we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Finally, a famous line of scripture: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
The idea of “light” is enormously important spiritual concept, but it has different meanings, and we have to relate to the Biblical author, who obviously wrote these words down before electricity has made light something we very often take for granted. Within the context of the whole book of 1 John, the primary meaning of light has to do with moral purity, that God does not sin and God is not tainted by sin. We also think of light in a very obvious way, that light shines out of darkness.
This is why the lighting of candles is so memorable and beautiful on Christmas Eve, singing “Silent Night.” As the pastor, when I watch it from the pulpit, the congregation becomes an ocean of lights glimmering out of darkness. Furthermore, at least for me, the experience is also theologically meaningful, that we testify to the light by lighting our own little lights.
If all we know is light, we would need darkness to know the light. Similarly, if all we know is darkness, we would need light to know that we live in darkness.
And in the book of Exodus, the beginning of God’s revelation in the form of law, perhaps the most important moment of God’s word for the Hebrews, is the Ten Commandments. And interestingly, God reveals the ten commandments from a thick cloud of darkness, according to the scriptures.
So it would seem that to speak in absolutes that God is darkness, or God is light, is a bit of an overstatement, because if God is anything, God, or our conception of God, must embody a “coincidence of opposites.” God speaks from the darkness; God reveals through the light. If light shines out of the darkness, can the darkness be entirely understood to be negative? God sweeps over the darkness of the deep at the moment of creation (Genesis 1). God reveals power over the political powers and foreign religious systems by casting darkness over Egypt. Just as Moses encounters God through the thick cloud of darkness, so also does King Solomon praise God by recalling the darkness of God (1 Kings 8:12). The crucifixion of Jesus is also cast in darkness; and tradition teaches that Jesus descends into the darkness of Hell to liberate those who are enslaved in the darkness.
This is all to say, darkness is a double-edged sword. Often the bad things that happen in the presence of, or symbolized by, darkness are from a different perspective, very good. Why else do we call the day that we commemorate the darkness of Jesus’ death on the cross “Good Friday?”
It’s fair to say that we live in a dark age. The past months and the news of the past months seem almost overwhelmingly bad. The only prayer that we have left is “Come, Lord Jesus.” Come, Lord Jesus.
In this past year our church has grown, but we have also lost some beloved members who have died. Their presence is felt perhaps the strongest during the holiday season. When we face such loss, and peer into the darkness of our own mortality, the only prayer that we have left is “Come, Lord Jesus.” Come, Lord Jesus.
The recent revelation that our government has been engaging in torture of its prisoners to a point of escalation beyond what many of us thought was unfathomable by our own people, has reminded us again that to place our hope into systems of power on this earth is a grave mistake. And yet while we still do it, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Come, Lord Jesus.
So many of our families are in conflict during this holiday season, so many people are feeling hurt by divisions and discrimination by faith communities during these holy days. Where we have contributed to the broken body, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Come, Lord Jesus.
For the emphasis of world events on religious tyranny, and religious hatred, in the emerging Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East, and among the poorest of Africa, and the persecution of Palestine, we often have no words to pray but “Come, Lord Jesus.”
For the racism that exists everywhere around us, and defines so much of our culture, and our inability to recognize it and speak loudly and clearly with a prophet’s tongue, striving for justice, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus.” Come, Lord Jesus.
There is a thick cloud surrounding our experiences. When we descend deeper into the darkness of God, where darkness envelops darkness, where the luminosity of darkness has nothing but potential for light, it is there where the light, however small, becomes more meaningful, more hopeful, more salvific, more saving.
In this darkness God speaks, and God incarnates as a fragile child in the womb of Mary. That which is pure and morally without blemish enters the world into a tenuous place, the insides of an unmarried teenage girl: a place where the princes and powers of this world still to this day spend much effort and rhetoric to legislate and control. Just as God speaks over the waters of creation, God speaks new life, Godself, into a place that the people of that time did not biologically understand, and was—and is—a source of fear, darkness, to men. God enters the world, nestled in dark waters.
When the waters break, the out of the darkness of the womb God arrives into the world, just as every one of us has. Like all babies, the shock from traveling from darkness to light overwhelms the senses, and with the light comes coldness, shivering, and a desire to return to the safety of darkness. But just like all of us, we acclimate to the light.
The world of light into which Jesus arrives was a world in the darkness of night. A world where two teenage parents were on the run from the law; a world where the political powers sought to destroy any remnant of true light in the darkness by killing scores of children. The working poor, the shepherds, and foreign intellectuals, the wise men from the east, followed the small light shining out of darkness to find the enfleshed baby God.
It is said that Christmas is a time of wonder. Yet so much of our holiday experiences are planned and carefully executed: we know where we will be and what we will probably eat, and who we will be with and who we will not be with. Children have been preparing their lists for Santa Claus since Halloween. In the marketplace, Christmas has become a mockery of itself, while zealots rage on about a war on Christmas that isn’t really happening. We all know this.
Yet there is too much that we ‘know’ about Christmas. The ‘unknowing’, or true wonderment, of Christmas is something we have yet to truly strive for, because of the safety of what we know about Christmas. Christmas is not at all predictable: it is an interruption, a movement between the coincidences of opposites, that in darkness comes forth light. From the distance of God in heaven to the nearness of our space, our time, our flesh. Our death. When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we petition for an in-breaking of surprise, a disconnect from what was previously too connected, the shattering of something desperately in need of shattering, yet this light is hindered, and apprehended, and resisted by a world and its powers so enshrouded by darkness pretending to be light.
Perhaps what we are called to do is to subvert the light, or lightness, of Christmas with the darkness of Christmas, so that the luminosity may shine through. That we might carry ourselves with expectancy and expectation as Mary, and break the silence of Zechariah, and prophesy to the stars to fall to this earth as did Isaiah: seeking for God to arrive again, through us, in this present moment. An arrival of God so calamitous and scandalous that the powers and kings will shiver, the tables of the marketplace will be overthrown, and a world where equality and the justice of God finally reigns.
This was the vision of this little baby boy, this God, being born in a barn, surrounded by the stench of animals, their feed, their droppings: that the last will be first and the first will be last. If God can be born out of darkness, can we ourselves vision God birthing into the world through us?
Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus.