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Punching Holes in the Dark

Sermon – 1/02/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

 

Have you had enough of Christmas yet?  Can you ever have enough of Christmas?  We’ve made it to the New Year but the liturgical calendar says it is the second Sunday of Christmas.  And so our Christmas decorations are still up not because we could not find anyone to take them down last week, but as a reminder to us that we are still in the Christmas season, that the church’s calendar is different from the shopping calendar, that the news of the Christmas message cannot be confined to one day. 

If there are indeed 12 days of Christmas, then we still have maids to be milking, lords to be leaping and drummers to be drumming before the Christmas season is over!  So the decorations and the carols on this first Sunday of the new year remind us that God’s time will not be rushed.

There is one more reason why we haven’t removed our decorations yet and that is because Epiphany does not begin until January 6.  Epiphany is the season of the star, when we celebrate the manifestation of God’s coming as the light of the world through the child of Mary and Joseph as told in the Gospel of Matthew.

Thus this is properly the Sunday when the magi join the animals and shepherds in the manger.  Actually, there are no animals or shepherds and there is no manger in the magi story.  For that matter, there is no baby either.  As Matthew tells the story, Jesus is already a young child of one or two when the ambassadors from the East follow that star to a house in Bethlehem.  Putting the magi off a Sunday or two gives us a chance to consider the significance of their story in its own right. 

You know the story.  This royal entourage comes to the palace as protocol dictates, seeking the new King of the Jews. This of course comes as a bit of a shock to King Herod who was under the impression that he was the King of the Jews.  Shortly thereafter, he orders the execution of all male children under the age of two while Mary and Joseph take their little treasure to Egypt. 

With this disturbing story Matthew both establishes Jesus as the true King of Israel in contrast to Herod.  At the same time he portrays Herod as a pharaoh of old who does not hesitate to execute infants to maintain his power. In contrast Jesus appears as the new Moses who comes out of Egypt to lead his people to a new life in the promised land of God.

Already here, in Matthew’s birth story, before Jesus is weaned from his mother’s breast, we are given a choice between the system of domination and power as exercised by the world, what John Dominic Crossan calls the “normalcy of civilization”, or a life, that from the beginning, is in opposition to such normalcy.  Take note of the tension already present here between these two ways of living in this world, one that takes life and the other that gives life.  The two will collide with deadly results upon a hillside outside the holy city at the end of the story, another earthly king at last succeeding where the first failed.  But his victory will be but an illusion eternally shattered by the dawn’s new light on the empty grave.

You see Epiphany is the connection of the good news of Christmas to the good news of Easter, the morning star that precedes the dawn.  How many of you found under your Christmas tree the expanded version of “Return of the King”, the third volume in the Lord of the Rings series?   Like thousands of other families in the country, Santa delivered that great Tolkien epic to us and we watched it on New Year’s Eve.  But of course you just can’t watch the third movie without the first two, so we had about 12 hours of Lord of the Rings on Friday!  In the expanded version there is a wonderful scene when Frodo and Sam are in Mordor, the source of all evil in Middle Earth, and the burden of their journey has become too great to continue.  Sam looks up to see a break in the dark clouds overhead and a single star shining through.  The beauty of that star gives him the courage and hope to continue their journey.  That’s Epiphany.

We talk about the light of that star which guides us through the night in various ways but it is John’s gospel which gives us the most thorough and revealing theological interpretation of it.  John skips any mention of angels singing to shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.  He even avoids the controversy of the miraculous birth.  In fact, he completely reinterprets it, as we will see in a moment. 

For John, the origin of the Christian proclamation, the good news of both Christmas and Easter, lies not in human history but in the proclamation of God that brought the world into being.  Listen to his prologue to the Gospel story:

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. 3All 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.

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There 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. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And 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.

In the beginning when darkness covered the face of the deep, God spoke and brought light to the world.  There begins the Good News, says John, for in that beginning was the Word which is the light of the world, the Word which would become flesh and dwell among us to enlighten everyone.  That Word comes to us as a light that pierces the darkest night, a sign in the heavens for the wise to discern, a rising star inviting believers to follow, a new dawn separating day from night.

For John, there is a clear marcation between darkness and light which is a major theme running through his gospel.  Just two chapters after this introduction to the Light, Nicodemus comes to Jesus, by night, to confess his infant faith in Jesus and Jesus responds, “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

Just as Mary was confused on how she could conceive a child, Nicodemus is confused on how anyone could be born a second time.  And just as the angel answers Mary that this will be the work of the Spirit, so too Jesus tells Nicodemus.  Thus for John, listen carefully, the miraculous birth is not what happened to Jesus, the miraculous birth is what happens to us!  But that is another sermon for another time.  Just thought I’d throw that in there today as a freebie.

Back to the Epiphany theme for this morning, listen to the conclusion John gives to this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus:

Those who believe in the Son are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.  (John 3:18-21)

Later on John tells us that Jesus says “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)

The Apostle Paul finds this contrast between darkness and light useful in describing the Christian calling.  In his letter to the Romans he writes, “Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:12)  To the Ephesians he says, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light--for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”  (Ephesians 5:8f)

This image of light vs. darkness is a useful one in helping us to interpret the world around us and the struggles we face in our own lives.  Marcus Borg notes that, “Darkness is associated with blindness, night, sleep, cold, gloom, despair, lostness, chaos, death, danger and yearning for the dawn.  It is a striking image of the human condition.” 

Despair so dark we cannot see a way out;
Poverty so bleak that hope remains a faint twilight;  
Death so near that dawn is but a memory;  
Grief so heavy daylight cannot lift it.

This is the night in which fear and lost souls tread without end.  It is the night we hope and yet cannot avoid.  In contrast to this darkness, says Borg, “Light is seen as the antidote to the above, and is thus an image of salvation.  In the light, one is awake, able to see and find one’s way; it is associated with relief and rejoicing that the night is over; in the light one is safe and warm.  In the light there is life.”[i]

This is the light we seek, the way, the truth and the life, but too often it is the darkness we find.  Whether it is our own inability to gain control over the destructive forces in our lives or our collective failure to keep that light shining for the common good, we find ourselves in one way or another caught in the struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. 

Precisely because Christ is the Light of the World which illumines our lives we are made all the more aware of the inner recesses of our lives still in the dark:  past deeds or experiences we wish to keep hidden, deep desires of illicit acts or wrongful things, private liaisons and secret loves, paralyzing fears and terrifying memories. 

In reality our lives are a mixture of light and dark, hope and fear, love and hate, peace and war, grace and judgment.  We may be successful some of the time in driving the dark away, but it remains an unavoidable part of the human experience.  We do our best to avoid it, we spend a lifetime running from death and fortunes denying our mortality, we saturate our bodies with every conceivable drug to avoid pain, we consume every available resource to maximize our comfort and prolong our existence, but the darkness remains in the ever-present horizon of our lives.

It may be distant, it may be near, but it is there, ready at any time to swallow us like Jonah and the whale or last week’s tsunami.  A vacation in a Pacific paradise turned into an unimaginable nightmare with no warning. Entire communities washed away with little evidence of the lives once lived there.  How do we fathom such darkness?  How do we comprehend 120,000 lives and counting wiped out by a single wave or two?

You never know when the night will come. A wrong turn and the lights go out.  A phone call and the world goes dark.  Through it all we hang on to the promise of our Epiphany star, that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, there is still a light to guide our way. 

An elder of the church went to the home of a member whose wife, just 34 years old, had just been killed.  The elder found the distraught husband stretched out on his bed staring at the ceiling, numb.  Saying nothing, he pulled up a rocking chair and sat down by the bed.  As night fell, the husband eventually fell asleep.  When in the middle of the night he reached out for her and then in horror awoke to the realization she was gone for good, the pain of the overwhelming darkness and silence would have been unbearable were it not for the steady creaking of the rocking chair that told him he was not alone.

Do you know that feeling?
And do you know that you are not alone in the dark?

Poet William Wordsworth sees the dark and the light as part of one nature:

The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,  
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light--  
Were all like workings of one mind, the features  
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,  
Characters of the great Apocalypse,  
The types and symbols of Eternity.  
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.

 

Theologian Mathew Fox speaks of our need to befriend the dark, for without it salvation is meaningless.  “By refusing to cover up the cosmic despair and the cosmic anguish that life rains on us we make healing possible.... By letting pain be pain we allow healing to be healing, and instead of healing our projections or our imaginary darknesses we heal what is truly in pain, what is deeply and irretrievably dark.”[ii]

The prophets remind us that dawn follows the night and joy comes through mourning.  Isaiah proclaims:  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them has light shined.”  (Isaiah 9:2) And Jeremiah says that “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”  (Jeremiah 31:13)

As a young boy Robert Louis Stevenson stood by his window, watching a lamplighter walking down the street, lighting the gas streets lights.  His nanny asked him what he was doing.  The young Stevenson replied, “I’m watching a man poke holes in the darkness.”

In our family we have a favorite story about young Patrick that my mother loved to tell, now it has become as much a favorite story about Mom recalled once again this past Christmas when all of us were together (five siblings, six grandchildren, spouses and now one great-grandchild—I don’t know how that happened because I am not old enough to have a great grandfather for a father!), the first time we’ve all been together since Mom’s memorial service. 

The story, recalled by my oldest sister, the Reverend Katherine Graves:  We were camping when Patrick was three or four.  Mom and Dad came to join us at the small lake in the Cascades.  It was late in the evening when Mom decided to take a swim.  Patrick did not think it a good idea.  “Why not?” asked Mother.  “Because,” replied Patrick, “the light is dissipating.”  And so Mom loved to tell of the dissipating light perceived by her youngest grandchild.

Without darkness, how can we perceive the light, whether dissipating or dawning?  Without death, how can we know resurrection, whether Christ’s or our own?  Christ, the true light of the world, offers us salvation precisely because Christ is a light IN the dark.  Until we accept the dark, we will never see the light nor find God in the midst of either.

Do you remember the crucifixion scene, when the whole world turned dark?  John tells us that “while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed...”  Before the dawn, while the world is still dark, Christ comes, poking holes in the darkness until at last, we have nothing to fear for it is not the light but the dark that is dissipating.

This is Epiphany, punching holes in the dark with God’s light born in Jesus, borne by Christ.  Arise, shine, your light has come.



[i] The Christian Century, 12/16/1998, p. 1219

[ii] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, Bear & Company, 1983.  p. 163.

 

 


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