Sermon delivered at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH, on the first Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2007
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, St. Matthew’s! It was last year at this time that I preached my first sermon here and you were all very gracious to me despite my extreme nervousness. Then in March I preached in front of a bishop and knew firsthand the terror Abram felt in the Genesis account that was read that day. Today, however, marks my toughest test yet. My mother is here to hear me preach for the first time. And she’s taking notes. And she brought extra pens with her! So I beseech you, St. Matthew’s, please continue to be gracious to me this morning, even if I deliver a clinker!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…[I]n him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [has] not overcome it.” (John 1:1, 4-5). “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14a). With these words, John announces the wondrous Good News of Christmas. The eternal God, Creator of this vast universe takes on our flesh and is born of the Virgin Mary. The Christmas story is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the beginning of the climax to the biblical story of salvation. One of the early church fathers, St. Athanasius, described the Christmas event as “God condescending to our corruption” to save us from the death we deserve. The light of life shines in the darkness of a fallen and broken world and the darkness is not able to put it out, or as Matthew put it in last week’s gospel lesson, a virgin will bear a son and in fulfillment of prophecy, he shall be named Emmanuel, God with us. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
But sometimes, we are tempted to focus on the darkness rather than the light. That’s partly because we prefer to live in darkness (as John reminds us elsewhere—3:19); it’s the result of our sin and brokenness. Perhaps it is the darkness of political assassination that threatens to throw an entire country into chaos. Or maybe it is the darkness that results from putting our ultimate hope and trust in humans and human solutions rather than God. Maybe it is the darkness that can come from personal illness or from the debilitating effects of aging or disease. Perhaps it is the darkness that comes from separation or divorce or the death of a loved one. Maybe it is the darkness that comes from fear or uncertainty or doubt about our current situation, either as individuals or as a congregation. Perhaps it is the darkness that results from our sinful human pride. Whatever the source of darkness, we are tempted to cry out, like Scrooge did when seeing his former self of Christmases past, that we are quite alone in the world and fall into despair.
And our experience is quite universal, isn’t it? I read in the newspaper recently about a PR stunt in NYC. People were invited to bring things they wanted to rid themselves of and run them through a giant shredder. Some folks brought pictures of boyfriends or girlfriends who had dumped them. Others brought unpaid bills or bad medical reports. Whatever it was that folks brought to the shredder, all reported feeling better after having shredded what they brought. But as I read this story, I couldn’t help but feel sad for these folks. While they all desperately wanted a fresh start—much like many of us do when we make our New Year’s resolutions—they all appeared to want to remain in the darkness because by their actions they were putting their ultimate hope and trust in themselves or some other human solution. They were unwilling to come to the light of life and give their ultimate hurts, fears, hopes, and dreams to Jesus, the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Whenever that happens, we demonstrate that we prefer to remain in the darkness rather than come to the light, and we set ourselves up for disappointment, failure, and ultimately death.
But thanks be to God that he doesn’t want us to end up like that and he has acted decisively to do something about it! While we might prefer to remain in darkness instead of the light, John tells us emphatically that the darkness has not overcome the light. It is the light of Christ that shines in our lives when we choose to accept God’s gracious invitation to have life in him rather than go our own way and suffer death. In taking on our flesh and bearing our sins on the cross, God has given us a wondrous and gracious gift; he has said “yes” to humanity. God has done what is necessary for us to have a relationship with him again, the kind of relationship he envisioned when he created us but which our sin destroyed. This relationship begins here and now because as John’s passage reminds us, life, real life, is more than just the span of years allotted to us here on earth. It is a relationship with the Living God made possible in Christ that transcends time and goes on forever. It is God’s victory over sin and death and it is the story of our salvation—that is the light that the darkness has not and will not overcome.
This is God’s gracious gift and offer to us and it is ours for the taking if we choose to claim it. What about you? Do you prefer to walk in the light or remain in darkness?
As a congregation in the midst of change, turmoil, and uncertainty, it seems to me that we especially need to hear God’s promise to us through John: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. How can we respond to God’s gracious invitation to humble ourselves and live according to his good will and purposes for us, both as individuals and collectively as a congregation? First, as John tells us, we must believe God’s promise to be with us, especially in the darkest of hours. Do you believe this? If not, ask God for the grace and humility to believe so that the light of Christ will overcome your darkness.
If you are a member of a small group, ask your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you as well. By taking on our flesh, God showed us that he can and does work through other humans too and from the very beginning the Church has seen itself as being Christ’s Body through which he works. The very presence of our new bishop this morning to offer us encouragement and support is further evidence of this truth. And if you do not belong to a small group, join one and become connected, both to Christ and to other members of his Body. You won’t be disappointed because God did not create you to be alone; he created you for relationship.
And while you are praying for yourself, pray for this church, not just for St. Matthew’s but for the broader church of which we are a part. Pray especially for those who oppose us or who would wish us harm, asking Jesus for the grace needed to bring him honor and glory, to let his light shine in our lives in the midst of darkness. We just recently finished a forty day period of prayer and fasting that led us to our decision to disaffiliate from TEC. How much more do we need to know God’s will for us during this uncertain time so that we can seek to follow him faithfully. If we do not listen for God’s voice in prayer, we will soon find ourselves walking in the darkness rather than the light. We in effect say to God, I don’t believe you are the Source and Author of all life, and having a relationship with you is not all that important to me.
We also need to be reading our bibles daily to help us better understand God’s will for us because the Church has long recognized that we can and do hear God’s voice in scripture. Open up a BCP and turn to page 941. You will see a list of daily readings both there and on the pages before and after. If you follow the readings of the daily office, you will have read most of the Bible in two years. Choose to do this so that you might be more open to the light of Christ in your life and the life of our congregation each day. It will also help you remember that God is with us, even in our darkest hours, and it will help you stay connected to the Source of your life.
Finally, come to worship God each Sunday, this glorious God of ours who has overcome sin and death for us and offered to be our light that no darkness can overcome. Lift up your hearts and minds to him. Give him your joys, your hurts, and your concerns and trust him to act. Come to his Table each week and feed on Christ in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving. In doing so you will find strength and power that will enable you to see and have the light of life shining in the darkness.
What I have been talking about, of course, is how to respond faithfully to God’s gracious offer to us to have a relationship with him in Christ, a relationship that begins here and now. God has said “yes” to us by taking on our flesh and offers us the opportunity to walk in the light of Christ; but to do so, we must say “yes” back to God. We must do the things necessary on our part to grow and nurture our relationship with God and to keep the light of Christ burning brightly in our lives. This is not unlike the effects of physical exercise. If we want the benefits that exercise brings, we must exercise. If we want the benefit of having the light of Christ in our lives, a light that will overcome our darkness, we must do our part to nurture our relationship with Christ so that his grace will continue to grow in us and help us grow to his full stature. Then we can see for ourselves that the light of life is shining in the darkness and the darkness has not and cannot overcome it.
Does this mean that our troubles will magically disappear? Hardly. Christians are never promised a trouble-free life. What the Christmas story does remind and promise us is that God has overcome sin and evil and if we choose to humble ourselves and submit to his will for our lives, he will help sustain us, especially in our darkest moments. That is the promise of Christmas. The light of life has come into the world, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. I will close with my own story from this past year that I hope will represent this wondrous truth [personal testimony].
So if you are afraid that darkness might overcome you or our congregation, take heart and embrace the promise that is in Jesus Christ. The God who created us, loves us, and gave himself for us has come to us as a baby born in Bethlehem. In his coming we will find our light and no darkness can ever overcome it. And best of all, he has given us the means of grace to grow in our relationship with him, even when darkness tries its best to overcome us. In those moments, remember this: The light of life has come into the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not been able to overcome it. That’s good news in these uncertain days—and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.