Christmas—The Light Shines in the Darkness

Sermon delivered at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH, on the first Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2007

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147:13-21.

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.

Emmanuel, God With Us

Sermon delivered at St. Matthew’s Church, Westerville, OH, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2007

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Psalm 80:1-7.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning, St. Matthew’s! Today is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent and we light the fourth candle on the wreath, the candle that signifies love.

God’s Grace and the Human Condition

In today’s NT lesson, Paul declares boldly that he has been set apart for the Gospel of God (Romans 1: 1), immediately alerting us to the fact that the Gospel does not originate from humans, but from God. Gospel, of course, means “good news.” But if I were to ask you what is the “Gospel of God,” how would you answer? What is the Good News of God? Paul summarizes it nicely in the rest of this passage from Romans: God becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, is crucified, raised, and ascended into heaven. And of course in our Gospel lesson this morning we read about the beginning of this wondrous story—the birth of Jesus, God taking on our flesh in fulfillment of the promise he made through the prophet Isaiah to be with us, “Emmanuel.” Emmanuel, God with us. This is good news because it means that by taking on our flesh, God has not given up on humanity. God has taken on our flesh and given himself for us in a very costly act on the cross to offer us a chance of restoring the relationship with him that our sin has broken. This restored relationship doesn’t begin when we die and go to heaven, it begins here and now. Why? Because God is with us here and now. It is a wondrous and awesome mystery that boggles the mind, but it is part of the Gospel of God and therefore we can believe it with confidence because it comes from God. God is with us to love us and redeem us here and now.

It is easy to believe that God is with us during this Advent season, especially if our houses are brightly decorated, we have our families with us, and enjoy the abundant prosperity of health and wealth that many Americans enjoy. But what about those of us who have lost our health or jobs, or who are divorced or have suffered the death of a loved one recently? What about those of us who are old and all alone? Is God still with us then? Apparently Matthew thought so because in the next chapter he went on to describe the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, an act so evil and despicable that Herod surely could not have been the sole author of it. Surely it was an act that was spawned from Hell itself. There was weeping and great mourning as parents grieved and agonized over their children, but Matthew does not retract his statement, he does not say, “Well, because Herod slaughtered the Holy Innocents, God is no longer with us.” No, Matthew sticks to his guns—Emmanuel, God with us. In fact, it is in our darkest hours that we can be most open to the possibility of the truth of Emmanuel, God with us. In our suffering, grief, fear, loneliness, and brokenness we realize that we are not in control and invincible. We realize how fragile we are and life is, and given sufficient grace, we come to realize that this life span of ours is but a drop of water in the massive ocean of eternity. It is then that we realize how desperately we need to attach ourselves to the Source and Author of all life so that we can begin to live life abundantly, now and for all eternity. It is precisely in these moments that we are ready to hear the wondrous truth—Emmanuel, God with us.

By contrast, when things are going well and we enjoy abundant prosperity, both materially and spiritually, we become fat and sassy, our sinful human pride and arrogance take over, and with the encouragement of Satan, we begin to delude ourselves and start believing we don’t need God. We forget Emmanuel, God with us, and we separate ourselves from the Source of life.

The mystery of suffering also reminds us that as Christians we live in the “already-not yet.” Tomorrow night we will gather together here to celebrate the birth of God made flesh, Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us. In his birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation, we are reminded of the “already.” God has taken on our flesh and acted decisively to restore us to him if we will only choose to accept his gracious offer. But sin and brokenness remain and our complete restoration will not be fulfilled until Christ’s second coming. Then the “not yet” will occur. Christ will wipe away every tear and there will be no more mourning, or pain, or death, or suffering (Rev. 21:4) and we will live with and worship our Source of life forever and ever. Until then, however, we Christians must wait with patient anticipation and prepare ourselves so that we might be ready when Christ returns, for no one knows the hour when that will happen (Matt 24:36).


In closing, it seems to me that in the life of our congregation, now is a good time for us to remember Emmanuel, God with us. The events of this past week have conspired to cause great confusion, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty among us, and perhaps we are tempted to forget Emmanuel, God with us. Or worse yet, perhaps we are tempted not to believe Emmanuel, God with us. What will happen to us as a congregation? To this property? It is precisely during times like this that we need to hear and believe Matthew’s word to us—Emmanuel, God with us. Regardless of what happens to this property or to us, we need not fear because God is with us and promises never to abandon or forsake us (Matt 28:20)! This is the Gospel of God and it is ours if only we believe it. This does not mean that there will be no dark days ahead or that uncertainty and confusion will magically disappear. Nor does it make us immune to all the other bad things that life can serve up. Rather, it means that if we humble ourselves and believe God’s mighty promise to be with us, we will be victorious, irrespective of outcome, because we will not let the lesser things of life interfere with God being with us and guiding us.

Do you believe this, that God is with us even in the darkest of hours? In the early third century, there was a bishop of Rome named Hippolytus. Hippolytus was long recognized as a schismatic bishop because he opposed those who had an inadequate understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity; they couldn’t believe Jesus was fully God and fully human, God with us. But now Hippolytus is a saint because he did believe the Gospel. Imagine that—a schismatic saint. When dealing with the Gospel of God, Hippolytus believed that we cannot put ourselves in authority over scripture; rather, we must submit to the authority of scripture and believe the things contained in it, things like Emmanuel, God with us, because that is the way God has chosen to make his Truth known to us. If we humble ourselves and believe God’s promise to be with us even (or perhaps especially) in life’s most dire moments, nothing can defeat us—not the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, nor suffering, or death, or brokenness, or separation, or fear, or uncertainty because of Emmanuel, God with us. That really is good news, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.