The great German preacher Helmut Thielicke, in an Epiphany sermon entitled “The Message of Redeeming Light,” said the following:
If we take light seriously, we have also to reckon with the fact that there is a night in which it shines. This is the limit of all Christmas dreams. Light is a miracle only if night is taken seriously.
So much of our approach to Christmas can scarcely conceive of the miracle God has wrought because we do not allow ourselves to take the night seriously. With the commercialization and sentimentalizing of Christmas, any attempt to understand the miracle of Light shining in the darkness of this world is frowned upon by a shallow society and unfortunately by too many Christians who have been seduced by a self-serving and cozy interpretation of their faith.
We see this tendency even in our preference as to which of the two Christmas stories in the New Testament we focus on each year. Practically all churches and all Christians prefer Luke’s nativity story over that of Matthew. It is far easier to muse over singing angels, adoring shepherds, and “the Little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” than it is to ponder the brutality of Herod slaughtering the innocent babies of Bethlehem. But Matthew wants us to know that the true miracle of Christmas is that the Light shines even in a night terrorized by the ruthless schemes of a mad king.
No one wants to talk about the brutalizing darkness of our world when we are surrounded by “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and the “Ho, Ho Ho’s of Santa Claus.” After all, Christmas is for children, gifts, family, fun, merriment, extravagance, and cheer, isn’t it? But now that the season is over (or so we think) and our decorations are down (at least in our homes), and we are all regretting our pig-outs during the holidays, Matthew comes along and asks us to look again at the birth of our Lord. We are asked by his nativity story to risk looking into the darkness of this world and beyond our insulated, privileged, and limited perspective. He challenges us to recognize that we too live in darkness–that our own time has its own darkness. Consider for example:
The poverty and hunger of hundreds of millions remain perpetual and accepted tragedies in our world.
The violence and greed of repressive regimes as wicked as that of Herod maintain the dark shadows in which countless people must live out their days.
The continual and mindless degradation of our beautiful planet so that we can have more of what we do not need (after all, in our culture that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? What did you get for Christmas?) leads our world closer and closer to an abyss of nothingness in which creation is returned to chaos.
And the pain and emptiness of lives offered in quiet desperation in a civilization that has lost its connection to the Spirit which characterizes all segments of our society, from the ghettos to the country clubs.
Of course, we prefer not to affirm the existence of all this darkness. “Feel good” preachers, Pollyanna psychologists, and glib talk-show hosts tells us, “Don’t worry. Be happy. Focus on your own happiness, your own fulfillment, your own security, your own health, your own peace of mind.” We have been so lulled by this false gospel we think it’s the real thing until we read the Bible and dare to listen; until we see beyond our own backyard; until we realize that the emperor really has no clothes. In fact, he’s naked as a Jaybird, but like the deluded subjects in the fairy tale, we cannot or will not see the obvious.
But Mary and Joseph saw the darkness as they, with their newborn infant, fled as refugees to Egypt. Those mothers and fathers in Bethlehem who watched their babies slain before their very eyes saw the darkness. The hungry peasants of Jesus day who lived in grinding poverty saw the darkness. Jesus on the cross condemned to death by an evil empire saw the darkness. The hungry, homeless, ill, abused, and hopeless of our day see the darkness. And so do we if we are honest and dare to have the courage to name the demons and voice our fears.
The truth two thousand years after Jesus is this: the guardians of the night are still very much with us. Their grip on our world is far tighter and fuller than we are willing to admit. So understandably we prefer to celebrate a “cultural Christmas” with all the trimmings than to stand in awe of the Light that shines even in the deepest darkness. Perhaps the time for a Christmas sermon true to the Gospels is not during Christmas but after, when some of the distractions have disappeared and we might be more alert to God’s Word.
One of the ancient prayers of the church begins, “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord.” This prayer recognizes both the darkness which our world suffers and endures as well as the Light that shines and will always shines as a result of God’s incarnate love in Christ. The miracle of Christmas may well escape our experience until these words become our prayer. Such a prayer recognizes that the essence of faith is not closing our eyes to the stark realities surrounding us or focusing our gaze on the cheap tinsel of a counterfeit gospel which panders to our self-indulgent inclinations. Faith is immersing ourselves for the sake of God into the darkness of our world, trusting that the Light will shine. Faith is allowing ourselves to be bussed into this ghetto we call our world alongside the Christ Child and casting our lot with its fate confident that God holds us and the world in nail-scarred hands.
Herod is alive and active in our world. And so are greed, violence, prejudice, hatred, apathy, self-interest, and ruthless arrogance. There is darkness all around us. Many people in the world see it, and more and more of our own people are beginning to see it as they find much that they once trusted and believed has betrayed and abandoned them.
The message of Christmas is not that God is in some remote and utopian heaven and all is right in the world. The message of Christmas is that despite the deep darkness, the Light shines, and that shining is for our redemption and the world’s healing. And it is only as we take the night seriously and choose to follow the light and become light ourselves (after all, it was Jesus who said we are the light of the world) –it is only then that the true miracle of Christmas can take place. It is only then that there can be any genuine “good news” for us or our world.
Perhaps once again this Christmas we have missed the point. But even in the darkness of our intentional blindness, the Light can shine, if we will both recognize the darkness and see and trust the Light which alone can heal and make whole.
PRAYER: Holy God, during this season of the Epiphany when we contemplate your revelation in Christ for our sakes, we give thanks for the light of the world. For that shining into our lives which brings insight and redemption, recognition and warmth, clarity and understanding, we offer our gratitude and praise. By that light we have traveled far and by that light we journey home. We have seen ourselves in his eyes, and there we have found love and compassion, patience and hope for each of us nestled in your heart. We have seen it all through the light of your Son. Help us to live and walk in that light, that its shining for our sakes may not be in vain. Help us to be children of the light, reflectors of your truth, mirrors of your love and keep us on the bright paths of your Kingdom’s righteousness.
We thank you for that shining into our world which keeps hope alive and resurrects acts of love and peace from the ashes of hate and violence – that shining which cannot be extinguished regardless of how dark the shadows may be which pass across the surface of our planet. May we never forget that the light which shines is the light of, in, and for the world. Forgive us for so often taking refuge in selfish and parochial notions of religion which lose sight of your universal love. Help us all see the light shining not only for us but for all creation. And grant us the integrity of our consciences and the commitments of our spirits to intensify that shining by our obedience to your call to go into our world with the good news of your love and peace and with the glad tidings of your justice and mercy. Into the lives of all your children may the light shine. May your Son, the living Christ, enlighten us so that through our acceptance of your grace, our world may become a festival of light to the glory of Jesus in whose name we pray, Amen.