Month: December 2013

The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, Trinity Church, Ossining, NY

“The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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Each time that I am the celebrant at the Eucharist, after the service I say the beginning of the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is our Gospel lesson today. I say it as a prayer of thanksgiving, and I end with those words: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Gospel today is the Christmas story, as John tells it—and Christmas is the essence of Christianity. Whether the story we read is the baby in the manger, with shepherds running out of the hills to see him, or later on when the astrologers from the East come asking at the palace of Herod, because they want to give gifts to the infant king (oopsnot such a good idea, see Matthew 2:16-18–), or as we say it today, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—God is in this world with us, born of a human woman. God’s choice was not to do this in the most secure or powerful place, like the palace of the Roman Emperor, or even of the King of Judea, but rather in the most precarious of circumstances.

The image of the light shining in the darkness, would have been understood in antiquity as a lamp—a little dish with oil in it, and a wick—with a flame like a candle. In those times, a room at night would be black with overwhelming darkness, but one small light would push the darkness back—indeed with your eyes accustomed to the dark, you could see everything in the room. The tiny light would overcome the huge darkness. Just as the baby—born in poverty and vulnerability—brings salvation into the world.

People are already starting to throw away their trees. Christmas is over. Nobody, except for a few Episcopalians, pays any attention to the twelve days. But our celebration is not of a day, or a season, or of trees or of gifts. The Gospel puts it, where? “In the beginning”—that is to say, in the beginning before anything at all was created, the Word was there with God, and it is the life of that Word that is the light that shines in that little baby in Bethlehem and continues to shine and overcome the darkness of the cross in his Resurrection.

This light, then, shines in the darkness. It does not need to be the great white lights on Broadway, nor the TV lights in a football stadium that outdo the sun during the broadcast of a game, nor the sun itself or even a star. Our faith is in that small, quiet light, the light that tells of the life of the Word, of Jesus.

Christians sometimes get confused. Sometimes they think, oh, if we can do so much with this little light, how much more could we accomplish if we had more and bigger lights, and lots and lots of power? And maybe then we could get EVERYBODY to celebrate Christmas our way, then everybody would be much better Christians. Of course you need a lot of power for all those lights, so maybe you should deal with the people who have the power and forget about those guys in the stable.

Our hope, as Christians, is not in the big lights and the big productions, but in that one small and humble light. That hope is not wishful thinking, but the sure and certain triumph of the love of God. Though we might live a life of vulnerability along with Christ, and we might lose one thing or another that we might like to have, the reality that is the love of God will never fail. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… And from his fullness have we all received all the gifts of God and lives filled with confident hope.

Merry Christmas.

The Day of the Lord

A sermon at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY December 1, 2013

IMG_0096_2“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

Today is the first Sunday of what?

… It can’t be Christmas shopping season, because that started at least two weeks ago. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and in Advent the church looks forward to the coming of the Lord… not to the coming of the Christmas tree and presents, and not really to Christmas at all, even the “real Christmas” that Sarah Palin and some of her friends believe is under attack. Advent points to the ultimate coming of the Lord, as the collect for today says:
“That in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…”
We think of that day as Judgment Day, a scary and dark time for anybody who has anything to be afraid of. Of course, most of those who really deserve to be scared think we are talking about somebody else. But this season we look forward to the final reckoning, when God’s justice is established–of course we want some details on that: who, what, where, WHEN?
Of course, religious folk turn to their Bible, and what does Jesus say? Nobody knows. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That’s such a disappointment—because you know, if we just knew exactly what was going to happen, then we would have so much power—we would know when to invest in the stock market, or when to take vacation so that the storms would hit somebody else …
There are plenty of people who think that that is what religious faith is supposed to do—give you magical powers or special knowledge that take you outside of the ordinary difficulties of human life. It is easy enough to see Christians who completely ignore what Jesus has to say today. They make pronouncements about the future of the world, or the future of the church, or their own personal future, somehow alluding to hints in scripture, or similarities of some political event with some surmise about an image in scripture, or perhaps to interpreting God’s promises in such a way that God has to give them specifically what they want right now.
Jesus says to be watchful, now and every day—the day of the Lord can be here at any moment. We often think that we know what will happen, or even what is happening. When I was a teenager, I was particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking: a good word from a teacher or a good result in a musical performance and I was going to be a tremendous success—maybe I would be a star at the Metropolitan Opera or President of the U.S. And if something went wrong, my life would be over, everything was a failure. As we grow up and mature, we get a bit of a handle on our expectations, but still the temptation is there to project that recent events will follow in straight lines… /  up  … or \ down . Or we look around us, and assume that possibilities are limited to what was, and things can never change.
But the real world is not like that. When something new and creative happens everyone’s expectations are turned upside down—no one predicted Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, neither could anyone envision that the most amazing music of the baroque period would be produced at its very end, by a conservative named Johann Sebastian Bach. The Day of the Lord overturns our expectations, our grandiose self-serving expectations, and our demoralized and discouraged expectations. The Kingdom of God comes, not when we want, or when we think the preparations are done—two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left… a baby is born of a teenage mother, and the universe is changed. When the pride of the powerful is at its height, their plans collapse. And in the midst of collapse and discouragement, love and sharing are set free to change the world.
I believe in the Day of the Lord, which we focus on in this season of Advent. The specifics, I do not know, any more than Jesus did… but that Day brings life and new things because God’s people are prepared in humility and joy to follow him into new possibilities.
In today’s lesson from his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says:
“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”