Christmas is here! The prophet Isaiah proclaims it with ringing words of joy: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who live in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shined.”(Isa 9:2) Tonight we celebrate with great joy the birth of Jesus, the coming of a great light to a land of deep darkness.
I love the lights of Christmas. I love Christmas tree lights, the lights I saw a few weeks ago along Fifth Avenue and at Rockefeller Center. I even love – and this is a new one for me – the Christmas lights in people’s front yards and all over their houses – illuminated Father Christmases, glowing reindeer, pulsating stars and flashing greeting signs. My all time favorite is one a friend sent me on the internet. It’s amazing. A house and yard in Ohio are covered with 45,000 lights and operated by 176 computer channels. The display is synchronized to a rock version of Amazing Grace. It’s so popular there are huge traffic jams in the area, and there is a crew of three policemen to manage the traffic!
What is it about light which we find so compelling? It is the very first thing God created in Genesis: Out of the darkness, “Let there be light.” And for St. John it is the most potent image for the Incarnation: The Word was made flesh. “In 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.”(Jn 1:4-5)
And tonight we come to celebrate Christmas in this beautiful church filled with candlelight. I love worshipping with candles – candles at Advent, Christmas, Baptisms, Easter. In my last parish I used loads of candles and the vestry joked that I must have shares in a candle company!
Light is so compelling, so attractive. Light stands above all for hope. Light and hope are linked. We live, as Isaiah put it, in a land of deep darkness. At this time of the year, in the northern hemisphere, the deep darkness can even affect us biologically. Many people suffer from Seasonally Affective Disorder – or SAD.
But there is a spiritual form of SAD. Amidst the darkness is a loss of hope: the economic crisis, the terrible disparities between rich and poor – highlighted by the Occupy movement – violence and war throughout the globe, insecurity about our jobs and homes. In a land of deep darkness we long for light; we long for hope.
“There were shepherds, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”(LK 2:8)
Few lives were darker and more hopeless than those of 1st century shepherds in Palestine. People made fun of them – thought they were stupid, dirty. The religiously orthodox despised them because they could not keep the detailed ceremonial laws. If they came down into town from the fields, people would avoid them. Life was hard for them. They would spend whole nights huddled together on bleak hillsides, against the often intense cold. We can imagine those shepherds in the middle of the night, in the cold, dark fields below Bethlehem.
But suddenly – the intense darkness was shattered by a blazing light. An angel from God appeared to those shepherds, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”(Lk 2:9) No wonder they were terrified because the glory of God is no less than the blazing light of God’s presence and power – there on that dark hillside, God’s very presence.
“Don’t be afraid,” says the angel. “I bring you good news of a great joy. For to you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”(Lk 10-11) And they went with haste to see this child. And there, in the manger, they saw the glory of God, the blazing light of God’s presence and power, in the child Jesus. “We have seen his glory – glory as of the only Son of the Father.”(Jn 1:14) And the shepherds returned to the field – but they had been changed. As they glorified and praised God they realized that something extraordinary had happened to them.
First, they had seen the glory of the Lord – the blazing light of God’s presence and power, when the angel appeared to them. Then, they had seen the glory of the Lord in the child Jesus. But now, something even more amazing had happened. As they returned to the darkness of the fields, they somehow carried the glory of the Lord, the blazing light of God’s presence and power within them. In some extraordinary way through their encounter with Jesus, Jesus had been born to them or in them, as the angel promised. What had happened to them is what Jesus expressed in a prayer to his Father in John’s Gospel: “The glory that you have given me, I have given them.”(Jn 17:22)
This church, on this holy night is filled with the glory of the Lord – the blazing light of God’s presence and power. It’s not in the candles, or the lamps, or the beautiful architecture. God’s glory is in you. Jesus was born into this world of darkness to give to each one of us the gift of God’s blazing glory. God’s glory is in you.
How does God’s glory manifest itself in your life right now? For Jesus, God’s glory manifested itself in a deep passion for truth; a burning desire for justice and an immense yearning for peace; a profound compassion for the outcast, the sick, the lost, the suffering and oppressed. Above all, God’s glory blazed out from him in his self giving love, shown most perfectly on the Cross. How might God’s glory blaze out from your life?
In a little while we shall each light and hold a candle. As you hold your candle and look at the burning light, pray a prayer – perhaps a risky or even dangerous one. Ask Jesus to be born in your heart anew. Ask God for a new experience of God’s glory – that your heart may be set on fire with love for God and for God’s world.
Ask, this holy Christmas night that like the shepherds, you may know the blazing light of God’s presence and power in your life, and that you may become a burning and a shining light in the world.
To God’s praise and glory.
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