Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

How the Light Comes

Christmas Eve

 

Rev. Kathy Donley

12/24/16

 

Scripture Lesson:  John 1:1-14

 

On one of our early vacations to the Great Smoky Mountains, Molly and I went on a night hike.  This was years ago, when Erin was not old enough and Molly was still young enough to be willing to go on a hike.  We met a park ranger near the trail head.  It was not full dark yet.  She explained some things about what to expect while we were hiking and then she called our attention to the small building behind us.   She said “Do you see that thing right there?” It was some sort of apparatus.  I no longer remember what she called it, but it looked like a weird tall fire hydrant.  She said, “Please notice.  That is not a bear.  When you come back this way, it will be very dark and in the dark, you will think that it looks like a bear.  I’m telling you now.  It will still not be a bear.” 

 

Things look different in the dark.  In the dark, our sight is unreliable, our fears are magnified, our worries and anxiety loom large.   And so, we come together tonight, to lighten the darkness, to hear again the story of God coming close, creeping in beside us, to share and bless our humanness.    

 

Remember Genesis:  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.


In the beginning were light and darkness.  In John’s time, there were light and darkness.  John wants us to see the big picture.  This baby we celebrate holds the power of the same light that split the world in Genesis 1. [1] Jesus has come to cut the darkness — to put boundaries on it, to proclaim light and life and love and freedom.                                                                              

 

Across human history, there have been light and darkness – the Enlightenment, famine and earthquakes, the 100 Year’s War, The Great Awakening,  the plague, the Great Depression, the abolition of slavery, earthquakes and floods, progress on human rights for all, dictatorships and genocide. In our own time, there is light and darkness.  

 

Verse 5 is the key.  Verse 5 is what I have said at almost every Christmas Eve candle-lighting I can remember “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”   Here’s the part I notice – “the darkness did not overcome it.”  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not smother it or put it out or extinguish it.  The darkness doesn’t win – it doesn’t put the light out of existence. . . . OK . . . so that’s good. But we might wish that it said the light overwhelms the darkness, that night is changed to day.  We might wish that it said that the light shines so brilliantly that everyone has to shield their eyes.  But it doesn’t say that. 

 

It is hopeful, but is it hopeful enough?

 

In the next week, various media outlets will publish lists of the famous people who died in 2016.  Among them will be Leonard Cohen, the Jewish Canadian musician and poet who left this world just last month at the age of 82.  His influence was felt far and wide.  Perhaps his most popular song was “Hallelujah”  but after that, I think his most well-known lyric was the line “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

 

That was Cohen’s summary of a Jewish mystical doctrine which says that when God created the world and filled it with light, the world was simply not strong enough to hold the light and so the vessel broke.  So now, there are broken vessels everywhere with some remnant of divine light and through the cracks, the light escapes to the world. 

 

“The light shines in the darkness.” John is describing Mystery and we must respect that Mystery cannot be explained in too much detail.  But I think about the crack in everything, about the vessels that cannot contain the fullness of God, and about the baby born in Bethlehem.  The one of whom John says, “he become flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.”  And I wonder, on this holy night, does Jesus slip in through a crack in the world, a thin place between earth and heaven, to bring the light, to be the light, to shine in the darkness?   

 

One of the most difficult, unrelenting places of anxiety and terror must be in war.  Jurgen Moltmann was 16 when he was drafted into the German army in 1943.  He and other boys from his village were put to service on an anti-aircraft battery on the edge of a lake near Hamburg.  During a sustained English bombing, a bomb hit the platform and tore apart the friend standing next to him.  More bombs fells, destroying the platform.  Moltmann found himself alone on a plank in the water.  He cried out to God for the first time ever in his life, “God where are you?” 

 

When he was sent to the front lines, he surrendered to the first British soldier he saw, and became a prisoner of war.  He was ultimately taken to a POW camp in Scotland where he remained for 3 years.  About that experience he wrote, “The Scottish overseers and their families were the first who came to meet us, their former enemies, with a hospitality that shamed us.  We heard no reproaches, we were not blamed.  We experienced a simple and common warm humanity which made it possible for us to live with the past of our people.”[2]  While he was there, an army chaplain gave him a Bible.  He read in Mark’s gospel, the cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  and he said, ‘This is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now.’[3]  “And so” he said, “This saved me from self-destruction and desperation. I came up with hope, in a place where there was no expectation of it.”

 

Eventually the war ended and Moltmann returned home.  He became something no one in his family had ever been – a pastor and a theologian.  At 90 years old, after a lifetime of ministry, he is best known now for his theology of hope.  In his autobiography he said, “After almost 60 years, I am certain that then and there, in a Scottish prisoner of war camp, in the dark pit of my soul, Jesus sought me and found me.”[4]

 

The light shines in the darkness  -- in war and desolation, in a prisoner of war camp, among the foreign enemy -- the light shines and the darkness does not overcome it. 

 

Perhaps that might be just enough hope after all.  

Many of you are familiar with Jan Richardson.  She is an artist who creates beauty with paints and with words. In Advent 2013, her husband Gary died from massive complications of what they had anticipated would be routine surgery.  Two years later, she wrote about what she was learning in her grief.  Among other things she said this, “Darkness is where incarnation begins. The gorgeous texts of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany shimmer with the light that God brings into our midst . . . Yet if we lean too quickly toward the light, we miss seeing one of the greatest gifts this season has to offer us: that the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us. In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming; when we are lost, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path; in all the darkness that attends our life, whether hopeful darkness or horrendous, God meets us. God’s first priority is not to do away with the dark but to be present to us in it. . . . For the Christ who was born two millennia ago, for the Christ who seeks to be born in us this day, the darkness is where incarnation begins.”[5]

 

The image on the screen is a sunrise.  A meeting of light and darkness.  But there is more to it than that.   This is a place in Alaska that I can’t pronounce (Nikaitchuq).[6]  It is the farthest point north that a person can drive to in the United States.  This picture was taken at noon on the first day the sun rose after having set for nearly two months.  That friends, is an image of hope, the faint light on the horizon after long darkness and despair.  

 

There’s a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in.  

 

Hear these words from Jan Richardson, words she wrote the Advent that her husband died, and to which she has returned and affirmed, even in her grief.  

I cannot tell you

how the light comes.

What I know
is that it is more ancient
than imagining.

That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.
That  it loves
searching out
what is hidden
what is lost
what is forgotten
or in peril
or in pain.
That it has a fondness
for the body
for finding its way
toward flesh
for tracing the edges
of form
for shining forth
through the eye,
the hand,
the heart.

I cannot tell you
how the light comes
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark

that enfolds you,

though it may seem

long ages in coming

or arrive in a shape

you did not forsee.

 

And so

may we this day

turn ourselves toward it.

May we lift our faces

to let it find us.

May be bend our bodies

to follow the arc it makes.

May we open

and open more

and open still

to the blessed light
that comes.
[7]

 

 

The light shines

and the darkness

cannot,

will not,

does not

overcome it.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.



[1]Lisa Sharon Harper at  https://sojo.net/articles/revelation-light

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, A Broad Place:  An Autobiography, translated by Margaret Kohl, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008),  p. 28

[3] A Broad Place, p. 30

[4]  A Broad Place, p. 30

[5] http://adventdoor.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/This-Luminous-Darkness.pdf

[6] The image, Alaska Advent by Eric Toskey, may be found here http://www.colonialucc.org/uploads/2/5/5/4/25546957/_bulletin_-_december_21_2014_-_first_service.pdf

[7] http://adventdoor.com/2011/12/21/christmas-day-how-the-light-comes/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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