by Rev. Doug Gray
One of my favorite parts of getting ready for Christmas is putting the lights on the tree. But it never goes the way I planned it. Every year after Christmas, I carefully put the lights away so that they will easily unravel as we put them on the tree, but every year we get at least one tangle. And have you noticed, every year there’s always at least one light that won’t work anymore? I very carefully save the extra bulbs, and always put them in the same box with the lights, but then I find out the extras must have been from years past, because whoever makes the lights has decided they want their plugs to have their own unique shaped. Are you kidding me? All so we can have lights that shine in the darkness, draped round a tree or bushes or our house. Yet the symbolism of lights shining in the darkness touches us at so deep a level, that we go to great lengths to light candles, and turn on lights. Something in us hungers for light, so it’s good news to us when we hear the prophet, Isaiah, say, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because our world really is a dark place. In the Bible, darkness has to do with evil and injustice, or ignorance and hopelessness. One of the things I love about the Bible is that it doesn’t pull any punches or sugarcoat the truth—the world is a dark place, sometimes a very dark place. Are there countries where the innocent are thrown out of their homes? Are there places where people sell themselves into slavery for the merest chance of a better life? Are there people who are suffering today—from illness, loneliness, violence, addiction, grief and despair? Oh yes! In fact, we might be surprised how many people among us tonight are experiencing times of darkness. All these things were true in Jesus’ day just as much as today. Christmas understands that the world is dark. It’s for those who walk in darkness, that a light has come.
It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because on our own we cannot save ourselves. In fact, even if you give human beings really great systems, wonderful opportunities, our inner brokenness, neediness and darkness seem to be able to muck it up. Focusing on what’s good for ourselves, even our rational self-interest, seems to fail us time and again. Capitalism without ethics is simply greed. Democracy without seeking the common good is simply another kind of tyranny. Science without morality leads to eugenics and ethnic cleansing. Martin Luther King, Jr famously said, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided people.” Lots of people will try to convince us that if we work hard enough, love deeply enough, want peace powerfully enough, that we can create a good and just world. So we pile more and more pressure on ourselves, to be better on our own strength. Christmas recognizes that we can’t do it on our own, “for unto us is born a Savior.” It’s for those who long for a better and brighter world, that a light has come.
It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because that light will never leave us. Christmas is about an entirely new reality breaking through. What makes the world go around? Some will say money. Others will say love. Still others will say it’s you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. But in Christmas God says, “I make the world go ‘round, but now I’m going to be on that world with you.” That’s the meaning of Immanuel—God with us—and because God came in a baby, and grew up, and had friends, and lost loved ones, experienced temptation, played, and laughed, and cried and suffered and died—whatever is happening with us!—Jesus will listen…and Jesus will understand. Christmas means God cared enough to come and be with us. It’s for a person to be with us always, that a light has come.
No matter how tangled my Christmas lights become, or how many bulbs are missing, or even if I couldn’t manage Christmas lights at all—still the light of Christmas would shine in my life. Timothy Keller in his book, Hidden Christmas, writes, “The message of Christianity is…’Things really are this dark—nevertheless there is hope.” While we may not have the strength or wisdom or goodness to save ourselves, still we have “a savior who is Christ the Lord. And this is a sign for you, that you will find the baby…lying in a manger.” True Christmas is about grace—love that comes even though we are not ready and can never deserve it, so that we may love more truly. True Christmas is about humility—love that wants the best for you and me, though it may mean suffering and humiliation, so that we can love more completely. True Christmas is about grace and humility coming in power upon us, so that peace and wonder are possible, and through us possible for the world. When the light of true Christmas dawns on us, hope and compassion are born. True Christmas is Good News. Merry Christmas!