Sunday, December 30, 2012

light shines in the darkness

All Saints Episcopal Church
December 29-30, 2012
First Sunday after Christmas, Year C
Here are the readings for today.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). 

May only God’s word be spoken, and may only God’s word be heard. Amen.

photo of light on Bald Head Island by Daniel Stroud, December 2012

I’m just going to go ahead and put this out there: I am afraid of the dark. There, I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of the dark; always have been. And not in the, “Oh, the dark’s a little bit creepy” kind of way. I’m talking hair-raising, quake-in-my-snow boots kind of scared. I’m not afraid when there are other people around, but when it’s just me and the dark, I’m terrified. Case in point: my housemates have been gone this week, and while I have enjoyed having plenty of introvert time, when night comes I have to dash from each room as soon as I turn off the light. It’s ridiculous.

I bet some of you (whether or not you admit it) are afraid of the dark, too. But what exactly are we afraid of? What is it about the darkness that scares us? The dean of my seminary shared an interesting story in one of his classes. He had had the opportunity to travel to Africa, and in one of the conversations with the people there he asked them if they had doubts about God. “Of course!” they exclaimed. But when the Dean probed further, he discovered that what they questioned was not the existence of God, but rather whether or not God was strong enough to overcome the darkness in the world. 

We are constantly being reminded that we are surrounded by darkness, that we live in a broken world: violence, hunger, poverty, crime, war, disease, genocide. 

But Scripture is full of instances of where the light is not overcome by the darkness. Let’s start in the beginning. 1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). But also “[i]n the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). And the Word that God spoke brought forth light and “separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4). The very first creation is light! God was overcoming the darkness from the beginning of time! 

And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). We heard about this just a few days ago, but perhaps, if you’re like me, you got distracted by the image of the cute little baby and forgot to take in what this birth really meant. In a dirty stable, surrounded by smelly animals and rotting hay, when the teenage Mary lovingly peered down into her son’s face she was, in fact, looking upon the face of God. God, the Creator of the universe, the one who separated the light from the darkness, chose to demonstrate God’s love for creation by living within human limitations. The child Jesus grew up to be a man whose teaching and healing “made [God] known,” helped us to better understand this God who is so enigmatic (John 1:18). Jesus, the “true light,” referred to himself as “the light of the world” several times in John’s version of the Gospel (John 1:9; 8:12, 9:5). At one point he even explains, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness” (John 12:46). Up until Jesus, the only way we knew how to relate to God was through a complex system of rules and rituals. But when Jesus was born, God went from being way beyond our grasp to being made of the same atoms and molecules, having flesh and feelings just like us, able to fully understand and appreciate what it means to be human. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we learned more about what God was really like and how we could better relate to God and to each other. God in Jesus pulled us away from the barrier we had created between us, pulled us away from the darkness. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4). 

God is not finished with us, just yet. In the final chapter of the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, Jesus describes himself as the “bright morning star,” foreshadowing things to come (Revelation 22:16). The morning star appears just before the sun rises; it heralds the dawn. A new day lies on the horizon, waiting to break forth and scatter the darkness. The light that was at the beginning of creation, that was born on earth over 2,000 years ago, will return to us! “[T]he home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). “5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). God will, once and for all, overcome the darkness.

In the meantime, darkness still remains. Yet we are not powerless against it. One of the most moving scenes in all of the Harry Potter films comes in the sixth movie, right after one of the main characters dies. As the students and teachers gather around his broken body, the group responsible for his death places a symbol in the sky known as the Dark Mark. The Dark Mark consists of a skull with a snake slithering through it, a terrifying reminder of the power of the forces of evil and darkness. However, rather than cower or remain incapacitated by fear and anguish, a single teacher raises her wand, projecting a small beam of light onto the Mark. One by one other teachers and students raise their wands, filling the Dark Mark with such light that it is turned into vapor. The light shines in the darkness. 

Lights shone in the darkness when people held candlelight vigils after the recent tragedy in Connecticut. Light shines in the darkness whenever we take a stand against poverty, violence, disease, and injustice. Light shines in the darkness whenever we move from exclusion and hate to inclusion and love.

Throughout the ages, this reading from John has provided a sense of comfort when tragedy strikes and we begin to fear that the darkness will win. It reminds us that the God who created us, who came to earth and “lived among us,” who “destroyed death,” rose again, and promised to return, will defeat the darkness (John 1:14, BCP 374). Indeed; God already has. 

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5; italics my own emphasis).

Scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Sunday, December 16, 2012

o come o come emmanuel

All Saints Episcopal Church
Advent 3, Year C
Today's readings

“O come thou Dayspring from on high
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Amen.
("O Come O come Emmanuel," H 56)

Rejoice! Rejoice! Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is nicknamed Gaudete Sunday. Now "gaudete" is the Latin word for "rejoice." Three out of the four readings for today call us to rejoice. Traditionally, this Sunday is meant to be a pick-me-up during the season of waiting and preparation, a foretaste of what the future holds, a little bit of light and comfort as the days grow shorter and the temperature drops. But this weekend hasn’t really lent itself to much rejoicing.

Friday morning a man walked into an elementary school and killed 26 people, then himself. As the day went on, I sat in horror as I discovered the details of what had happened. My heart broke as I saw pictures of panicked children and hysterical parents broadcast on TV and across the internet. Among the dead were the principal, the school psychologist, teachers, and 20 kids. I cannot even begin to imagine how terrified the children must have been as gunshots interrupted their morning lessons. Or what their parents felt like as they desperately tried to find out if their children had survived. Or the grief upon learning that their kid hadn't.

This is supposed to be a happy time of preparation to welcome the Christ-child, of carols and decorating and making travel arrangements, not funeral arrangements.

Whenever tragedies like this happen we can go through a host of emotions: shock, fear, sadness, anger, distrust, and perhaps even numbness. These are all perfectly normal and appropriate feelings; a school is supposed to be a safe place, not the site of a mass shooting. But, unfortunately, cases like these are becoming increasingly common in this country. There have now been ten mass shootings in the U.S. --just in this year, alone: 7 killed in Oakland, CA, in April. 3 African American men killed and 2 wounded in a racially motivated killing in Tulsa, OK, also in April. 5 plus the shooter killed in Seattle in May. 12 dead and 58 wounded in an Aurora, CO, movie theater in July. 6 members of the Sikh community killed as they prepared a community meal in Wisconsin last August. 5 plus the shooter killed in Minneapolis in September. 2 plus the shooter killed in Oregon just this past Tuesday. The shooting in Connecticut Friday. And one more yesterday morning in Alabama, in the hospital where I was born. There have been 65 mass shootings since January of last year ( And it’s not just happening somewhere else; it’s in our backyard. Many of you will remember the shooting 5 years ago that resulted in the deaths of 8 people plus the shooter, just a mile and a half from here at the Von Maur department store. When gun violence claims the lives of 86 people each day in the states (, there is no denying that we live in a broken world.

Times like these bring up many questions: Why did this happen? How could a loving God let innocent children die? Why didn't God intervene? Where was God, anyway?

Many theologians have struggled with these questions over the years. There are a myriad of responses, but what nearly all of them have in common is that they believe that evil is a consequence of free will. Evil exists because we can choose whether or not to act out of love, and as we see all too clearly, some choose not to act out of love.

I’m not convinced that we can ever really know the answers to these difficult questions. But I firmly believe that God does not wish tragedies like this to happen. God does not enjoy the suffering of God's people. God does not want parents left staring at unopened Christmas presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

We were not created to live lives filled with pain and sorrow.

I believe this because we worship a God who knows first-hand the meaning of pain, loss, and death. In just over a week we will celebrate Jesus' birth. But the quaint, familiar image of God's Son lying in a humble feeding trough is not the whole story. We tend to forget that shortly after Jesus’s birth, an angel came to Joseph, warning the Holy Family that Herod was not too pleased with all the attention the baby was getting. Mary and Joseph took Jesus and fled to Egypt. While they were gone, in a move reminiscent of that of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Herod had every boy age 2 and under killed (Exodus 1:15-22; Matthew 2:16).

Jesus was born into a culture of violence, and eventually suffered a violent death at the hands of the Romans. At the end, stripped of his clothes and abandoned by his closest friends, he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, a reference to Psalm 22). Christ knows what it means to be scared, helpless, and alone.

We remember Christ’s brokenness each time we celebrate the Eucharist: “do this for the remembrance of me” (BCP 362). We memorialize Christ broken on the cross. But Christ crucified is not the end of the story; death does not have the final word. Christ has conquered death and triumphed over the grave.

We live in the hope that Emmanuel, God with us, will return again someday. "On that day," Zephaniah tells us, "you shall fear disaster no more,"--it will be a time of celebration, homecoming, and rejoicing (Zephaniah 3:15). During times of pain, suffering, anger, and death, we remember the hope we have in Christ. We remember that death is not the end. And we remember that Christ will come again.

Until that day, we pray, O come, o come, Emmanuel.

Huffington Post article
PolitiFact article 
photo of Nebraska sunrise