Monday, December 23, 2013

Light Has Shined (Christmas Eve Sermon)

As I started to prepare this sermon, I found myself thinking about light.  Light in all sorts of forms, to start with.  Starlight.  Fireworks.  The diffuse light that illuminates a room.  The sharp and focused light that comes from a flashlight in the woods or a reading light on the page of a book.  Night lights. Ambulance lights.  All kinds of light.

But what I was mostly thinking about was: What is light? I know very little, which is to say nothing, about physics, and so I started to google questions like: What is light?  What is light made of?  How does light travel?

These questions got me into big trouble almost immediately.  I didn’t understand anything that I was reading.  One of the things I read, repeatedly and in various sources, was that light is both a wave and a particle.  What, I wondered, are waves and particles?  How was I supposed to come here and talk tonight about Jesus Christ, light of the world, as a wave or a particle?

Getting nowhere on my search, I called my friend Michelle.  Michelle is a faithful Catholic woman who writes with grace and elegance about the spiritual life.  She is also a college physics professor who is accustomed to explaining science to those of us with little understanding of the numbers and formulae that make it all comprehensible.

And what Michelle told me was this: Think of light as a ripple in the fabric of the universe. 

A ripple in the fabric of the universe.  Doesn’t that sound beautiful?  A ripple, constantly on the move, undulating and sparkling as it moves through air, as it sweeps across surfaces of land and water, and as it  penetrates darkness.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” That’s what our reading from the prophet Isaiah tells us tonight.  That the people who walked in darkness have seen a great ripple in the fabric of the universe; it has shined on them.

Isaiah was speaking to a people who lived centuries before the birth of Jesus; he was speaking to a people bowed down by oppression and made weary by loss and hopelessness.  He was not talking about people walking in the literal darkness; he was talking about people whose lives felt dark, people who felt as if they could not find their way, people who could not throw of the yoke of tyranny and subjugation.  People whose lives speak to us, centuries later, as we await the dawn breaking into the darkness. 

We, too, often feel as if we live in a land of deep darkness, don’t we?  We try to avoid it, that land of darkness. On Christmas Eve, fresh from malls and stores, inundated by commercials and still trying to finish wrapping those presents, we want to maintain a festive attitude, don’t we?  But let’s pause for a few moments, to recall the darkness in which we walk:
The loss of loved ones to job changes, to moved, death, to illness, to injury, to divorce, to disagreements,
Problems with health, with marriages, with children, with employment, with unemployment, with relationships of all kinds,
General worries and anxieties, fears, frustrations, depression, loneliness, hopelessness,
                The challenges of shootings, of drugs, of thefts, of homelessness, of abuse, of poverty, and       of hunger,
Clouds of darkness looming over us in the form of Warfare, of natural disasters, of international tensions, of political political and social crises. 
We all face it at least at times, don’t we – walking in the darkness?  And yet – light shines on those who live in a land of great darkness. Light shines on all kinds of people who live in a land of great darkness.

We tell a story tonight filled with people walking in darkness. Some of them are represented by the figures right back here on our communion table, but some of them aren’t, and those are the ones I want to start with.  Let’s start with the emperor, Caesar Augustus, in charge of the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born.  The Roman Empire was huge, covering the entire circle of land around the Mediterranean Sea and extending upward into what today we know as France and England, and there were many people in charge of ensuring that censuses were taken and taxes were paid.  Lots of people who furthered the oppression forced on subject peoples by the Romans.  People who walked in darkness because their jobs, or their personal allegiances, or their families, forced them into situations in which they were the oppressors.  And yet – on them, light shined.  Whether they knew it or not, light was shining on them that first Christmas night.

Who are those people today?  Pick up your newspaper or open your computer and see: Who are the oppressors today?  Who tyrannizes others: with violence, with warfare, with unjust laws, with repressive cultures, with torture, with crime?  Who walks in darkness in ways we prefer not to consider?  On them, light has shined. 

We have two other people in our story who may have quite literally walked in darkness.  They’re right here in our manger scene. Mary and Joseph have made the long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to comply with the census requirement.   We can presume that they did most of their walking in the daytime, but we have long understood the words “no room at the inn” to mean that they arrived late in the day, perhaps even at night.  Perhaps they knew the challenge of walking in literal darkness, trying to avoid hazards in the road and hoping that shelter and food lay soon ahead.

Most assuredly, though, they knew the challenge of walking in the darkness of ambiguity.  For Mary and Joseph, life was uncertain.  Not much money.  A foreign power ruling their lives.  And now – now this unanticipted pregnancy, and visions of angels, and instructions from God, and commands to “Fear not!”  No matter how trusting, how determined to follow God’s call to them to bring forth this unexpected child, they must have been bewildered, and uncertain.  And yet, as two people walking in the darkness of confusion and frustration – on them light has shined. 

Do you know anyone persisting through a state of ambiguity and uncertainty right now?  Maybe even yourself?  Decisions to be made about schools or jobs or moves?  Concerns about health problems remaining to be diagnosed?  Doubts about money?  Questions about aging?    Are you wanting to trust in God and in the ways in which God speaks to you, but realizing that you sense a forboding darkness all around?  On you light has shined.  The ripple of Christmas light pervades your confusing world.

So we have taxing authorities, and we have Mary and Joseph, and finally, tonight, we have shepherds.   More people who walk in the literal dark.  People whose jobs take them into the night and into the cold, away from family and home.    But also: people who live ordinary lives.  Not kings or queens or rulers with the power to make life difficult for others.  Not people like Mary and Joseph, who have been called into nurturing the divine become human.  Just ordinary people like us, doing their work, interacting with family and friends, and walking in ordinary shadows of darkness that, no matter how devastating, are common to us all: losses of people, of money, of jobs, of health, of homes; empty spaces in life replenished with anxieties and fears.   And on them, and on us, light has shined.  

Light has SHINED.  A ripple has been launched, and it surges through the universe. 

And here’s an astonishing piece of news: The light, the ripple, the flow of grace, of gift?  It comes in the form of a baby.  A BABY.    What kind of light is that?  A baby?  Who would expect a baby?

The light of the world?  The hope of the future? More likely would be a magisterial, fully formed, regally clothed and crowned adult.  Maybe a rain of glittering stars.  Or a  battalion of soldiers, swords and shields glistening in the sunlight, ready to take on any enemy that presents itself.  You might expect the light of the world, the ripple in the fabric of the universe, to look like one of those possibilities.

But a baby?  How can a baby be a ripple in the universe?  A baby is so small, so vulnerable, so completely dependent upon the good will of others.

Ah, but let’s remember:  This isn’t just any light.  This isn’t the sort of light that wields arbitrary or ruthless power.  This isn’t a light that crushes people with its brilliance. 

This light is love.  Pure love.  A love that redeems.  A love that saves.  A loves that creates, and recreates, until its ripples transform the fabric of the universe until every fiber with which it is woven radiates joy.

We’re going to sing this love in a few minutes . . .
Silent night, Holy night
 Son of God, love's pure light
 Radiant beams from thy holy face
 With the dawn of redeeming grace,
 Jesus, Lord at thy birth
 Jesus, Lord at thy birth . . .
And we’re going to light candles as a sign of this love, and we’re going out into the night and into the world knowing that this love, in the form of a tiny baby, ripples through the universe bringing hope, and peace, and joy.  Because on all people who have lived in a land of deep darkness ~ on us ~ light has shined.  Amen.


  1. "A loves that creates, and recreates, until its ripples transform the fabric of the universe until every fiber with which it is woven radiates joy." I love the image of this light shimmering through eternity, until all creation resounds....

    It's a beautiful sermon, Robin...may it preach with grace!

  2. Love to hear that light is a "ripple in the fabric of the universe." And I was carried along the ripples of the light that you shone on the story and on love itself. I dare say that this imagery will have staying power for your Christmas Eve congregation.

    Thank you, Robin.

  3. Oh how wonderful. I felt so many emotions as I read this including joy, hope, and despair but it ended with light. Michelle's description is perfect and your sermon is excellent! I will meditate on these ideas tonight.

  4. I agree that it is a beautiful sermon. I really like Michelle's description of light being "a ripple in the fabric of the universe" and how you wove that right through your sermon. I will reflect on this as it really speaks to me. Thank you Michelle and Robin.

  5. This is simply gorgeous. I would have loved to have heard it preached aloud!

  6. Robin, I found myself in great anticipation of where you were taking me in this sermon. At it's conclusion, I was invited into a place of stillness and quiet as I allowed love's light to shine on me. Jesus, God with us, Light of the World.
    Thanks for the beauty of this piece.

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