Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7 ; Luke 2:1-20
In the name of Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.
Growing up, my sister was afraid of the dark. Each night the pattern was the same: my parents would tuck her in, kneel at her bedside to say prayers, and turn off the lights. “Leave the hall light on!” she would call out after them as they returned to the living room downstairs.
My sister’s night terrors seemed irrational to me as her older brother. We were in a safe neighborhood. No one was going to break into our house. Still, Tara went to bed each night filled with fear. Sometimes we would hear her in the middle of the night groaning or yelling, fighting off nightmares. As she got older she took to sleeping under her bed. She kept a pillow and blankets down there to cover herself with – to help her sleep and hide all at the same time.
Tara spend the first five years of her life as a foster child in military housing in Thailand. We don’t know what she saw or heard during those years, just that she was filled with memories that terrified her, that she could hardly speak of. Having been raised in the relative comfort of my parents’ home, I couldn’t imagine what was going on in her head, but there was no denying the comfort she took from a light in the dark.
Tonight’s readings from Isaiah and the gospel of Luke are lights on a dark night. Isaiah’s oracle, in fact, begins with the comfortingly familiar words, “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” (Isa 9:2). Isaiah paints words pictures with poetry, people stumbling in the dark in a land of darkness yearn for light by which to see, to travel safely. It’s a metaphor of course. Isaiah isn’t saying light is better than darkness, or light things and people are preferable to dark things and people. In fact, it’s only when paired with some other activity – walking in darkness, dwelling in darkness – that darkness becomes difficult to bear.
We come to church tonight on one of the darkest nights of the year. The sun set this afternoon just before 4:30pm. By summer it will still be light out at this time of night, but tonight it’s been dark for four hours already. The long, dark nights have brought cold weather. We’ve been fighting snow drifts and freezing rain now for weeks. It’s exhausting. For some of us these short days and long nights bring heavy moods and thick sadness that makes it hard to join in the seasonal celebrations going on around us.
But for many of us it has been a season of walking in the dark for some time. We have done our best to provide a merry Christmas for children and loved ones, to put presents under the tree and create special memories with our families even as unemployment continues to rise; as layoffs affect us or those around us; as shrinking pensions mean delayed retirement; as we work second or third jobs on the second or third shift to make ends meet. Economists are telling us that it will get worse before it gets better, and no one has been able to tell us yet when or how it will get better. It makes you want to crawl under your bed and hide from tomorrow’s news.
And, outside the bubble of our own financial woes it is easy to forget that there is still a war being carried out in our name. Unless you have a family member serving in the military, there’s very little to remind us that we are living in a time of war. And which “we” might we be talking about – surely we know that the United States is still involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we remember as well the conflict in Darfur where over half a million people have died since 2003, the insurgency in Congo that has claimed over 4 million lives in the last decade, and the ongoing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories that has claimed countless lives over the last sixty years in the land where Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace was born.
The prophet Isaiah foretold a time when “all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isa 9:5). He foretold a time of peace, a time we are still waiting for in our own lives, in our homes and throughout the world.
Contrast that with the image of the long-awaited savior we are given in Luke’s gospel. There, we are told, Joseph and Mary traveled great lengths to be registered in Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem because he was descended from the house of David – the shepherd king of Israel. While they were there, far from home and surrounded by strangers, they gave birth to their first child as they’d been told to expect. They named him Jesus, “God saves” and they lay him in a manger, a feeding trough for an animal.
That is the event that pierces the deep darkness that had filled the land. In a world of poverty and war, filled with people stumbling around in the dark for a word of hope or a ray of light, the birth of a child is the event that brings angel hosts from the mysteries of heaven to fill the night sky with light and song.
This is all familiar to us. We can hardly be surprised by the story anymore, when we know it by heart. Perhaps in other years I would work my hardest at this point to try and shock you with the fantastic quality of this scene. Angels appearing to shepherds, the lowliest of the lowly, declaring that God’s anointed savior had been born and was laying in a food trough in the middle of the night. But I don’t have it in me this year.
It’s been rough times here in Logan Square, here in Chicago – here among the working people of the United States and among the hungry and war-weary people of Mother Earth. I don’t have it in me to ponder the depths of this night’s meaning. I just know that I’m glad that when God came in Christ Jesus, God came for all – but also came first to those living closest to the ground, those living furthest from power, those living with the very least, with their backs to the wall. Those who were hiding under their beds.
This year I’m just glad to know that God comes like that to people like these, because that’s where we need God to arrive now. It is the kind of year when we may huddle in this cavernous sanctuary filled with the world’s darkness, just looking for a little light, a little warmth, a little comfort and familiarity, a little bit of food to eat. And then, “glory to God in the highest heaven,” God shows up to give us just that.
This Christmas Eve the world has already begun to turn. The nights have just begun to shorten, and longer days are on the way. The fearful stumbling in the dark has been paused long enough for us to appreciate the sure footing of ritual and tradition and the joy we hope to recapture by spending time with family and friends sharing our gifts, sharing ourselves, with each other.
Here the Christ child has been born and has transformed darkness into something less terrifying. That, perhaps, is the power concealed in this miraculous birth. Darkness is not gone, but it is no longer to be feared. Darkness is no longer the enemy we hide from under our beds, but – warmed by the light of God who joins us in the dark places of our lives – this darkness is like the one that settles around a crib and allows us finally, after hours and lives of long labor, to rest.
Come tonight and rest. The long darkness is passing, and God is coming into the world. God is arriving, is driving out fear and war. God is doing these things even while we sleep. Rest now, the long night is almost over. God, laying in the food trough, has come to feed the world with light and life. The world is held in loving hands. Come up from under the bed. The light has been left on for you.