Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sermon for December 13, Advent 3

Light Against Darkness: Three Advent Reflections
Luke 2:8-15

Note: this is a sermon in three parts, included in a worship service that was based on the practice of lectio divina. -- Matt

— One —
Ok, here is a brain twister for your physicists out there. What is the opposite of light? Were you going to say darkness? Don’t be too quick to answer this one. We now know that particles have anti-particles. Since light is made up of particles called photons, then the opposite of light is anti-photons or anti-light. But wait! It turns out that the anti-particle for the photon is the photon. Which means that the opposite of light is . . . light.

As it turns out, the universe is composed of light. What we call darkness is simply the absence of light. Even in the farthest corners of the universe, light still exists. It may be an small quantity of light immeasurable by existing technology, but the light is still there. The experience of darkness just means that we cannot see the light.

Think about the darkest times in your own life … suffering a great disappointment … the loss of someone you love…the breaking off of a relationship … moving far away from family and friends … hearing the awful news of an illness … or perhaps financial distress. What did this dark hour of the soul feel like to you? Did you want to give up all hope? Was there something or someone who pulled you through? Did you try to pray? Were you too hurt to do anything?

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow experienced a dark hour in his own life. On Christmas Day 1863, Longfellow received the horrible news that his dearly loved son had been critically wounded in battle during the Civil War. Longfellow’s wife had died in a tragic accident two years before. Now his faith was tested again by the war. His son returned home and Longfellow tended to his son’s crippling wounds. He saw other wounded soldiers on the streets of his city. He visited with families who lost sons in battle and he asked, “Where is the peace?” Then, picking up pen a paper, he tried to answer his own question by writing a poem:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day, Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
The last verse is especially moving to me.
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!’”
It seems like we are surrounded by darkness. Or . . . maybe we just can’t see the light yet. It’s not mistake that Christmas comes at the darkest time of year. Jesus is born in the middle of the night of the longest night of the year in the deep darkness of the winter solstice. When the earth is the most desolate, we sing our joy. When the darkest part of the year comes, we think about peace, love, and hope. Light shines in the darkness.

Imagine the scene of shepherds, sleeping on a cold hillside, in the night, in the darkness. The skies fill abruptly with light. Angels announce that darkness is just an illusion. A child will be born, a light to the nations, the savior who is Christ the Lord. As Scriptures says, Jesus is the true light that enlightens everyone, the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness (John 1:9). Or, to put it another way, we finally see the light that we couldn’t see before. Darkness is an illusion.

— Two —
Peace would come through the birth of a child. It was foretold long ago. Travelers to the ancient city of Priene in modern-day Turkey might have seen an inscription in a temple. It read, “The good news about the birthday of a divine child who will save the world from destruction by establishing permanent peace.” Who was this child? Who would bring peace and good will to all?

Caesar! The inscription is written about Caesar Augustus. By 9 BCE, it was accepted that Augustus was the savior who would put an end to war and order peace. His birth brought to the world good tidings. Roman theology regularly spoke of the emperor as “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “Savior.” Julius Caesar, along with his grandnephew and adopted son Augustus belonged to the Julian tribal family. They claimed a 1000-year-old decent from the goddess Venus and her son Aeneas. In the Forum of Rome, is a relief of Aeneas. In his right hand, Aeneas holds his son named Julus. On his lap he carries their household gods. The scene swept across the Roman Empire in the first century. You can find it on a tombstone in Italy, a relief in Turkey, an altar in Tunisia.

Caesar Augustus, it was claimed, was the son of Apollo, the god of light, and a virgin named Atia. Caesar Augustus was the son of a god who was coming to light up the world.

What happens if you want to replace on son of God with another? You need to counter the imperial theology. According to Luke, Jesus is the light in the darkness. It turns out that the peace of Rome did not end war. The peace of the Empire was based on oppression and violence.

On the first Christmas night, the angels proclaim a different kind of peace -- Jesus, a different Savior, Messiah, and Lord. The first ones to hear this message are shepherds -- a marginalized peasant class who experienced the oppression and exploitation of the Empire. The good news comes to the poor and despised.

The light of Jesus is political. The stories of the birth of Jesus are meant to give an intentional contrast the stories of Caesar. Christ is light, and the Empire is darkness; Christ gives liberation while the rulers of the world bring bondage. The justice of Christ speaks to the injustice around him. The true prince of peace is born in a land of violence. Jesus is the Lord of life. Caesar is the Lord of Death.

Christmas is a time of new beginnings. It is time to destabilize our old habits with something new. It is a time to remember that the old order of things is slipping away. A new order has begun. It is a time to do something new: a time to forgive and forget; a time to throw away prejudices and hatreds; a time to fill your heart and your house with sunshine. There is a new kid in town. His name is Savior, Son of God, Lord. He comes to challenge our assumptions. He comes to show that we need more light in our lives. He comes to make us new.

— Three —
We don’t always want people to be who they really are. We have a code phrase for this: “Don’t Ask. Don’t tell.” In other words, you must suppress and compromise an essential part of who you are. As a husband, I’ve learned there are times in life when “Don’t ask. Don’t tell” seems appropriate. I have learned never to ask certain questions:

"What color is this?" I read about a study that examined the color identification and vocabulary skills of male and female college students. Guess what? The women identified significantly more elaborate colors than did the men. Apparently there is a difference between blue and periwinkle.

There are some other questions I don’t ask anymore, like: “Does this match?” And . . .
“You’re just like your mother.” OK, technically, this is not a question. This is a death wish.

My bride has learned there are some things she should never ask me:
“Do I look fat in this outfit?” and the related question, “Do you like my new haircut?”
“What are you thinking?”
“Would you remarry after I die?”

These are not questions. They are ambushes. Here is what can happen if you pursue these questions. A woman asked her husband, “Would you remarry if I died?”
“No, of course not, dear,” said the husband after a long pause.
“Why, don’t you like being married?” said the wife.
“Of course I do,” he said.
“Then why wouldn’t you remarry?”
“Alright,” said the husband, “I’d remarry.”
“You would?” said the wife, looking hurt.
“Yes” said the husband.
“I see,” said the wife crossly. “And would you let her wear my old clothes?”
“I suppose. If she wanted to,” said the husband.
“Really,” said the wife icily. “And would you take down the pictures of me and replace them with pictures of her?”
“Yes. I think that would be the proper thing to do.”
“Is that so?” said the wife, leaping to her feet. “And I suppose you’d let her play with my golf clubs too.”
“Of course not, dear,” said the husband. “She’s left-handed.”

Some topics are better left alone. However, when it comes to an essential part of who you are, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a recipe for mediocrity. You were made for so much more than mediocrity. Your life purpose is to be more fully who you are. You were made for the light. So let your light shine.

When you are boldly and confidently yourself, you are offering your highest good to the world. Who are you to question the greatness that is the image of God’s light in you? In the words of Marianne Williamson,
“Who are you not to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world . . . You are meant to shine, as children do. You were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within you. It’s not just in some; it’s in everyone. And as you let your own light shine, you unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As you are liberated from your own fear, your presence automatically liberates others.” (Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles)

As we think about light, think about how each of us is made to shine. Think about our connections and interconnections. And think about making some commitments.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to destroy the life or spirit of others.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to take what is not given.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to engage in abusive relationships.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak falsely or deceptively.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harm self or others through poisonous thoughts, deeds, or substances.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to dwell on past errors.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak of self separate from others.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to possess any form of life selfishly.
• Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harbor ill-will toward any human being.
When we can work on these things, we will begin to understand the true power of Christ, love’s pure light, at work in us, around us, and through us this season.

Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas, 172-197
Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Vest Loved Songs and Carols of Christmas (Grand rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 81-85.

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