Re-reading old sermons

In Maryanne Robinson’s Gilead, the elderly Protestant pastor is going through decades of sermons, ostensibly to put them in some sort of order for posterity. His sermons are written on paper. The exercise gives him the opportunity to reflect back on his ministry, on those many years of being with his congregation, on the changes that took place over those decades, and also, to ask about the meaning of it all.

I haven’t preached anywhere near as many sermons as that, and I’ve preached in several different contexts but I do go back and look over what I’ve written before. It is fascinating to do so. I find myself drawn back into the life of the parish in which I preached the sermon and very often into the mood of the time, even if fewer than five years have passed. Rereading those sermons often brings to mind members of those parishes, the struggles they were going through, and, inevitably, those people who have departed this life.

Very often I go back over past sermons in hopes of finding some nugget to include in the sermon I’m currently writing. This week, not having to write a sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, I went back over some I had preached over the years. Given the heightened anxiety over terrorist attacks again, I thought it might be of interest to others:

“The Light Shines in the Darkness”

Church of the Redeemer

Christmas 1

December 26, 2004

This has seemed like a rather odd Christmas for me. I’m not sure why. On the surface, all is the same. There are the lights, the decorations, the holiday preparations. We had a lovely Christmas Eve service and Corrie and I did what we’ve done almost every Christmas we’ve been in South Carolina—we joined friends in a delightful meal. But something has seemed different. Perhaps it’s because of the ongoing violence in the world, especially in Iraq; perhaps I’m troubled by developments in American culture, by the deep divisions that the election laid bare, the cultural conflicts.

I’ve been amused and saddened by the shrill debate in some of the media over Christmas—conservative Christians who see every attempt to downplay the religious significance of the season as attacks on Christianity and on the American way of life. No doubt you’ve heard the stories. There’s the school in New Jersey that forbad the playing of Christmas carols, but permitted songs that referenced Hannukah at a school concert; the rumor that department stores won’t allow their employees to greet customers with “Merry Christmas.” I could go on and on.

There’s something deeply unsettling to me about such controversies. It’s not that they show America is rapidly becoming more and more diverse and that people find it difficult to negotiate that diversity. Rather, what bothers me is the shrill tone of the commentators. I could care less whether an employee of a department store greets me with Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. Let Christmas be as secular as we want it to be. What matters to me is this, the gospel.

Then we come to church today and hear once again the ancient and powerful words of the first verses of John’s gospel. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” This proclamation of faith, these profound, mysterious words that probably derive from a hymn that early Christians sang to express their faith in Christ. These words call out to us across the centuries. They break through all of the hoopla, all of the hustle and bustle of these weeks, they break through all of the current events in the world and in our lives that trouble us; they break through to us with the brilliance of a bright light, to bring us back to where we need to be, today and every day.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” One of the most powerful images of this season is captured in this verse. Advent and Christmas are a celebration of light, the season of light, with the lighting of the advent candles, with the Christmas lights strung on trees, the light extravaganzas in people’s yards, the candles we lit on Christmas Eve. Even as we enter the darkest time of the year, and perhaps because we are in winter when the days are shortest and the light of the sun most dim, we celebrate the coming of light into the world.

Light and darkness are powerful and seductive images for us. We tend to think of the two together; what is darkness without the light that penetrates it? What is light without the shadows it creates? In fact, light and dark often represent the combating forces of good and evil. Even in today’s gospel, resplendent with the joy of the word becoming flesh, the word entering the world, there intrudes something of that dualism in this verse: the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.

Dualism, the tendency to divide the world into two stark and opposing camps, has been much on my mind of late. Perhaps because of the election, with the profound divisions that it revealed in our society, but I think the election is only symptomatic of something much deeper in our culture. You will recall the recent news reports of shootings on I-85 that took place very near this church. In the newspaper reports afterward I read of interviews with passersby. Several of them expressed a sharply dualistic worldview. One motorist, who was identified as a youth pastor, said that he said a prayer everytime he left his house. The world outside his home was filled with evil, he went on to say. He spoke of leaving home, of getting into his car as American troops must feel when they are ordered to go on patrols in hostile areas of Iraq. There is danger lurking around every corner in this man’s mind, and it is only his faith in God that brings him safely to his destination.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with saying a prayer when leaving your house. In fact, it may be a good thing. But what strikes me about this man’s words, and the attitudes of so many people I encounter is the insecurity it reflects. In fact, it is in keeping with the nature of dualism that very often evil is perceived to be more powerful than good. The dualist, and we live in a dualist culture, perceives the world as a dark and evil place, danger lurking around every corner. He or she clings to the good as a drowning person clings to a lifeline.

But such a worldview is not Christian, it is certainly not reflected in today’s gospel. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The first verses of John’s gospel, which are probably part of a hymn early Christians sang, give evidence of a very different kind of faith, a faith in a Christ who surrounds us, and all of creation. For John’s gospel, there is no place in the universe that exists outside of the presence of Christ: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

These words are an eloquent statement of our faith that in Christ, God is present in the world. In fact, John makes the power of the Word, the power of the Light clear when he says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” The word which is translated in our text as overcome can have several meanings. Overcome, in the sense of conquering it; it can also be translated as grasped or comprehended: So the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend, understand it.”

Our gospel reminds us that no matter what we think we see, no matter how much we might fear, the Christ in whom we put our trust is more powerful than anything else we might encounter. There may be dark places in the world. There may be dark places in our lives, but there is nowhere that the light cannot, does not shine. Our faith proclaims that Christ, whose coming into the world we celebrate this season, comes into, and enlightens, all people. The radiance of that light can, if we let it, remove all fear.

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