Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, December 28, 2014, on Luke 2:22-40
I love the Christmas season for all kinds of reasons. I love the special food, the breads the rolls and fruitcakes and cookies that I allow myself to indulge in this time of year. I love the music that takes me back to childhood memories.
And I love the lights. I love driving into the neighborhoods and seeing the houses and yards light up. Honestly, they look gaudy and outrageous – but also, perfect. When the lights all come down in a few weeks, the streets will return to their former dark and lonely look. This is the season of lights. Lights in the darkness.
The Christmas Light Story
That, to me, is what the Christmas story is about: a light shinning in the darkness. That is what Simeon said when he saw Jesus:
“a light for revelation to the Gentiles”
That is, in fact, what I believe – that Jesus came as a light in the darkness, a light that is so needed, a light that can make so much of a difference, both to every person individually and to all of us, collectively, even to the world.
I believe that when people embrace the way Jesus taught us to know and love God as our Heavenly Father, the lights come on. When we can see ourselves as children, loved by God who is for us, who is gracious, who wants what is best for us, then we can, as John says, “walk in the light as he is in the light.”
To know deep down that our spiritual lives are not about guilt and shame but about redemption and reconciliation is luminous. It is like the sunrise that drives away the shadows. We are able, in the light, to live lives of joyful response, gratitude for God’s constant, present grace.
But the light Jesus can bring is like the Christmas lights in the original package. They do nothing until someone takes them out of the box, hangs them up and plugs them in. The light is not like an unavoidable sunrise; it’s more like a lantern that must be lit. This is because people have a choice.
This is what Simeon is alluding to as he blesses the baby Jesus, then looks at Mary and says,
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
“Falling and rising” is ominous. Some people will not want to see the light, and will not want to see what the light reveals. Darkness works for them – at least that is how they see it.
It is a truly odd part of the human condition that people often do not want what is best for them. We all have this proclivity, to some degree. As children we did not want to eat the vegetables, we did not want it to be bed time, we did not want to say “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” to our siblings. We often resist the diet or amount of exercise our doctor recommends.
Here is the trouble: the light is wonderful, but leaving the darkness can be painful. Like when you are in a deep sleep and suddenly, someone turns on the light and wakes you up. It is blinding at first; the last thing you want.
So, the light of Christ shines and reveals what is really there in my inner thoughts, as Simeon says. Like turning over the rock and seeing the bugs, the light shows me who I am. My dark side is revealed. It shows my ego. My resentments. My self-justifications. My judgments and lack of forgiveness. My self-indulgence, my sense of exceptionalism and superiority. And when the light comes on, I have to deal with them.
How? What I have discovered is that it is so easy, and yet it is so hard also. It is so easy to simply say, “Yes, that is who I am; I admit it. It is what it is.” And it is so easy to see the alternative way to be that Jesus showed us by his life. It is so easy to turn to God as a loving Father, to practice the spiritual practices of contemplative prayer, of silence, of reflection. But it is also hard for us. It means we are not in control.
This is what we learn in the silent meditation of contemplative prayer. The inner monologue has to be quiet. Time spent in contemplative prayer, as Jesus modeled for us, has a way of turning down the inner temperature. Twenty to Thirty minutes of daily silence allows space for an alternative approach to the ego’s dualistic win-loose dichotomy. In the silence, we can start observing our compulsive thought patterns. We can identify them, and take away the power they have over us to repeat the same patterns.
The beauty is that when we stop squinting at the light and finally see how wonderful it is to not have to be in control of everything, when we do not have to excuse and defend and justify and blame, life is so much better.
Then, we can mindfully take each single moment as it comes and say, “This is my life, this moment; let it be what it is. I am a child of God, I know God is with me in this moment” ‘All is well. All manner of things shall be well’ as Julian of Norwich taught. This is truly living in the light.
The Broad Vision
What God wants, is our flourishing. God wants us to be both spiritually healthy and to have healthy, luminous relationships and communities. All of us. Without exception. The vision of the Kingdom Jesus announced is a broad, world-wide vision.
In fact, this is where it gets problematic for people who want a narrower vision. God is not tribal. God is the God of all people, the creator of all of us. So God has no favorites. Living in God’s light means seeing everyone else in the same light as well.
The beautiful alternative to the darkness of the world as it is that Jesus came to show us is a reconciled world. A world in which the ancient divisions have been bridged. Jesus’ light illumines a vision of peace and harmony; a world saved from violence and war.
That is why this story is what it is: a climax story. These to people, Simeon and Anna have lived long lives of faithfulness, keeping the Law of Moses conscientiously, practicing the habits of faithful observant Jews, worshipping in the temple, and waiting for the ancient promise to Abraham to come true.
Mary and Joseph too, are faithfully observant to their Jewish tradition, keeping the requirements of the law for poor people. After the birth of a son, they come offering a pair of doves, enfolding their son into the covenant community.
And it is in this moment that Simeon and Anna, these two elderly representatives of the best of Israel’s past, proclaim that the time of fulfillment has come. An old age has now reached its final scene and a new age is dawning. God’s promise to Abraham was that though him all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Simeon said the light Jesus is bringing is:
“a light for revelation to the Gentiles”
That is, to the nations: to everybody.
Ah, but what if you wanted it to be a light just for us, for our people. What if you wanted the in-club of God’s embrace to exclude Romans? What if you did not want the bad guys included in the circle of grace? What if you wanted to keep it for the pure people and keep out tax collectors and sinners?
Well, then you are making a choice for the darkness. And in that world, the only light you get is from the sparks that fly. That is the world of conflict. The world of us vs. them is inevitably a world of violence. That is the world we have.
I believe there is a direct connection between the heart and the street: the condition of our souls and the politics we put up with, the world we allow. If the light has not been allowed to shine on our inner lives, then darkness is what we will expect in our relationships, our communities, and our world.
But when the light of Jesus’ alternative vision for humanity is allowed to shine, wonderful things happen.
This is why I am still hopeful. I believe in redemption. I believe that God has put a longing in all of us for a better world, a better way to live, a discontent with the darkness, at least a flicker of love of the light.
So, having the humility that comes from seeing the light shine on our own darkness, we have the capacity to ask the hard questions. How have I contributed to the darkness in the past? How can things be different? How can I embrace the light?
There is such great capacity to experience healing and reconciliation here. When we can drop the need to defend and justify, we can then move on to the task of finding solutions.
So, we can approach the mirror and forgive the person there, with the lights on that reveal that the one looking back at us is a loved, forgiven child of God.
We can come to personal and family relationships with forgiveness and a luminous awareness of how we can seek reconciliation.
And we can ask questions about race relations in our country without shutting down the conversation out of knee-jerk defensiveness and scapegoating. We can name the darkness and long for the light of a new day, asking, “What will it take?” and affirming, “We are willing to do whatever it takes to be on the side of reconciliation, justice, and hope.
There is great darkness around, but we are Christmas people: the light has come. We have seen it. We have felt it. There is hope for the world. Christ is born!