fain | fān | archaic

fain | fān | archaic: adjective: 1. pleased or willing under the circumstances, eager. 2. obliged. adverb: gladly

Monday, December 31, 2012

Light, shining in the darkness (December 24, 2012)

The readings for Christmas Eve services are the same every year. Year after year we gather in this darkened church on one of the darkest nights of the year to hear again, these same ancient texts.  Luke gives his account of the birth of Jesus with the shepherds abiding in the fields, the angels singing, the glory, the shekinah of God appearing, and Mary pondering all these things in her heart.

Thanks to Charles Schoultz, Charlie Brown and Linus, and to the incomparable King James translation of the bible, most of us know Luke’s account by heart, don’t we? Let’s try it:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone 'round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.” 

In the epistle read this night, Paul urges Titus to encourage the faithful in sound teaching and holy living while they, and we, live in between the time of Jesus’ first appearing and his coming again in glorious majesty to fulfill God’s purposes and to redeem human history. But in all the years of hearing these familiar scriptures on Christmas Eve, never before, when we have gathered here, have Isaiah’s words

The people who walked in darkness, those who lived in a land of deep darkness, or as the King James translation puts it:  They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death

Never before have those words seemed to describe the situation of all of us here, and not just some of us here, on this holy and special night.  What do I mean by that, you may ask.

I know it is safe to say that all of us are sick of our politics, disappointed in our elected officials, and tempted to cynicism and despair in our national life.

Or, if that were not enough to persuade you that we live in metaphorical darkness, then perhaps observing that these same elected officials have, for some time, demonstrated that they are unable to work together for the common good and benefit of all of us, most recently with regard to the basic fiscal matters before us, maybe that will bring you around.
Or, if that were not convincing enough, reminding you that our national economy is weak and the global economy is even weaker, should increase your anxiety about our collective financial security and future progress.
Or if you still remain unpersuaded, then surely, the wholesale slaughter of twenty young children in their classrooms, along with six of their adult leaders, by a gunman who is clearly mentally ill and just as clearly, mentally calculating and evil in his actions, surely that persuades you that we do indeed, all of us, dwell in darkness and in a land of the shadow of death.

For a long time now, social scientists and those who comment on our culture, the prophets of our day, if you will, have told is, if we needed telling, that our culture is increasingly unmoored from any commonly held anchor, which has the corrosive effect over time of tainting and de-sensitizing all of us to its deceptions and dangers.
The tragedy in Connecticut has served to force the attention of all of us at the same time to the number of ways our cultural and individual darkness creates woe and suffering somewhere, everyday, in someone’s life.
Despite millennia of human progress and advancement, Isaiah’s words seem to just as aptly and poetically speak to our day as to his own. The basic human condition remains unchanged, unaltered since the first Hebrew authors began to engage the questions about God, ourselves, life and death, meaning and purpose, nearly 2700 years ago.

This human condition is always creating a human culture with more than its share of falsehoods, deceits, and deceptions and the fruits of death and depression that the biblical writers, and anyone else with any spiritual insight for that matter, would call “darkness”, whether it is 725 BC or 2012 AD.
Recent events are of such a horrific nature that they, and the inescapable media coverage, force us to consider and reflect on what has happened and why it has happened.  This inevitably raises important questions not only about law and public policy and the character of our culture, but it also raises questions about God himself.
Where was God last week?
What kind of God allows such evil to occur?
Why did God not answer the prayers for safety and deliverance that surely went up from those children and their teachers when they realized they were in imminent danger?
It is always interesting, isn’t it, how a humanity that creates darkness, that is to say a sinful humanity, is always putting God on trial. I guess questioning God is not that recent actually.
Job was certainly pressing God on these same questions about suffering 600 years before Jesus.

Unbelievers seize upon these events to discredit believers and belief. Some Christian leaders rush to jump in and offer answers that, in some cases, are even more troubling than the original questions themselves. In some of these responses, they say God is himself the cause, the agent, the initiator of evil to punish us for our disobedience.

Others say God, if he exists, is not involved in creation or does not care about it.
Perhaps God is some vague, impersonal force out there somewhere, who is basically irrelevant to us because of his distance or his disinterest in us.  Or maybe God is well meaning enough, but inadequate to the challenge of managing evil.  All these challenges and questions, or our own inability to give an answer to them, may undermine our own confidence in God, or in our faith or beliefs.

And then we come and hear this story tonight of a God who is truly worthy of our worship, of our trust and obedience.  It is the story of a God whose will towards us, whose intentions towards us, as the angels sing, are good and loving and just. This is the story of a God who cares so deeply about us that he himself enters into the same broken, unfair, and unjust world that we inhabit to finally redeem and restore it.

Whatever there is to be said of the suffering, sadness,and foolishness that are part of our existence, it cannot be said that we worship and serve a God who has not experienced it himself firsthand as Jesus, born in Bethlehem. The theologian John Stackhouse has written that,

No one who is taken seriously in academic circles denies that Jesus existed or was a real person, who was crucified when Pontius Pilate was Procurator in Judea.  No one disagrees that Jesus was a good man and obviously had impact on others and on the world around him with his teachings and example. Two thousand years later, we still talk about Jesus’ teachings.  No one who is taken seriously believes Jesus was mentally ill or deluded or denies that what he taught is in any substantial way different from what the New Testament says he taught.  Most do not hold that he escaped the cross or the grave. And of course we Christians believe that God vindicated this same Jesus, by raising him from the dead as the final and complete sign that Jesus was himself God, entering into the darkness of his time, of any time, to bring light and life to all.

So, given the Christian premise that, while everything cannot be known about God, nothing more can be known than has been revealed in the real person of Jesus. We can put forth a simple syllogism*, supported by the best inference of the evidence and some faith:

Jesus is good
Jesus is God
Therefore, God is good.
And we might add, great, and gracious, and merciful, and patient, and forgiving, and steadfast, and yes, God is Love.
Now, this does not provide the answers to every question, but it can bring life and meaning, hope and promise, to all who believe it.  We can say therefore, with hope and confidence that our beliefs about God and our experience combine as a reasonable intellectual and existential case for trust and faith in God, despite any seeming appearances to the contrary.

Tonight we celebrate the final and conclusive chapter in the long story of God and his creation, from its amazing beginnings in time and in space, to the creation of adam, humankind, made in God’s own image and free, whose abuse of this God-given freedom, whose mistrust and disobedience, whose self-absorbed, self-centered willfulness brought and still brings, through Adam and Eve’s children, brings calamity into the world.
The long story of good news and glad tidings proclaimed this night began with Abraham and Sarah, rose to amazing signs and wonders as God called and made ancient Israel a light to the nations of the steadfast love, incomparable glory, and dazzling righteousness of the One God.
And if that were not enough, this same God came among us, literally pitched his tent with us, to redeem and restore a lost and confused human race, so that all who put their trust in his mighty grace and love might become the children of God and live with him for ever.
As Isaiah promised, light has come and still comes to those who dwell in deep darkness.  That light that has come into the world and is continually coming is Jesus Christ. That light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.

In God’s good time, even the last vestiges of darkness will yield to Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

* John Stackhouse