This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, December 20, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the Fourth Lord’s Day of Advent. It is developed in conversation with Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book Incarnation.
Today’s sermon builds upon John 1:1-5, 10-14; John 8:12.
I tend to think of myself as a fairly positive person, a “chin up, things will work out and we’ll get through this,” type of person. I’ve often thought that faith in Jesus was part of the source for this. But, this year…mmm…this year has been one for the record books…a pretty crappy year. And that’s not to say there weren’t loads of bright spots during this year for me, for us, and for the world. There were, “Thank you, God.” But those spoonfuls of sugar aren’t helping the other stuff go down – and I don’t think that other stuff is medicine meant to make us better. It takes a whole lot of imagination to see the ways this year has been hard, bitter, and, as biblical writers have often called it, dark.
In no specific order, here are few of the instances of darkness around and within us. Of course, there’s the viral pandemic, and even if some think it’s more of a “plan-demic” or a “scam-demic,” the reality is that it has cast a shadow over our lives. Children at school tease each other about sneezing and coughing – things that were once normal parts of school life. Families are evaluating how to do gatherings and holidays, funerals and weddings, and even worship. Sometimes, the evaluations sound like a strange sort of arithmetic: “I know it will hurt their feelings if I don’t attend this or that gathering, but I’m not going out of care for them – I don’t want to risk getting anyone sick.”
But it’s more than a virus that casts a shadow. In our community, church, and families, there’s grief we hoped we’d never experience. There are tragedies and losses we could have never expected. There’s division popping up where unity once abounded. For some, jobs have ended abruptly, leading to darkened seasons of self-doubt and discernment. Amidst changes and moves, we’ve perhaps wondered if we made the right choice – if this new thing, the new place, the new relationship, or ending one, was the right thing to do.
Throughout the Bible, the image of darkness is used in two ways. First, there’s moral darkness – the ways humans’ thoughts and actions cast a shadow over us and others. Thus, in Proverbs, the teacher says, “The path of the wicked is like deep darkness; they don’t know where they will stumble” (Pr 4:19). When we stray from the path of God, when we miss the mark, when we sin, we bear witness to, and create, darkness within and around us. But the Bible also talks about situational darkness – a state of the world and our lives. The Book of Job is fully about such a character, who laments, “My face is red from crying, and dark gloom hangs on my eyelids” (Job 16:16). Darkness, that crappy feeling we are experiencing, is sometimes part of the air we breathe, and sometimes it’s caused by us or others.
So, what do we do when the shadows of moral and situational darkness rest upon us, and others, and the world? Sometimes, by the grace of God, our faith in God’s goodness, God’s presence, in God revealing Godself in Jesus as anointed King, Savior, and Emanuel – God-with-Us – is enough. These are names of Jesus we’ve explored in the past weeks. Sometimes, just remembering that God is with us, that God is good, and that in Jesus through the Holy Spirit, God is leading us through is enough to dispel the darkness.
Even so, there are also times in which our response might be more like this image by the famous graffiti artist Banksy. In the midst of darkness, or facing darkness threatened by others, are we not also sometimes filled with anger, frustration, and even rage – as this piece is partly titled? There are times we want to shout and scream into the darkness, “Be gone!” And there are times we’ll use nearly any tactic, any weapon, to demolish the darkness. Or at least, we may want to try.
While I appreciate this image for its rage, with which I can identify, it takes on a different meaning when I ask this question: What is God’s response to the darkness of creation and us? Moses tells us one of God’s responses to the darkness of creation: God was brokenhearted (Gen 6:6). All throughout the stories of scripture, we see glimpses of God’s brokenheartedness, which leads me to believe that God is equally brokenhearted when we experience darkness, sin, pain, and despair. But, as we see in today’s scripture, and in the Incarnation, we see God responding to darkness in a way that Banksy captured powerfully in his graffito.
I cropped the image to help us explore our responses to the darkness of our lives, but when we zoom out on the full image, we see God’s true and enduring response to darkness. There you see it – Banksy’s protestor or rioter is throwing flowers, not a weapon of destruction. He’s throwing the only colorful thing in the image, proclaiming that light, life, and love – the best reasons for giving flowers – are the only weapons to cast out darkness. That’s the amazing thing about God, which we see clearly in Banksy’s image, and throughout scripture: God always has a choice about what to throw at the darkness of life and humanity, and God chooses to throw life, and love, and relationship, and beauty. In Jesus, God even throws Godself into the darkness, and the darkness cannot ever overcome it.
John’s gospel begins with an intricate poem of cosmic praise for Jesus, introducing him as the Word of God and the Light of God. John proclaims that Jesus is God’s living Word – that is, God’s rationality, reason, instruction, and wisdom in the flesh. To see Jesus, is to see the mind and heart of God in flesh. It’s an “Ah-ha!” moment for us and for creation. And the symbol for all “Ah-ha!” moments is…a lightbulb. So, John’s gospel proclaims that this Word of God, in whom all of creation was made, is also the life and “light for all people” (Jn 1:4).
God could choose any way of fixing the world’s brokenness and destroying its darkness, but God chose to become human in Jesus, so that God’s light could slowly but permanently, cast out the darkness. As John says, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish it” (Jn 1:5). Matthew’s gospel draws on this same image when he quotes Isaiah 9:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.Isaiah 9:2; Mt 4:16.
Jesus is God’s Light, casting out darkness, so that we can live with hope and courage.
So, Jesus is the Light of God, casting out all darkness, so that we can live with hope and courage. However, it’s this living in hope bathed in the light of Christ that’s the challenge for us right? After all, all the dark things I mentioned before are things that are happening after Jesus’s light-bringing birth, right? Here, Banksy and Jesus both show us how to live with hope and courage shaped by Jesus the Light of the world.
Banksy called this image, “Rage, Flower Thrower (or Love is in the Air).” It’s a long title, but it gets at a fundamental truth seen in Jesus. In Jesus, the Light of the World, God’s light, has been born into our world and lives. Jesus is the Love that’s in the air. God chooses to throw light, love, and relationship in response to the world’s darkness. Banksy’s image suggests that we have the power to make the same God-reflecting choice. We can choose to throw light, love, and relationship. Jesus concurs.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers, and all gathered to hear him that day and all days since,
You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden… let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.Matthew 4:14, 16
Jesus, who proclaims that he is the light of the world (Jn 8:12), also says that we are the light of the world, because we reflect his light. We can choose what we throw.
So, there’s some darkness we’re struggling with – within in us and around us. How can we throw light like God in Jesus? How can we throw embodied relationship and connection like God in Jesus? How can we throw life like God in Jesus? Perhaps we can throw love by sending some flowers to someone we normally worship beside, or throw a bit of light through some extra phone calls this week. Perhaps, we can throw life and light through gifts to aid organizations in our community – like the Salvation Army or the Children’s Fund – or through our broader connections – like Willow UMC or Heifer International. Perhaps, we can throw relationship by intentionally, regularly reaching out to someone dealing with loneliness or grief this season (maybe we’d have to put it in our weekly calendars). God, in Jesus, chooses to throw light, relationship, and life to overcome the darkness of life, giving us courage and hope. When we choose to throw life, light, and relationship, we incarnate the life, light, and relationship of God that became incarnate in Jesus. May we throw like God this season.
An Interesting Aside:
Incidentally, this belief that Jesus is God’s light dawning in the world explains three things we do this time of year. First, it explains our Advent candles. We symbolize the dawning of God’s light in the world in Jesus by adding a little more light to our sanctuaries and homes each week. Second, it explains our fascination with light and stars this time of year – like on our Christmas trees and houses. We put up lights and decorations as an act of protest against the darkness, proclaiming that in Jesus, the Light of God has come, is coming, and will surely come again. And third, it explains why we celebrate Jesus’s birth on December 25. Early Christians didn’t initially celebrate Jesus’s birth much, partly because they celebrated his resurrection more, and because the resurrection has a date in scripture, while Jesus’s birth does not. But, church tradition landed on December 25, because it was the winter solstice in the Julian calendar (the solstice is now, usually, Dec. 21, because we use the Gregorian calendar). On the physically darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, we celebrate Jesus’s birth, in whom God’s light and love is fully seen and known.
- How does this sermon, and its exploration of the meaning of calling Jesus “the Light of the World” help you understand the Incarnation?
- Is this name, “Light of the World,” important to your faith in Jesus? What about it is important? What questions does it leave you with?
- In the sermon, I sought to wrestle with this reality: Jesus is God’s Light in the world, and we still experience plenty of darkness. I tried to make clear that our faith and trust in Jesus as God’s Light gives us hope and courage. Is this satisfying to you? What questions or doubts do you still have?
- Ultimately, Jesus being God’s Light in the world, and in us, does give me hope and courage. One of the ways Jesus’ Light gives me the most hope and courage is when I experience it being incarnated in myself and most often, in others. What is a way you’ve seen God’s Light through others, or through something you’ve done? Can these experiences be a way God is helping you see God’s Light in Jesus?
- In the “Aside” above, I mention briefly the dating of Christmas. I’m convinced that celebrating Jesus’ birth – the Incarnation of God – is important for us theologically. And, I don’t see much use in arguing with the church tradition’s dating of Christmas. Do you know people that are, and why do they think this is important? What do you share in response? Could the idea of celebrating Jesus as the full revelation of God be a means to communicate what you think is important about Christmas?
- What darkness are you dealing with right now? Can you categorize it as stemming from moral darkness or situational darkness – the ideas of scripture? What is God’s response to your darkness? How is God calling you to respond with God to your darkness?
- Is there someone in your life with whom you can be honest about the darkness you’re experiencing? Have you tried? Perhaps, talking with another about the darkness you’re experiencing can be a means through which you can come to see and trust in God’s Light in Jesus.