I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, December 18, as a part of our exploration of the Gospel of John. The text is John 1:5: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." You can read the surrounding text here.
Last night I was invited over to a friend’s place to have some spiced cider and homemade chex mix, and to help decorate their Christmas tree. As I was walking in the door, there was this scuffling and scrambling that was happening as one of the ladies of the house hurried to unplug the Christmas tree lights before I saw them.
She was convinced that the lights needed to be turned on last, as a sort of grand finale. And so after hanging all of the ornaments and placing all of the presents, the cord was plugged in and the lights went on and the tree was complete.
This season seems to beckon us to fill our lives with sparkle and shine: at home we twine twinkling lights around the Christmas tree and at church we light candles one by one. We are not the only culture who has felt this yearning to light lights as the days grow shorter and the nights longer. To find ways to remind ourselves that though these winter days are dark, the light will come again.
The tradition of the Advent wreath, an evergreen wreath with four candles, grew up out of a variety of pagan traditions, all associated with the coming of winter. Germanic peoples lit wreaths adorned with candles in the dead of winter, to remind themselves that lighter days would eventually come. And Scandinavians placed lit candles on a wagon wheel that hung from the ceiling. The wheel was a symbol of time. They lit the candles and offered prayers, asking the God of light to turn the wheel of the earth back toward the sun.
Behind these winter rituals is a lurking question:
What if winter never ends.
What if the sun never returns to us.
What if our lives are claimed, not by light, but by darkness.
The forced cheer of this season so often speaks of a primal, underlying fear.
A nagging uncertainty that we may be alone in all of this.
What if the darkness doesn’t overcome the light?
Way back in the Fall, we read the first chapter of Genesis.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
A passage that we hear echoed in John’s prologue.
The world began in darkness and chaos –
a formless void.
And then God spoke, and there was light.
A spark of something the world had never seen before:
light, and life.
God’s very self – piercing a hole in the darkness.
But though the darkness did not overcome the light…
the light also did not overcome the darkness.
In God’s creation, the darkness is not vanquished,
but kept at bay.
Relegated to the night sky,
the darkness is engaged in this cyclical dance
with the sun and the moon.
In God’s creation,
the darkness still has its place.
I would imagine that darkness has a place in your life.
That in addition to the many gifts and blessings you can count,
there are dark places.
Places where the light does not seem to reach.
I know that darkness has a place in this world.
That in addition to the many joyful and grace-filled places
across the face of the earth,
there are corners where the light does not seem to reach.
The truth is, we are surrounded by darkness.
The truth is that it is everywhere,
at every turn.
We will always have darkness to contend with.
God did not have vanquish it at the beginning of creation,
but instead, pierced it through. With light.
And where there is light, there is a path.
Part of my own work lately
has been to hear this verse not as a statement,
but as a promise.
A promise that God makes to me and to all of us:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
I promise that though the darkness is thick and dense,
it will not swallow you.
That though the days are short and bitter,
the earth will turn,
and the light will come again.
that death will not win,
and that you will walk in the light.
It is a promise that vanquishes our fear.
That isolates that lurking question,
and pierces it through.
We are not alone.
There is a light to guide us.
And the darkness shall not overcome it.