December 24, 2016

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
John 1:1-14

“Being Lights”

The other day I was reading an attempt at a historical account of Jesus’ birth. It was the kind of piece in which the researcher tries to match up the events described in the Gospels with the history of the nations and kings of the era in order to “place” the birth narratives in their historical context. And similar to other scholars, this one estimated that Jesus was likely born in September of the year 5 BCE. So, for centuries, we’ve been celebrating Christmas at the wrong time of year! Oops!

Well, it’s not exactly an “oops.” It’s not that anyone actually sat down and figured that Jesus was born in late December before setting our celebrations at this time of year. When the date was decided, I don’t imagine that anyone was particularly worried about determining an accurate birthday for Jesus. The point was to mark his coming into our world and its life-changing, world-transforming significance.

You’ve probably heard that the earliest Christmas celebrations were held in conjunction with pagan festivals marking the Winter Solstice. The idea was to provide Christians with a festive celebration rooted in the faith so that they wouldn’t be tempted to join in the fun and frivolity of the pagan parties. Contemporary Christmas celebrations show marks of those other religious influences… Christmas trees covered with lights, Christmas wreaths, Yule logs, and more.

The date for the celebration of Christmas may have first been chosen for somewhat practical reasons… but there are also some good theological reasons for holding our second biggest festival of the year at this time. And that’s because of the darkness.

It is the same reason why many religions have festivals at this time of year, because this is the time when the days are shortest and the nights are longest. We all know about Christmas and Hanukkah, but there’s also Diwali (celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains), the new African-American holiday, Kwanzaa, the Chinese or Lunar New Year, and the Zoroastrian Solstice Celebration. All of these have a focus on the gift of light.

When there is so little light outside (and add to that the fact that it is bitterly cold where some of us live) it is the perfect time to remember and celebrate the coming of the One who became for us the “Light of the World.” As John’s Gospel describes Jesus: “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I’ve never been one for doing a lot of Christmas decorating or putting up lots of lights, but a few days ago, I started to think about the meaning and significance of all the lights that we see decorating our churches, homes, and neighbourhoods at this time of year.

It was the longest night of the year on Wednesday night this week, and just after dark I went for a walk. I was coming to the end of the Advent “Walk to Bethlehem” that some of us have been doing over the last month. I had just a couple more walks to complete the 111 km that Mary and Joseph would have walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of their first child.

It was still early, just before supper, but it was already very dark. I hesitated a little, wondering if I might slip on unseen ice or step in doggy doo that I might not see on the sidewalk because of the darkness. But it was surprisingly warm, and I wanted to walk outside if I could.

And although it was dark, it was not too dark because of all the lights put out on the homes and trees of my neighbourhood. As I walked, I was surprised to see so many nativity scenes. And there were some Santas and reindeer here and there as well.

But mostly it was just lights. Lights twinkling on tall trees, strung around eaves, and carefully arranged in so many different colours and designs. Part way through my walk, I wondered if I should take pictures of the lights, but there were so many… and so I mostly just enjoyed them and let them brighten my path.

I thought about the darkness as I walked… about the darkness of grief, of loneliness, of fear, of deep depression. I thought about the struggles of the people I love, my own challenges, and the warring world in which we live. And I remembered that Jesus came into our world because of all that darkness. Jesus came because God knew we needed him to shine into our lives and bring hope, healing, goodness, and love.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Not long after that evening, I received an email from our Syrian refugee family, still waiting patiently in Saudi Arabia. It was a “Merry Christmas” message, delivered from a nominally Muslim family across the world, thinking of us as we celebrate one of our great festivals.

I wrote back right away, with thanks for the greeting and told Iham and Nour a little about what our Christmas festivities entail. I noted that many different religions celebrate festivals of light at this darkest time of the year, and explained why we call Jesus the “Light of the World” because we believe that through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, God revealed God’s self, God’s love, God’s mercy and grace in a unique and wonderful way.

Now, every time I email with the Razouk family, it is a three-way conversation. Christine Zyla, who is the Migration Coordinator for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, is always copied, as she is the one who first made contact with the family and who is guiding us through this sponsorship process.

Well, after my last email about Christmas and the “Light of the World,” Christine replied just to me, without copying the Razouks. And she reminded me of another important truth about Christmas. She wrote, “God bless you!  You, yourself, are a Light, Amanda.”

You see, the good news is not only that Christ is our Light. The good news is that in knowing him, in loving him, and in following him with our lives, we also become lights that can shine into the darkest places to bring hope, joy, and love to our neighbours and to the world.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

A terrible thing happened in our community last week, when an elderly man with dementia wandered outside, got lost, and couldn’t find his way home again. It was a tragic story because he wasn’t found until the next afternoon, and he had died, presumably from the cold and lack of shelter.

But the public letter of thanks that his family sent out afterwards was remarkable. Even though the end result was not what they had hoped for, they were so thankful for the response of the police, the volunteers who searched, and the wider community in general. They talked about this time of year as one in which we should be inspired to give of ourselves and help one another, and that the people of Saskatoon had certainly done that for them.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Let me tell you one more story tonight. It’s about Santa. Well, it’s about that struggle that so many parents have around what to tell their children about Santa Claus, the question of whether they believe in him, and until what age, and how you manage the transition when they begin to question whether or not Santa is real.

I came across an idea from one parent who shared online about the role of Santa in her household. Instead of waiting until her children began to doubt the Santa Claus story and figure out that their parents might actually be the ones putting the presents under the tree on Christmas night, she decided to let them in on the secret a little early.

And she didn’t sit them down to tell them the bad news: “Sorry kids, there is no Santa Claus.” Instead, when she figured they were ready, she would sit them down to let them know that she thought they were ready to become Santas themselves.

At 7 or 8 years old, her children began to learn the deeper meaning of the Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas story. She told them that they were ready to become Santas.
Their challenge would be to look around, identify someone with a need, figure out what would be the perfect gift for that person, and then quietly, anonymously, even surreptitiously deliver it, without the person ever discovering from whence it came.

And the story she told about her oldest child’s first Santa Claus mission didn’t involve getting a gift for grandma or his little sister. That kid looked around and chose a grumpy neighbour who tended to yell at the kids on the block for being too noisy or rowdy. He noticed that she always came outside to get the morning newspaper in her bare feet, and so he found a way to deliver her some slippers without her ever knowing where they came from.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The reading from Paul’s letter to Titus tonight tells us that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people.” And this is the good news, that God is merciful and gracious to us, reaching out to us in love even though we have not deserved such mercy.

But it doesn’t stop there. It is not just the good news that we are loved and we are saved. But that good news is given to “educate us” – to train us “so that we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now… At the same time, we wait for the blessed hope and the glorious appearance of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ…” He came to save us, yes, and to “cleanse a special people for himself who are eager to do good actions.”

We don’t just receive the light of Christ shining into our lives, but through the power of God’s Spirit we actually become little lights ourselves. We become little St. Nicholas’s, little Santas, little Christs. May God empower us this Christmas to shine our lights wherever we encounter darkness, as the Christmas story continues to live in us. Amen.