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Sermon: 12/30/2018

Posted 7:39 PM
Sermon, Christmas I                                                                                                              Jeffrey B. MacKnight
30 December 2018                                                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

Light and Shadow

Don’t you love Christmas carols?  They are like old friends who come to visit for a while once a year, bringing smiles and laughter and good cheer.  They bring people together to sing along – on dark streets, causing houses to light up and front doors open gladly; at Christmas parties gathered around the piano, egg nog in hand; and in the memory unit of Sibley Hospital, where our youth group gathered to cheer up the residents there.  With dementia, old songs are one way to reach these souls. 

Of course, this being the nation’s capital, a misguided bureaucrat has decided to catalogue the carols by alternate names in bureaucratic jargon:

“Move hitherward the entire assembly of those who are loyal to their belief.”

(O come, all ye faithful.) 

“Nocturnal timespan of unbroken quietness.” 

(Silent night.)

Or the one we just sang:

“Twelve o’clock on a clement night witnessed its arrival.”

(It came upon the midnight clear.)

After the warmth and sweetness of Christmas Eve and Day, we really don’t want to go back to the world as it is: work hassles, a new semester of school, car troubles and traffic jams, long commutes and short tempers, difficult people and stressful situations. 

We hear it in some of the carols – shadows of what is to come.  In “It came upon the midnight clear,” which we just sang, we have:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; 

Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

We are reminded that this story of Jesus will not be all sweetness and light.  No sooner had the Wise Persons visited Jesus, than the little holy family had to flee for their own safety to a foreign country, and pray that they would receive asylum there.  How were they treated at the border?  We don’t have details, but we know they were allowed to sojourn in Egypt for some time, until it was safe to come back.  The shadow of the future – persecution, the cross – is there from the beginning. 

The cradle and the cross are bound together. 

The sin and brokenness of the world gathers like a great storm-cloud around the stable, the manger, the Holy Family.  Again, from the carol:

And warring humankind hears not the tiding which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!

In the more intimate Basque carol “The Infant King,” which will be sung by John Blakeslee for us in a few minutes, the cross looms over the head of the baby in the manger:

Sing lullaby!  Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing.
Then in the grave at last reposing: Sing lullaby. 

I don’t know about you, but I long to stay at the manger, gazing on the miracle of new birth, the lovely, loving mother Mary.  I want to join Joseph in trying to protect these vulnerable souls from danger and harm.  Surely we do not have to depart this scene just yet!  Why the rush back into the stormy world, the litany of bad news on the television, the tragedies of war and sin and strife?  Stay!  Sing lullaby!  Hush, do not wake the Infant King! 

But wake he must, and wake he did.  Soon he was growing up, and became, as they say now, fully “woke” to the world around him.  He saw the world in its true nature – a very mixed bag of exquisite beauty, unselfish acts of kindness, and freely-given love, in the midst of daily strife and struggle, “man’s inhumanity to man,” and sometimes unspeakable cruelty and hardship. 

Jesus grew, matured, and faced the world as it is.  I think that’s what that time in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, really means: Jesus faces the dark side, the shadow side of the world God sent him into.  He faces it, and refuses to succumb to it.  He will not go along to get along.  He will stand up for his own truth, his forgiving love. 

We talk about Jesus as the light of the world – it’s a good metaphor.  When the world is dark, and we are being urged to give in to it, to extinguish our own light and join the dark side, it’s hard to resist.  But that’s what Jesus is all about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” 

So the challenge to us, now that Christmas Day is past, the lights and the tinsel will soon be put away again, is to keep standing up, keep shining our light in the darkness, and never give up. 

That’s where New Year’s resolutions come in.  Most resolutions are “pie-crust promises: easily made, easily broken.”  But the promise we make to Jesus is to carry his light into the world, and keep carrying it.  So how will you carry the light of Christ in the new year?  Will you give the money to keep a child in Ecuador in school?  Will you tutor poor kids and help them get an education?  Will you look in on an elderly neighbor and help her feel safe?  Will you testify at the County Council to protect services for poor people and migrants?  Will you work for justice and truth in our national politics?   How will you let your light shine? 

I think we need to get specific here – identify one effort (or more, but at least one) we’ll honestly commit to.  One way to carry the light of this season into the next year.  What will it be?  And as we work through the coming year, doing the Work of Christmas, listen closely, and I’ll bet you can “hear the angels sing” as they did at Jesus’ birth, and hear the “well done, good and faithful servant” which God speaks to each of us when we do God’s will.  AMEN. 

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