This evening, we gather in the midst of darkness.
It wasn’t that long ago that the sun set over the horizon of the community. That moment called an end to a festive day of preparations and celebrations, while extinguishing the light that had allowed us to see where we were going and move about freely. As the sun went down, a familiar darkness consumed the sky and reminded us of the evening’s chill.
We gather in the midst of a darkness that is not just about the realities of the night’s sky. We gather in the midst of a darkness that is as much about the metaphorical realities we face than about the physical realities. In the midst of that darkness, we have gathered, looking for hope.
Perhaps this is similar to what our spiritual ancestors did some 2,000 years ago. There was a darkness that consumed the people of Judea, in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It was a darkness of political and religious forces that sought to oppress the people. The people were oppressed by the Roman Empire. This dominant force in the Ancient Near East ruled with a tight fist that it called the pax Romana. It essentially meant that the best way to keep the peace was for everyone to do exactly what Rome wanted. Refusal to do so would often mean that someone would be tortured, lose their livelihood, or even their lives.
In Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the people were oppressed by the Roman Empire’s control over the land. The Romans were just the next in a line of empires that sought to have dominion over the land. Even though the people were under Roman rule, they had limited rights but had to pay in full their taxes to sustain their oppressor’s authority.
There was also darkness in the land, because the religious leaders and elites were not living in accordance with the promises of God. They put a heavy burden upon the people that they, themselves, were unwilling to live into. They routinely forgot God’s call to care for the poor, the stranger, the refugee, and the widow. Many were left destitute and without the help, which the community of faith should have provided. As well, some religious leaders were willing to align their faith practices with their Roman oppressors in order to maintain their power and privilege. Through it all, the people were living in darkness – oppressed, ignored, and forgotten.
This evening, we gather in the midst of a darkness that is not unfamiliar to that of our spiritual ancestors. There is a darkness that fills our community, as it deals with an opioid crisis and homelessness. There is a darkness where some of the highest numbers of people in poverty are just steps from our door. We have seen divisions overwhelm us to the point where we are tired of the fighting and yelling at each other.
At the same time, we feel the darkness of life. We experience the sorrow of loved ones who are not with us. We are exhausted from trying to figure out life, make ends meet, or care for family members with needs. We feel discouraged and believe all hope is gone. So, we gather this evening in the midst of a darkness that consumes us and overshadows us.
We are in need of hope. A measure of grace to give us the confidence to face the darkness unafraid. We are looking for a spark of light that shines forth from the darkness to point us to the way forward. We are crying out for hope tonight.
This is a hope that our spiritual ancestors constantly looked for. They turned to military and political leaders who made promises that no person could ever keep. These leaders promised revolution. They promised freedom. They promised that they could overturn the oppressors and restore the right practices of faith. One after another, these self-proclaimed messiahs came and failed to deliver their promises of hope and revolution. Rome was still in charge. The leaders were still oppressing the people. Hope was still needed.
We often look for hope everywhere else but the place where hope can be found. We have cried out for hope to come and take our problems away. We’ve looked to get-rich-now schemes and preachers who promise that faith leads you to being rich and blessed. We’ve looked to politicians and celebrities to guide our steps. We’ll consume more than we can afford simply because we believe it will make us happy. And, yet, the darkness still consumes and overwhelms us.
The only hope that can shine light in the midst of the darkness is not one that comes from the things of this world. It comes from the Light that came into the world, not through power and might, but in humility and weakness. Hope comes through a Light that shines out from Bethlehem and throughout the world – the baby born in a manager. Light came into the world because the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, “became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14, MSG)
Hope shines in the midst of darkness, because Jesus, the Savior, is born in Bethlehem. He is the reality of hope and the reasons we have gathered in the midst of our darkness to celebrate, to remember, and to be rekindled in the depths of our soul. That Light came because God came to earth in the person of Jesus to be hope for all people. Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, is the answer to the prayers of the people, then and now, who asked for a sign of hope to shine light through the darkness.
What Jesus gives is a hope that is everlasting. That baby born in Bethlehem is the preexistent Word who is the source of wisdom and grace. His hope is the witness of unconditional love from the Father, empowered by the Holy Spirit. His hope shines the light of grace and mercy towards those whose lives run counter to the promises of God. Jesus’ hope gives welcome to those who are outcast and ignored by society. His hope offers peace to those who feel heavily burdened by the world and the challenges of life. His hope offers a light for all.
Jesus’ light shone throughout his ministry. From the manger in Bethlehem to the cross to the empty tomb, Jesus pointed people to the light of hope that shines in the darkness. In doing so, the world was forever changed by his presence. We are forever changed when we have encountered God’s light shining through the Christ child.
That light shines in our lives and points us to a hope that is real and never fading. God’s light is present today, because Christ has come. We can claim it. We can depend upon it. We can let it guide us through the darkness that still seeks to consume this world, even though it can never extinguish the light of God’s holy love.
We are witnesses, not just to the birth of Jesus, but to God’s light that shines through Jesus and gives us hope. Christmas is a reminder that we have received a great light, but it also shows us that we are to live each day in response to that light. We are to be witnesses of peace in times of anger. We are to be a presence of hope in times of discouragement. We are to be guided by God’s love when we feel the temptation to respond in anger and resentment. Christmas is not a one-day celebration. It is an everyday reminder that because Christ has come, we are called live in hope and share the light of Christ’s redeeming hope.
It is easy to forget our calling to be a witness of light. We live every day in a world that is consumed by the darkness. We wonder if our witness can really make a difference, so we get discouraged, overwhelmed, and feel like giving up. When we do, the message of Christmas gets tossed aside and left behind. The light of Christ fades from our lives, and the darkness overwhelms us again.
This is why communion is so important for us on this night. This holy meal of connection to God’s grace reminds us that Christ came in a physical body to shine a light of hope into the world. He gave his life to point people to God’s hope. When we take the bread, we are reminded to allow everything about us to be used to shine God’s light into the world. The cup of juice reminds us of Christ’s transforming presence in our lives, which shines hope into our places of darkness and calls us to live into God’s love. It calls us to no longer be defined by darkness, but to be defined by the light of Christ that shines hope into the world and into our lives.
We gather this evening in darkness, but darkness is not the final story. It has no power over us, because a light has come. A light is here. That light is the light of Christ. That light is the light of redeeming and transforming hope. It is a light that shines forth God’s grace and calls us out of the darkness and into God’s love.