Christmas Contradictions: Light In The Darkness
If you take a long hard look at the Christmas story, you discover that it is filled with startling contradictions. Because our lives so often seem to be filled with startling contradictions, well maybe that’s the reason the Christmas story speaks so powerfully to us.
To be certain in this last week my own life has been marked by startling contradictions. As I worked on this sermon over these last days, I was surrounded by all of the glory and the glitter of Christmas and yet I also found myself having to deal with some of life’s hard and painful edges. Here in this church in the last three days we have had four funerals. Bill Duckworth and I have tried mightily to minister to our families caught in the grip of grief in the midst of this season of joy. Contradiction.
Thursday evening Trisha and I joined a number of others for a time of good food and great fellowship and genuine laughter at our counseling center’s annual Christmas dinner. Then right in the middle of dinner we were summoned to the hospital to stand with our Sefcik family. Eugenia and Joe Sefcik had just moments before given birth to a little girl. Her name is Elizabeth. The doctors had declared that Elizabeth would not live. Eugenia and Joe, whose faith drives me to my knees in admiration, said, “Whether Elizabeth lives for an hour or a day or a week, we will make a permanent place for her in our hearts and in our home.” So there in the soft light of a hospital room amidst the gentle tears of a great family, I baptized little Elizabeth just as I have baptized twelve other little ones today. Those little ones will live. Elizabeth will not. Contradiction.
The contradictions I suppose hit me full force yesterday. I had one funeral and two weddings here. Joy and sorrow, tears and smiles—the beginning of life and the end of life. And all of it taking place in the midst of this place surrounded by dozens of volunteers working extraordinarily hard to spruce up the church for a glorious Christmas and surrounded by dozens and dozens of small children squealing with delight as they made Christmas gingerbread houses. Contradiction.
In the midst of it all our daughter and son-in-law, Meg and Billy, have arrived from Denver for a pre-Christmas visit. All of us are overjoyed to be together, but all of us are painfully aware that this year our family circle is not complete. Life, death, joy, sorrow, darkness, light—all wound up together in one great contradictory piece. Very much like the story of the first Christmas. So my life this Christmas seems filled with contradictions. Perhaps that is true for yours as well. In any case, for whatever it’s worth, I want to share with you a wonderful discovery I have made in the midst of these Christmas contradictions. It is this.
Christmas is actually better seen in the dark because when it’s dark, you can better see the Light. That’s the way it was on the first Christmas. We are told that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem there was a darkness over the whole earth. The Roman legions had crushed underfoot one group of people after another. Ignorance and poverty and disease were to be seen wherever you chose to look. People’s lives were marked on an almost daily basis by death, tears, heartache, tragedy. There was a darkness over the world. And there was the darkness into which Jesus was born. Remember, the Bible tells us, He was born at night. The shepherds heard the angels sing at night. The wise men followed the star announcing the birth of Jesus at night. Even Herod concocted his demonic plan and carried out his hideous deeds under the cover of night. It was on a dark night in a dark world that Jesus was born. Maybe that’s why the disciple John in trying to write his own version of the Christmas story chose to write it in these words: “The light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
There is a sense, I think, in which like that first Christmas there is also a darkness across the world this Christmas. Millions upon millions of people are hungry and/or homeless. Prejudice is rearing its ugly head once again. Selfishness is the order of the day. Families are having to bid farewell to young soldiers being sent off to war zones. Diseases which we cannot cure are running rampant through the human family. The disregard for human life, the ultimate sign of human degradation, literally screams at us from the headlines of this very day’s paper. There is a darkness over the land and over the world and there is of course that darkness in my own life—as I move through this season of joy always under the shadow of death. I suppose that maybe that’s why I have come to believe that Christmas actually looks better in the dark because when it’s dark, you can better see the Light.
Focus with me then upon the light of Jesus Christ—the light which shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Consider, please, the light of Christ’s person.
The teachings Jesus delivered were bright lights on the human scene. The common people heard him gladly the Bible tells us. They still do. Children scrambled up into his lap in order to be close to Him and to stay in His presence and to listen to the stories that He told—that’s what the Bible says—and children still do. People whose lives were dead-ended found release and new life through His words. People whose lives were lived in ill repute, people like the woman of the streets at the well in Sychar, or the thieving tax collector up a tree in Jericho, or an antagonistic religious leader in Jerusalem who came to Jesus under the cover of night. These were changed by the power of His words and it happens still. But you know, the greatest miracle of Jesus is not the lessons He taught. The greatest miracle of Jesus is that He lived the lessons He taught.
You know how it is in the discipline of debate, the proof of proof is always revealed in achievement. For example, if you are arguing about whether or not something ought to be done and someone goes out and does it, well then that settles the debate once and for all. They argued about whether people could fly—and then the Wright brothers flew! That settled the debate forever. They argued about whether it would be wise to educate the masses—some went out and educated the masses giving to us the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington. End of debate. They argued about whether the races are equal—then along came Marian Anderson and Andre Watts and Ralph Bunche and Maya Angelou and James Baldwin and James Weldon Johnson and Jackie Robinson and the great Dr. E. V. Hill. The argument has been settled once and for all and forever. Except, of course, in a few benighted minds, God help them.
So Jesus enters the world claiming that the way to live life in this world is through love and faith and grace and trust and obedience and justice and sacrificial giving. And the world says: “It won’t work.” But Jesus did it! And Jesus did it so splendidly that to this very day we measure the character of an individual by setting that individual up against Jesus. We measure the policies of the nations of the world by setting them over against the way of life lived by the one we call the Prince of Peace. Jesus has become the supreme standard for the way we live life in this world.
During the Second World War in the Battle of the Bulge a young American soldier was wounded and captured by the Germans. He had several painful wounds—the most serious, the loss of an eye. He was taken to a German field hospital. It was just a tent. The conditions there were very crude. He was treated harshly by his captors. To make matters worse, there was a wounded German soldier on the cot right next to his. Every few minutes that German soldier would roll over and try to kick him in anger and enmity. Then something happened in that tent. Suddenly a group of Belgian carolers entered the tent and they began to sing the carol, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Suddenly the darkness of that place was transformed into light. And instantly that young German soldier’s face lost its glare of hatred and instead was replaced by a gentle smile. Then the German soldier reached out his hand and actually took the hand of the wounded young American. The two of them began to sing together: “Silent night, holy night,” each in his own language. Once again you see the supreme personality of all history worked His miracle. Jesus, the Light, was shining in the darkness. And the darkness has not, cannot, will not, overcome it. That’s why it seems to me that Christmas actually looks better in the dark because when it’s dark, you can better see the Light.
Consider, please, the light of Christ’s people.
2000 years ago the star was shining in the night sky announcing the birth of the Christ. There is a sense in which that star is shining still through the people of Christ, the church. Make no mistake about it—through the centuries there have been those, many of those, who have taken upon themselves the task of trying to extinguish that light—Herod, Caiaphas, Pilate, Mohammed, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung—on and on and on the list could go. All of them have tried to extinguish the light and all of them have failed. The Roman historian, Tacitus, 35 years after Calvary with a mixture of exasperation and surprise, wrote these words in one of his journals: “This pestilent Christianity has broken out again in Judea and also in Rome.” He was surprised that the Christian faith had lasted for 35 years. What would he think if he were here today—2000 years later! Dear friends, I don’t care how much darkness you have, you cannot shut out even the tiniest light.
My good friend, John Myers, of the Clay United Methodist Church in South Bend, Indiana, tells of a vacant lot which stood vacant until just recently in the city of Moscow. That vacant lot was located immediately adjacent to the great GUM department store and across the square from Lenin’s tomb. It had been vacant since the middle part of this century. Prior to that a church had stood on that lot—a magnificent church, an architectural marvel, an incredibly beautiful place. It had stood there for more than 300 years. Josef Stalin in his crazed campaign to eliminate Christianity from the Soviet Union ordered that church to be dynamited and destroyed. On the night before the church was scheduled to be blown up, a Christian architect in the city of Moscow slipped into the church in the darkness of the light, unbeknownst to the authorities, and worked through the night taking very carefully the measurements of that remarkable place, noting them down, and then sketching on pads of paper the unique architectural design of the place. Then he took all of those papers and sketches and tucked them away for safekeeping. There they remained until just a few years ago when the Communist monolith crumbled and the winds of freedom began to blow through that land. That Christian architect, who long before had lost his life because of the faith, had managed to preserve those papers, and the papers were unearthed and uncovered. The Christians of Moscow rallied together and began to give sacrificially and as a result, now completed on that vacant lot is a church, a magnificent church, a church built according to the specifications recorded by that architect in the middle of the night. The church stands exactly the same as it was before it was destroyed. Everything is the same except the name. The name has been changed. It is now called “The Church of the Resurrection.”
You cannot stop Christ or Christ’s church. Bomb it, belittle it, ravage it, ridicule it, incinerate it, ignore it—I don’t care what you do—you cannot kill it. The church of Jesus Christ stands at this moment in time as the oldest, the largest, the strongest, the most potent organization in all of the history of the world. The light of Jesus Christ is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not and cannot and will not overcome it. That’s why I believe that Christmas actually looks better in the dark because when it’s dark, you can better see the Light.
There is a wonderful little children’s story that I love. It’s about how one day the sun up in the sky looked down on the earth and saw that the animals were agitated and troubled. The sun came down and said to the animals: “What’s wrong?” The animals replied: “One of our animal friends went down into that cave and it was dark and he was frightened.” The sun said: “What’s dark? What does dark mean?” The animals said: “If you stick your head into that cave, you’ll know what dark means.” So the sun leaned down and put his head into that dark cave. When the sun leaned into the cave, it wasn’t dark anymore. Wherever the sun is, there can be no darkness. That’s the message of John’s story of Christmas. Wherever God and God’s son, Jesus Christ, are—there can be no darkness.
Our son, John David, said it so well. Last Christmas when he took his journey home to Heaven he left behind for us a wonderful collection of his drawings and his writings—poems, essays, little one-line nuggets of truth, beauty, even faith. One of his lines captures so well what I’m trying to say to you now. So I want to leave you with his words, and I want to leave his words with you:
“Let us not forget,
Darkness is the absence of light.
Stay in the light,
and there can be no darkness.”
My boy was right. Stay in the Light, my beloved. Stay in the Light of Jesus Christ. Stay in the Light…