Tag Archive: Darkness

The Christmas Eve sermon I preached on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20] at Community Lutheran in Sterling, VA

A few weeks ago, my husband Jeff and I were decorating our Christmas tree and I began to think about the ornaments. We’ve got some I made when I was a child and are now looking a little rough after many years. Some are gifts given by family, neighbors, and friends. Some from Tar-jay… that’s Target in case you didn’t know! And some from Christmas markets in Germany. Each of them has a story and a memory attached to it. And as we pulled out the ornaments and hung them, one by one on the tree, I was reminded of all the stories we share and hear at Christmas.

During this season we gather with family and friends, telling stories of Christmases past. We watch movies and laugh or cry over stories and quotes we all can repeat in our sleep, whether it’s, “God bless us, every one,”or “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” or, “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” The last line is from my favorite Christmas movie!

And tonight we gather together to worship and hear once more the story at the heart of it all. The story of a God who loved the world so much, he became a human, taking on the form of a tiny, helpless baby – growing, teaching, healing, preaching and dying among us, so we could know that love.

The story of Jesus’ birth is miraculous, dramatic and joyous. And what struck me meditating on this story again were the timing and the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Jesus is not only born in a humble stable during the rule of the oppressive Roman Empire, but the reading tells us he was born under the reign of the Emperor Augustus. This was a man known in imperial decrees as “Son of God” and the “savior of the whole world,” the one who was rumored to bring peace.

But that’s not the way the Gospel writer sees it. Instead, Luke’s Gospel, through the proclamation of the angel of the Lord, declares to the Empire that this little, vulnerable baby born in a stable is the true Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. That flies in the face of everything people knew and were accustomed to. Besides that, the angel and the angel host, or army, don’t show up to the powerful or the esteemed. No, they show up to some shepherds, who, like baby Jesus, have no place to lay their heads since they live in the fields.

In that time, shepherds had a pretty bad reputation. Since they worked in the fields, they didn’t practice Sabbath observances or worship in the Temple, and most likely, they smelled pretty bad. They were also seen as dishonest since they sometimes grazed their flocks on others’ land. According to teachings of the time, this made them ineligible to act as witnesses in court. Ironically, these are the people God chooses to become the first witnesses to the Messiah’s birth!

2,000 years ago, in a time of occupation, oppression, poverty and darkness, Jesus was born in dingy, dangerous, and stressful conditions and placed in a feed trough. Then angels appeared to stinky outcasts and God’s glory shone all around them. Out in rocky, rolling fields under a dark sky, God’s glory washed over people who were looked down upon. While God’s glory was born to a poor couple from the backwoods of Israel, a messenger of the Most High God shows up to some rough shepherds with good news of great joy for all people – even the outsiders – and proclaims peace in a brutal and tense time.

In January, I was lucky enough to travel to the Holy Land and visit Bethlehem. There, I visited the Church of the Nativity and the land where the shepherds must have been grazing their sheep. But I wasn’t as moved by the landmarks themselves, as I was by a quote that I saw in the courtyard of the church. On a simple stone in English and German, there was a quote that read: “When dark is the world today, This Child brings the world light.”

From the Courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

From the Courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

We pick up the newspaper or flip on the news and we hear all too often of the darkness of the world. We receive bad news from family and friends. We worry about our loved ones, our schoolwork, our jobs, our health, our finances… Fear, anxiety, disappointment, low self-esteem, painful relationships, and the shadows of our past mistakes and sins haunt us and weigh us down.

But the story of Christmas tells us that Almighty God, out of a love we can only begin to fathom, took on frail human flesh in order to forgive us and restore our broken relationships with God and one another. That God, creator of the universe, became a tender, gurgling infant in order to show us the depth and breadth of God’s love. Christmas shows us the ridiculous lengths to which God is willing to go to reach out to us and touch us with God’s grace, love and forgiveness. This is a God who doesn’t look upon us from a distance, but was born into the heart of the struggle of what it is to be human.It’s the beginning of the wonderful news the Gospels will continue to proclaim. The news that God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is for all people: rich and poor, powerful and weak, proud and humble, the religious and the impious, the saints and sinners, the outcast and the admired. The good news that whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you’ve done, or whatever you’re facing, God loves you and welcomes you.

The real miracle of Christmas is that Jesus is not only the light born in the darkness of a night long ago, but that he is the light shining brightly in our darkness, here and now. In the words of Isaiah, Christ breaks the yoke of our burdens and snaps in half the rod of all that holds us back, freeing us to let our lights shine into a dark world.

Take the shepherds, for example. They were so overjoyed by the vision and the message they heard out in the fields that they ran to find the little child they had heard about. And once they reached him, they were so filled with awe, they bubbled over telling Mary and Joseph about what they had experienced and then bolted out to tell others. In spite of their social status, they knew they had been transformed by what they had experienced and they wanted to share the precious news with everyone they met. If God showed up to, transformed and embolden shepherds seen as sinners and outsiders, what might God be doing through each of us?

Christ is our light, our hope and our joy. In the middle of the darkness of the world, there is a little child born to lead us into the way of the kingdom of God – the way of love, mercy and peace for all people. As Christine Sine writes, “How many fathers would give their son for us. How many mothers would pour their love into a child for us. How many kings
would leave their thrones for us. Only God in the birth of a child, in the birth of a kingdom, in the birth of a new world, would give up everything for us.” This Christmas, may you know the depth of God’s unfailing love for you and for all people. And may your lights shine brightly as you follow the light of the world. Thanks be to God and Merry Christmas! Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Pointing To The Light

We heard about John the Baptist last week, and again, this week, we get another description of him, this time from the Gospel of John. But what is so fascinating to me is that the description we get of him is really… non-descript! We know that he was sent from God, that his name was John, that he was to witness to the light, and that’s about it. That leaves me with a ton of questions, and apparently, I am not the only one, because the Jewish authorities sent people to ask John who he was. He told them straight up that he wasn’t the Messiah, and when they asked if he was Elijah or the prophet said to come as a forerunner to the Messiah, he answered no. The only thing he would tell them is, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

It reminds me of a song my mom used to sing to me when I was little: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

The original was about a little girl losing her yellow basket, but reading the Gospel, I re-imagined the song going a little something like this:

Are you the Messiah?

No, no, no, no

Are you Elijah?

No, no, no, no

Are you the prophet?

No, no, no, no

Just a voice crying out,

A voice crying out!

I know… it’s sad, but maybe it’ll help me remember all the people John the Baptist was being mistaken for!

So who was this man anyway? What was he up to? And why does it matter for us?

John the Baptist is described here only in terms of what or who he is not. He’s not the Messiah, the one to redeem all of creation. He’s not the prophet Elijah who was carried into the heavens by a fiery chariot and was, therefore, rumored to come back before the Messiah appeared. He’s not even the prophet like Moses who was supposed to come before the Messiah.

And when he is asked “what do you say about yourself,” he says only that he is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord!” Instead of really answering, he only points to the coming of the Lord. He tells his inquirers that there is one they don’t even recognize standing in their midst – one who is greater than he is and for whom they should be looking. His calling is to “testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

Now, the lectionary doesn’t do us any favors here because it leaves out the part of the text that tells us who this light is. It’s the part that goes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 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.” For those still wondering who the light is, it’s always safe to go with the Sunday School or Seminary answer: “It’s Jesus!”

John is the one called to prepare the way of the Lord, to get people ready for Jesus’ coming, and to point to him when he appears on the scene. He is called a “witness,” or in the Greek, a “martyr,” and indeed, he will give his life speaking God’s truth to the powers that be. His whole identity is bound up in Christ. When Mary visits John’s mother Elizabeth, John leaps in the womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, rejoicing that Mary and Jesus have come near. From the very start, he is intimately connected with the Savior, and as the text tells us, pointing to Jesus was the very thing he was sent from God to do.

Just as John was called to be a witness to Christ, so, too, are we called to point to Christ. This day in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday or Rejoicing Sunday – a day to rejoice at the nearness of the coming of the Lord in a season of waiting and preparation. Part of that means pointing out and rejoicing over the places where we see Christ in the world. As a German theologian put it, “The time of fulfillment has dawned. We are already surrounded by the wonders and miracles of God” (Helmut Thielicke). This week I saw the wonders of Christ in so many places – in the faces of friends at a synod worship service, in the sharing of the Eucharist on Wednesday and with some of our homebound members, in a van full of toys collected for LINK, in laughing and praying with others… The list could go on and on. Where did you see Christ? Where can you point to God’s presence or activity in the world?

The world is full of darkness and difficulty, pain and suffering. Sometimes, life is just rough. We, like John, are called to witness to the light – to point out that God is here among us even if all seems difficult. And when we cannot see God for ourselves, we need others to point to God to help us see. We are called to proclaim with joy the wonderful things that God has done – that God is with us, loves us more deeply than we can even imagine, and has forgiven and welcomed each of us as beloved children. That is amazing news and a reason to rejoice if I ever heard one! It’s the type of news that causes the overflowing of poetic praise we hear in Isaiah: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness …For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

In baptism, we have been clothed with the garments of salvation and the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Just as John’s identity was in Christ, in baptism our identities have been shaped by the cross of Christ and sealed in the Holy Spirit. We know that God’s love for us is not dependent on what we do, the connections we have with people in high places, our jobs, our skills, or the amount of money we have. And out of that wonderful knowledge, our praise is to spring up before all nations. We rejoice because of what God has done for us and we are called to share it with others.

I take heart that John is not your normal, average, everyday person. He was a little weird. He was born to parents far too old to have children, he ate wild locusts and honey, he wore camel hair, a garment which was a sign of being a prophet, and he lived out in the wilderness. The wilderness was not a quiet getaway either, but a place feared and seen as disorderly and dangerous, where wild beasts and fierce bandits lived. It was a place of desolation and waste, where people find themselves bewildered and often lost – yet this is the place where the covenant with is Israel was made. This is the place where prophets lived/fled to. It is the place where Jesus will go to be tested and where he will feed thousands. It is a place of trial and difficulty, but also of learning and strengthening one’s reliance on God.

I find great comfort in the fact that God worked through someone who was on the margins, who was outside of the box in order to point to the light of the world.  I find incredible hope and joy knowing that God can work through each of us, no matter how “unorthodox” it may seem. Because the beautiful thing is that God works through you and me – through the poor, the marginalized, the hurting, the quirky, the broken, the serious, the weak, the imperfect, and the goofballs to bring about healing and wholeness, and the kingdom of God on earth.

John spends his life pointing to Christ, bearing witness to the light and life that will allow humanity to see God and each other more clearly. He is the lone voice crying out and preparing the way for Christ to come and usher in the Kingdom of God. The voice is a powerful concept in Scripture – God’s voice speaks and brings creation into being. The Word of God, Jesus, becomes flesh and dwells among us. God speaks through us and our fragile voices bear the voice and the words of God – comfort for those grieving, hope for those struggling, laughter for those rejoicing, and encouragement for the downtrodden. How will you use your voice to cry out that Christ is near? How will you use your voice to rejoice that the coming of the Lord is near? How will you use your life to point toward Christ in others and in the world?

My prayer is that each of us will find ways of pointing to and focusing on Christ this season and throughout the year. That we would have the bold and audacious confidence of John the Baptist in claiming our identities in Christ, as well as John’s humility in knowing that the one who is coming is the one far greater than ourselves. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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