A few years ago, I was preparing to preach on this first chapter of John, which is always the reading the Sunday after Christmas. Amidst all of the hustle and bustle of Christmas planning in a busy parish, I had sketched out notes between services. I thought I had a pretty good sermon together. It turned out I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not overcome it.” Could not.
Then, as I sat down, the day before the service I re-read the text, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not overcome” the light.
Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not overcome the light.
Often, as I was preparing to do in my earlier draft of this sermon, we like to split things into either/or, darkness/light, right/wrong. We set up little contests, or big fights. We live in a digital world, and sometimes I wonder if all of the on or off, this or that, has us playing a zero sum game. We polarize easily today.
The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr says that we are dualistic in our basic inherited theology in the West. That’s what he calls this either/or us vs. them tension we seem to constantly live with: dualism. We set ourself up in opposition, in tension. He argues this causes some of the basic inequities we’ve constructed. When we view the world, especially the people of the world, as us vs. them, we set up a dualism. Women or men. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Republican or Democrat. We have created a lot of “or”s to categorize people. And our categories are failing us.
Which is why this image of the light shining in the darkness caught my attention. The darkness did not overcome it.
What is this light that shines?
The light is John’s version of the Christmas story. Rather than the shepherds and angels of Luke, the beautiful Hallmark/Disney Christmas, John gives us a theological hymn. Aren’t Hymns some of the best of theology? Aren’t they also sometimes the worst? In this case, the Logos hymn, it’s some of the best. But what does the Logos do?
The Logos Generates. You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there. Our Common English Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.” I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.” In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated.
This verb, “generate” discloses something about the life of God. God is constantly generative. Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator. According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life. All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being once. God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being. God continues to create in us new life, each moment.
Each moment, even in the midst of a pandemic. Even in a holiday season when we couldn’t be with loved ones, many of us. Even in this moment moment, God is there, the light is shining, generating life.
This is a time for lighting a candle in the dark.
Every Christmas Eve we light candles during the services and sing “Silent Night.” I will never forget a Christmas Eve dinner between services a few years ago, when more candles were lit. There’s a not-well-kept secret in Episcopal Churches like Holy Communion. Almost every service we have is at least a little bit interfaith. Some of the members of our choir are Jewish. And some of our Jewish neighbors join us especially at Christmas. I had a Jewish friend show up at our late service one Christmas Eve to say, “God I love those carols you all sing.”
A few years ago on Christmas Eve, as the choir and clergy gathered for dinner between the services, two of our choir members lit the first candles on a menorah and sang the blessings of Hanukkah. That year Christmas Eve was the first night of the Jewish celebration of light. Earlier in the same week, a rabbi friend, Jack Moline, was quoted in the Washington Post. “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own.” Last year, at a Thanksgiving interfaith service, my colleague Maharat Rori Picker-Neiss spelled it out. She said that this time of year, all the great world religions have traditions to bring light into the gathering darkness. That is what faith does, it helps us to see there is always hope.
“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I was ready, as I was preparing this sermon, to talk about all the ways darkness could not overcome light. Now I’m not so sure. We face the start of a year that brings a certain unsteadiness. I know I am ready to leave 2020 behind, but as we enter 2021 I am less sure about saying exactly where “darkness CANNOT overcome light.” I am concerned about setting up too many definite opposites this early in the year. In the times to come, I think we need some more room for nuance.
A Light at the end of the tunnel?
I keep hearing, now that the vaccine is slowly trickling out to healthcare workers, that there is a “light at the end of the tunnel.” I know my spirit has lightened a bit every time I’ve thought on that news. I got a little teary as I saw the trucks roll out of the Pfizer distribution center. But the light at the end of the tunnel can’t be the only good news. It just can’t be.
Because even in the darkest times of 2020, I’ve seen light. I’ve watched parishioners form pods together, and sign online, to help keep one another sane. I’ve watched doctors, nurses, and front line workers put their lives and their sanity at risk day after day at work. I’ve seen parents valiantly working to to make sure their kids, and the neighborhood kids, continue their education.
I’ve seen volunteers show up for laundry love, and for our food ministry with Trinity. New members this summer restarted our food garden, raised 100+ pounds of greens for our food insecure neighbors. Friends, there isn’t just a light at the end of the tunnel. There has been light in the tunnel the whole time. You, for me, for so many, have been little lights shining. And the darkness did not overcome us. Keep letting your lights shine, even as we can hopefully see that big light at the end of the tunnel.
There are times when we live in darkness. God can be found there in the darkness as well. Bringing the contrast, bringing light in uncertainty. That is part of our ongoing work, our ongoing celebration of this Christmas season. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Sometimes I’m still working out what the Gospel means, but even in uncertain times I give thanks. I give thanks for all the ways God’s light shines through the people I am entrusted to love.