12/30/2012 sermon: The light shines in our darkness

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: John 1:5
1Christmas, Year C

The light shines in our darkness

As John so eloquently tells us today, with the birth of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth, light itself was born into our world. This light, John says, was the very essence of creation, the very light that said, “Let there BE light.” Therefore we should not be surprised when we discover that the “light of Christ” can renew all things.

In one of those quirks of the lectionary that The Episcopal Church uses, our gospel reading today was also the gospel lesson for the Christmas Day service. If you missed Carol Spigner’s most-excellent sermon on Christmas Day, I urge you to pick up a printed copy, when that sermon is available, in the narthex (the entryway into the church). Carol made an important point about how God being born into our world changes everything.

The part of John’s version of Jesus’ nativity story that captures my attention today is this, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Jesus is the light that shines in our dark places. The light of Jesus is what allows us to overcome our own dark places, to overcome our own embracing of the darkness.

I recently attended a lecture at the seminary with some people from one of Resurrection’s Quest[1] groups that meet to grow in faith. We went to hear a very famous preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, give a lecture. Ms. Taylor took as her quest the resurrection of darkness. She argued at length that, without the darkness, we would not know light, that we need the darkness to know what light is.

With all due respect to Ms. Taylor, she has things backwards. We need the light to reveal the darkness for what the darkness is. The goal of darkness, according to the playwright Terry Eagleton, is to overcome the light, to extinguish the light. The book of Genesis tells us the same thing, but in a different way. Genesis tells us that “in the beginning… darkness covered the face of the deep” until God said, “Let there be light,” then God saw that the light was good, and separated the light from the darkness.[2] God didn’t call the darkness good; he separated darkness from light and called the light good.

Our gospel lesson today harkens back to “in the beginning, when God” created all things. Our gospel lesson today insists that the light that God created was born into our world, God’s Word of creation was made human in Jesus. Our gospel lesson also insists that the light wins, ultimately, that with the birth of God into our world as one of us, light ultimately wins.

Unfortunately, in our experience, light doesn’t ALWAYS win, at least in the short term. There is illness, addiction, poverty, despair, sin, and death. These can be avenues, pathways, for darkness to enter our lives. These can also be opportunities for us to claim the light and thus aid in defeating darkness.

I want to share some examples of the light defeating darkness. My first example is from a few years ago—October 2, 2006, to be exact—when a gunman broke into an Amish school in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. When the police subsequently entered that one-room schoolhouse, they found a dead gunman and ten Amish girls, ages six to 13, who had been shot. In this instance we know the gunman’s motivation. Nine years earlier the man’s wife had given birth to their first child, a baby girl. However, the baby died after living only 20 minutes. Apparently the man had blamed God for his daughter’s death, and eventually he got revenge against God by shooting ten girls who were followers of Christ, killing three of them.

That’s the darkness part of the story. There IS light, light that overcame the darkness, but did so at a great cost. On television night after night we saw obviously grieving Amish people, people who spoke again and again about forgiveness, Amish people who showed only compassion for the gunman’s family, and Amish people who outnumbered all others at the man’s funeral.

But that’s not all. When I looked up this shooting, to refresh my memory about what had happened, I discovered that people from around the world had donated over four million dollars to support the victims and their families—money that the families shared with the family of the gunman.

I will never forget that witness, that costly witness, of the light overcoming the darkness of malice and violence and death. This Amish witness teaches me that the light is for ALL people, even those who seem to have claimed the darkness.

Let me give you three more examples that I have seen of the light shining in darkness that I have experienced since coming to the Church of the Resurrection. I want you to know, before I begin, that the living people involved each have given me permission to share their stories with you today.

First, the light shines through the darkness of pain and “dis-ability.” A member of this parish who is virtually homebound, pointed to herself in her wheelchair, explained her life-long physical struggles with pain, and testified, “I exist so that God can be glorified.”

This, my friends, is the light shining through darkness. This is how, by claiming the light, the light extinguishes darkness. This woman recently began working as a prayer line operator. She listens to people’s prayer requests, shared over the Internet and then over the phone, and prays with people. She prays daily for this Church of the Resurrection. Through the virtual connection of cyberspace, and of prayer, she is connected with the whole world, sharing the light of Christ she claims in her life. This woman teaches me that “I exist so that God can be glorified.” No matter what comes, WE exist so that God can be glorified. Each of us, this very church, all exist so that God can be glorified.

My second example of the light overcoming darkness in our parish comes from one of those inserts in our Sunday bulletin we saw during our stewardship campaign. In this testimony, one of the men in our congregation said that at one time over thirty years ago he had been actively addicted to alcohol. He shared that he had been carried past that addiction by the light and love of Christ shared here in this parish. At Will William’s funeral, this man also shared that Will had bought him a winter coat, showing him the way to share the light of Christ with others, to help them overcome the darkness of THEIR lives. This man teaches me, “I can’t, but God can—and we can, together, with God, and with God’s help.”

My third example from here is this parish of light overcoming darkness comes from a ten-year member of this parish who lived in The Fountains. This woman had overcome five different cancers in her life, and in recent months had had five different biopsies to see if one or more of those cancers had returned. She shared that she was “ready to go.” Then she added that she was “ready to transition to a new life,” a life of “light and song and joy.” This woman died suddenly a couple of weeks ago. She taught me that, through Christ, we can always transition to new life, if we but seek and claim that life that Christ offers.

As I look around our church, our parish, I see a corner or two with darkness. There is a corner in the kitchen under the dishwasher where we hide our helplessness. There is a corner behind the choir section over there where we hide our tiredness. And yet, there is a lot of light in this place. There is love and care and sharing galore, more than any one person here could know.

There is the light of love, shared with our neighbors, and the light of Christ, that shows forth so plainly here, light that gets carried out into our dark world.

I rejoice in the light so evident here. As light itself is born into our lives anew this year, I wonder if we can shine the light of Christ, born anew into our world, into all the corners of our lives.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”


[1] A Quest group is for faith formation.

[2] Genesis 1:1-5a (NRSV)

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