"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." In December of 1996 I attended an academic conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was an unforgettable experience, not because the content of the conference was particularly good. I recall that the presentations were sort of average as far as intellectual exercises go. No, the real star of the event, an entity that would provide fierce competition for any academic paper, was the city itself - Santa Fe. Now, I realize that this is a matter of aesthetic taste, but to me Santa Fe is jaw-dropping gorgeous, especially in the winter. I find the combination of scrub pines, adobe walls and dry, powdery snow to be deeply appealing. And that's just in the daylight. You may know that, during December, the tradition in that city is for residents to line their walkways, walls and rooftops (really, any flat adobe surface) with small paper bags filled with sand and a candle-luminarias. Walk outside on a cold winter's evening-when occasional gusts swirl the powder and hundreds (probably thousands) of luminarias provide a soft, flickering glow to the cityscape-and Santa Fe turns from beautiful to magical.
On my second night at the conference, having returned to my room from an exhilarating walk on a cold Santa Fe evening, I found a message waiting for me. A few hours earlier, my mother had been transported to a hospital in Minneapolis. She was scheduled to have a quadruple bypass the next day. So I, quite literally, had to run away from the beauty of that place. Early the next morning I was on a shuttle to Albuquerque and then a plane to Minnesota. Mom's surgery went well, and then, a day later, things didn't go so well. She died on December 18 as a result of the effects of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
I tell you about all of this not because I have a special need to be sad this week, but because in the days before Christmas these events always remind me of the stark contrasts that frame this season. At the same time that we journey toward beauty and wonder, we carry with us the deaths of loved ones, and deep grief grips our hearts. At the same time that we celebrate this "family" holiday, we are keenly aware of the brokenness of our own families. At the same time that children experience excitement so strong that they are vibrating with anticipation, we carry in our hearts worries about paying the bills and frustration at their less-than-angelic behavior. At the same time that we annually dust off the word "merry" for repeated use, we are gripped by depressions that cannot be drowned by glass after glass of good cheer. At the same time that we toast each other's good health, we are aware of those whose health is not good, those who carry the burden of debilitating illness. At the same time that we profess to be following the light of a star hovering over Bethlehem, we are moving step by step into the darkest days of the year. As the carol goes, we have entered the bleak mid-winter.
I have heard it said that the first chapter of John's Gospel has inspired more theological writing than any other chapter of the Bible. It doesn't surprise me. John's Gospel begins with powerful words that make us think about who God is and what God is up to in the person of Jesus Christ. They are majestic words-words that echo the creation story in Genesis, "In the beginning...." There are words here that speak about eternity and the life of the world and the light of all people. Good words. Strong words. Poetic words. Words that are beautiful, but also words that are difficult to pin down. These are the kind of words that call people to write books that wrestle with their meaning. These are words that beckon us to theological contemplation.
Take, for example, verse five in today's text: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." It is not a simple piece of Scripture. I struggle with these words because they do not say what I want them to say. I want them to declare that when the light comes into the world it obliterates the darkness. It takes the bleak mid-winter with every sadness, every despair, every raw deal, every horrendous tragedy, every evil plan, every god-awful, life-sucking disease, and tosses the whole mess into the cosmic trash bin. I want the light to arrive and to win, and I want it to win big. I mean I want the light to deal with the darkness in a way that is so overwhelming, so completely devastating, that I can switch channels at half-time because there is no way, no possible way, that the darkness is even going to come out of the locker room to play the third quarter.
Instead of total victory, we get something much more "modest" in John's Gospel. The light came into the world, and the darkness did not extinguish it. The darkness was not able-at least, not immediately-to reach over and pinch out the flickering wick of the light. Or, if you prefer the King James translation, "the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." Great!? The light came. The darkness looked up and saw it and thought, "Hm, I don't get it. I don't understand what this light-this candle for the world, this hope for all people-is all about. Well, I guess I'll just go back to being the darkness, being that which drags humanity down, that which nibbles at the edges of people's fractured souls, that which sneaks up on people to devastate them when they least expect it." "The Word of God came," says John. It came, and when the darkness saw it (the word, life, the light), it shrugged its shoulders and went back to work.
Now, while I may not like the perspective on the light given by this text, I do have to admit that it strikes me as being true. In the 2,000 years that have unfolded since that night in Bethlehem, can anyone argue that the darkness has diminished? Is there any less pain, any less meanness in the human spirit, any less heartache? If anything, there is more-more suffering, more nastiness, more agony, because there are more people, lots more vulnerable souls for the darkness to damage. In fact, there is so much suffering that it may seem as if the darkness has already won... that its victory is assured. And isn't that the case? In the end, isn't that the lot for us all? Darkness.
Laura Lewis, my former colleague and professor of Christian education at Austin Seminary, once told me a story about a student who was preparing a lesson plan on the ninth chapter of Isaiah. It is a chapter that we often read during Advent, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined." As part of her research into this passage, a student decided to try and find the darkest place on campus. After hunting around, she discovered a little-used racket ball court in the basement of the McMillan classroom building. It was accessed only by going down two flights of steps and through a few heavy doors. A good portion of the court was probably underground. This enterprising student discovered that when you got inside and closed the door and turned out the lights, it was really dark in there. There wasn't a single stray photon bouncing around that could make an impression on a human retina. It was, she said, totally dark. Scary dark.
When it came time for this student to lead her class through the lesson, she brought them down the stairs, through the doors, and sat them down around the edges of the court. Then she said, "You are people who live in a land of deep darkness." And she turned out the light. A few students gasped. Then it got pretty quiet. She waited. In the hush and in the dark, they sat. They sat and waited. After five minutes, five surprisingly long, silent, and absolutely dark minutes, she read the words, "Those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined." With those words she struck a match and lit a small candle. Now, as I understand it, by no means did that small candle fill the vast room with light, but all the same it changed things. It changed them radically. With the flickering of the light, people saw themselves, and they saw each other. They saw faces-surprised faces, puzzled faces, and even a couple of faces streaked with tears. For those in deep darkness, a little light made all the difference, all the difference in the world.
"The light shines in the darkness," writes John. Maybe that's the thing. Maybe that's the gospel writer's point. It is not that the light obliterates the darkness; it is simply that the light is there. This is the message of the incarnation-the story behind the story that we will tell each other this day. God enters into the darkness to sit alongside of us. God refuses to dwell in the heavens above and from a safe distance watch the drama of human life play out. Instead, God climbs right into the darkest places to be with us; and in that holy and luminous action, we find reason enough to hope.
Once a month, I visit a young man from my congregation named Bobby, who now lives with his parents. I recently asked Bobby's permission to tell you about one of our conversations together.
About two years ago, Bobby was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. From early on this disease, which progresses differently in different people, has affected Bobby's ability to talk. On this particular visit, Bobby was using a speech machine-a device that enables him to select words that it can then reproduce with its electronic "voice." Sitting together in Bobby's living room, we talked about the Christmas season. He showed me pictures of his two children visiting Santa and explained that it was the first time that his young child did not cry. We talked about how much he loves ice cream. "All flavors," Bobby said. He also described how much weight he has lost in the past ten months.
At one point, Bobby's mother, who was sitting with us throughout our conversation, had to get up and leave the room to answer the phone. As she was leaving, I chose that opportune moment to say to Bobby, "I can only imagine how hard this is for you." He nodded and began to tear up. By the time his mom returned, we were both bawling. Then I asked Bobby, "What gives you comfort?" Immediately he began to type. And within seconds the electronic voice pronounced a single, monotone word, "company."
On hearing this, his mother chimed in. Oh, yes, Bobby loves visitors and the food that they bring. She began to tell stories about all of the people from church who had dropped off meals and those who had stopped by to talk with Bobby. She spoke of the electric wheelchair that he was using and the generosity of the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta. Throughout it all Bobby kept smiling and nodding.
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." John's Gospel is clear. The darkness is not an illusion. It is there. It is real. We are always and ever in a battle with it. But we are not alone. The blessing of God almighty is solidarity. It is presence. It is the light coming to be with us. It is, as Bobby put it so quickly, "company."
It is my heartfelt hope that all of you will experience the deep truth of Bobby's words as we approach the feast of the nativity. May you be blessed this day and every day of your lives with the light. May you take comfort in knowing that, whatever dim shadows surround you, God is rushing on angel's wings to be with you, to light a candle that the darkness cannot overcome, or, for that matter, even begin to comprehend.
Let us pray...
God of light, incarnate word, in Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger, you came to be with us. Help us to feel your presence and to see your light amidst the darkness. Bless us this holy day and throughout the coming year with the confidence that comes from knowing your company and with vision for seeing beyond the shadows to vistas of hope, holy hope. Amen.