A Thursday afternoon in August 2003. It was only, like, the hottest day EVER. I was a chaplain that summer at a hospital on Long Island; and for some reason that I can't even remember, I decided to go home to my apartment in the city a couple hours early.
I loved the reverse-commute from and to New York City, out and back into Penn Station every day. It meant coming home to my favorite place--a city full of light and life--a place that never sleeps, it never grows dim, it always burns, burns, burns, like candles and fireworks. I don't remember much about that hot day before my commute home, only that I was just ready to be back in the city. I was ready for my friends, a delicious dinner, a really cold beer, a good night's rest; I was ready for it to be Friday.
It was 4 o'clock when the train pulled into the Woodside Station in Queens. I was almost there. It was an open platform, and I could see the skyline from my train. I could smell the city. In four-and-a-half minutes, we would emerge from a tunnel that ran through the East River and Manhattan would be under my feet. Home sweet home.
Except something was wrong. The doors opened, but they did not shut. I heard the gentle hum of the train's engine grow faint and then eventually turn off completely. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, thirty minutes went by. It wasn't really a packed train; there weren't very many of us passengers left. But we few began to grow anxious. It became clear that the power was out.
Maybe you remember the story. There was some grid dysfunction somewhere in Canada; and for the residents of the northeast corridor, there was no power for as long as like 36 hours. Melting ice cream. Warm diet coke. No pizza. No air conditioning. No lights. No cell service. Nothing. For me and the remaining passengers and crew on that Manhattan-bound train, we were simply stuck. I, for one, had no place to go in Queens. My home and everyone I knew was across the river. And, besides, by the time the sun started to set, the New York Police Department came along and told us to leave at our own risk. It was dangerous out there--riffraff were taking advantage of the chaos, and there was looting and violence on the street underneath the platform.
Now, I'm no scaredy cat, but at midnight when I realized that the popping I heard on the street was gunfire and not really fireworks, I freaked out a little. I prayed some, but mostly I counted stars and I picked at my fingernails. Even though I was in one of the most densely populated places in this country, I was completely isolated from any news that might be out there about what was going on. The Apocalypse, terrorism, aliens? I had no idea; and with all the time in the world, my imagination just got the best of me.
I have never felt so alone. I was literally, completely, in the dark. I really and truly thought that I might die that night, as dramatic as that sounds. Stuck. Alone. No way to call. No way to leave. Stranded.
The hours tick-tocked by, but I didn't know because I didn't have a watch and my cell phone was dead.
After a while, though, the quality of the air changed, and I sensed that the sun might be thinking about maybe coming up. I wasn't ready to have hope yet, though. I just faced the New York City skyline. It was one-dimensional. It looked like a cardboard cut out. My city, my home, looked fake.
And then. There was no real light yet, no real hope, still no sense of time, nothing. But I felt something. Just behind me, I sensed a change. A tiny noise. I heard a buzz. I recognized it--I've taken it for granted for so, so long--the buzz that happens just seconds before a light comes on. I turned to face the street lamp that hung over the platform and I gazed at the lamp and I listened to that precious buzz. And then, then there was a flicker. A flick-flick-flicker--the lamp was winking at me, making me a promise--and then. There it was. The light turned on. It felt like a miracle. The dark night is going to end. I will go home. I am okay.
So, Merry Christmas. It's been a week. Remember how precious it all was? Forget about the presents and the parties and the hooplah and the frenzy. Remember with me the part where we turned down the lights in the sanctuary and sang in a whisper Silent Night while we passed a tiny flame from candle to candle. Remember with me the baby in the manger and the sweet, scared girl who just gave birth in a barn. Remember the hush. The gentleness of Christmas. It's so good, and it feels so fragile, probably because at its heart is a baby, a brand new baby. Babies make all of us whisper and coo and delight.
But here we are one week later, and the Gospel of John comes to us in ways far louder than whispers. The first 303 words of this Gospel--known as the prologue--paint for us the arrival of God's Voice, God's Word, God's Son. It is the coming of God Godself. The hush of Christmas is through, and the doors to the Household of God have been flung open as though hit by lightening. John doesn't talk about the coming of a baby to a manger in Bethlehem; there is no precious cooing or whispering. Instead, we are launched from the precious manger into a huge, poetic, cosmic drama.
We are introduced to The Light. The Light that penetrates all that has ever been Dark. The Light that saves us, that shows us the way home, that brings us out of death into life.
This news, these words from John, this proclamation that we hear today--it is The Biggest, Best News Flash Ever: We are not alone. There is light. There is life. And his name, the Word, is Jesus Christ.
Before now, God spoke to us from a distance, and we were led by ones like Abraham and Moses. We heard God's voice in kind of funny ways--like in burning bushes and on tablets with laws etched in them and in floods and on rainbows. And don't get me wrong, it was good, it was very good. We flawed, sinful things were still loved and led by God, despite how messed up we are. It's just that eventually it wasn't enough. We had the law and we had the land, we had creation--but we needed more. Eventually, God knew that we needed to know, see, hear, and touch. We blind and deaf creatures needed someone to heal us, to bring us back to our senses. We flounder and we suffer, and for the love of God, the only way to be saved was for God to come down and love us up close.
Something about that streetlamp hanging over the train platform that hot night in August. It was the only light for miles and miles and what seemed like days and days. It buzzed and it flickered and then there it was, on, shining so bright that when I closed my eyes, I could still see it, shining so bright that the darkness somehow seemed darker, shining so bright that there was nothing else to look at--the stars disappeared and the skyline vanished and even though there was nothing else, it was the only thing I needed. One light. Salvation. Hope. It pierced the darkest night I've ever known, and it carried me through.
So, can you feel the buzz? Can you see the flicker? The Light--it's only one Word--has come into the world. And whoever you are, wherever you may be...this is the moment where you have been brought from death to life. This is the moment that your despair gets lost in overwhelming, awesome hope. This is the moment that you are no longer lost, but now you are found. This is the moment that God enters your story as the Light of the World. This is the moment where all darkness has been pierced by the Light that cannot be overcome. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray. Gracious, fantastic, wild God, you have brought us from darkness to light, out of death into life: kindle within us the light of your love and your peace, that we might be to others bright beacons of blessing in a world grown dim. In the name of the True Light, Jesus, your Son. Amen.