In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
I heard an interview on NPR this week with Robert Sirleaf, who is the third son of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. I was interested in the story for several reasons. First, President Sirleaf is a United Methodist; I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, TX. Second, her son, Robert, who was being interviewed, lived most of his adult life here in Charlotte. He was an investment banker with Wachovia until his retirement in 2008. His children grew up here. Though he has moved to Liberia to serve as an advisor to his mother, he still owns a home in north Charlotte.
Third, our congregation has very close connections to Liberia – our own Lafayette Diggs served as an ambassador for Liberia, first to Nigeria, and then to the United Nations. His wife, Otterlee has moved back to Liberia to assist with ministries for improving education and healthcare in their homeland, though we are happy to have her back “home” with us tonight.
And so, for these obvious reasons, I was very interested in the story. At one point, the interviewer asked Robert Sirleaf to make a comparison between the political systems of this country and Liberia. He drew a deep breath, paused, and said, “Well, it’s hard to make such a comparison, because the contexts are so different. The basic, fundamental issues on people’s minds are different. For instance, in parts of Liberia, there are children who have never seen light. Our job is to change that.”
There are children who have never seen light. Our job is to change that. I don’t know about you, but that sounds an awful lot like Christmas to me. Because, the world, without God, can be a very dark place. Without God, we are a people walking in darkness. But all that changes on Christmas with the birth of Jesus in our world. Two thousand years ago, heaven reached down and cradled the earth. The bright star over Bethlehem announced to all that the babe born there was the light of the world – the one who would liberate all the world from the powers of darkness, despondency, and despair and bring hope and wonder to us all.
I have been very impressed with some of the Christmas light displays I have seen this year; there are people who seem to go all out each year, and then the next year, they go just a little further. It is beautiful to see all those little lights piercing through the darkness; you can’t help but be cheerful in seeing that! Everyone loves Christmas lights. We all may have different preferences about the lights. White lights or colored lights? Flashing, chasing, twinkling, or steady? Big bulbs or mini lights or LED lights? I got married this year; Ashley grew up in North Carolina and I grew up in New York and it was our first Christmas decorating together and guess what; she and I have different opinions about which lights, and particularly which color, or non-color, lights should go where. But even though we all have different preferences, there is fundamentally something incredibly joyful about those lights.
When young children watch those lights, they do so with awe, wonder, and joy. There is something wondrous and profound about all those lights piercing through the darkness. And watching children approach the lights, I realize that we are supposed to approach the Christchild in the same way. There is something wondrous and profound about the holy light of God piercing its way through the darkness.
As far back as Creation, God has always been piercing through the darkness with light. Think about what happened first in Creation. It was dark. God was sitting in the dark, we’re talking pitch-dark, can’t-see-your-Divine-hand-in-front-of-your-face-dark, and God had this thought. This divine idea went off in God’s head, and that spark of God’s imagination was unleashed on the darkness, and God said “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and BANG! There was light. And God saw that the light was good (Genesis 1:4).
At Christmas, we celebrate Jesus as the very presence of God born into the otherwise depressing darkness of our human existence – “true God of true God, light from light eternal,” as we sang earlier in this worship service. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the fullness of God’s divine glory dwelling among us as one of us – showing us the extent of God’s great love for us and the lengths to which God is willing to go just to offer us life and light.
The Christmas message is this – it is always this: no darkness can overcome the holy and healing light of Jesus. This is the good news of great joy and it is for all people; all people, including you. The light shines for you. Whatever is dark in your life, hold fast to God’s healing and holy light that comes in the hope-filled birth of the Christchild.
What good news this is! Is it any wonder, then, that the prophet Isaiah, whose words we read just a few moments ago, would prophecy: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isaiah 52:7). That prophecy would be fulfilled at Jesus’ birth, as a chorus of angels would gather above the Judean hills proclaiming the good news to those unsuspecting shepherds hanging out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks on the night shift: Good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).
Don’t miss the profundity of this message. For at the birth of Jesus, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:7). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). We should hear the message of the angels, the good news they proclaimed with their beautiful feet upon the hills near Bethlehem, of a Savior, a Christ, who is God-come-to-earth, the righter of wrongs, the liberator of the oppressed, the defeater of death – we should hear that message and like so many Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small, join hands and give glory to God, one-and-all. Glory to God, because at Christmas, in the presence of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, the powers of sin and evil and darkness in all their shadowy forms are no longer running the show.
Darkness shall yield to light. In the birth of Jesus, God has looked all the powers of evil, darkness, despondency, and despair – God has looked them square in the face and said, “Checkmate!” “Game over!” “Lights on!”
Darkness just hasn’t gotten the memo yet. And so, you’ll still find it – creeping around, stirring up trouble, and holding people hostage in its clutches. Darkness is stubborn. Darkness wants nothing more than to keep the lights from ever being turned on, and so, there are some of God’s children who have never seen light. God’s passion is to change that, and at Christmas, as Jesus is born, that change becomes a reality.
Go back to our Creation story for a moment. Just a bit further into Genesis, God has this other thought: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). It would seem we are made in the image of the Bringer of Light. We were created in the image, the likeness of God, and with the birth of the Christchild, that image is restored, for in Jesus we see who we were meant to be all along. We are made in the image of the One who delights in the light.
So yes, there are still children who have never seen light, but you and I were made to share and delight in the light, which means there is still much work for us to do. Friends, please don’t miss the point of all that is done here tonight – don’t simply gather to sing some carols and light some candles and do all that and still miss the point! Don’t just go home and keep all that good news for yourself!
Rather, be like Mary, who treasures and ponders all these things in her heart. Be like Joseph, who welcomes the mystery even when he doesn’t understand it. Be like the angels, whose beautiful feet were upon the mountains as they said to those who were afraid, “Fear not.” Be like the shepherds, utterly unable to keep their mouths shut, glorifying and praising God so loudly they surely woke the neighbors.
Tonight we light candles – all sharing a common flame that will be lit from the center candle on the Advent wreath, the Christ candle, signifying our welcome of Jesus as the Light of the World. You will watch as the light spreads – person to person, and slowly, that soft and holy light will fill this room. None of us is the light’s final destination; the light is given to each of us in order that we share it.
Friends, Jesus’ birth is good news to us because he scatters our darkness. And then we, followers of the Light of the World, take God’s light and shine it in all the dark hearts and places we encounter along the way, and in so doing, we, bearers of the light, become good news to all who have yet to see light. And for its part, the light just keeps chasing away the darkness everywhere it is to be found, until all creation unfolds in the sunshine of God’s delight.
Christmas is not about sweet and sentimental images of babies surrounded by fuzzy animals. It is about God sending his One and only Light to pierce through the darkness. The flame you will soon hold in your hand is a tangible reminder of God’s light come into our darkness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
May we pray.
God of light, incarnate Word, in Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger, you came to be with us – the Light of the World. Help us to feel your presence and see your light amidst the darkness. Bless all who hold your light this night, that their vision may see beyond the shadows and focus on vistas filled with your hope and healing, love and light. Amen.