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Worship and Sermons
December 24, 2020

“Light in the Darkness”  - Year B / Christmas Eve - John 1:1-14 •  Luke 2:1-20

The big idea:  The Christ child is the gift of God’s hope, the light that shines brightest in the deepest darkness. 

Application:  In dark and difficult times, look to Christ, the light of the world and the source of our hope. 


Do you like to fly?  I used to think flying was glamorous when I was in my 20s and 30s.  Back then I had to do a lot of it for work.  But in recent years I haven’t done much flying at all.  I confess that, these days, I get a little queasy at the thought of being 30,000 feet up in the air in a metal cylinder that, with fuel and passengers, weighs 175,000 pounds.

The math alone is sobering.  If it ever came down to a tug of war between the plane and the earth’s gravitational pull, I’m pretty sure I know which one would win.

Nevertheless, there are still moments when the romance of flying is almost magical.  Landing at Newark Airport at night, for example, is one of those.  If you’re on the right side of the plane, there is a spectacular view of the New York skyline, with all the lights shimmering across the Hudson River.

But then comes the landing.  I’m always amazed that pilots can do that at all, but especially at night.  Statistically, most airline mishaps happen at takeoff and landing.  And a disproportionate number of fatalities occur at night.  That is not a comforting thought.

But just this week I read something that makes me feel a whole lot better about landing a plane at night. 

Mark Vanhoenacker, a pilot for British Airways, has written a book called “Skyfaring.”  In a recent interview promoting it, he said “In some ways, it’s more straightforward to land at night, because the runway lighting systems are so clear and bright, and the areas around runways are comparatively so dark”.

As I thought about tonight’s scripture passage it occurred to me how appropriate that image is.  In the deepest darkness, the light shines brightest.  And we can rely on the light to lead us to our destination. 

Mary and Joseph must have done exactly that.  Luke tells us nothing about that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but it could not have been an easy one. 

For one thing, Mary would have been profoundly uncomfortable.  Can you just imagine?  There she was in the 9th month of her pregnancy, getting jolted and jostled with each step the donkey took. 

Can’t you just see Joseph, sweating and probably swearing, as he prods and pulls the stubborn beast over every rock and gully in the dusty road.  And it went on like that for 90 miles.  If they made more than three miles an hour, I’d be surprised, so that’s at least a 5-day trip.

And it wasn’t like the road was level either.  First, they descended the steep mountainside where Nazareth is situated, down into the Jezreel Valley at sea level.  Then they followed the Jordan River Valley until they reached Jericho, the lowest lying city on earth.

From Jericho the road climbed steeply, rising 3,500 feet up into the Judean mountains until they reached Bethlehem.  In vertical feet, that’s the equivalent of hiking from sea level to the top of Pennsylvania’s highest mountain, Mt. Davis in Somerset County.

And the journey itself was not the only challenge Mary and Joseph faced.  They had a lot on their minds.  These were troubled times for the Jews.  The Jews already hated their Roman conquerors when Caesar Augustus decided to implement a census in order to levy taxes on the people.  Not only was this a direct violation of Jewish Law, it was yet another humiliating marker of Rome’s domination of Palestine. 

This was more than the Jews could take.  In Mary and Joseph’s home region of Galilee, discontent turned into open revolt.  Everywhere, fear and the threat of violence were in the air.

Their worries were personal, as well as political.  There was the small matter of impending parenthood.  Like every first-time parent, they were no doubt nervous.  They had no idea what lay ahead.  They wondered “Are we ready for this?  Will we be good parents?” 

On top of that, they’d been given the astounding, disconcerting news from an angel that theirs would be no ordinary child.  This was a child from whom great things were expected.  How, exactly do you raise a child like that?  How do you discipline a child who is destined to sit on David’s throne?

All they could do was trust that God would lead them.  And that’s what they did.  All the way on that journey to Bethlehem, they looked for God’s light illuminating the path in front of them.

When they arrived in Bethlehem only to find every spare bed taken, God’s light led them to the lower level of a guest house.  I’ll bet they smelled awful, but then again, even the worst body odor was nothing compared to the overpowering smell of manure and hay. 

The cattle and goats were no doubt curious about their new stable mates.  And soon enough, their warm breath and gentle snorting was interrupted by the cries of Mary and Joseph’s newborn baby boy.   

God’s light led them through the darkness to just the right place.  Not the place they expected, but the right place just the same. 

Friends, I think that’s how it is with you and me.  We, too, are going through some pretty dark times right now.  We just got word earlier this week that yet another congregation member has died.  It seems like not a week goes by when we don’t hear that another  loved one or friend has contracted COVID.

Hospitals all over the country are shifting to crisis mode.  ICUs are filling up with critically ill patients without enough staff to handle the influx.  One health expert described the difficult choices that doctors may have to make if this surge continues.  He said, “When the crisis worsens and if hospitals must triage limited services, it will be “a very, very dark place to be for health care systems, for patients, and for families."

Unlike other disasters, this one just keeps coming.  In most disasters there are distinct groups of survivors and responders, but this pandemic is so widespread that people have to be both at once.

The measures we take to protect ourselves and others are sometimes as debilitating as the disease itself.  Social isolation and economic hardship cause emotional stress.  To some degree or another, all of us feel that. 

And there is no time when we feel it more keenly than right now in this Christmas season.

There is no question:  we, like Mary and Joseph, are journeying through dark times.  We’re all looking for warmth, shelter and safety.

As Richard Evans, author of the New York Times best-seller “The Christmas Box”, has written, “It is often in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars.”  I thought about that on Monday night when Jupiter and Saturn came so close together they appeared to the naked eye to be a single star.  Some have called it the Christmas Star. 

As spectacular as it was, even that pales in comparison to the light God sent into this world in the form of the Christ child.  In Jesus, he gave us a light that shines brighter than any star.  The Christ child is the light of hope.  And this hope shines brightest when the times are darkest. 

He is the hope of God’s love that defies the fear and anxiety we all feel.  He is the hope of God’s presence that defies the isolation we feel.  And he is the hope of God’s providence that defies the economic uncertainty we feel.

A Christian writer whom I have come to admire, Greg Holder, recently wrote some very wise words about this hope.  The hope that Christ embodies, he says, is the furthest thing from a pie-in-the-sky, Pollyanna attitude of denial.  Real Christian hope allows us to be honest in the struggles we face.

He said, “It’s okay to be sad or confused. That doesn’t mean you’re weak or somehow you’ve lost your faith. It’s okay to cry. Tears of sadness, gratitude, loss, or frustration. It’s ok to laugh and make new memories. That doesn’t mean you’re ignorant of what’s happening in the world.

“We can live in the tension of having hope and still not having all the answers.  In those moments of honesty, there is a resilient hope.  We are reminded again and again that this isn’t the end.”

That’s what Christmas is all about.  The birth of Jesus was the embodiment of God’s promise that even death does not get the final word.  Hope wins.  Or, as the gospel of John puts it, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On Monday evening, God gave us a celestial reminder of that promise.  It was the winter solstice, the darkest night of the year, and way up there in the heavens, shone the brightest light in the nighttime sky. 

It’s as if God was saying, “Hey, as dark as these times are, the light of my love shines all the more brightly.”  

Could you use a little more of that light?  Is your supply of hope running low?  As we enter this Christmas Season, I suspect we all feel a bit like that.

We are all like one of those huge jumbo jets trying to land on a dark night.  We’re up there circling around, searching in the darkness for a safe landing.

Tonight, in the Christ child, that living miracle lying in the manger, God gave us the light to guide us home. 

Friends, I wish you and yours a merry Christmas.  May your greatest gift of all be the gift of God’s hope in Jesus Christ.

May it be so.

Last Published: December 24, 2020 12:12 PM
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