Some years ago, I was involved in the process of finding a rabbi for a wedding. My then fiancée and I were looking to put together the perfect team of rabbi and minister to officiate our wedding. We wound up meeting with a rabbi who had had a lot of experience with interfaith weddings and interfaith couples. We enjoyed his wisdom and his reflections on the ways our children might find meaning across religious traditions. He noted, for example, that Jewish children could find a lot to admire in Santa Claus, who, he claimed, possessed a number of Jewish virtues. But then he continued by saying how much he himself enjoyed Christmas.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
December 6, 2017
John 1:1-18, Qur’an 28:83-88
We were surprised by this but he explained: he’d grown up in New Haven, Connecticut and nothing was drearier than winter in New Haven. But when Christmas came along, suddenly the gloom of a New England winter was pierced through with light—there were lights everywhere!
That simple experience of seeing light in the midst of the darkness as a kid, some brightness to pierce the gloom, had had a lasting emotional impact on this man, such that Christmastime would always generate fond feelings in his heart.
II. LIGHT AND DARKNESS
Of course, that’s not hard to understand. There is something attractive about the light. Something we’re hard wired to respond to. From the heliotropism of plants, twisting and growing toward the direction of sunlight, to cats lying in the sunbeams through the window, to beachgoers in the summer soaking up the rays, we are all drawn toward the light.
I suppose, then, that it should come as no surprise that we equate light with goodness and its absence with evil. In plenty of traditions, light is equated with truth, knowledge, understanding, justice, peace, and so on, whereas the absence of light is equated with falsehood, ignorance, wickedness, and so on.
In the Hindu tradition, the holiday of Diwali is a celebration of the victory of light over the darkness. In so doing, the holiday also celebrates knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, hope over despair.
It’s a symbol set found even in our popular culture and to see that we need look no further than the impending blockbuster to be reminded that the good guys wield the light side of the Force and the bad guys the Dark Side of the Force.
And even were we to leave the theology and the poetry out of it, there is something primal in us that responds to light. In the winter months, the lack of light frequently leads to feeling depressed, having low energy, and a general down feeling, which along with the evolutionary drive to stock up for the winter, frequently impels us to scarf down way too many holiday goodies. In the midst of the gloom, the light can be a powerful good.
III. THE LIGHT OUT OF THE DARKNESS
A number of years ago, when I was serving the United Methodist community here, we were ending the semester with a Lessons and Carols service for Advent and Christmas. It was the final Sunday of the semester, with only one day of finals left on that following Monday, and so the campus was already getting deserted and our numbers were small. But there was one young woman who sat in the back that I’d never seen before. She sat quietly but attentively throughout the entire service. When the time came to share what we called “God Sightings,” surprisingly, she raised her hand to share.
“I was walking across the quad earlier and feeling miserable,” she said. “The gloomy weather had me down”—it had been cold, foggy, and dreary that day and into that evening—“and I’d just had an argument with my mother on the phone. And then suddenly I looked up and there was all this light pouring out of Kay and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, the Methodists!’ and so I decided to come in. And I’m so very glad I did.”
Out of the gloom, the light promised hope, it promised comfort, it promised home. On a day in which she had felt surrounded by darkness, that community and Kay had been a light in the darkness.
We all respond to that kind of light and when it’s absent, we crave its return.
IV. THE DARKNESS AROUND
We know something of that feeling these days. It seems like there is an awful lot of gloom and darkness out there.
In my inbox this morning was the daily update from the Washington Post with the inspiring headline: “The World Is Drowning in Garbage.” Great. When I actually opened the front page of the Post the rest of the news was even worse.
Rumors of war, economic uncertainty, racial strife, sexual harassment and abuse, displaced populations, refugees, environmental degradation, rising sea levels, you name it.
In the midst of all of that, where do we find the light? What will be for us that source of light pouring out onto the gloomy quad, calling us in to find a home?
V. LIGHT AND CREATION
It is instructive to me that the act of creation as it is presented in the book of Genesis begins with light. It’s the first thing God creates. “Let there be light,” are the first words uttered by God in the Biblical act of Creation.
It suggests that creativity and light are bound up in relationship. That the act of creating can be source of light. Perhaps, then, it is through our creativity, our creation, that we contribute light to the world.
But then, what is it that we are to create?
In the Book of Genesis, one curious detail of the creation narrative is that God creates light on day one, but the sun, moon, and stars are not created until day four. In addition to being a subtle comment on the sun-worshipping traditions of the ancient world, the text also serves as a reminder that it is God who is the source of light, not the sun, moon, or stars. Light is of God.
Likewise, in the Islamic tradition, there are 99 names of God—أسماء الله الحسنى—Asma’ullah al-hasna, “the Beautiful Names of God,” among which is النور an-Nur, “the Light.” Further, in the Christian tradition, as we heard earlier from John’s gospel, Jesus is the light to whom John the Baptist testified. The light that is the source of life, the light that shines in the darkness and it not overcome by it.
But does that mean that God or Christ alone is the light we await? Well, not necessarily. It was Jesus himself, after all, who said to his followers:
“You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16 CEB)
It may be understood that God is light, or Christ is the light, or however you understand divinity is light, but it is also equally clear that we are called to be light for one another. Indeed, if God is the light and God is love, then the light is love—that’s just the transitive property of mathematics, folks.
That means that wherever we put love into the world, we also put light.
There may always be darkness and times of darkness. Our religious traditions teach us that in the end there will be only light, but in the meantime, there will be darkness.
It was the Muslim mystic Ibn al-‘Arabi who saw Adam, and thus humanity, as a mirror, a reflective principle of God, through which God saw the creation and through which the Creation got a glimpse of God. In this understanding, we are the mirrors who can reflect the light of the Divine into the world. Shining light into places of darkness.
And so, we can be agents of the light. We can live lives of love, and let the light of love shine in us. We can build communities of justice. Communities of welcome and inclusion. Communities of care. We can in our actions reflect the light of Love into the gloom of the world.
In a few moments, we will have our time of prayer and reflection, the time in which we invite everyone to come forward to light a candle as a gesture of prayer or commitment. Today, as we come forward we light the candles also as a gesture of commitment to keep kindling light, so that for those who are beaten down by the despair and cares of the world, suffering from the oppressions of life, feeling hopeless or joyless, walking across the gloomy quad in winter, they might look up and behold us as that light shining in the darkness.
John 1:1-18 • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
- If any does good, the reward to him is better than his deed; but if any does evil, the doers of evil are only punished (to the extent) of their deeds.
- Truly He Who ordained the Qur’an for you, will bring you home to the Place of Return. Say: “My Lord knows best who it is that brings true guidance, and who is in manifest error.”
- And you had not expected that the Book would be sent to you except as a Mercy from your Lord: Therefore lend not your support in any way to those who reject ([God]’s Message).
- And let nothing keep you back from the Signs of God after they have been revealed to you: and invite (men) to your Lord, and be not of the company of those who join gods with God.
- And call not, besides God, on another god. There is no god but He. Everything (that exists) will perish except His own Face. To Him belongs the Command, and to Him will you (all) be brought home.