By Way of Contrast – January 1, 2017

New Years Day 2017

By Way of Contrast                          click here for audio



John 1:1-5, 9-10; 12:35-36; I John 2:7-11
Pastor Marty Raths

Most of what we associate with the Christmas Story is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem, the stable, an angel and some shepherds, a star and some wise men. But there is another version of the story, and it is found at the beginning of the Gospel of John. “The light shines in the darkness,” John writes, “and the darkness did not overcome it . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world . . .” That is John’s version of the Christmas Story.

And like the whole of his gospel, when it comes to the birth of Jesus, John is less concerned with the historical details than he is with the meaning and significance of the events. And as a way of getting at the meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth, John uses several images, including the images of light and darkness. These images are woven through his entire gospel, from the very beginning, when John writes that Jesus is the light of the world, to the very end, to one of his last letters, where he writes, “Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light  . . . “

For John faith is a matter of seeing, and to see we need light, and to see certain things, we need a certain kind of light. Physicists tell us that there is a whole spectrum to light, including all the visible bands of color we see in a rainbow, as well as bands that are not visible to the naked eye. And John wants to tell us about a certain spiritual band of light, visible in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and for John it is love that allows us to stand in this band of  light, and to see by it, and to walk in it.

But when it comes to the life of faith, we can make too stark a contrast between these images of light and darkness, as if light were altogether good and darkness evil. I mean we can have too much light, so that it actually hinders our ability to see. We even have an expression to be “blinded by the light.” And it is also true that some darkness is good, a goodness that can enrich our experience, and deepen it, while changing us for the better.

This fall we read as a congregation a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, and she has written another book called Learning to Walk in the Dark.  And in that book, as far as I know, she coined a new word.  We often talk about enlightenment, about all the ways that light enhances our lives. But she contends that we also need to talk about endarkenment, about all the ways that darkness enhances our lives as well.

As I said, we can have too much light in life, and in the life of faith. Taylor calls this overly sunny faith a “full solar spirituality.” It cannot tolerate any contrast, any shadow, any darkness. And we can recognize this solar spirituality by its emphasis upon all the benefits of the faith, even though Jesus also talked about its costs. Jesus talked often about how we are to follow him in the way of the cross, and surely there is some darkness in the experience of crucifixion. This solar spirituality is also evident in its certainty of belief, in the confidence it has in its own righteousness, and in its promise that all will be well in life if we just have enough faith.

The trouble starts, Taylor writes, when real darkness falls upon our lives: a loss of a job, a divorce, a struggle with addiction, a diagnosis of a serious illness, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, social conflict, war . . . What then? Either we deny the darkness, doing what some have called a spiritual bypass, or we acknowledge that this solar spirituality is just too bright for what we are actually going through in life.

In such times writes Taylor, we need a more “lunar spirituality” as opposed to the full solar one, and it has its advantages. It seems to be closer in spirit to John’s own image of Jesus’ coming into the world. Jesus did not dispel all of the darkness like a noon day sun. “The light shines in the darkness,” John writes, “and the darkness did not overcome it.”  That has more of a lunar feel to it.

And unlike the sun, the moon has its phases. Its light waxes and wanes, and is not that more in keeping with our experience of something like grief. We have worse days, and then better ones, and just when we feel like we are finally coming into the light, some reminder of our loved one brings some of the darkness back again.

It needs to be said that there are positive aspects to the darkness as well. Shadow gives contrast, and contrast allows us to see things that are not visible in full light. That is why some photographers prefer black and white photos, and why dawn and dusk are such optimal times for taking photographs.  Those times provide the most striking contrasts.

Theodore Roethke has a poem in which he writes, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”  This is maybe most evident with the stars. They are always up there.  It is just that, during the day, their light is overwhelmed by the light of the sun, and it is only when the sun sets that the light of the stars becomes visible to us. Surely there are some analogies to this in life, thoughts, feelings, insights, inspirations, motivations that will only emerge when we allow ourselves to experience the darkness in the world and within our own lives and hearts.

There are even some virtues that are born of the darkness, or at least they are nurtured by it. Among these I would include patience, humility, forbearance, empathy, and compassion.  Curiously, the Apostle Paul writes a lot about these virtues, but then Paul was no stranger to the darkness, this man who persecuted the first followers of Jesus, who was blinded on the road to Damascus, who endured for most of his life what he called “a thorn in his flesh.” For Paul, and for all of us if we are open to it, darkness has its virtues.

What is more, a lot of important things happen at night in the scriptures. God brings Abraham outside at night and shows him the heavens, telling him that his descendants will be as countless as the stars. Jacob dreams about a ladder at night, and he also secures a blessing from God by wrestling through the night with a mysterious figure.  The Exodus from Egypt happens at night, and God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses in the shadow of a dense cloud. Jesus often prays at night, Nicodemus comes to him under the cover of darkness, Jesus shares a last meal with his disciples on the eve of the Passover, darkness falls upon the earth at Jesus’ crucifixion, and Jesus’ comes to his disciples on the first evening after his resurrection

There is something about the darkness that enhances our other senses. We know this from the experiences of people who are visually impaired. To compensate the other senses become far more sensitive, and the darkness can do the same with our senses of inspiration and imagination. I wish it were not so, but many of my ideas for sermons come to me as I am lying in bed in the early hours of the morning while it is still dark outside.

And I have learned the hard way that, if I do not write down my ideas at the time, there is no assurance that they will come to me again with the dawn of the morning light. There just seems to be something about the darkness that is conducive to thinking about sermons, for me anyway. Needless to say, it means that I get up a lot to write things down on sermon writing weeks.

From the world of physics we know that light can generate either heat or illumination, and the same is true for the spiritual band of light. It can inspire fervor in the faithful, a real passion for the faith, and that is a good thing, though we know from our world that such religious fervor can become a kind of spiritual fire that does not illuminate but burns, and consumes, and destroys instead.

For John love is the crucial factor in the experience of true illumination. As he writes in his first letter, “Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light  . . . “ Again, for John love is the crucial factor.  If our faith does not lead us to love, then we are still in the dark spiritually. It is that simple.  And John is in good company here. For Paul faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love. And for Jesus all the laws and commandments are contained in this one, love God and neighbor as self.

One of my seminary professors used to say that the Christian life is about loving our way through the darkness.  When John writes about walking in the light, this is what he means, loving our way through this darkness. And this is as good a one sentence summary of the Gospel of John that I have ever come across.  John does not deny the reality of darkness.  It is real, in all of its depth and difficulty and complexity. And it is love that dispels it, pushes it back, giving us light enough to make our way forward in life.

This makes for a more lunar spirituality as well. Lunar light is a reflective light, a reflection of the light of the sun.  And we too are called to reflect the light, the light of that first Christmas, by reflecting the love that God has shown us in Christ. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples at the last supper, and John echoes this in his letter, “I give you a new commandment, love one another even as I have loved you.”  This is a reflective light, and a reflective love.  Love one another even as I have loved you, Jesus says to us.

And when all the Christmas festivities are over, and all the signs and symbols of Christmas have been put away, this is what remains for us. A question.  Will we continue to be bearers of the light and of the love of God in Christ? This is what remains for us, a question that is really a call from Jesus to follow in his footsteps, by walking in the light, and loving our way through the darkness.

During a Christmas Eve Service some years ago, a pastor made his way towards the church’s advent wreath. All four of the advent candles had been lit since the beginning of the service, and each one was burned down a little more than the one after. But the large, white Christ Candle stood in the center, unlit.

Now it came to that time in the service when the Christ Candle was lit, and the pastor quietly made his way towards it. All those who had gathered to worship strained to see in the darkened sanctuary.  It was that moment we all wait for in this holy season: the birth of Christ.

Now when the pastor touched the flame to the unburned wick, the candle flame leaped upward, drawing an audible gasp from the worshippers. It was as if, when the candle burst into flame, Christ had come into their midst.

Afterward, the pastor said that he had hesitated just before he lit the candle, thinking to himself, “What if, when I light this candle, he does come?  What if I light this flame and Christ comes into this sanctuary?  What if what we have longed for, hoped for, prayed for, prepared for, happens, and he comes into our midst, and into our lives, and into our hearts?”

What if Christ were to come to us now, and stay with us in the days to come?  What if he were truly born anew in us this day?  How would the light of his life be reflected in us?  And how would we best love our way through the darkness?  What if he were to come?  Here and now?  Within us, and within our life together?  And in our world?  What if?


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