Sunday, December 11, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Light Against the Darkness"

John 1:1-5

1 In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 

2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 

3 Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being 4 through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. 

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (Common English Bible)

“The First Christmas: Recreating a Holiday’s Original Meaning,” Week Three

This story feels personal to me, even if, on paper, you might tell me that it wouldn’t or shouldn’t.

A couple of weeks ago, a charter plane carrying the Chapeconese soccer team from Brazil was en route to Colombia for a championship match in what is called the Copa Sudamericana, a continental championship tournament waged between clubs from countries across South America. The plane ran out of gas and crashed, killing 71 of 77 occupants, including almost all of the players and journalists covering the team, and all of the coaching staff.

“Chape” were a beloved club by their town—imagine if this had happened to, say, the Seahawks or the Mariners, and you get the idea—and the tributes from around the soccer world have been pouring in over the past two weeks. Minutes of silence, black armbands, and jersey badges were among the most common, but the most substantive have come from the club slated to be Chapeconese’s opponent in the Copa final, Atletico Nacional and their home nation, Colombia. Atletico petitioned CONMEBOL, the continental organization that governs the tournament, to award first place—and the $2 million prize that accompanies it—to Chapeconese, and the Colombian men’s national team will play Brazil’s men’s national team in an exhibition where 100% of the ticket revenues will go towards the families of the players and staff who were killed.

Keep in mind—this is in South America, not North America or Europe. Global poverty looks very different than it does here, and Chape’s players, unlike many pro athletes here, were not on seven-figure wages. Nor, for that matter, were Atletico’s players. That $2 million would have made a huge difference to the financial security of Atletico’s players, but it was Atletico’s players who asked their club to petition to crown Chapeconese as champions. And still more players are offering to play for Chape for free—and clubs are offering their players to Chape for free—in a gesture of real sacrifice.

The charity work of many athletes tends to make headlines during this time of year especially, but in truth, few athletes can claim to have given so much, relative to what they already had, for kindness.

It is the sort of selflessness that does indeed flicker as a light in the darkness: the darkness of winter, of death, of loss—and it continues to give me hope that we are indeed capable of goodness after all.

This is a sermon series for the church season of Advent, which is known pretty much in every other context as “the Christmas season” or “the holidays.” Except it isn’t the Christmas season: the twelve-days-long Christmas season (yes, just like the Twelve Days of Christmas carol) begins on Christmas day and extends to January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany, when the Magi arrived at where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been bedded down.

Advent is meant to be a season of preparation, and not just preparing for the Christmas dinner parties and the tinsel and ornaments, but a preparation for the least material of all things: of divine life becoming human life. To help us prepare for the birth of the Christ child this year, we will be revisiting the work of John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg who, if you remember, were the authors of The Last Week, a book I used as the template for my Lenten sermon series a couple of years ago. The First Christmas represents their sequel to The Last Week, and much as The Last Week sought to go verse-by-verse through the Passion narrative and place it into its historical and anthropological context, so too does The First Christmas deliver a similarly thoughtful treatment of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.

We began this series two weeks ago with an excerpt from the chapter “An Angel Comes to Mary,” and last week we turned to a passage from the book’s next chapter, “In David’s City of Bethlehem.” This week, we arrive at the next chapter, entitled “Light Against the Darkness,” which ends thusly:

Matthew and Luke and Revelation make rich use of the archetypal imagery of light. As in the Old Testament, light is associated with the presence of God and God’s glory. Light in the darkness is about illumination and seeing. It includes seeing that imperial theology legitimates darkness and the rule of “the beast.” And light is associated with salvation—about the coming of God’s ideal world, of God’s dream for the earth.

The imagery of light in the darkness has been central to the Christian tradition since its beginning. Ancient Christian prayers as evening falls sound the theme again and again…

Like much of the Bible’s language, the imagery of light is both personal and political. The contrasts between darkness and light are correlated with other central contrasts: bondage and liberation, exile and return, injustice and justice, violence and peace, falsehood and truth, death and life. These contrasts all have a personal meaning as well as a political meaning. It is important to see both. So it is with the stories of Jesus’s birth. They address our personal yearning and the politics of His world and ours. To see only the personal meaning is to miss half of their meaning.

In Genesis 1, it is written that in the beginning, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw that the light was good. In God’s infinite wisdom and understanding, God saw that the light was not simply acceptable, or serviceable, or adequate. It. Was. Good.

The goodness of this light shines through here in the words of John 1, as it shines in the darkness, protecting and guiding wayfarers and pilgrims like ourselves along the way to Bethlehem to prepare for the imminent birth of the Messiah. In creating the light, God has created a very real contrast with the uncertainty and insecurity of the cold and the darkness by providing us with both warmth and sight against that cold and that darkness.

As Borg and Crossan are keen to emphasize, this light is not solely personal—though in our cultish allegiance to individualism, we are often quick to make it so by claiming that Jesus is our *personal* Lord and Savior, or asking people if they have a *personal* relationship with Jesus. The light is personal, yes, but it is so much more than that. It is communal, collective, what Borg and Crossan call political. The light, put a different way, is public. It is visible, not just to me or to you, but to humanity, and it is meant to affect humanity on the grandest of scales like liberation from bondage, return from exile, seeking justice from injustice, making peace from violence, finding life in death.

Because it does you or I no good to hold this truth to ourselves, to keep it as our personal truth, oh no. The light of God’s dream for the earth, as Borg and Crossan call it, is far too big for you or for I. This is a light that we can see and stare into but that sees into us, stares into us, and calls us to then help bring about God’s dream for the earth, to bring about God’s world, God’s kingdom, in this earth and in this lifetime.

Perhaps we will never succeed in that endeavor. That may well be the case. But surely if a nine-months-pregnant teenaged girl is going to gather herself up to literally traverse her country for a census, then surely we can put down the stones and spears of our time for a little kingdom building.

That might be the toughest part about this passage from John 1: the light is freely given, but it comes with expectations, expectations that Jesus lists out: to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Your next-door neighbor. Your next-pew-over neighbor. And, sometimes, when nearly their entire soccer team brutally perishes in an airplane crash, the supporter-of-your-rival-for-the-crown neighbor. You love them and you show it. You show it not just with the token gestures of minutes of silence and black armbands, no, you walk the walk with that sort of kingdom-sized love, you sacrifice, you sacrifice millions of dollars and days and weeks of your time to comfort the bereaved, to honor the dead, and to plunge forward together.

That, that is what the light looks like. That is the light I see, shining through in the winter darkness.

And so I stare into the light, waiting to become the light. In that light, I begin to see a flicker of these themes, these virtues, that we speak of during the season of Advent. Hope. Peace. Joy. In the light and the warmth, I can reach out and see, sense, feel the Spirit—that awe-inspiring Spirit that inspires me still even in this imperfect world where seventy souls die in a plane crash simply because they did not take enough fuel on board, where thousands of children die by the hour from starvation and malnutrition, where we kill, and keep killing, one another in the name of resources and religion and retribution, and to see that despair, to feel it and experience it and yet still believe that within this insipid and stupid little world that there is something worth living for, and working for, and above all else worth loving for, that is what the light means.

That is what the light of God means. What it has meant.

And so I stare into the light, waiting to become the light. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 11, 2016

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