Sermon notes: The Light of the World

BlakeBirthOfChristSermon notes, Christmas Day 2013

“And the Word became flesh, and lived among us.”

Last night we heard the beloved Christmas story, Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus: How Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census, and found nowhere to sleep but a stable; how Mary gave birth to her son there, and laid him in a manger. We heard of angels appearing to a group of shepherds, praising God and telling them of the birth of the Savior; we heard how the shepherds hurried to the stable to see the infant King for themselves.

It’s a powerful story, and a universally appealing one. The image of the young mother and her child, the helplessness of the baby whose bed is a feeding trough for cattle, speak to us all. So does the miracle of the angels making such an announcement to a group of shepherds. God’s own messengers gave the good news of hope to lowly shepherds, members of one of the most despised castes in the ancient world, in a foreshadowing of the coming career of Jesus. It is a story of God’s promise, of the commonplace rendered miraculous. It’s an origins story that we can understand.

This morning we turn to the Gospel of John. The message it bears is no less universal, and no less hopeful. In fact, it gives us the deeper reasons for that birth in a barn. The Word, who is Christ, became flesh – became human – as we are, and lived with us, as one of us, but the phrasing is a little more esoteric. Luke’s description doesn’t require much explanation, but John’s could use some unpacking.

As much as I love the angels and the baby in the manger, I find John more substantive and satisfying. Like many people, I was briefly an atheist in my teens. When I was coming back to faith, I picked up the Bible and opened it to the first chapter of John. It was electrifying and illuminating: Christ as the Word, as the Light in a dark world.

The Gospel of John is very different from the other three canonical gospels, those of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It comes from a different tradition, and its emphasis is on the spiritual.

The opening of the gospel is dramatic and emphatic. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

This is the back story to the much-loved baby in the manger. The Word is Christ, and Christ was with God, in God, and of God throughout all eternity, there at the creation of the universe. He was the light of humanity from the beginning of the world, and the darkness could not – does not, will not – prevail against that light.

There are reasons that Jesus’s birth is celebrated at the darkest time in the Northern Hemisphere. Although it’s long been thought that the date of the Nativity was fixed to take advantage of existing celebrations, some scholars have recently concluded that he actually was born in late December. It appears that some of the pagan festivals that Christmas was thought to be exploiting were actually attempts to save paganism from the growing popularity of Christianity. Whatever the case, this is the time of year that we need him most.

Darkness, real and metaphorical, lies heavily upon us now. There is the steady loss of daylight as the Earth turns toward the solstice, the getting up and coming home in increasing gloom. There is the emotional darkness of the pressure that, ironically, is a standard of the season, as we strive to have the perfect Christmas, filled with perfect decorations and perfectly chosen and wrapped gifts, a perfectly set table on which to place the perfect Christmas dinner, to serve to our perfect families. When we, or those around us, inevitably fall short, we can become perfectly stressed out.

There is the darkness of events in the world around us. This has been a year of more than the usual unrest and violence, with tragedies unfolding before us in in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Syria, in South Sudan, and elsewhere. Much of it is directed at Christians: An article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal noted that “Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet,” with Islamists, Hindus, Communists and others all engaged in slaughters of Christians and the destruction of churches, everywhere from Africa and the West Bank to North Korea, and assorted locales in between.

There are other kinds of darkness that can engulf us if we let them. There is the darkness of want, of cold and hunger. There is the darkness of troubled minds, and the suffering that it places on individuals, families, and communities. There is the darkness of physical illness, the pain and distress that arise when our bodies betray us, when our personal worlds slowly crumble or suddenly fall apart. The is the darkness of seeing those we love afflicted, and the burdens that the care of the ill place upon others. There is always more than enough darkness, of every variety, to go around.

But the darkness is not the end, is never the end. Through the centuries, it has sometimes seemed insurmountable, but the Light of Christ keeps shining through. The knowledge of that light and love keep us moving forward through the pain and fear.

This is the Christmas miracle: The true Light has come into the world, and it can never be put out. The Word became flesh and lived among us, suffered like us, died like us, and brought us everlasting life. We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth, and having witnessed it, we can never be the same. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Logos

stars_wikiSermon notes, Christmas I, Year C (Given at St. Peter’s/Ladue, December 30, 2012)

On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of Jesus’s birth, the story of how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and found that there was no place for them in the inn. We heard how Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger. We heard of the shepherds, visited by angels, and how they ran to see the newborn king.

This morning, we heard about Jesus from a decidedly different angle: “In the beginning was the Word.”

We have moved from the specific tale of one family, of one baby, to something that human beings cannot wrap their minds around: the nature and immensity of God. It’s as though we’re looking at a close-up of that family in that stable, when the camera pulls back, up from the streets of Bethlehem, up from Palestine, up from the Earth, beyond the Solar System, and into the vastness of space, its blackness blazing with an infinitude of stars.

God is simply too boundless and utterly other for us to comprehend. That’s why we need the baby; that’s why we need the family. Perhaps that’s one reason why we needed the Incarnation in the first place: to show us God in a form we can begin to understand.

This passage, the introduction to John’s gospel, establishes Jesus as an aspect of God. It’s also a foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. “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.” There are several lifetimes’ worth of study in these few phrases.

Here is John’s version of the Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” It’s the other side of the intensely personal, intensely human story we have from Luke. It’s a reminder that this story has to do with more than the milky infant in the manger who tugs at our hearts, the babe that launched a thousand Christmas carols. There is also a deeper meaning in this birth, a meaning to engage our minds. We need both sides of it in order to grasp the gift that we have been given in Jesus’s birth.

The Nativity story is filled with images of light. There must have been a light in the darkened stable, a little stoneware oil lamp, casting wavering shadows on the walls. When the shepherds saw the angels, the glory of the Lord shone around them, illuminating the night. The light of the star guided the Magi to the infant Jesus.

John introduces Jesus to us as the Light: the light of all people, the light that shines in darkness, the true light which enlightens our hearts and minds. The little oil lamp in the stable could not drive away the shadows, the star faded from sight, but the undistorted light that is Christ lifts the darkness and penetrates our hearts and minds.

The evangelist John’s use of “Logos” – Word – has its foundation in Greek philosophy. Along with the obvious, “logos” could mean reason, order, knowledge. It could mean “expectation.” There are, in fact, as many possibilities for meanings as there are in the English word “love.”

And love, God’s love for us, is one of John’s chief themes here. God loved us so much that Christ came to live with us, to be truly one of us. Jesus gave us “grace upon grace;” Jesus made us children of God, and opened the door to eternal life.

“The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” John writes. The law was added onto and built up until it became an immense structure; until, for some, it became an end in itself.

Jesus came and boiled the Law down to basics: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus provided grace and salvation for all who accept it, out of love.

We cannot comprehend God in all God’s infinite grandeur, but we can comprehend Jesus, a man much like one of us. We cannot comprehend God’s purposes for us, or understand why the world is what it is, filled with sorrow, sickness, and suffering, but we can comprehend Jesus, healing the ill and feeding the hungry, and suffering just as we do. We cannot comprehend the mind and the power that created the universe from nothing, but we know a mother’s love for her baby.

The Christmas narratives in Luke and Matthew show us how God made Man came into the world. The opening verses of the Gospel of John show us who Jesus was, the Word, the Light of the world, Love made manifest. We need both of those accounts, for balance, to take us beyond the stable to the greater meanings and truths of the Nativity. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Salt and light

Sermon notes, Epiphany V, Year A (February 6, 2011) Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue

The sayings of Jesus can sometimes be obscure, or go against our grain – the story of the dishonest steward who is praised by his master after he cheats him, for instance, or the one about having to hate your parents, spouse, and siblings before you can really follow Christ. Those are sayings that make you say, “What?

But in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is perfectly clear. “You are salt to the world, and if salt loses its taste, what good is it?” “You are a light to the world, and you don’t hide a light; you put it where it can illuminate the dark places.”

Any cook has some idea of the many uses of salt in the kitchen: as a flavor-enhancer, as a preservative, to blend flavors, to make food look better.

The earliest animals came to life in shallow, salty seas, and every creature needs salt to live – it’s literally in our DNA. The word “salary” comes from “sal,” the Latin word for salt, because that’s how Roman troops were paid – in salt.

Salt also has destructive abilities when you throw it out: particularly in the last week, you might have noticed that salt products are useful in melting ice and snow. In a few months, you may also observe that it kills the plants that come into contact with it, and speeds the decay of streets, sidewalks, and vehicles. So this one is a two-edged sword: If you’re going to be salt, you’d better be useful. If you’re not, you’re poison.

Being a light to the world is an even more unambiguous statement. A light is only useful when it can be seen. If you’ve invited guests to your house, you leave the lights on by the front door, so they can find the right address and make their way to the entrance. If you’re having a party, you want the lights to be bright enough for everyone to see one another, and to properly identify the substances on the table before helping themselves: It can be distressing to find you’ve gotten into the onion dip when you were expecting a cheese spread.

Adequate lighting isn’t a problem in our day, but that’s a relatively recent and rare situation in human history. If you think Ameren’s rate hikes are bad, consider that for most of the last few millennia fuel and lighting devices – oil for lamps, pitch for torches, and wax for candles – were so expensive that they had to be used sparingly: the world was once a much more shadowy place.

Burnished metal surfaces or glass mirrors were used behind a candle to magnify its firepower and make its light go further. And one of the great miracles of the period just before the Romans arrived in Palestine is commemorated in Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, when one day’s worth of oil burned on in the Temple for eight full nights.

Lights can be misused, too, just like salt. Witness the disreputable profession of wrecker, a standby in coastal communities in the southwest of England for seven centuries: lights were used to lure ships onto the rocks, so that they’d be wrecked and their goods could be taken.

In most misuses of light, though, sins of omission are far more common than sins of commission. In today’s gospel, Jesus offers an absurd exaggeration – putting a lamp under a bucket – but how many times do we fail to let our lights shine so that everyone can see them?

I must have a half-dozen of those cool little LED flashlights that make a big, bright light floating around the house. They get thrown into drawers, though, and in a power outage I’d probably be hard put to find one. Besides, I have a tendency to let the batteries go dead. What good are they to anyone then?

Sometimes we know where our flashlights are, and the batteries, and the supply of spare light bulbs, and we even how to open and use the circuitbreaker box. But there are other ways to conceal our lights. We may keep the blinds and the draperies drawn, so that no one outside our own immediate household can detect the brightness within. We may polish the chandeliers and light up the church, but close the shutters, so that the brilliance is not visible past our own little community.

This is what Jesus is talking about. We’re to be the salt of the whole Earth, providing an essential element, blending and flavoring everyone’s recipes, not just those of our own group. We are to be lights to the whole world, shining the light of God’s grace on everyone, not just our particular parish.

There’s one more thing to remember about light: just as the Moon only reflects the light of the Sun, and has no power of its own, all the light we can offer here on Earth is just a reflection of God’s eternal light. It’s not ours to hoard – but it is, blessedly, ours to share. Thanks be to God.