December 29, 2019, the Rev. Canon Richard Tombaugh
Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Tombaugh
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday after Christmas
In the beginning was the Word. This is the Christmas story, the third time the Bible tells it. It’s the same story we heard on Christmas Eve, the story of the manger and the shepherds and the angels. And it’s the same story Matthew tells in his gospel, with Joseph’s dreams, the wise men and the flight to Egypt. But the point of view is different, and John’s gospel sounds strange to ears more accustomed to crowded inns and angel choirs. That’s because different men are telling the same story.
Luke, who wrote the familiar story we heard on Christmas Eve, was an historian. He was very concerned with getting the dates and rulers right, and with locating everything in time and space. Matthew was very concerned with making it clear that Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies as the Messiah, the King of the Jews. So, shepherds didn’t interest him as much as the royal wise men from the East. John was a theologian and a mystic. When he writes about the meaning of Jesus’ birth, he writes from the holy imagination of his prayers. But he’s still telling the same Christmas story.
John begins his story earlier – he reminds us that Christmas really begins where Genesis begins, in the beginning, with God in creation. Using language evocative of Genesis, John begins by talking about the Word of God, God in action, God creating, God revealing himself in all that is new. Then John tells the Christmas story – in nine words. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” He who was with God in creation, the one who is God revealing himself to us, this one is a person, as completely human as you and I. Not God in a peoplesuit; not a really good person who God rewarded and made special; not a super angel God created early and delivered to Bethlehem.
In addition to telling the same story, Matthew, Luke and John also share one special way of telling it: There is one image, one symbol, and only one, that they all use to talk about the birth in Bethlehem. They all talk about light – the light of the star, the light that shone around the shepherds, the true light that enlightens every man. These all echo Isaiah’s vision of vindication shining out like the dawn, of salvation like a burning torch.. The light shines in the darkness, John proclaims. And somehow we understand this, and we understand that this truth cannot be better expressed in any other words, with any other image.
The text today read “and the light shines in darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” I remember a different translation with a somewhat different meaning: “the light shinneth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.” The darkness could not understand this new light. And what, may we ask is darkness. Is it simply the absence of light. Where there is no light, there is empty space called darkness. I think not. Rather I think darkness is the terror that frightens. It is what shames the soul and drags us down. Darkness is what hides truth from us and causes us to lose our way.
Consider the following: We are confused and cannot decide what direction to take in our work or with our family. Is this not like walking in darkness? We think we will lose forever a close and trusted relationship. Is this not like being alone in some dark vale? The despair we feel when we are dismissed from a job we like. Is this not like being plunged into a dark pit? We are tempted to act against what we know is right. Is this not like wearing blinders that hide what we know to be true? We experience great physical or emotional pain. Does this not feel like being enveloped in a dark cloud?
Darkness is not simply absence. It is the presence of temptation and evil that threaten to deprive us of our dignity and to erode our self worth. We ask God each day to “lead us not into temptation and to deliver us from evil.” Life- giving light, “the true light that enlightens every person,” on the other hand, is like water which chooses the lowest place and steals along hidden by the rushes. We know it is there by the greenness it leaves along its banks. Life-giving light is persistent and appealing, like a new-born child. It is the message that “unto us a child is born. It is an announcement that the blaze of heaven penetrates the darkness of our winter and the torment of our world. It is no wonder that darkness comprehended not the light.
The life-giving light is reaching out to challenge the best in us and to challenge us to create a world in which families can dwell in safety, in which children can grow up strong in character and in which all of us can embrace the hope for a future which promises both fulfillment and care in the beautiful world God has entrusted to us.
The sub-text of the Christmas story is that the great God who creates all new life has chosen to reveal himself in simple, unpretentious ways. The Christmas stories also reveal three clues for recognizing God’s presence wherever it is to be found. These three clues are joy, innocence and generosity, – the joy of new life in Jesus, the innocence of the hearts of Mary and Joseph, and the generosity of all who come to adore the Christ child. We can see these same three clues in this story from Richard Seltzer’s book, Mortal Lessons. Dr. Seltzer is a surgeon. He has just performed a delicate operation on a young woman’s face to remove a tumor and he is by her bedside after the operation.
He writes about his experience as follows: “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her face twisted…a tiny twig of facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed….In order to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve. “Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself; he and this wry-mouth I have made; who gaze at each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this? She asks. ‘Yes, ‘I say,’ ‘it will.’ It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it, he says. It’s kind of cute.”
All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in the presence of a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”
The Christmas story is a promise that life-giving light will continue in our midst to cast out fear, to conquer despair, and to over come darkness. The story holds up the reality that we can have hope in our darkest nights and in our most tormented days. The story reminds us that even in a world filled with horrors and regardless of the deformities caused by our sin, God will twist his own lips to accommodate ours, to show us that our kiss still works.