What’s Up With All That?
Jan. 6, 2013
Second Sunday after Christmas
Rev. Mike Woods
We’re not told how many of them there were – the scriptures do not say. But tradition tells us there were three, because they brought three gifts to the newborn Christ – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And because church tradition often has a way of filling in the details left out of scripture, the three have been given names and faces. Melchior, we are told, was an old man with white hair and a long beard … Gaspar was young and brown skinned with no facial hair … and Balthazar was black skinned and heavily bearded. The represented all the peoples of the Earth … of every race and nationality … young and old alike. They represent the peoples of yesterday, today and tomorrow … they represent you and me. And the twelfth day of Christmastime, the day of Epiphany, is the day we celebrate their arrival in Bethlehem to pay homage to Christ, to bring him gifts, and to acknowledge him as King of this world. Twelve days after celebrating Christmas, we are called to remind ourselves what Christmas was all about in the first place.
Because by now, most people have hauled their Christmas trees to the curbside for pick-up … Christmas decorations have been taken down and packed into green or red plastic bins and stored neatly in the attic of the basement … department stores have already begun getting ready for Valentines Day … and most of us find ourselves physically and emotionally spent by the hubbub that was the month of December.
What was Christmas supposed to be about, anyway? We didn’t have time to think about it during Advent – we were too busy! There were presents to buy, Christmas trees to decorate, parties to go to, trips out of town to be with loved ones during the holidays that had to be made! So, by the time the day, itself, rolls around we’re exhausted. And maybe some of us feel like – in spite of it all, in spite of our best efforts – we came up short when it came to welcoming Christ into this world on Christmas day.
It’s enough to make me a little envious of the wise men. They, at least, had something to focus on … they had a star to guide them. All they had to do was look up in the heavens, and there it was … it took them to the very spot where Jesus was. What Light do we have to guide us?
The Gospel of John tells us a different version of the Christmas story. Matthew and Luke give us The Where and The How of the birth of Jesus. There are visitations by angels … there is a virgin birth … there are shepherds and wise men. There are lengthy genealogies of Jesus’ ancestry. There are plot twists and turns to write a script for a movie – will Joseph divorce Mary or will he do the right thing? Will the wise men be fooled into leading Herod to Jesus? Will Joseph and Mary escape in the night?
But John wants to do more than tell us the where and the how of the Christmas story. John wants to tell us The Why.
Matthew and Luke tell us that the birth of Christ was a historical event that happened 2,000 years ago in a particular place and time – but John wants us to know that it goes back much further than that. In the very beginning, Christ was … before the world began Christ already existed … and furthermore, it was through Christ that the world came into existence. John tells us that Christ is the very Word of God, that he is the Light of the world. “And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” And then John goes on throughout the rest of the Gospel talking about light and darkness. Light stands for life … for love and compassion … forgiveness … and for wisdom. Darkness is evil, death, hatred, prejudice, fear, and the ignorance that leads to those things. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at nighttime, in darkness, full of questions … and Christ offers him light. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “I am the Light of the World, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.” And then, to prove his point, he heals the man who had been born blind.
What Christmas is about, according to John, is the coming of Light into the world. It is the return of everything that is good: love, compassion, peace, justice, understanding, Truth. And that was important because the world is full of darkness …
We do not know what day Christ was born – whether it was in December or some other month of the year. It’s worth noting that not all Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 – many Orthodox churches will celebrate it tomorrow, January 7, and the Armenian church will celebrate on January 19. But here in the Western world, we Western Christians always celebrate on December 25, and I think there’s a very good reason for that. You see, it’s not too long after December 21st, the day of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. On that day last year, out of the 24 hour day, there were only 9 hours and 20 minutes of daylight and a full 14 hours and 40 minutes of darkness. But by December 25, the trend of increasing hours of darkness had reversed itself – the sun rising earlier and setting later in the day. Choosing December 25 as the day to celebrate Christ’s coming into the world reminds us that “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness could not overcome it.”
And December, this year, seemed like it was full of darkness – a spiritual kind of darkness as well as a physical one – hasn’t it? Early in the month all out conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was only narrowly averted. Then Egypt erupted in civil unrest as the nation debated a new constitution. And the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan continued. North Korea launched a missile that could potentially be tipped with a nuclear warhead and that put the whole world on edge. By the middle of the month our nation was mourning the deaths of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Then December 21st saw some crazy fears about the end of the world. And as a background to it all, we had ongoing concerns about the state of the economy, a looming fiscal cliff, and extreme weather conditions. Not to mention that the Christmas season can be a Blue Christmas for many. For those who have lost loved ones around this time of year, it is hard if not impossible to be in the celebratory mood that everyone else seems to be in.
We don’t need to read the Gospel of john to know what spiritual darkness is. We already know. We live it, we experience it. It’s a part of our everyday existence.
But there’s a reason for December 25. It reminds us that the darkness cannot overcome the light.
Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who lives in Virginia. For most of his adult life, he held a very materialistic view of the world … he wasn’t sure if God existed, or even if that was an important question to be asked. But something happened to him that changed the way looked at the world. He had a Near Death Experience.
Now before this happened to him, as a neurosurgeon, he could have explained the phenomenon of near death experiences to you as the result of brain chemistry … as something that wasn’t real but only imagined. But his own experience was so vivid and so real that it changed his mind about God, about the world we live in, and about our relationships to one another. It renewed his faith and changed his life.
He describes his experience in a recent book, Proof of Heaven. As his body lied in a coma in an ICU room, his soul was taken to another realm where he was with a Divine Being he knew to be God. And while he was there, he experienced a revelation and all the truths of the universe were revealed to him. I would like to read a couple of paragraphs to you this morning of what he saw.
[p.83, last two paragraphs.]
He had his own epiphany, you might say … his own realization about the truth of this world we live in. And the truth he realized is the same that John tells us in his Gospel: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not, no matter how bad it seems things sometimes are – the darkness will never overcome it!
As the wise men had a star to guide them, so we too have a Light to guide us. The light is Jesus Christ. Focus on his light … follow his teachings … the darkness that surrounds us will eventually give way.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.