ADVENT WEEK FOUR – LIGHT & DARKNESS
December 22, 2019 – Pastor Donnell Wyche
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space. As a church we partner with the liberating presence of God to cultivate joy, hope & belonging as Jesus invites us into freedom, keeps us free, and helps us free others. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision. If you are looking for a church home, we would love to be your church home, and I, in particular would love to become your pastor.
Our theme for Advent this year is “Light and Darkness.” In the opening sermon of this series, Pastor Marissa outlined for us what we mean when we say darkness. This reframing is important because lost in the language contrasting light and darkness is just how helpful, important and needed the darkness is. When you are out star-gazing, darkness is your friend, actually, the darker the better. When you have gathered a group of friends for a round of flashlight tag, you welcome the darkness. And when you and those you cherish are gathered around a camp fire, the darkness invites, envelopes, embraces, hems you in.
But many of us have to contend with the language we have inherited about the darkness that darkness represents everything that frightens or threatens us. Darkness has come to symbolize evil, sin, or all of the dark spiritual forces that rebel against God in our lives and world. When the darkness embodies everything that we fear, this can distort us, our lives, and the ways that we see ourselves, others, and the world we inhabit. Without reflection, this distorted language can cause us demean and dehumanize others.
During this series, we are going to suspend seeing light and darkness in conflict, that they at odds with each other. Instead, we want to seek out the ways that light and darkness work together, how they co-exist, one giving way to the other.
Good News that Comes From the Darkness
In Luke Luke 2:15-20, there’s an announcement of Good News,
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:15-20)
Have you been startled in the dark? Maybe it’s a kid who is trying their hand at hiding and revealing themselves to give you a start. My kids do this all the time. They hide somewhere, hoping to scare me. Often, I’m aware of their antics, so I find myself well-prepared for their reveal. Except recently my little one actually startled me. Then I saw the joy she experienced having “got me.” The shepherds out in the fields in the middle of night, adjusted to their surrounding and the calm of the darkness, are startled by an announcement, light piercing the darkness.
In this story of the darkness giving way to the light, you have those who aren’t sanctioned who are receiving and later revealing the news of God’s coming messiah. It’s a group of people who were vilified. While Pastor Vannae gave us a little background on shepherds last week, did you know that shepherding was a despised occupation? It’s hard to imagine because most depictions of shepherds are our adorable children, god-children, nieces, nephews, cousins, and the kids of our friends who are cast to participate in Christmas-time reenactments of this story. However, by this time shepherds have fallen out of grace, instead they were viewed as shiftless, dishonest, and were known to graze their flocks illegally. And this is who God chooses to partner with to make arguably the most important announcement ever made.
Is it possible that those work under the cover of night or those who work in economies not sanctioned by the powers are able to see God more clearly?
Have you had time to pause this advent season to ask yourself, “Why did God do all of this to announce Good News that he was breaking into history to restore what was lost in the garden?” “Why did God pick these characters?” Mary, no one of note. Joseph, a carpenter. Shepherds, watching their flocks at night, as heralds. Not royalty, not the priests in the temple, not the nobility, not the wealthy.
Maybe there’s a treasure buried here.
Because in making this announcement to these people, God is saying something that can be easily ignored, overlooked even, that in the places of our isolation, in the midst of our uncertainly, as we contend with our scary-vulnerability, that God sees us even in the darkness. That even in our painful places of wandering in the wilderness, when we feel disenfranchised, powerless, put-upon, God speaks the good news of Christ’s coming. God piercing the darkness, breaking in with news that Christ is coming there. Because God brings great joy to those of us who need it, those of us who need it the most.
Turn to your neighbor and say,
“God brings great joy to those of us who need it, those of us who it the most.”
And God does even more. God surprises us.
By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder by persons who could not find what was considered as decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees sorted shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, people who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation. It’s in the hands of the spiritually and physically unclean that God trusts news of this arrival.
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:15)
I wonder about the shepherds, making their way towards Bethlehem after the angel’s invitation. How disoriented might they have been – by the light that broke through their darkness, by the vision of angels, by the announcement of God? What happened after the light that pierced the darkness faded? What was that experience like? We all seek a God who breaks into our lives with good news, but what do we do with the news that’s been announced to us when the darkness closes in again. When the darkness surrounds us?
What did the shepherds do the next day after their nighttime shift ended? Did their world change? Or this is just a good story?
I want to back up a bit, remember what the angels announced:
10 “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:9-11)
Hope was being deposited as a seed in the darkness. Because hope is essential to change the world. People will give up and people give in without hope. But hope can’t be contrived. You can’t be forced to hope, you can’t be forced to believe. We need something to hold on to. We need a better story.
12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
That’s what the shepherds find. They find hope. Then they tell others. They tell the story of hope to those who are at the end of their ropes, who are at the cusp of surrender, and they plant more seeds, seeds of hope in the darkness.
17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. (Luke 2:17-18)
I really appreciate the way Luke tells this story. Because he gives no hint that Jesus is anything special. No light breaking into that stable, he’s just an ordinary child, born to ordinary parents. There’s no angel over his manger because the angels are in the field announcing good news to those who desperately need to know that God is at work in the world. The shepherds represent those of us shunned by decent and religious folk, those of us who are overwhelmed by grief, those of us right at the edge of giving up and giving up on God.
Who is in the room who is giving up on God or thinks God is giving up on them? Are you here this morning as someone who hasn’t been to church in years, someone who gave in to their addiction this week? Are you someone who feels responsible that their kids have fallen away from faith or are you ashamed to be struggling as a parent, someone who is angry at God? Or are someone who has literally been kicked out of a faith community.
Catch how this story unfolds, God sends the angels, not to the birth, but to the darkness to announce good news. God sends the angels to those of us who have given up to announce, I haven’t given up on you.
This is terrifying, but catch what Luke is doing. He’s telling a better story, a story we desperately need to hear — that in Jesus, God comes in a way that is far from frightening. Jesus comes vulnerably, helplessly, as
12 “… a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
God is sending angels out into the darkness of the fields to those of us who are confused, broken, and vulnerable with good news of great joy that Jesus is coming to those who desperately need him.
Stepping into the Darkness
When we first step out into the dark, it takes a while for our eyes to adjust before we can all the stars. So we are encouraging you to try a daily exercise of examen during Advent. This is one way for our eyes to adjust to seeing God’s presence in the light and dark of the past year.
We’ve talked before about the prayer of examen and how this can help you become familiar with God’s presence. Here’s a slightly modified seasonal version of the examen that you can try out this winter.
Take a few quiet moments every day to reflect on the day past. First, ask yourself two questions: Where was the light today? Where was the darkness today?
Then turn your attention to the Holy Spirit, and ask God a few questions. Ask, “where were you in that darkness? Where were you in that light?”
We are also encouraging you to once a week try these same questions looking back over the past year or the past few months. Hold your places of dark and light in God’s presence and ask God to show you where and how God has been with you in those times. We will have our annual gratitude celebration on December 29, and we would love to hear from you at that time about how you’ve seen God at work in the dark and in the light this year.