Light Into Darkness

bellsChristmas Eve: Light Into Darkness

December 24, 2014

Luke 2:1-20

The angel said,

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…
And suddenly there was not just one angel,

there was a whole multitude of angels praising God and singing,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

When people come to church on Christmas Eve,

by and large I hear them say that their favorite part of the service

is alas, not the sermon…it is the music.

The angels sang this first Christmas carol

and we’ve been singing carols at Christmas ever since.

Glory to God in the highest

and on earth peace (and if you have a King James Bible, it may be familiar to add

“goodwill to men.”)

I don’t know how you feel,

but to me the world feels a little darker this year:

The Ebola virus was out of control for much of the summer in West Africa;

two police officers were murdered in New York City;

scores of schoolchildren were killed in Pakistan;

our eyes were opened to racism in a system meant to provide justice;

and there was violence of such a degree in central America

that tens of thousands of children travelled alone to seek asylum in the United States.

Things have seemed rather dark.

Dare we sing in the midst of all of this,

“Glory to God in the highest?”

These words have been set to music again and again;

they have been sung for centuries in different languages.

“Gloria in excelsis deo!” it is in Latin.

But maybe these words, and especially the promise at the end:

“and on earth peace, goodwill to men,”

feel a bit out of place this year.

They certainly felt a bit out of place at one time for a certain poet from New England.

In 1863, things couldn’t get much more dark –

our nation was in the midst of Civil War.

Hundreds of thousands of young men had died.

Longfellow, the poet, was experiencing darkness personally as well.

His son had been terribly wounded fighting for the Union Army that year.

And just one month before Christmas, his wife died.

On Christmas morning in 1863,

Longfellow was listening and church bells began to ring.

He began to write.

“ I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But as he continued,

his thoughts turned to the darkness all around him.

The sixth stanza continues:

“And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

 

Now Longfellow could have stopped there.

He could have ended his poem in despair.

But he didn’t.

Longfellow remembered that the birth of Jesus,

God’s incarnation, happened not because the world was bright and cheery,

but because the world was dark.

The angels’ song was to a hurting world, a broken world,

a world longing for justice and peace.

Longfellow concluded his poem not with despair,

but with the hope the incarnation brings:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

 

 

The incarnation reminds us that God cares about a hurt world.

God cares about us when we are hurting.

God cares so much that God came down to earth,

showing up not as a king riding a horse,

but as a baby in a manger.

When he is born,

an angel appears to some shepherds

working at night out in the fields of Bethlehem.

The angel tells them that there is good news.

Good news of great joy for all the people!

A baby is born in Bethlehem.

And the shepherds don’t walk –

they run to Bethlehem.

Good news for all the people…

that is what the shepherds are excited about!

After all, they had had enough of good news for some people.

The world was already full of good news for some people.

Some people were living rather comfortably – not them.

Some people were treated with respect and fairness – not them.

Some people benefitted from the taxes Rome was collecting out of this census the emperor had called – not them.

Living on the bottom rung of the social ladder,

the shepherds knew that “good news for some people” most often didn’t include them.

But this angel promises that the new baby will bring good news

not just to some people, but to all people!

As the gospel of John proclaims,

God’s birth as a human child brings light into the world.

God’s way of justice and peace,

                                embodied by Jesus was brought to earth.

This light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness did not, does not, will not ever overcome it.

When people come to church on Christmas Eve,

by and large I hear them say that their second favorite part of the service

is alas, also not the sermon  – it is lighting the candles.

Candlelight on Christmas,

the light of the world is here!

This is good news of great joy for all people!

Merry Christmas!

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