24 December 2016

Living Light

John 1:1-5

Christmas Eve 2016

On Christmas morning, my brother, Craig, and I, were never allowed to go into the living room, to see all the presents around the tree left by Santa, until both of our parents were awake.  This meant in order to see the presents we had to wake our parents, which we did together, usually around 6 a.m.  One Christmas morning, I must have been five or six, I remember sneaking down the hallway to peak into the living room before anyone else.  I can’t recall if I peaked before or after waking our parents—probably, after, because I was a good boy (of course).  All I know is that I was by myself, alone.  I remember walking down the hall and turning right into the living room—and then it struck me.  I stopped, almost pushed back by some force, and I stood there, at the threshold of the living room, stood there in awe.  The entire room was full of light and the tree, loaded with tinsel, was shining.  We didn’t have lights on our tree.  It was still early in the morning, so I’m not sure where the light was coming from.  My mother never used Christmas foil wrapping paper, which has a kind of sheen.  I don’t know.  I just remember how I felt, struck by the beauty of it all, the beautiful tree with its silvery tinsel, shimmering, and the gifts all wrapped in red and green.  I was in awe.  The room seemed alive. The light seemed to be alive.

Years later in college I was given a fancy word to describe this early mystical experience.  It was numinous.  Numinous, first coined by the theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), in 1917, describes an experience of awe, transcendence, and mystery, when you encounter something, someone wholly other, which completely overwhelms you.  The numinous both fascinates and repels at the same time.  Sometimes it’s joyful and beautiful; sometimes it causes you to quake with fear and trembling.[1]  Think of the shepherd’s outside of Bethlehem when the heavenly host appeared (Luke 2:8-14).  In these moments life takes on greater intensity.  Things, people, time, the Holy become really real.  Numinous has its root in an old Sanskrit word, numen, meaning “to bow.”  The numen causes one to bow, to kneel, or stand with awe in a doorway.  The numinosity of that Christmas morning has never left me and I continue to be struck by it, overwhelmed with tears and deep feelings, not only from the memory of that moment, but the way the memory is associated with the celebration of Christmas.  For it reminds me that it’s only through such experiences of awe and wonder, encounters with mystery and transcendence that we can begin to approach—and even then only at some distance—the meaning of Christ’s birth among us, with us, for us.

I am inadequate to convey the meaning of this night.  We all are.  How do we find the words to express what it means for the Word to become flesh and live among us?  The birth of Jesus Christ stretches the imagination.  It forces us to think in new ways and feel in new ways and even experience God in new ways.  It requires symbols and metaphors, symbols and metaphors that are strong enough to convey the meaning toward which they point.  

And that’s what we have in the Gospels.  Matthew and Luke and John, each in their own way, are trying to evoke the meaning of his birth.  They are each, in their own way, extremely numinous.  Of the three, perhaps John is the most numinous, the most mysterious, who with his majestic and sublime prologue turns to the metaphors of Word and light and life.  There’s nothing like is in scripture.  Listen:  “In the beginning was the word, and 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.  What has come into being in him was life, and the light was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).  Even the metaphors are straining to bear the weight of what their trying to convey.

There’s one image or metaphor I want to lift up: light.  There’s a play of light and darkness doing on here, which is obvious.  But we have to be careful.  We’re used to hearing of darkness waging a war against light.  We need to remember that darkness, the absence of light, is also part of God’s good creation (Gen. 1:5).  We need darkness to know the light. Where would light be without darkness?  The darkness is a given.  God pronounced it good.  But darkness is also scary.  Several weeks ago I was in Rappahannock County, Virginia, in a house in the middle of the woods in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I was alone there for two nights and one night I went outside.  It was very dark.  The skies were heavy with low-lying clouds, no moonlight, no stars.  Completely dark.  I looked into the dark woods.  For some reason I started to imagine what it must have felt like for our ancestors, millennia ago, who experienced the night before the discovery of fire, unable to see anything, unable to see danger approaching.  It must have been terrifying.  This is real primal fear, the residue of which can still be found in our reptilian brains and ancient psyches.  At some level, it’s rational to be afraid of the dark because the dark was/is frightening, whether it’s the darkness of the night or the dark night of soul.

For many these days the world seems dark.  The Winter Solstice this year witnessed the darkest night in 500 years.  Consider the events of this past week in Berlin, Zurich, Aleppo, and Ankara, the talk of a new nuclear arms race.  Very dark, indeed.  People are anxious.  People are afraid.  People are worried about their safety, especially the most vulnerable among us. 

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  What we need to remember as Christ’s people, what we need to enflesh with our lives is the deepest truth that darkness cannot, will not ever overtake the light.  Why?  Because the light shines in the darkness.  And what is light?  Actually, John says that that’s the wrong question.  Who—who is this light?  Here, again, metaphors are pushed to their limits when it comes to the birth of Jesus.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”  The Greek word for “life” in the text is zoë,  meaning full life, abundant life, significant life, intense life.  There’s no equivalent in English.  Christ bears within his very being the abundance of life-giving life itself!  And it’s this life, his life, God’s zoë through a human being, God’s love embodied for all to see and touch and love, it’s this very life that is the light of all people—whether they believe in him or not.  

Christ is living light, the living light of God that shines in the darkest places of the world, which can never be overcome.  And John didn’t say that the light only shone in Christ when he lived in Galilee. The light shines—he shifts to the present tense—in the darkness, still shines, now.  Christ’s life still shines in us.  This is the gospel, the good news.  Not lights or Christmas trees that shimmer or presents under a tree, but a person, who when we meet him and look into his face—again and again and again—reflects the light of God.

This is the good news that we celebrate in the dark this night, the good news I invite you to claim in the shadow and darkness of these days. Indeed, it’s up to us, we who bear the name of Christ, to remember that our confidence and hope is in him, the one who alone is our life.  “Do not be afraid,” the angels said to the shepherds (Luke 2:10).  

The world needs you to not be afraid of the dark.  The world needs you to share Christ’s light. Your job is not to conquer or even curse the darkness.  Your job as a Christian, our job together as the Church, is to shine.  Shining the light of Christ might increase the darkness around you.  Sometimes a bright light makes the dark darker, heightens the contrast.  

Don’t worry about the darkness.  

Just shine.  

Remember who shines through you—God’s living light.


[1] Rudolf Otto first introduced this concept in The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational (Das Heilige, 1917), (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 5-6ff.  Otto describes an encounter with the Holy as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, an experience of a mystery that both overwhelms and fascinates.

18 December 2016

A Dream Come True

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph is caught.  Stuck.  He’s been thrown into an excruciating dilemma, a conflict of cosmic proportions.  Mary, his fiancé, is pregnant.  Joseph knows he’s not the father.  They were never intimate.  They lived apart.  Matthew tells us that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  In Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ birth we’re missing Gabriel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:1-26) and Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56), as we find in Luke.  If we just stay in Matthew’s account, and try to forget Luke’s version, we soon discover that we don’t know how much Mary knew about this baby growing within her.  Did she know it was the result of the Holy Spirit?  That’s what Matthew tells us, but did she know?  And, if she did, is that what she told Joseph, the part about the Holy Spirit?  Did she tell him?  And, if she did, did he believe her?  Did Joseph believe that God was somehow involved in this scandal? 

And that’s what it was—scandalous. It was shameful, humiliating, disgraceful and immoral in the eyes of Jewish Law, for both Joseph and Mary.  Matthew tells us that Mary was engaged or betrothed to Joseph, so not technically married.  But they were essentially married, for what we need to know is that betrothal or engagement was a formal contract of union by which both parties were bound.  Rabbinical law declared that the betrothal was equivalent to an actual marriage and only to be dissolved by a formal divorce.  Marriages were arranged.  The betrothal of a young girl, under the age of twelve, was the prerogative of the father and the girl had no say in the matter whatsoever. Around the age of twelve the betrothed moved from under the authority of her father to her future husband.  This means that Mary was close to twelve years told when she became pregnant.  Betrothal was as binding as marriage itself.

So, we can appreciate Joseph’s dilemma (and Mary’s, of course).  According to the law, Mary would be viewed as an adulteress.  An engagement could be nullified one of two ways, through a public legal proceeding with formal charges filed against her, and if proved, she and the father of her child would be condemned to death by stoning (Deut. 22:13-30).  The other way was private, by issuing a document of repudiation.  Either way Mary’s life would have been over, her reputation ruined.  There was one other option, Joseph could stay engaged and raise the child as his own, but that would mean a very different life for them both. 

It’s tricky.  A lot is riding on Joseph’s decision.  There’s nothing sentimental about this story, this story—this season—can so easily be smothered by sentimentality. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “One of the great enemies of the gospel is sentimentality.”[1]  This story is not sentimental.  It’s scandalous.

What should he do?  Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.”  Because he was a “righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, he planned to dismiss her quietly” (1:19).  “Righteous” here doesn’t mean that Joseph was a nice guy or good man or a gentleman.  The word “righteous” does give us a clue about the kind of man Joseph was and something about his enormous dilemma.  “Righteous” here means that he is “scrupulous about keeping the commandments of God, the Old Testament law, striving to live his life in harmony with the will of God, to follow to the letter all of the provisions of the Mosaic law.”[2]  He’s a traditionalist; we might say he was a religiously conservative man.  And he’s facing a profound ethical crisis. 

What should he do?  He can’t stay in the relationship.  The prospect of bearing her shame and raising this child that wasn’t his really wasn’t option for Joseph.  He knows what the law commands.  He knows what the letter of the Jewish law tells him he ought to do.  He knows his tradition.  He knows what he learned in Sabbath school.  He’s obviously compassionate, so he chooses the second option, dismissing her quietly, instead of the public trial and possible death sentence.[3] But the law is the law and he is righteous.  You can sense Joseph’s struggle here.  So he develops a plan.  And just at the moment he resolved to dismiss her, perhaps the night before he planned to carry out his decision, he has a dream.  His ego, that is, his waking thoughts and will came up with a plan that was rational, practical, religiously proper, but his deeper self, the depths of his soul, revealed that something else needed to happen, something that from the perspective of a traditionalist like Joseph must have felt scandalous and shocking and unsettling and scary.

The Holy Spirit spoke to Joseph in a dream.  Sometimes that’s the only place where God can get our attention, in a dream.  When the ego, our waking consciousness, gives up its control and we sleep, the unconscious, the depths of our psyche, the depth of the soul upon which our lives are built, comes alive and begins to speak through words and images and feelings and experiences.  Not all of our dreams our holy, of course—but sometimes they are.  Sometimes the Holy speaks us to clearly and decisively through a dream.  In this dream Joseph confronts a power greater than his ego.

And this is a remarkable dream. It beautifully illustrates how dreams work.  Dreams often compensate for our waking life.  They often mirror back to us what is missing in our waking life.  Dreams are corrective.  And they are often prospective, in that they move us forward in a certain direction.  They try to lead us somewhere.  They tell us where we should go. 

And, so, what does the Holy Spirit dream through Joseph? 

“Joseph, son of David….”  The Holy Spirit addresses by name and roots Joseph in his past, reminding him of his identity as a descendant of David, David, the shepherd boy, the surprising choice to be Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 9-16).

“Do not be afraid…” The dream, the Spirit speaks to Joseph’s struggle.  He’s obviously afraid.  “Do not fear.” That’s what God often says to our frightful egos.  “Fear not.”

“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife….” In other words, stay engaged.  Don’t dismiss her.   The Spirit is effectively saying, forget being righteous, forget what the tradition says; stop worrying about following the rules. 


“For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  Now he knows who the father is.  This is the first indication to Joseph that it’s all God’s will.

And then Joseph learns.  “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

The Spirit is declarative here. 

She will bear a son… 

And you—not Mary, not someone else—you, Joseph, are to name him Jesus. 

And he will save his people from their sins.”

Then we’re told, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” and defying the law, “he took her as his wife, …and he named him Jesus.”  Jesus.  Yeshua.  Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves.”  Yahweh saves by being with us.  Emmanuel. God with us.  Joseph aligns his life with Mary’s life and with the life of the child and with the will of God.

When he awoke he knew exactly what he had to do, no matter the cost.  It was a risky resolution to this excruciating dilemma.  I use the word excruciating intentionally, because it was like a crucifixion for Joseph, suspended there between oppositional options.[4]  Dismiss her publicly or privately?  Let her go or keep her?  But how could he keep her and still be righteous? 

Sometimes we have to be thrown into situations of enormous inner conflict, suspended between opposites, wrestling, struggling, waiting for a resolution, waiting, like Advent itself, for a third way to emerge, an unimagined way, a scandalous, surprising, and holy irruption that changes everything!  This is how we develop into mature people of faith.  This is very often God’s way in our lives, it’s how we spiritually grow; and it’s how God moves and shapes the flow of history toward its redemptive and liberating purpose. 

That dream changed Joseph’s life.  It changed him.  What came to the world in the birth of Jesus—what has made its way right down to you and me today on account of his birth—was borne by that dream and what Joseph discovered in it.

Can you imagine waking from such a dream?  Joseph learned “that being truly righteous does not mean looking up a rule in a book and then doing the ‘right thing’; it means wrestling with the complexities of a problem, listening to the voice of God and then doing God’s thing.”[5]  Being righteous is not about be pure and perfect, trying to be good little boys and girls all time, but joining with God to be about God’s redemptive work in the world.

Indeed, Joseph discovered something that is true for all of us.  He came to know in the dream what is always true: our lives are not our own.  Your life is not your own.  It doesn’t belong to you.  We have been entrusted with our lives so that our lives can bear the hope of the world.  We need to see our individual lives, small as they are, as embedded in God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation.  Our individual lives are situated in another drama; we are essential characters in God’s ongoing nativity play.  We are part of the unfolding story of God’s redemption and healing of the universe.

Joseph’s dream shows us, beautifully, that this larger life, the life of God is being lived through us.  It’s not only a reality out “out there” in the world, but also in us, within us, in the depths of our psyches.  God’s dream is being dreamed through us.  And therefore the dream shows us that we’re not alone.  God’s purpose is working itself out through us.  So don’t be afraid.  Stop being afraid.  Someone is on our side.  And it’s essential that we know this and remind ourselves of this again and again.  Why?

Because, as Joseph came to know, when he realized that Mary’s child was holy, he carried a great responsibility.  He was responsible for the raising of the child, no matter the risks involved.  The dream made a particular claim on his life, a demand.  It was a command.  When he awoke he knew that he had a job to do.  He had no choice.  “And he named him”—Joseph named him—“Jesus.”  Joseph assumed the mantle of responsibility.[6] 

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a “theologian of Advent,” once said that the believer is constantly being “wakened to life through the claim of the future.”[7]  Just as Joseph was wakened to life through the claim that was being made on his life, the same is true for every believe; we waken to life through the claim, the claim of God’s future being made on our lives, through what is being asked of us.  We can’t just hear this story of Jesus’ birth as something that took place a long time ago, which changed the world, which we remember and celebrate in Advent and at Christmastime.  The story makes a claim on its hearers.  We can’t be passive listeners to the story, disinterested.  If you’re baptized that means you’re already inside the story. The story tells us God is the one who summons us and claims us and commands us and sends us.  The story asks for a commitment, it requires a decision.  It demands something of us.  We’re responsible for the living of this story, for carrying the story.  To follow Jesus means that we, too, are to be about God’s work of saving people from brokenness and sin.  We, too, are part of the drama of God’s redemptive story to save and heal humanity and save and heal the world.  You can’t hear this story without also hearing the unique demand it’s making upon your life.  

What is God dreaming through you?  What holy command are you hearing in the darkness of the night?  Where is God in the process of waking you up?  Did you notice that the organ prelude this morning was J. S. Bach's (1685-1750) "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (BWV 140), "Sleepers awake, a voice astounds us!"  Where are you awakening to life through the claim God is making on your life right now? 

These are challenging, some would say scary times that we’re living in at the moment—but they’re no more challenging for us than it was for Mary and Joseph.  “For a time such as this” (Esther 4:14), what are you being called to?  What difficult, challenging, even scandalous thing is the Spirit leading you toward as a follower of Jesus Christ?  What is the Spirit calling you to say or do for the sake of liberation and redemption, for the sake of God’s love and God’s justice and God’s healing? 

I believe that God makes a claim on every one who bears God’s image.  And, like Joseph and Mary, there comes a time for us to set aside our personal agendas and plans for our lives, and consent to the voice and will of God, to yield and bow and ultimately kneel before mystery of the Incarnation and the summons of God. And then there comes a time for us to get up, fully awake, and go wherever the Spirit leads—to Bethlehem, to Galilee, to Jerusalem, and beyond.  Where is the Spirit calling you?

Image: Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858), Joseph’s Dream (1855)
[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 33ff.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 12.
[3] Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend (Doubleday, 2006), 57.
[4] C. G. Jung talks about the “crucifixion of the ego, its agonizing suspension between irreconcilable opposites” being essential for the growth of the individual (individuation) and greater differentiation of consciousness.  See “Christ, A Symbol of the Self” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Collected Works 9, ii, par. 123-124 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).
[5] Long, 14.
[6] See Fritz Kunkel, Creation Continues: A Psychological Interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 37.
[7] Rudolf Bultmann, What is Theology? cited in David W. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015), 38. “Theologian of Advent” is Congdon’s designation (146).