Preached at St. James the Greater Church in Bristol and Grace Church in Hulmeville.
At Christmas time my dad used to decorate the house where I grew up very simply: wreath on the door, floodlight on the wreath, and a candle in every one of the five windows that faced the street. These were electric candles, of course, so in the beginning he had to go around and plug each one in individually when evening came. Later I gave him a set of Radio Shack remote plugs so he could make them all come on with the push of a single button, and that gave him more joy than you can possibly imagine. It was like being God: “Let there be light!” And at the push of a button, there was.
I loved those candles for their simple beauty. Loved coming home to that house at Christmas and knowing I’d find their light shining into the night.
I decorate my own house in New Hope pretty much the same way now, but the technology has advanced so all I have to do to turn my candles on is to plug them in once when I put them in the windows at the beginning of Advent. They’re light-sensitive, so they come on by themselves every evening at dusk. It’s convenient, but when I think about how happy it made my father to turn those lights on every night, I wonder if maybe I’ve lost something in letting go of the daily intention to make light shine out into the darkness of a December evening.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
That’s the line that really stands out for me this morning in today’s Gospel, which is taken from the first chapter of the book of John. That’s the line I really need to hear today.
I learned all kinds of things about this Gospel in seminary, about how it’s a different way of telling the Christmas story, the story of God coming into the world in human flesh. It’s a summary of everything John wants to say about who Jesus is and what his life means, so you could think of it as an abbreviated version of the entire Gospel. The experts call it “one of the most dense passages in the New Testament,”[i] but the mystical language resonates, for me at least, even if it can be hard to follow what every sentence means.
This is an important passage—the foundation of our faith—but I’m not sure a theological analysis is the stuff that will get us through our darkest days and nights.
The clearest thing I hear in this Gospel today is this one simple statement: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The light still shines. God is with us, no matter how dark things may seem.
Maybe that line stood out for me exactly because it’s what I need to hear now. These do seem like very dark times. Some days when I get up in the morning I can hardly bear to read the news. Some days it seems as if the whole world has lost its moral compass.
But no matter how strong the power of evil may be, the light still shines for us.
When we find ourselves in darkness, we look for the light. Maybe that’s one way to think about what it means to hope.
I’ve been reading a little book about holding on to hope in dark times. It’s called The Ragged Edge of Night, and it’s by a woman named Olivia Hawker. It’s not on any bestseller list, and I came across it as a Kindle book almost by accident.
It’s about a man named Anton who lives in a little town in Nazi Germany. The story begins in 1942, and we find Anton ready to resist the evil that is all around him and stand up for the good in every way he can, despite the danger to himself and the people he loves.
There are no candles in Anton’s windows in this story—quite the opposite. Instead there are blackout curtains to keep the house dark, to keep the town invisible so it won’t be destroyed by the bombers flying over on their way to Stuttgart, but the candles burn brightly inside.
The writeup in Goodreads calls this story “an emotionally gripping, beautifully written historical novel”—and it is based on a true story—“about extraordinary hope, redemption, and one man’s search for light during the darkest times of World War II.”[ii]
I’d say it’s a story of love and redemption and second chances. In the same way that first chapter of John is said to be a summary of the entire Gospel, I’d say that love, redemption and second chances pretty much sum up the Christian story in a nutshell.
It’s a story of love, and redemption. And—most of all—a story about hope.
“Against all sense,” Anton says at one point in his quiet prayers, “I believe. Somewhere, beyond the ragged edge of night, light bleeds into this world.”[iii]
I’d love to tell you some of the ways Anton lives out that hope, but the book is also a bit of a thriller and I don’t want to spoil the story in case you want to read it yourself.
But I will share just one little vignette: Anton is ordered by the town’s Nazi leader to form a local chapter of Hitler Youth, which basically is a brainwashing organization for boys. To Anton this is absolutely repugnant, and he manages to present a very glib argument which convinces the leader that it would be much, much better to organize a marching band for boys and girls instead. Which might sound sort of funny, but in fact it was really very dangerous to take the chance that the town leader would eventually figure out that he’d been conned. It frightens his wife terribly, but Anton acts on the hope that all will be well.
All through the story it’s hope that keeps him going, hope that keeps him strong against the Nazi distortion of Christian faith. The Nazis were great for mixing religion and politics. They used their own distorted version of the Jesus story to support their anti-Semitism, calling Jesus “our greatest Aryan hero”[iv] and “a burst of Nordic light”[v]—despite the fact that, the last time I checked, Jesus himself was a Jew. In the Nazi version of the Bible—a special version titled The Message of God, John’s Gospel was edited out—along with the entire Old Testament.[vi]
Anton resists that message. Hope keeps him going. He never loses sight of that beautiful light.
But his hope isn’t just wishful thinking, an imaginative fantasy that some day things will be better. In fact, he struggles through the entire story with the fear that things will never be better.
But his hope is a force that drives him to action. Like true love, it isn’t just a feeling: it’s a source of energy.[vii] It carries Anton through the times when he begins to wonder if maybe it wouldn’t be better to give up, pull the blackout curtain even tighter and hide in the safety of darkness.
There’s a saying that was popular when I was a kid: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”[viii]
It means that every small act of good that we do—every small defiance of evil in this world—becomes a source of light, a little candle burning in the darkness. Every small act of good we do is like my dad turning on his candles each night, doing his bit to defy the darkness.
And the more and more of those candles we light, the brighter their light becomes.
God is with us, no matter how dark things may sometimes seem.
That light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
[i] Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John. Francis J. Moloney, Daniel J. Harrington, 34.
[ii] “The Ragged Edge of Night,” https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/38096424-the-ragged-edge-of-night. Accessed December 28, 2019.
[iii] The Ragged Edge of Night. Olivia Hawker, 58.
[iv] Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Eric Metaxis 168
[v] Metaxis, 219
[vi] “Hitler’s Gospel.” John Connelly, Commonweal, February 22, 2010. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/hitler%E2%80%99s-gospel. Accessed December 28, 2019.
[vii] “The Work of Hope.” Luther E. Smith, Jr., Upper Room. https://www.upperroom.org/resources/the-work-of-hope/?path=FromTheCenter&dept=marketing&utm_source=The+Upper+Room+Ministry+Engagement&utm_campaign=38491817a2-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_09_04_07_48&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0542d9a4cf-38491817a2-204306197. Accessed December 28, 2019.
[viii] There’s some debate about the origin of this saying. It’s the mission statement of a Christian inspirational group called the Christophers. Some have attributed it to Eleanor Roosevelt, some say Adlai Stevenson quoted it in a tribute delivered at the time of her death, and others think it might have been an ancient Chinese proverb.