What are the children doing? This is the night when we celebrate the birth of Jesus—he had a strange birth, in a stable where animals lived. Some of you have helped tell the story, by acting it out last Sunday, or by carrying the figures up here to the nativity scene tonight.
But there’s so much story! Jesus’s birth was amazing, but he did many more amazing things in his lifetime. People were sick, and Jesus healed them. People wanted to understand God, and Jesus showed them who God is. People were hungry, and Jesus fed them, sometimes thousands of people at the same time! And after Jesus died, he was raised to new life and promised we will be with him, too.
Jesus showed us a new way to live, without fear, and seeing God’s love everywhere around us. At Christmas, many people become more generous, sharing gifts and food with their family and friends and neighbors. But God’s love goes on for the whole year.
I got these funny glasses, and I have a pair for each one of you—you can look through these and see the world a little differently, like seeing God’s love everywhere! Every point of light will look like a rainbow heart. Let this help you remember that God’s love shines in your life every day, and you can keep looking for God’s love throughout the year. God gives us everything we need, and we can care for our neighbors too.
Let us pray. Loving God, on this holy night, help us to notice where your love is shining in the world, and help us to remember your love that carries us through the whole year. Amen.
The Light Shines in the Darkness
Somewhere, you have probably seen the light vendors. Wherever there is diversion happening in darkness, someone will be selling flashing lights: carts laden with glow sticks, flashlights, headbands that twinkle, light sabers, and those weird contraptions that light up and spin. To children, these trinkets are especially dazzling, but adults are not immune to the charm. And that’s why the light vendor is there, selling the glow of colorful lights, dispersing light like sparks into the darkness.
If you were a light vendor, if you were the one selling light, where do you think you would go? Would you go to the brightest place during the daytime? Or would you take your lights into the dark, where they will surely stand out, where they’ll be noticed and needed?
When God arrives on earth as Jesus Christ, God has not waited for humanity to get itself together, to provide the perfect entrance for heavenly royalty. God showed up to bring the light of the world into a dark place—a world broken by sin, by poverty, by oppression.
Luke writes his Gospel to tell the truth about the world, naming the political leaders and the situations that led to a pregnant woman and her husband traveling many miles from their home to return to an ancestral homeland for the purposes of being registered in a census. They cannot refuse to participate in this census, or they become rebellious, subject to the wrath of Rome.
Kelley Nikondeha (nick-ahn-DAY-hah) is a liberation theologian who has written about Luke’s Gospel in light of the people of Palestine and their lived experience, and she writes this:
“History does not corroborate the kind of census Luke describes, in which people were required to return to ancestral towns to enroll in order to pay taxes. Imperial administrations typically counted people in place and calculated what they could extract. There was a census connected to Quirinius, but it occurred after the birth of Jesus. Still, Luke creates a world that mimics the dynamics he experienced, enfolding his Advent story into the bigger story of all the times God arrives into our conflicted lands and broken economies.”
Nikondeha also illustrates the economic situation of modern-day Bethlehem, where Israeli checkpoints have made it increasingly difficult for tourists to visit, which makes it harder for people in the city to earn a living. Nikondeha visited Bethlehem with her husband, where they were welcomed as guests. She writes,
“We experienced kindness and joy, a sort of abundance we won’t soon forget. But innkeepers need to eat, purveyors of tea have school fees to pay for their children, and shopkeepers have medical bills to settle. Mutuality is part of hospitality—along with a room and a meal we are given the opportunity to offer money that will allow for provisions for our hosts.”
The message of Christmas is that God showed up in real life, with real people in actual challenging situations, and if we pay attention to Jesus at all, we learn that God doesn’t turn away from our human imperfection, but God is right here with us, healing our brokenness, healing our broken understandings, healing our pain. And not just on special nights like tonight, but always.
Jesus shines a light on the brokenness in the world not to condemn us where we are, but to look with love and honesty and bring healing. We cannot earn this love, we can never deserve this healing, but we can receive the gift.
We show up with our questions, our outrage at injustice, our weariness of the world-as-it-is, and we meet here—right here in this very place!—we meet a God who sees, who listens to the cries of the poor, who empowers the weak and sustains the righteous for the ongoing work of justice.
If God can show up in a stable in such adverse circumstances thousands of years ago, then can God not show up here now? Is there anywhere God cannot go?
This isn’t to say we don’t still get afraid sometimes. It’s not an easy thing to trust in God, especially in fearful times. But we are a people of hope. We hold fast to the enduring Word of God, and we are encouraged by the truth we encounter in Holy Scripture. We keep reminding one another of the promises God has made—that’s what we do here in worship, in Holy Baptism, in Holy Communion. The invitation is always open: God invites us to the table, to be fed, to be welcome in community. God shows us light in the darkness.
Reverend Otis Moss III serves as pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and he writes about the difficulty of proclaiming hope while feeling fearful, even though it is the calling of the church to proclaim the hope we know in Jesus Christ. Years ago, his church was going through a painful time after one of their pastors was attacked in the media. The church received bomb threats, and people were getting death threats. Pastor Moss said the stress made it difficult to sleep, but one night, he and his wife heard a noise in the house, so she told him, “You go check that out.” He grabbed a baseball bat and went to investigate. He writes this:
“I looked downstairs, and then I heard the noise again. I made my way back upstairs and peeked in my daughter’s room. There was my [6-year-old] daughter Makayla dancing in the darkness—just spinning around, saying, “Look at me, Daddy.”
I said, “Makayla, you need to go to bed. It is 3 a.m. You need to go to bed.”
But she said, “No, look at me, Daddy. Look at me.”
And she was spinning, barrettes going back and forth, pigtails going back and forth.
I was getting huffy and puffy wanting her to go to bed, but then God spoke to me. “Look at your daughter! She’s dancing in the dark. The darkness is all around her but it is not in her!”
The darkness is all around us, but it is not in us. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
You know, it is not only for the sake of tradition that we light candles at the close of Christmas Eve worship. When we feel hopeless in the face of despair and when we are weighed down with grief, when the sorrows of the world seem too great, when we wonder, “What can we possibly do?” or when we wonder, “How long, O Lord?” then lighting a candle is the beginning of our action. Each candle is a challenge to the darkness. In a world where things are so bad that the prevailing attitude seems to suggest that we just give up, we light candles anyway: a gentle rebuke, a gracious rebellion.
Because the light we carry here in worship is a symbol for us of the light of Christ that shines in our souls. And that’s what we will carry with us when we leave this place. The light of Christ is what we carry with us into a dark world. All throughout Advent, this congregation has gathered every week to sing the songs in the Holden Evening Prayer liturgy, singing these pleading words: “Make us shine with gentle justice, let us each reflect your light.”
And that’s what makes us a little bit like the light vendors who sell colorful lights as entertainment. The difference is that the light we receive and the light we give out has no price—the light is free, and this light from God is freedom itself. We are light bearers, sent out into the world to share freely what has freely been given to us. Christ, be our light, shine in our hearts, shine in the darkness.
 Kelley Nikondeha, “Mary, Joseph, and a tea vendor named Sami,” The Christian Century, December 2022, page 42. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/mary-joseph-and-tea-vendor-named-sami  Ibid 40.  Otis Moss III, “Dance in the Dark: Preaching the Blues Without Despair,” http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-11/dance-dark