"SILENT NIGHT, HOLY NIGHT"[1]

JOHN 1:1-8; 19-28

DECEMBER 9, 2012

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            I've titled this year's Advent sermon series "A Christmas Carol or Two."  In the series I am taking popular Christmas songs, some secular some not, and tying them to particular passages of Scripture.  On the Sunday prior to Advent we began our series with "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," complete with the warning, You better watch out, you better not cry; you better not pout, Im telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town," and we talked about Christs return, his second advent.  Then last Sunday we officially kicked off Advent with Isaiahs promise of comfort choosing Elvis' words Ill have a blue Christmas without you."  Todays song is much more traditional.  In fact, this is the first one in our Advent series we find in our hymnbook.  We usually save it for Christmas Eve but we will use it today as well, and I encourage you to take out your hymnal and turn to hymn number sixty, "Silent Night, Holy Night."  Do you have that in front of you?  If so, I want to draw your attention to the third verse of "Silent Night."  Let's sing that third verse together. 

 

            Silent night, holy night! 

            Son of God, love's pure light

            Radiant beams from Thy holy face,

            With the dawn of redeeming grace,

            Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,

            Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

 

            The gospel writer John would have loved that phrase "Love's pure light" since he referred to Jesus as "the true light, which enlightens everyone."  No wonder our Christmas trees are adorned with hundreds of lights.  Christmas, among other things, is a celebration of "love's pure light" coming into the world, and the gospel writer John certainly had a thing about Jesus being the light.   The gospel writer John uses the word light no fewer than twentyone times in referring to Jesus, and the function of our main character today, John the Baptist, was to point men and women to that light.

            John the Baptist was a very popular preacher in his day, so popular that he, like Jesus, raised concern among the Pharisees.  They wondered who he was and by what authority did he preach and baptize?  They even wondered if the was their long awaited Messiah.  In response to their inquiry John quoted the Isaiah passage we considered last week.  He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'"  You might remember last week how Isaiah was talking about a straight, level highway God was making for the exiles in Babylon to return back home to Israel.  John the Baptist borrows Isaiah's words, and applies them to another highway, not from Babylon to Jerusalem, but a highway to heaven.

            In response to the Pharisee's inquiry John said, "I'm not the Messiah.  I'm just preparing the way for the Messiah."  Or as the Gospel writer John put it, "He (that is John the Baptist) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."

            A remarkable event took place on June 1, 1975 in the Gulf of Mexico.  Darrel Dore was working on an oil rig when suddenly it began to wobble. Before long it tipped to one side and crashed into the water.  Darrel found himself trapped inside a room on the rig.  As the rig sank deeper and deeper into the sea, the lights went out and the room where Darrel was trapped began filling with water. Thrashing about in the darkness, Darrel made a life-saving discovery.  A huge air bubble was forming in the corner of the room.  He kept his head inside that bubble of air and prayed that someone would find him.

            For twenty-two hours the presence of Christ comforted Darrel, and then it happened.  Darrel saw a tiny star of light shimmering in the pitchblack water.  Was it real or after twenty-two hours was he beginning to hallucinate?  Darrel squinted his eyes.  The light seemed to grow brighter.  He squinted again.  He wasnt hallucinating. The light was real.  It was coming from a helmet of a diver who was coming to rescue him.  His long nightmare was over.  A savior had come.

            When John wrote his Gospel the world was in darkness and the Gospel writer John wanted the world to know that a light had penetrated that darkness.  A Savior had come.  As we consider John's words today let us note three things.

            First, note that Jesus is the light of all people.  John put it his way.  Verse 4.  "In him was life and the life was the light of all people."

            A man named Tom tells about a night when he was a teenager.  He and his friends were walking around the neighborhood.  It was a warm night and very dark. Suddenly one of them saw a police car and shouted.  They hadn't done anything wrong, but they didn't want to be seen, either.  So they began to run.  The police car saw them and watched them turn down an alley.  Tom tripped and knocked over some trashcans. The police officers got out the car and began to go after them.  One of the officers turned on a searchlight.

            Tom jumped behind those trashcans, only to find his friends huddled there.  With frantic energy they tried to hide, pulling trash over their heads and hoping to blend in. The spotlight fell on Tom.  "Come out where we can see you," said the voice behind the light.  Tom stood up where he was, covered in garbage.

            "What are you doing?" said the voice. 

            Tom said, "Officer, I wasn't doing anything wrong.  I saw the light, I ran, I knocked over these garbage cans.  I'm sorry about the disturbance."  The searchlight was beaming into his eyes, blinding him.  He stood there in the light with nowhere to hide.

            Then the voice said, "I think I recognize you.  Don't you live around the corner?"

            "Yes," he stammered.  His heart was racing, and he thought to himself, "My life is ruined.  If I don't get arrested for disturbing the peace, something worse will happen: this officer is going to tell my parents."

            But then the voice behind the light said something unexpected.  "Son, I'm not here to punish you; I'm here to protect you."  As he stood before that searchlight, Tom says he caught a glimpse of what it means to stand before Jesus, who is the light of all people.  There he was, fully exposed yet completely protected.  He was fully revealed, yet free from unnecessary punishment.  He stood hip-deep in garbage, yet felt cleaner than he had ever been.  In that moment, he saw something of what it means to stand in the presence of Jesus Christ, who is the light of all people.  

            That leads us to the second thing to note.  Jesus is the light that shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.   Try as it might, the world cannot extinguish the light.

            Its like a nativity pageant a fellow pastor talks about.  The pageant was being performed by the churchs youth group. Joseph and Mary and all the other characters did their parts with appropriately pious expressions, at least they tried.  It was a shepherd who turned the pageant into a circus.

            The shepherds quite naturally were dressed in flannel bathrobes with towels around their heads.  They marched up to the altar steps where Mary and Joseph stared earnestly at the straw in the manger.  All was well to this point.  The manger itself glowed with the presence of the newborn Jesus.  In this case the divine infant was played by a light bulb nestled in the manger.  It was a radiant sight and a beautiful way of expressing the meaning of Christs coming.

            All was well until one of the shepherds turned to the boy playing Joseph.  In a very loud whisper which all the cast could hear, the shepherd said, Well, Joe, when you gonna pass out cigars?

            There was something about this unexpected wisecrack that sent a wave of hilarious hysteria through the cast.  The chief angel reacted worst of all.  Standing on a chair behind Mary and Joseph she shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair. This brought the stage curtain behind her and all the rest of the props down with her. She was rolling around on the floor holding her stomach she was laughing so hard.  The whole set was in shambles.  In fact the only thing that didnt go to pieces was that light bulb in the manger.  It never stopped shining. How appropriate.

            The light of Christ never stops shining.  Wars, pestilence, famine, good times and bad, that light continues to shine.  Our grandparents saw its glow in the darkest hours of The Great Depression.  Our soldiers see its glow on distant battlefields.  The world cannot extinguish the light of Christ.  That light shines in prison camps.  It shines in hospital rooms.  It shines in funeral parlors.  It shines amidst poverty and every manner of heartache and hardship.  Nothing can stop it.  His light cannot be extinguished.

            But theres one thing more to be said.  The greatest privilege in the world is to share that light with someone else.  John the Baptist was not the light.  He came to testify to the light.  That is our job as well.

            Judith Carrick tells of visiting a nursing home in her community.  In that nursing home was a woman whose mind was as sharp as anyones, but because of her illness, she could no longer walk or speak.  This woman communicated mostly by gestures.  He hands shook so much what she tried to write was seldom legible.  She and Carrick had become good friends over the years they had known each other, and, as friends do, Carrick occasionally would run little errands for the woman, small tasks that she could no longer do for herself.

            On one occasion the elderly woman waved Carrick into her room with some sense of urgency.  There on her bed was a paper napkin with a picture drawn on it. Looking straight at her visitor, the elderly woman pointed to that napkin over and over again.  It was obvious that this was something important.  Carrick looked closely, and she saw the woman had sketched, as best she could, what appeared to be a flashlight.

            Is that a flashlight? Carrick asked.  Her friends head nodded up and down, while she pointed first at the picture and then to herself.  Carrick laughed.

            You want a flashlight?  The head nodded again.

            Whatever for? Carrick asked.

            The woman could not answer verbally, but in her own way she made it known that this was a matter of great concern to her.  So Carrick agreed to bring her a flashlight.

            The next time Carrick went to the nursing home she made sure that she had the flashlight in hand.  She walked into the womans room, shining the light all over the walls.  A big smile crossed the womans face.  Please, Carrick said, tell me what this is all about.  Why do you need a flashlight?

            The old woman moved her wheelchair toward the door and indicated for Carrick to follow.  Together they went down the hall to the nurses station, where one of the aides saw the flashlight and told Carrick that, a few weeks earlier, during a week of heavy rain and high winds, the power in the nursing home had gone out for a time.  A woman in the home had become frightened, and she wanted the assurance that if it happened again, she would have a flashlight to shine in the darkness and ease her fears.  The nurse promised to pass along the flashlight to the woman who had been so fearful.

            What a gift to give someone ... the gift of light.  Loves pure light.  The true light which enlightens everyone.



[1] Many thanks to King Duncan and his sermon "This Little Light of Mine."