A Sermon for Christmas Eve/Day 2013
by Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2).
Are we a people walking in darkness or a people of the light? And how do we know which we are?
This time of year when the nights outlast the days, we might be tempted to say that we are a people walking in darkness; yet we could also argue that we are people of the light compared to those living at the turn of the century before electricity had been invented.
And those same people at the turn of the century who didn’t know what they were missing, would have probably said that they were people of the light compared to the people living at the turn of the previous century.
So, the answer to the question is that it’s all relative – relative to where we have come from and to where we are going. And I think change resulting from discoveries and inventions and innovations has a lot to do with whether we consider ourselves to be people walking in darkness or people of the light.
Change, as we all know, is not always initially seen as a good thing. Anyone who has been watching Downton Abbey – Masterpiece Theater’s addictively entertaining television series – knows that to be true. It was a first season episode that portrayed a big change coming to Downton Abbey – the installation of electricity, something that was happening in the homes of only the very wealthy.
The dowager Countess named Violet, played to perfection by British actress Maggie Smith, was opposed to the change and in her characteristic way let her son, the Earl of Grantham, know. Like many people of her day, she was suspicious of it and believed that electricity was going to leak out of the walls and sockets like an eerie vapor or ghost of some sort; and how, she asked her son, was she to sleep a wink with all that going on?
So, as much as we might know with the benefit of hindsight how the invention of electricity helped transform us literally into people of the light, not everyone was willing to embrace the change.
The Israelites, who lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel 700 or so years before Jesus was born, were experiencing a change – and certainly not one they wanted to embrace. The Assyrians, who had a reputation for being utterly ruthless, were bearing down hard on them.
The capital of Nineveh was soon to be overthrown, which meant the Israelites were on the verge of being plunged into a deep darkness – and they had no idea why.
After all, they were God’s chosen people, being descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Didn’t they once thrive under the able leadership of the great King David, basking in the light of prosperity and security that he provided for them? Where was the hope that they could ever return to such a life?
I’m not sure there’s anything that makes us feel more like a people walking in darkness than having our hope taken away from us whether it’s from change we don’t think we need or understand or whether it’s from sadness or despair that seems impenetrable.
Yet, one of the best known properties of light is its ability to penetrate and overcome darkness. And in that respect, light has often been used as a metaphor for hope. So has the expression “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Israelites were living in that dark tunnel of existence when the prophet Isaiah spoke the words we just heard. They spoke of a Savior who would come on their behalf and shoulder their burden and loosen their yoke of political bondage. Those words were the ray of light that seeped through the crack in the closed and locked door of despair.
Another property of light is that even the smallest or dimmest light can make a difference in our lives. My husband, Tenny, and I found that out two weeks ago when we were waiting at the Richmond airport to board a 9:40 morning flight to Atlanta followed by a 12:10 connecting flight to Nashville to see our younger daughter.
At 9:15 when boarding was supposed to start we were told that there was a mechanical failure with our plane and that departure would be delayed. About ten minutes later we were told that an actual part had fallen off of the plane and that the replacement part would have to be flown in from Detroit and then be installed. Minimum time of the delay would be 3 hours. That meant missed connections in Atlanta for just about everyone on that plane.
As you might imagine, the scene at the gate was chaotic as people scrambled to make changes to their travel plans. The ground crew patiently helped the mob scene and one of them apologized for something that in all of his 22 years with the airline, he had never encountered before. He said that it would be legally impossible for the plane to fly without that part, which made me think it was a crucial part of the engine or maybe landing gear. Yet, it wasn’t that at all. The missing part was a light, that little wingtip light that hardly any passenger notices.
It’s actually a navigation light and it signals to the pilot the position of other planes flying nearby. That light becomes particularly important at night in determining the direction and right of way when paths of aircraft cross. So, the lowliest of airplane parts – a simple light – served as an important safety feature for all of us ready to board that plane, and once installed, restored hope that we would finally all get to where we had planned on going.
The Israelites obviously needed more than a wingtip light to have their hope restored or to show them the way forward. They needed a sign that their God was still with them.
So, when they heard the voice of Isaiah proclaiming that a child had been born for them, they took that birth as the sign they were hoping for – the sign of God’s saving activity on their behalf. And as Isaiah told them, this child would grow in authority, with endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. This sign would transform them from a people walking in darkness to a people of the light. News of the birth of a lowly baby would do that for them.
And the birth of Baby Jesus does that for us which gives us much to celebrate this day. John knew that when he wrote in the prologue of his gospel: “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3-4).
Bask in the beauty and light of this birth and revel in its glory and feel it quicken our hearts. And may it be for all of us that same beacon of hope that was promised by Isaiah so many years ago – the hope that will transform us from whatever darkness may be surrounding us this day into the people of the light that God has always meant for us to be. Merry Christmas!