(Isaiah 9: 2,6; John 1: 1-5, 14)
In the beginning – in the very beginning – that’s all there was. Darkness and chaos and the murky deep. And it was God who went into that darkness and brought light; brought it in the form of order and structure and purpose and meaning. Out of which earths were formed, life was fashioned, creatures created. But first, before any of that could happen, darkness had to be infused with a feast of light.
Still, the darkness lingered. It retreated to the far corners and crevices of the world. Because as wonderful and beautiful and gloriously astounding as creation is, it was never meant to be perfect. Or, rather, we were never meant to be perfect. For where there is light, there is always the potential for the darkness.
And darkness did find its way into the world again, into the lives of a people who were waiting themselves. Waiting for the one who would set things right. The one who would be full of grace and truth, upon whose shoulders authority would rest; the one with many names, they were waiting for him. And they cried out, How long, O Lord, how long? How long must we wait for the light to come?
And it came. Finally, it came! It came when the darkness was as dark as it would ever get. It came when the waiting people were not sure they could wait one moment longer; it came. The Word became flesh. On this very night. And through him we have seen the glory of God, full of grace and truth.
And so now: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. And those who lived in a land of darkness, on them light has shined.
A feast of light!
A feast of light that, as we will see ourselves, begins with one flame from one candle and spreads out; all the while the light growing and growing as the darkness gets smaller and smaller. And we sing about silent nights and a wondrous star lending its light, and alleluias to our king….
Our king. Not the kings of this world, not the want-to-be-kings of this world. The light of this night does not come from them, despite what the pundits promise, despite how the spin spins.
The light of this night comes from our king, whose palace is an animal stable, whose throne is a feeding trough, whose court hands are teenage parents and barnyard animals and wayward shepherds and visitors from the East. It is to him that we all sing: Christ the Savior is born, Christ the savior is born.
Even though we sometimes seem to forget that. Even though we don’t always see the light. We expect darkness. Sometimes we’re actually more comfortable with it. We are more drawn to a harsh word than a warm one; more likely to see the bad instead of the good, more prone to divisiveness and discord over harmony and peace. As bright as the light shines, we are still drawn to the darkness.
Which is why Jesus came into the world the way he did – to remind us that, as dark as it may seem, the light is still there.
Hans Hallundbaek, a Presbyterian pastor in New Jersey, tells the story of a Christmas Eve service he helped lead at a maximum security prison in town.
He writes, Christmas in prison is not Christmas. There are no celebrations, no gifts, no decorations. For those incarcerated, the only acknowledgement is the Christmas Eve service, led by volunteers from the outside, held in small cinderblock walled rooms with folding chairs, a card table, and a metal music stand for a pulpit.
I’d been asked to give the message for that service. I struggled through it – what does one say on a night of hope to people who’ve lost all of theirs? When I finished, I could tell by the blank stares in front of me that nothing I said had resonated with them. It was just words – words spoken into and lost in the darkness of it all.
And then it hit me. The darkness. The darkness. It was so dark in there. These men needed light.
I put down the printed order of worship; I wouldn’t need it anymore. Instead I said to everyone, “In closing tonight, let us light a candle to remember the light of Christ born into the world on this night.” One of the men in the front row said, “Pastor, are you crazy? This is a maximum security prison. Candles are contraband here.”
“Not mine,” I said. I positioned myself in between the men and the card table, with my back to them. I reached down as if picking something off the empty table; and when I turned around I held in my hands a candle. Except it wasn’t a candle – not a real one, at least. It was a candle in mind only, but I held it in such a way that it might become a candle in theirs, too. I held it up high: “Can you see it,” I said, “Can you see this beautiful candle?”
Most stared at me with bewilderment. Until someone two seats back said, “Yes, pastor, yes, I see the candle. It is beautiful.” Other heads started nodding.
I carefully placed the candle back at the center of the table. I reached into my pocket and produced a small box of imaginary matches. “Who would like to light our candle?” I asked. “Let me light it!” one of the men exclaimed. He came forward, took the matches out of my hand, struck one of them, and lit the candle. He took his seat.
We gazed at this lit candle in silence for awhile. This roomful of men, hardened by years and in some cases decades of prison, all of them soaking in the light of this candle. I swear I could see the flame reflected in their eyes, sinking even deeper in their hearts. How thirsty the soul must be to so eagerly see a candle’s light glowing inside the darkness.
Eventually it came time for our service to end. I leaned over to blow the candle out, only to be cut off by a loud voice from the very back row:
“NO! No, pastor, please!” he said, “Please don’t blow that candle out. Don’t ever blow that candle out. I want it to stay lit so that every time I enter the darkness, I can still see its light.”
Hans did not blow the candle out that night. It remained lit long after that Christmas Eve service ended. And when he returned the following year to lead the service again, when he walked into that same dark cinderblock-wall room, he was greeted by familiar faces who pointed to the card table, where the candle still was, where the flame had stayed lit all year long
My sisters and brothers – I have no idea what is going on in your life. I have no idea what this coming year will bring us – bring our church, our community, our country, our world. Sometimes it seems like the darkness is all there is, all there ever will be.
But if this night tells us anything, anything at all, it is that the darkness is never too dark.
Jesus Christ is born. The light shines. A feast of light!
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, in the name of the One born this very night to be a light to the world, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Adapted from https://nextchurch.net/christmas-in-prison/.