Punching holes in the darkness
Punching holes in the darkness
A sermon by the Rev. H. Paul Canady III
Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, NC, on December 24, 2018
No matter how many times I read or hear Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, I find something that resonates with me in a way that it hadn’t before, or maybe it hadn’t in a long time. Whether it is the distance Mary and Joseph traveled (eighty-five unpaved miles!) or the problems they encountered in Bethlehem, or what kind of structure Jesus was actually born in, there are so many details found in those 20 verses and yet so many details left to the imagination that the interpretations over the past 2,000 years are as varied and wide as the people who have heard them. I so often go back to what it was like for the shepherds. The were not of the upper-crust of society. They were doing a job that didn’t often pay well, and despite the numerous positive references to shepherds in the Hebrew scriptures, they were often the open to ridicule and jokes. And yet, outside of Joseph and Mary, they were the first to hear of the birth of the one who would turn the world right-side-up. Not the king or the governor. Not the synagogue leader or the mayor of the town. The shepherds. Imagine the job we think most lowly in our own culture, one that seems furthest from seats of influence and power. Now imagine what it would be like for them to hear the good news of great joy for all people. And to hear it directly from the angels of the Lord.
Countless visual adaptations of this story show just how scared the shepherds were when, in the midst of the darkness, the Glory of the Lord shone around them. And why wouldn’t they be. Luke doesn’t tell us what the weather was on that night, so we don’t know if it was cloudy or if there was some portion of the moon or if the stars were once again too numerous to count. But we know that if something shone around them, it wasn’t likely a dim light. It was a light, and a message, that compelled them to leave their post and go see what it was the angels were telling them about. (Makes me wonder, too, if they took the sheep with them or left them alone in the fields. But that’s another conversation for another time).
When they arrived, they found a baby. A newborn who probably looked like many other newborns. His head was probably a little squeezed. He may still have had remnant amniotic fluid on him. He and Mary both were probably tired from the trauma of being born and of giving birth. And God only knows what Joseph was thinking at that point, too.
Hopefully all of them knew that something in the world was a little different that night. God was doing things that would change the course of history. And they were there to play their part in it.
The Prophet Isaiah foretold of a time when the people who had walked in darkness would see a great light. It wasn’t the light that shone on the shepherds; it was the newborn who was the light. John’s Gospel opens up by talking about the Word of God taking on flesh and “in him was life, the life was the light of the world.” That was the light the shepherds witnessed and when they went from there, they did what we should all be doing and telling others about the light.
There is in many corners of the world right now, including our own, a palpable darkness. Those who study history are saying the world is looking a little too much like Europe in the 1930s. There are more refugees around the world than at any time outside of the period of the first World War. Climate change is making hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires worse than ever, and coastal communities are under threat of rising sea levels. Social media and the amazing invention of the internet has left us more connected, and yet feeling more alone. We have to do more than just shrug our shoulders and says, “oh well.”
The story goes that when Robert Louis Stevenson (the one who wrote Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) was a small child his nanny could not get him to go to sleep one night. This was Edinborough Scotland in the mid-1850s. He was watching the lamplighter light the streetlamps one at a time. There was no timer or photocell to make them automatically come on. But young Robert saw something more than just a city worker doing his nightly job. He pointed enthusiastically and said, "Look at that man! He's punching holes in the darkness!"
When we tell others about Jesus, more importantly, when we SHOW others how Jesus loved, then we punch a hole in the darkness. When we do a little something extra to care for this planet God gave us, we punch a hole in the darkness. We we stand up for refugees and migrants seeking a better life, we punch a hole in the darkness. When we do something to make the world a better place for the least among us, we punch a hole in the darkness. When we pick up the phone and call someone who’s been on our mind or someone we are worried about, we punch a hole in the darkness.
It’s not enough to hear the story of Jesus’s birth and then go on about our day and our life. We are called to be like the shepherds, to go and to tell. And maybe it’s just as important to listen to the shepherds among us, who want to tell us Good News of Great Joy. We are called to be the light to those who walk in darkness. We are called to help change the world in the name of a God who loved Atarax available humanity enough to walk with us and show us how to give light to a dark world, and in the name of God who loved enough to punch a million holes in the darkness.