This sermon was recently preached at a memorial service for those who have lost loved ones in the past calendar year. Before preaching, I sang an old country gospel song by Merle Travis, I am a Pilgrim and a Stranger.
The Light Shines in the Darkness
I am a pilgrim, and a stranger
Traveling through this wearisome land,
I got a home too, in that yonder city, Good Lord,
And it’s not, it’s not made by hand.
Merle Travis wrote that song. He grew up during the great depression in Muhlenberg County in western Kentucky, in a family of coal miners, and the hardscrabble life he saw all around him shaped his most famous songs.
I was born one morning when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and walked off to the mine.
Loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal,
The straw boss said, “Well bless my soul.”
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and you’re deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.
That’s kind of a depressing lyric when you think about it, but Merle could top that. In his song Dark as a Dungeon he wrote:
I know when I die, and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal,
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And I’ll pity the miner just a diggin’ my bones.
Where it’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew
Where the danger is double and the pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines,
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.
Kentucky coal miners in the first half of the twentieth century found themselves on every page of the Bible, a book written for and about dark times. You can imagine what Merle Travis and his family would do with the opening words of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
All things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
Coal miners love the light because they are so deeply acquainted with darkness.
The opening words of John’s Gospel echo the first book of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form and void,
and darkness was upon the face of the deep;
and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
In the beginning, darkness was everything. This wasn’t a problem because the Spirit of God can see in the dark just fine. But mortal men and women like you and me wouldn’t have been able to see our hands in front of our faces.
Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
A literal translation of the Hebrew text would be, “God said, “light be” and light was.
And God saw that the light was good;
and God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light Day,
and the darkness he called Night.
And there was evening and there was morning,
A few days later, the Bible says, God made the sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night. But even on those nights when the moon didn’t shine, the world never returned to the utter darkness that reigned “in the beginning”. “God made the stars and set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.”
The radical separation of darkness and light is hard for us city-slickers to relate to. Here in the Metroplex it’s never really night. Flying into DFW, the city is lit up like a Christmas tree. Gaze up at the stars, especially on one of our hazy summer nights, and you’d be lucky to count twenty stars.
I grew up in Yellowknife, a little gold mining town in Canada’s Northwest Territories, 1400 miles north of the Montana border. In the dead of winter, we walked to school in utter darkness, only the occasional street lamp cutting the gloom. Around eleven in the morning, we’d go to the window to paint the sunrise with water colors. By the time we walked home around three-thirty darkness once more covered the land.
But glance up at the sky and the firmament of heaven was crammed with stars and, if you were lucky, the Northern Lights would be putting on a show.
When you live in darkness, you love the light.
Like I said, the Bible was written for dark times. First, the Hebrew children are enslaved by a heartless Pharaoh. God leads them to freedom, but they don’t know what to do with it. They oppress one another. They worship false Gods. The world descends into the darkness of Babylonian captivity. In Isaiah 58 we read:
Justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not overtake us;
we look for light, and behold, darkness,
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope for the wall like the blind,
we grope like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight.
Oh, the sun was coming up as it always does. But Isaiah is talking about spiritual darkness. And he’s setting things up for his big punchline that comes in the very next chapter:
Arise, shine; for thy light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to thy light,
and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
As the New Testament begins, this promise is applied to the birth of Jesus. In the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we read:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold , there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying , Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
The light shines in the darkness, the darkness can’t put it out, and these wise men climb on their camels and follow that light wherever it goes.
The birth of Jesus was celebrated on many different dates in the early centuries of Christian history, but we finally settled on December 25th, a date that was already being celebrated as the winter solstice, the longest days of the year. A good time to celebrate the light shining in the darkness. Christina Rossetti said it well in a poem that was quickly transformed into a Christmas carol:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long, long ago.
Jesus was born in the dead of night on the longest, coldest night of the year, and yet Luke’s Christmas story is ablaze with light.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
The same God who once commanded light into being lies, feeble and shivering, in an abandoned feed trough wrapped in dirty rags.
John’s Gospel puts it this way, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.”
But for wise men and shepherds and mother Mary and father Joseph and all those with eyes to see, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Christmas can be a dark time for those who have watched the light of life disappear from a beloved face. Christmas isn’t about the stuff we get, or the food we consume in vast quantities. Christmas is about the people we love. And when there is an empty chair at the dinner table Christmas becomes a cruel season. A cold season. A dark season.
Death isn’t always tragic. My great aunt Carlson grew up on the farm in South Dakota and died on the farm in South Saskatchewan. She was 92. After cooking a big meal for the farm hands she took a little nap and never woke up. We grieved for Gramma Carlson, but everyone had the same reaction: Boy, I hope I go out like that.
Unfortunately, few of us do. For most of our hospice patients, the last days are tough and the dying process can grind on remorselessly for months, sometimes years. And at the end we are emotionally spent.
Or maybe death comes so quickly it catches us by surprise. We’re not ready. We thought we were, but we’re not.
So many snowflakes; no two alike.
From the outside it can be very difficult to know what’s going on in the head and the heart of another person. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was known as a loving soul with a terrific sense of humor. She could often be seen doubled up in laughter even in the midst of the darkest circumstances the streets of Calcutta had to offer.
But years after she died in 1997, Teresa’s diary revealed a shocking fact: Sister Teresa lived in a constant state of spiritual darkness and depression. She was so disciplined and so committed to her work that no one even guessed the truth. Teresa knew, intellectually, that God loved her, but she never felt that love no matter how hard she tried.
And I think of C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and one of the most celebrated evangelical Christians of the twentieth century. Clives Staples Lewis died the same day John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, but half a century later his books still sell in the millions.
In early middle age, Lewis wrote a book called The Problem of Pain, a very readable little volume that explained why bad things happen to good people. Then Lewis, a confirmed bachelor, met an American woman named Joy Davidman. After a long correspondence, the middle-aged couple were married. Lewis knew his bride was a cancer patient but he didn’t care; for the first time in his life he was blissfully happy.
But the cancer progressed rapidly and Lewis lost the love of his life. His religion fell apart. He was appalled by the cruel grip of grief, completely unprepared for his loss. And like Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis reserved his true feelings for a diary that was eventually published under the title “A Grief Observed.”
This brief quote sums up his experience:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.
I have never been there, but I bet some of you have. You may be there even as I speak. The darkness is so deep you can feel it pressing in from every side. Everyone thinks the time of grieving passed long ago, but you can’t let it go; or, rather, it won’t let you go.
Confronting a reality like that I am tempted to lapse into silence. Everything I might say sounds so trite and unconvincing. The darkness can’t be denied; it is too real.
And yet, the light shines in that darkness.
Not like Elton John’s candle in the wind either: the light shines boldly, persistently, adamantly. And no force on earth can snuff out that light.
That’s the real message of Christmas. Maybe, like Mother Teresa, you can’t feel it; but believe it anyway just like she did.
The darkness is deep but the light shines on.
The candles we are about to light are signs and symbols of hope.
This is not an empty formality or a meaningless ritual; it’s a matter of life and death.
We light our candles against the darkness.
We light our candles as an act of defiance.
It is our way of saying that the light of life burns on because we love; because we remember; because we show honor.
The light shines in the darkness, brothers and sisters,
and the darkness has not, and will not, and cannot overcome it.