Christmas Sermon 2011

Text: John 1:1-14


As you know, there are four Gospels written about Jesus of Nazareth: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark has no birth or Christmas story. Matthew and Luke have birth stories, but they are very different. John’s has nothing to do with a birth but delivers us soaring rhetoric, starting with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.”

By verse 5 we hear: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Darkness is not the presence or existence of something. Rather, darkness is the absence of something. Darkness is the absence of light. The purpose of light is to shine in darkness, to oppose darkness, to overcome and dispel darkness.

John says in his prologue, it was the advent of the Light of the world, the one which gives light to every man and woman.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Christmas story begins in darkness. Pitch darkness. Darkness comes in various forms.

There was first of all the darkness of occupation. 

The Roman occupation of Palestine was ruthless and unforgiving. The Israelites were terrorized into submission. They were a defeated nation. Palestine was occupied territory. Travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, even on the orders of the occupying power would be a long and dangerous journey, especially for a young pregnant woman.

The roads were littered with the corpses of those who had resisted the occupation, hung from crosses for mile after mile as a warning to others. There would be roadblocks, checkpoints, spies, rebels, bandits. Mary and Joseph would have travelled with others for safety.

There was darkness of occupation.

There was also the darkness of exploitation

The Roman occupation was maintained by ruthless discipline and overwhelming force. The Romans were not prompted by altruism. The conquest led to the exploitation of the conquered. Heavy taxes were laid upon the Israelites. Huge levies on agricultural produce – to feed Rome’s appetite – and forced conscription of men to serve as slaves, seaman and soldiers – were ruthlessly enforced, impoverishing the people.

The people paid dearly for their own colonisation. Indeed it was the despised Roman taxation system which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem on that first Christmas night.

The darkness of occupation led to the darkness of exploitation. 

There was also the darkness of disillusionment.

That is why there was an ever-increasing number who felt that violence, not faith, was the most effective path of resistance. Where was the coming Messiah long promised by the prophets? Hence the rise of the zealots, the resistance movement of freedom fighters. There were the Sicarii (or dagger men), who were bent on liberating Palestine from occupation by violence. They assassinated fellow Jews who collaborated with Rome.

On that first Christmas night, the mood in Bethlehem was one of despair, violence and resignation.

There was darkness.

The darkness of occupation, exploitation and disillusionment.

What about Christmas today?

Is the darkness as pervasive today as it was that first Christmas?

There are much darkness in many parts of our world today.

In round numbers there are 7 billion people in the world. And we have an estimated 925 million hungry people in the world, 13.1 percent, or almost 1 in 7 people are hungry. Some 21,000 children die every day around the world.

That is equivalent to:

  • 1 child dying every 4 seconds
  • 14 children dying every minute
  • A 2010 Haiti earthquake occurring every 10 days
  • A 2004 Asian Tsunami occurring every 11 days
  • An Iraq-scale death toll every 19–46 days
  • Just under 7.6 million children dying every year
  • Some 92 million children dying between 2000 and 2010

And yet this year, Australians will spend a staggering $35 billion at Christmas, that’s around $860 million for every day in December.

And at the end of 2008, the total number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate exceeded 10 million.

And yet the government and opposition party have failed to break the deadlock on border protection policy.

Climate change is already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and is affecting 300m people, according to the first comprehensive study of the human impact of global warming.

And yet we have politicians in Australia who chose to play politics with this issue.

There are also much darkness in some families. Some are caught in the darkness of the death of loved ones. Some are caught in the darkness of family conflicts or illness or financial struggles.

We know, don’t we, that all is not peaceful, all is not calm, all is not lovely in our world, or even in our own homes and in our own lives? But the light still shines ­­ darkness may be everywhere, but the light still shines.

That’s what Christmas is all about. Believe in the light. When it all seems like too much, believe in the light. Trust that God will never let it go out.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

We know that the darkness is real. But because of Christmas, it will never get so dark that we can’t see the light.

Today we have faced “The Dark Side of Christmas” in Bethlehem then and Bethlehem now. Being light in the world means speaking the truth, especially when no one wants to hear it.

It means being willing to suffer when we speak truth to powers, as well as defending those whom the darkness has robbed of their voices and dignity. It means being willing to enter into the places that are dark in order that we can transform them by our witness to light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

It means we allow the darkness to challenge us into shining only more brightly, but also to proclaim that its deeds and words are not the final deeds, the defining words. It means that even when we see and feel the darkness overcoming us, we do not give it the final victory by succumbing to its forces, but continue to oppose it even if the present seems hopeless.

In his teachings, Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”

We serve God not by withdrawing and hiding from the world, or complaining about society; rather we serve God as we act to make a difference in showing alternative ways by being light in the midst of darkness and despair. 
Our world, from the beginning of time to the end of time, will always have this drama and this tension.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

We’ll always need the Civil Rights marchers and the anti-war protesters and the Occupy Melbourne Street occupiers and the Arab Spring unrest.

We’ll always need them and the Jesuses and the Gandhis and the Martin Luther King Jrs, because human nature trends toward oppression and favoring those at the top. But these people tell us God favors those at the bottom, the ones Jesus called “the least of these my brothers and sisters.”

We’ll always have our Pharaohs and our Herods and our Caesars.

But the light shines into the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

We are not called to celebrate Christmas so much as we are called, as followers of Jesus, to be Christmas, a light to the world.

But the truth is
there is darkness. There was darkness at Christ’s birth and there is darkness still today. In the 2,000 years that have unfolded since that night in Bethlehem, can anyone argue that the darkness has diminished? Is there any less pain, any less meanness in the human spirit, any less heartache?

If anything, there seems more — more suffering, more nastiness, more agony, because there are more people, lots more vulnerable souls for the darkness to damage.

John’s Gospel is clear. The darkness is not an illusion. It is there. It is real. We are always and ever in a battle with it. But the blessing of God almighty is solidarity. It is presence. It is the light coming to be with us.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That’s the good news of Christmas. Not that the light removes all darkness, but that the light shines in the darkness. Celebrating Christmas is never about pretending that everything is merry, everything is jolly, everything is beautiful, everything is as it is meant to be. No, we celebrate Christmas because the darkness in our world does not overcome the light that still shines.

According to Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Remember the one who condones evils is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it.

And according to St. Francis of Assisi, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

In closing, I want to share with you a story from a documentary called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”.

It’s about a group of courageous Liberian women, who refused to let the darkness overcome their lives, their families, their country. Thousands of women — ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters, both Christian and Muslim — came together to pray for peace and then staged a silent protest outside of the Presidential Palace. Armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions, they demanded a resolution to the country’s civil war. Their actions were a critical element in bringing about an agreement during the stalled peace talks.

In one remarkable scene, the women barricaded the site of stalled peace talks in Ghana, and announced they would not move until a deal was done. Faced with eviction, they invoked the most powerful weapon in their arsenal – threatening to remove their clothes. It worked.

The women of Liberia are living proof that moral courage and non-violent resistance can succeed, even where the best efforts of traditional diplomacy have failed.

Their demonstrations ended up in the exile of Charles Taylor and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, and marked the vanguard of a new wave of women taking control of their political destiny around the world.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

A group of courageous Liberian women refused to let the darkness in their country have the last word. They refused to let hatred and violence have the last word. They refused to let oppression and tyrannies have the last word. They refused to let the devil, a symbol of all that’s evil, wicked and immoral have the last word.

By the way, two Liberian women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee who refused to succumb to the darkness in their country won the 2011 Noble peace prize.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.