“Christmas Lights, Christmas Warmth”
A sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Christmas Eve 2017
Well, this is the night when even the cynics take a sabbatical and suspend their disbelief. It is the night when we remember the long journey, the dark sky, the bright star, the hesitant husband and the weary wife. We retell the story of the inn that was full and had no room, the shepherds who watched over their flock by night, the manger where the baby Jesus was laid and whose birth was heralded by a chorus of angels. This is the mystery of the incarnation that we come to celebrate tonight, the mystery that God was so in love with us that he became one of us.
Christmas shows us that God can come in the small and in the ordinary. God can make much of nothing and something of almost anything. A little town becomes the focus of the world’s last best hope. A little baby comes to oppose the forces of Caesar and fear, and human life is dignified as never before. God became like one of us so that we might become more like God.
Have you ever driven around at this time of year simply to see all the decorated homes? When our children were younger, we would drive through the neighborhoods to see the Christmas lights. We searched for that rare house where the homeowners went completely overboard. Fortunately, there was a reliable house nearby that always went over the top. Cars parked all the way down the street and people got out and walked up to this house. They had a figure of Santa kneeling at the crèche of Jesus. The theology wasn’t all that good. It was a sort of mash-up of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer meets Away in the Manger. There was even a box in the yard where visitors put money to help defray this family’s PECO bill! Christmas lights!
A number of years ago, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a man in Little Rock to reduce the size of the Christmas display in his front yard. That may sound like government intrusion into personal freedom, but this was no ordinary Christmas display. For years, Jennings Osborne had covered his huge suburban home with Christmas lights and glowing figurines. These were not a few little snowmen, but an eighteen-foot Santa along with equal-sized reindeer and elves.
Osborne used over three million lights, a setup that required special power lines coming to his home and 30,000 boxes of 100 lights. His display became so famous that tens of thousands of people drove to visit his quiet, suburban street each Christmas. This finally pushed his neighbors over the edge. So, they sued. Their law suit went to the state Supreme Court and Mr. Osborne was ordered to downscale a little. Too much Christmas light! Is there such a thing? The prophet Isaiah tells us:
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 lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He called God’s people to repent their sinful ways as the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to invaders in 722 B.C. After his death, Isaiah’s followers collected his oracles, which have inspired both Jews and Christians over the centuries. Isaiah gave four names to the Messiah – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. His words convey hope that God enters the dark situations of life and that despair never has the final word. The light will overcome the darkness.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe has been described as the last great Renaissance man. He was a noted novelist, critic, journalist, theater manager, statesman, educational theorist, painter, playwright, poet, scientist and natural philosopher. As he lay dying in 1832, he sat bolt upright in bed and cried out with great intensity, “Light! Light! More light!” His final words were a fitting epitaph to his life’s work, for all of his energies had been focused on gathering more light, extending the scope of human knowledge and driving back the dark shadows of ignorance.
Over a century later, the Spanish author Miguel Unamuno read a biography of Goethe, and when he read about Goethe’s death and his final words, Unamuno closed the book and said to his wife, “For all his brilliance, Goethe was ultimately mistaken. Instead of crying out for ‘Light! Light! More light!’ he should have cried out for ‘Warmth! Warmth! More warmth!’ for we humans do not die of darkness, we die of the cold.”
The truth is that we humans need both light and warmth to reach our highest fulfillment. All of us know that when we are grieving or sad or lonely, the darkness compounds our sorrow, but the light lifts our spirit. In describing Jesus’ birth, the author of John’s Gospel writes:
In [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of mankind. The light shined in the
darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it…. The true light which gives
light to everyone was even then coming into the world. (John 1:4-5, 9)
Jesus came to bring light and to bring warmth. John’s Gospel is mystical and poetic and paints contrasts between darkness and light, heaven and earth, good and evil, but it fails to mention the town of Bethlehem, the inn, the stable, the shepherds and the choir of angels. Luke is a storyteller, and he omits none of this. Luke provides the little touches and the earthly elements that warm the human heart and remind us that God enters our ordinary lives in particular moments and particular places, especially when we slow down to watch and welcome him. God came in human flesh to be our light in the darkness and to warm each home and heart that welcomes him.
As we await his coming, we remember the words of Howard Thurman, who wrote,
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
I pray for the day when our church will become like that huge home of Jennings Osborne in Little Rock, Arkansas and our collection of little lights – that’s you and me – will shine so brightly that people will be attracted to see what’s happening. And I pray this night that you find the light that you seek and the warmth that you need so that you may journey full of hope and without fear and share the light and the warmth of Christ with everyone you meet. Amen.