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Sermon: First Sunday after Christmas

January 3, 2011

Christmas 1, Year A – December 26, 2010
“Burnin’ Daylight”
The Nevil Memorial Church of St. George
Ardmore, PA

Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3  •  Psalm 147   •  Galatians 3: 23 – 25, 4: 4 – 7   •   John 1: 1 – 18


When I was twelve years old, my Mother finally relented and allowed me to go spend a week in the summer with my Uncle Brent at his fishing cabin on the Chassahowitska River, along Florida’s gulf coast, about 50 minutes North of Tampa.  The cabin itself sits lofted out of the muddy shores of one of the river’s many little islands, and it is the last cabin in a long string of cabins before you hit the mouth of the river and then the open sea.  You can only get to this cabin by boat and the ride is about twenty minutes, if you know the way.  If you don’t know the way, it could potentially be impossible to get there, as navigating the shallow waters of the spring fed Chassahowistska in ignorance is fatal to boat motors.  That first morning there that summer, Brent woke me up at the crack of dawn.  And I do mean the crack, and I was starkly reminded that time worked differently here.  I had been to the cabin before, and so I sort of knew how this worked, but this was the week it really set in for me.  Brent might make a comment to me if I grumbled like, “Let’s go!  We’re burnin’ daylight!”

And that was exactly what we were doing!  Burnin’ daylight.  We’d fish all day and come back in with the tide late in the afternoon.  We’d clean out catch, well, if I’m being honest, Brent would clean the catch, and then we’d cook up such a feast of fish and shrimp and blue crab as can hardly be believed.  Somewhere there is a photo of that first feast from that week on the River.  The small bowl of steamed, nutritious broccoli off to the side looks hopelessly outnumbered by the heaped high plates of breaded and fried fish.  We would clean up and just after sundown, Brent would go and shut the generator off and we would sit and talk for a while in the fading light before going to bed.  Time works differently on the river.  You get up with the light and you go to bed when the daylight is done.  Unless you want to forever be marked, like one of Brent’s river neighbors is marked, as the [insert four letter word here] person who keeps their noisy generator running all night.  In this modern age of electricity, we’ve almost forgotten the importance of light and how it overcomes the darkness.   We’ve almost forgotten it because we think we can control light now.  Is it too dark in your home at night? Just flick a switch and, voila!, you’ve got light.  In fact, we’re almost lost as a people if that power, and it is an incredible power, is taken away from us.  We’re immediately on the phone to the power company.  “The lights aren’t working.  I can’t see!”  Well of course you can’t see.  It’s nighttime.  It’s dark outside.  You’re not supposed to be able to see.  On the river, I came to understand this.


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  We have all, perhaps, heard this first line of John’s Gospel so many times that even though our ears are registering the sounds that make up the words and phrases, our brains are shutting off to the majestic importance and power this sentence encapsulates in a sentence short enough to be an effective text message.  This is John’s Nativity story; there are no shepherds, no angels, no Holy Family.  In the beginning.  God.  Period.  The Word of God was in the beginning with God because the Word of God was God.  This beautifully written and simple line calls upon the imagery and the ideas of centuries of philosophical understanding that it would take college semesters to unfold.  Everyone from Plato to Philo, from Aristotle to Anaxagoras, from Heraclitus to the Stoics.  If you ever want to understand this line, and the greek word logos which we translate as Word, at a much deeper level, you’ll need to immerse yourselves in these philosophers.    Some argue that the word logos is so potent and laden with meaning that to try and translate it into English will inevitably fall short and so we shouldn’t translate it at all.  Biblical scholar John Sanford suggests that if we are going to translate that line, J.B. Phillips’ translations is perhaps the best.  Instead of, “In the beginning was the Word…” it ought to read, “In the beginning God expressed himself.”


So, if in the beginning God expressed himself, how did God go about doing that?  Read on a little farther.  “What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”  God is the Word.  The Word is God’s expression of himself and He expresses himself as life.  Life!  When God created humanity he molded them out of the dust and the clay of the earth.  But he noted that something was missing from it.  So he breathed into his creation and then there was life.  Life from breath.  Breath is life.  If you stop breathing, you cease to have life.  Because there was and is God, there was and is life.  “And the life was the light of all people.”  Anyone that has ever had the blessing of sitting with someone as they died, sitting with someone as they were handed back into the care of their Creator, knows this to be true.  When the breath returns to God who gave it and the life that was ceases to be, the eyes grow dim, and the light seems to have gone out of them.  Light and life go hand in hand.


John continues his poetic prologue, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Light overcomes darkness; its brightness drives back all the shadows and dimness of night.  Darkness is the absence of light.  And when the Light came to the world, the darkness that was there before could not overcome it.  This is both literal and allegorical.  The earth was a dark place for a long time.  It wasn’t until the fourth day of creation, according to Genesis, that God made the greater light, the Sun, and the lesser light, the Moon to shine in the sky.  And depending on how literal you take those days of creation to be, that might have been a pretty long time.  Indeed, it is difficult to accept those days of creation as literal 24 hour periods of time when that which governs what 24 hours is and means wasn’t created until the fourth supposed 24 hour period.  But that’s another sermon for another day.  So, there is the literal meaning of when the light came into the world, the darkness did not overcome it.


But there is also the allegorical sense:  John is referring to Jesus here.  When he speaks of the Word of God, he is speaking of the second person of the Trinity, who was God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  When Jesus came into the world, he was the light of the world, and the darkness of this world the powers of Satan and evil, could not overcome Jesus, the Light.  They did everything in their power to defeat the Light, even crucifying it, and not even death could Him down.  The Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.  No matter what it tried.


We see that power reenacted every day, or at least we have the opportunity to do so.  If you get up early, while it is still dark, you can go outside and look to the East.  There, in a brilliant moment, every day, you will witness the glory of the Light shining in the darkness, and the darkness that cannot overcome the Light fleeing away.  The Light is so powerful, this only takes a second to happen.  In a flash, the light overcomes the darkness.  In a certain way of thinking, it’s a shame most of us have grown accustomed to ignoring this miracle, this reenactment of creation.  By another way of thinking, it is a good thing that we have learned to harness that mystery and use it to our advantage.  But nothing beats the original.


We are all creatures of the light, or as Paul puts it, children of light.  James writes in his letter about God and refers to Him as the Father of Lights.  That’s the only time in the Bible we hear than ancient name for God and it is beautiful.  The Light is for us because the Light is life.  On the Chassahowitska River, we understand that.  The light governs our day.  When the light dawns, we rise, and when the light sets, we lie down.  There are those, like the neighbor, who try to fight against this by leaving their generator running all night so as to power their artificial light (and more likely their AC unit.)  But ask anyone around them on that river.  It ain’t right.  There is something fundamentally wrong with doing that and something fundamentally wrong about disturbing everyone else’s peaceful sleep with the grinding of a generator.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  On the river, that’s enough.  So, when you go to flick on your light switch tonight, just remember how powerful a thing it is that you are harnessing.  In Him was life and the life was the light of all people.   Amen.

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