Sermon preached on Sunday December 14
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Someone recently shared with me a number of notes children wrote to God. They are wonderful and I will share them with you from time to time. Here are just a couple. Dear God, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that o.k.? Neil 2: Dear God, maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry. 3: We read Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday School they said you did it. So I bet he stoled your idea. Sincerely, Donna.
So Thomas Edison stole the idea of light! Of course Edison did not invent light, so I guess it makes no sense to accuse him of stealing from God. Instead he figured out a way to have electric current flow through a carbon filament to create light out of electricity. This occurred in the late 1870s. Until that time, and for many years afterward, until electricity was brought to nearly every area of the country, people burned oil lamps or candles for light once darkness had descended. Light in darkness, maybe Edison stole that idea from the writer of John’s gospel, for he uses it quite a bit.
Surrounding the passage we read today about John the Baptist, the writer of the gospel (who is not the John who is John the Baptist) says things like all things came into being through the Word, including life – “and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Light, darkness, life – if you read John’s gospel you will encounter these themes again and again. The gospel writer uses the images in chapter one to say that something wonderful and awe-inspiring and life-giving and life-changing and history-changing has happened. He wants to say that God has been at work in a wonderful way, that God has touched our lives and our world in the life of a man named Jesus. It is like light shining in the darkness.
We need to use this image with care and with intelligence. We use it with care because such images have reinforced racial stereotypes, and that is not what they are about. Darkness in the Bible can be a frightening, dangerous place, but also a place where God is found in unique ways. John uses it to describe a kind of life that is less than life, a life filled with fear, a life blind to beauty and possibility. John, the gospel writer writes centuries before Edison, during a time when darkness was terribly dark. Once the sun set, there were no street lights to illumine dark places. If you wanted to see at night inside, you needed to burn candles or oil, but these might be in short supply, especially if you were poor. In the dark, those who would do you harm might feel freer to strike. The darkness could be a time of violence and robbery. Even today, people are cautioned if they are out well after dark to walk in lighted places. The gospel writer uses a common, everyday image to try and share something about what God has done in the life of Jesus – brought light and life into a dark world.
It is almost redundant then to share this story about John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s function is the same as the writer’s function – to testify to the light. God can be at work in the world, but God is always looking for people to share the story, to witness, to testify. God always calls people to see, to hear, to pay attention, and then to tell others about where God is at work.
The dynamic of God inviting people to witness, to testify, has a long history in the Bible before the Gospel of John. John the gospel writer, in fact, turns to an older biblical text to describe the testifying and witnessing work of John the Baptist. He is like the voice of one crying in the wilderness – a quote from Isaiah 40. Isaiah also writes about a person filled with the Spirit sent to bring good news. This could be John the Baptist too. God’s movement in the world, God’s Spirit touching lives, is meant to be witnessed. Good news is meant to be shared. The good news of Christian faith is that light of God’s love shines into the darkness of our lives and our world. The good news of Christian faith is that God continues to inspire so that the oppressed are given justice, the brokenhearted are healed, the captives are set free, those who mourn are comforted, faint spirits are strengthened. Peter Gomes from Harvard has said succinctly that the good news is “You don’t have to be as you are” (The Christian Century, December 15, 2008, p. 37). I would add, “The world doesn’t have to be as it is.” Such good news needs a witness. Such good news needs one to testify on its behalf.
I can testify to the light of God’s love. I can witness to the difference God’s grace, God’s love makes in a human life. I have not shared a great deal about the family I grew up in, in large measure because I know some of you know my parents. I intend to remain somewhat circumspect about this, but for me to testify to the power of God’s love in my life, you need to know a little bit about my background.
My parents divorced when I was in my early twenties. I don’t think it would be sharing too much to say that the tensions which resulted in that divorce were felt in our family for a number of years. It added some challenges to growing up. As I have learned more about my family history, I know that there are issues going back further than my parent’s marital tensions. Both sets of grandparents had alcohol problems, though they were significantly less pronounced in my grandmother who is still living at age 96. Alcohol contributed to the deaths of my other three grandparents and to my mom’s brother – who died in his late 50s. Who can say what those issues ended up contributing to my own parent’s marital discord. In the past few weeks, I have heard a story that goes even further back in my family history. My great-grandmother, who lived to be 94 and who I remember well, in fact she died twenty years ago this past week, my great-grandmother divorced her husband in 1946. She was 52 and Catholic. She had been suffering from bleeding for a time, but her husband told her she would be just fine and forbid her from seeking medical attention. She worked with some of her children to come to Duluth to get the attention she needed, and she determined that she would never return to her husband.
One of the issues that divided my parents was church. My dad had been raised Catholic, but never attended church when I was growing up. My mother did not drive, but would walk us to church when we went. I suppose I could tell you I was always excited to go to church, but I was not. I remember trying to pretend I was sleeping and hoping my mom would not wake me to go to church. It was when I was in the eighth grade at my home church that I had a powerful experience of God’s love and grace, an experience that has shaped me ever since. I didn’t fall down on my knees in a flash of blinding light or go forward at a mass evangelism rally. I had a teacher who told me of God’s love and over time I became convinced of that love and believed I needed to respond. I can do all kinds of analyzing of this time in my life – tensions at home, feeling awkward at school in so many ways (it was eighth grade!) – all of that no doubt contributed to what I experienced, but I trust that God was in the midst of that, calling me by name, letting me know that I was beloved. That’s what my name in Hebrew means – David, much loved. It was at that time I first considered becoming an ordained minister.
But there was not a straight line from eighth grade to this moment standing here today. In later high school and college, I questions, I explored, I drifted. My mind expanded but my faith did not immediately follow. When Julie and I started dating in college, she was probably the more traditional Christian than me. But in the midst of all this, the church, which was not always a kind place to me as I have shared before, my church was a kind place, a welcoming place, a place that gave me room to explore – or at least welcomed me as I explored. Even as I entered seminary, it was less a vocational choice than the next step in my spiritual journey, my journey of faith. But I had been touched by a light, embraced by a love and I found my way back to that faith – a different faith perhaps, but a faith for a new day a new time in my life. Two quotes come to mind to describe this part of my journey – one I have loved for a long time and one I have just discovered.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (Four Quartets, 59)
The supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God
Kirk Bingamon (in Cooper-White, p. 23)
Finding my faith again, renewed, transformed, a faith able to grow, to handle questions even as it continued to question me, led to hearing a call from God to ordained ministry. I have continued to try and follow that call and the way of Jesus and Christian faith in my life. I am not perfect at it. I know those places in my life where I can be unloving. I know the struggles I have within. I know when my “spiritual disciplines” are faintly followed. The way of Jesus is a challenging way. To be open to all the world is not easy. I have never related well to those stories of faith where a person finds Jesus and then they just skate along. That’s not been true for me. What I can testify to is that there has been a powerful love in my life which continues to call me, shape me, form me, invite me to be my best self and to care about the world. Because of that love maybe I’ve been able to resist passing on some of the less helpful parts of my family history, and perhaps have passed on some better ones. I am still growing and developing, still asking questions and exploring, but I know that a light has been shined into the darkness. I know I can be different than I am now, that the rough places can be smoothed out. I know that the world can be different and I will do what I can to make it so. Like John the Baptist, I testify to the light.
You can too. You have stories to share about how God’s love has made a difference in your lives. You have stories to share about how Christian faith, the Bible, church, make a difference for you. And people need to hear your stories. One part of sharing your story is to invite others to this community of faith. Frankly it is often easier to begin with that kind of invitation than to share your whole life story with someone, but the two go together.
We invite people to church and to faith by sharing our faith story. We invite people to church because we know that there are many stories of faith to be heard, and in a way the job of testifying to the light of God’s love in our lives belongs to us all, and belongs to us all together. We share our stories and invite people here because we want others to know God’s love, to have some sense of the joy and peace and direction and even challenge we know in our lives. We invite people because we want them to know God’s love and to live God’s love with us.
In recent newsletters I have written a lot about inviting, about radical hospitality, about sharing what we have here with others. I know that this is a little uncomfortable because I have heard from some that it is. Shouldn’t the church be interested in others and not itself? You have a point there – but what if what others need as much as anything in their lives is a sense of community, a people with whom to ask questions, a place to search out their spirituality, people who will laugh with them and cry with them? Don’t we have that to offer? Why wouldn’t we offer it?
I am going to be straightforward with you. I would like to see this church grow. I would like to see both our worship services average near 150 in attendance. I would like to see more small groups. But churches grow in all kinds of ways and growth in numbers is not as important as helping people grow in faith, as growing in our sense of community with each other – love for each other, as growing in our ministry to our community and world – a ministry of compassion and justice. I would like to see our church grow because I believe people need what we have – each other, a faith that enriches our lives and challenges us to be better and a God who loves us even when we fail. I would like to see our church grow because I believe the world needs what we have – people committed to a more just, peaceful, compassionate and green world. My primary reason for wanting to see this church grow is to connect people with God’s love, to help them grow in their understanding and experience of that love, and to live that love more fully in their lives. That’s so important to me that I tell people who may be checking us out, “if this is not the place you need for your faith right now, for your spiritual journey, I will help you find another congregation in town that may be more helpful.”
What we are about is connecting people to God’s love, to each other and inspiring people to live God’s dream for the world. That’s the light that shines in the darkness, and I want people to find a place where that light shines most brightly from them.
But if we don’t testify to the light, if we don’t invite people, we never give them the opportunity to think about their lives in some new ways. And you need to find your way to do it. You will do this in your way, not mine. You will do it in a way that avoids all the obnoxiousness that too often comes with discussions of faith and invitations to church.
Dan Dick, a United Methodist pastor shares the story of a time in an airport when he was between flights. A woman approached him. “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Dan said he was startled by the woman and tried to ignore her. She persisted. “You may think I’m weird, but I need you to know that you are in danger of eternal damnation if you don’t accept Jesus. TODAY!” “Thanks, ma’am, but I’m a United Methodist pastor.” “Yes, but are you saved?” Irritated, Dan looked her straight in the eye and said, “I just told you I’m a minister.” “But you said you were Methodist. I want to know if you’re Christian.” (Bursting the Bubble, 93)
You have my permission and deep encouragement not to do that!!! But find ways to testify to the light in your life. Find ways to invite others to journey with you and with us. To give you a little help and encouragement, you will find an invitation to Christmas Eve services in your bulletin. You are invited. I invite you to invite someone else. Testify to the light. Amen.