No Matter the Darkness, The Light Shines

12/5/21 | John 1:1-5

Manuscript

Yet, in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. 

Phillips Brooks sat on horseback atop a hillside. This episcopal priest from New England had come to visit the Holy Land. As Christmas Eve approached, he journeyed out of Jerusalem toward Bethlehem, asking along the way where shepherds were keeping their flock by night. Locals pointed him toward a hilltop. 

So it was that on Christmas Eve 1868, Rev. Brooks climbed the hill at night, looking at a brightly lit night sky. There were stars all around. And just off in the distance, the city of Bethlehem sat still, quiet, and dark. 

This was long before electric lights illuminated homes and city streets in Bethlehem. The moment captured Brooks’s imagination. He felt overcome by that rush of feeling we often attribute to the Holy Spirit. Brooks felt as though he was looking back in time, seeing things as they might have been for the shepherds. 

When he got home to Boston, wanting to record his feelings, Brooks wrote a poem. He began, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” 

Brooks had experienced profound peace, profound silence, and the brilliance of a night sky unencumbered by artificial light. And so his poem continues: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” 

In his powerful spiritual moment on that hillside looking at Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks knew this fundamental truth of our faith: no matter the darkness, the light shines.

Let’s hear our scripture for this morning from the gospel of John. 

Scripture

No matter the darkness, the light shines. 

Winston Churchill faced a dark reality. The Nazis relentlessly bombed the cities of England. He and his companions were forced to take shelter multiple times just like so many of his fellow citizens. There was constant concern, especially for the Prime Minister’s safety. It was with dismay and fear that, one day, an astute guard at the Prime Minister’s weekend retreat noticed the roads around the retreat formed an unintentional bullseye when viewed from overhead, as if to lead German bombers directly to where Winston Churchill resided. 

It was a dark hour in England’s history. Churchill made no bones about that. His laments came forth in public speeches, helping the people to lament as well. He told them his longings, for peace and for an end to the war, not to pity himself nor the people but to encourage, to say that he longed, too, and that if they would embrace each other in their longings for peace, their longings for the light, they would make it through to the end. 

One such speech came on Christmas Eve at the White House. Standing with Roosevelt at the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, Churchill addressed the nation and the world. He gave a short speech, remarking via radio and to onlookers on the White House lawn, “Therefore, we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.” It’s easy to imagine, looking the lights of DC and the tree, that Churchill was moved by the way the light shone in the darkness, for until his visit to DC, he had known only the darkness of night because of the blackouts around his country. 

It’s easy to imagine that because, the next morning, Churchill attended church with Roosevelt. There, they sang, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” As he sang, Churchill teared up as he heard these words from that carol; words that conveyed a meaning like his speech the night before: 

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

No matter the darkness, the light shines.

Long for the light.

The time of the writing of the gospel of John was also a dark time. This is the newest of the gospels, written last, and written at least fifty years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. By then, Christian persecution had picked up tremendously. Instead of persecution being regional, based on the sympathies of the governor of the region, the emperors themselves had taken up the cause of Christian persecution. As the faith spread like wildfire, the killings for entertainment, the imprisonments, and the executions picked up. 

Christians longed for release from that persecution. They all knew someone who’d been jailed or executed or killed for sport in a stadium somewhere. They all had that personal, first-hand knowledge of death. And they longed to be released from it. Longing characterized the Christian people at this moment in history.

To write and disseminate a gospel at that time, then, was high treason; an act worthy of the worst persecution the Roman government could muster. It was at great personal risk that this gospel was not only written but passed around. It speaks of Jesus in a different way, captured here at the very beginning of creation. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke begin with Jesus’s humanity, John begins with Jesus’s divinity. He takes his cues from Genesis, noting that through Jesus, the divine Word as John calls him, all things were created and came into being. 

All life owes itself to Jesus. And that life Jesus brings is the light of the world. 

A light that the darkness did not and cannot overcome. That is John’s central message. The darkness is all around these early Christians through persecution. And yet, they hear John say that the darkness did not overcome. His gospel is a word of encouragement to these persecuted Christians: no matter the darkness you know, no matter how much evil might seem to be winning, the light still shines. Jesus will not be defeated. 

For John knew what Phillips Brooks and Winston Churchill discovered:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. 

No matter the darkness, the light shines.

Long for the light.

Standing in church during a dark Christmas season in my life, I heard a new Christmas carol; one in our hymnal but one still new to me. As I heard these words, I couldn’t help myself. Like Churchill hearing O Little Town, I teared up. The hymn, the Christmas carol, is, “I want to walk as a child of the light” and the chorus goes this way:

“In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God; shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”

I needed the light so much that season. The darkness was all around me. Before that church service, I heard the Christmas angels, their great glad tidings tell, as Phillips Brooks so poignantly wrote in O Little Town, but their carols failed to resonate within me. The darkness was too great. 

Perhaps you can relate. Maybe this season is that way for you. There’s darkness from personal struggles, health issues, family drama, or friendship strife. Maybe there’s darkness from impending threats to businesses or finances. Perhaps there is darkness from other places in our lives, but whatever the reason, perhaps you know darkness more than light this season. Perhaps you find yourself in a dark place. 

And if not, certainly we can all recall Christmas seasons that seemed shrouded in darkness; times where we heard the Christmas angels singing but their great glad tidings seemed empty; a Christmas season where we just wanted to get through it so it’d be over. 

That was the kind of Christmas season I was having that year. I brought with me to church longings for peace, for release, for salvation from the family drama that engulfed me; most of all, a longing to come out of the fog of darkness and back into the light.

And then, this carol about light cut through the darkness and opened up my soul to see the light. As we began the third verse, I could barely sing. It goes like this:

“I’m looking for the coming of Christ. I want to be with Jesus. When we have run with patience the race we shall know the joy of Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”

I was looking for the coming of Christ at that moment. I was running a race and about out of perseverance. I needed the assurance that, at the end of the race, I would know that joy again. That the light of Christ was still around me, still within me. I needed to know, again in my heart, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. 

Later that season, I heard O Little Town again but picked up on that line as never before: Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. And I knew, I just knew, that in my dark streets, the everlasting light was shining.

I knew it because I had given voice to my longings.

And then, I found the light. 

Churchill gave voice to his longings and then he found the light. 

John gave voice to his longings and the longings of the early Christians and then they, together, found the light. 

On a hillside similar to where Phillips Brooks sat that night in 1868, angels years before gave voice the longings of the people of God as they told their great glad tidings to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. And their tidings, their voice, showed the way to the light.

And that is the lesson for us this morning. In all our examples, we see this truth:

Giving voice to our longings leads us to the light. 

It’s in our longings that we best discover the light. But we don’t like to give voice to our longings. Perhaps it’s too vulnerable. Perhaps giving voice to longings makes the darkness too real. Perhaps it’s for another reason, but whatever the cause, it’s tempting to try and squash those longings, tempting to try and distract ourselves or deny that the longing is there. Longing is uncomfortable. Longing is hard. 

But when we long, when we yearn, when we cry out, when we give voice to those longings, we discover the light. 

So this season, let yourself long for the light. Give voice to your longings: longings for peace in family drama or release from suffering or healing from a bad health diagnosis or for a financial turnaround or any number of ways we experience the darkness; darkness we can define as the absence of the love, joy, peace, and hope of this season. Whether you know a little bit of darkness or the darkness seems overwhelming or somewhere in between, give voice to your longings. Don’t tune out the angels with their great glad tidings. Don’t shut yourself off from others. 

Instead, embrace your longings. For when we do, we open our souls up to receive the light of Christ. When we embrace our longings, when we learn to long for the light, we give God space to shine in our hearts, showing us that in Christ there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike, as that new Christmas carol says; that there is in fact light around us. 

How do we give voice to our longings? 

First, talk about them with friends and family. Don’t keep them inside. That’s the power of friendship, as we noted in the sermon last Sunday. When we come to our friends and family with our longings, people we trust who will walk the journey of life with us, we meet Christ there in that relationship. Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, Christ is there; and when we choose to be vulnerable and open about our longings with friends and family we trust, we find the light. 

Second, talk with God about those longings. Pray with authentic longing. Just tell God what you’re longing for. So often, we go in prayer to God and say to God what we think God wants to hear or what we think we’re supposed to say. Just speak as you feel. If you have trouble finding the words, pray with scripture. Use the resources on the church website to help with that. Come and talk to me. 

And come to the Blue Christmas service on Wednesday; that’s a great way to learn to pray authentically and to bring your longings before God with others who are bringing their longings; discovering that we are not alone in the things we long for.

When we pray with authentic longing, we can sing “in him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike,” and know, just know, that the light does indeed shine. 

Because when we long, when we give voice to those longings, we open the door of our soul for Christ to come in and shine the light. 

What are you longing for this season? Where do you know darkness? Give voice to those longings and you will find the light.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. 

Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus. 

Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s