Poking around on the interwebs today, I came across a blog I kept during seminary. It was quite the reading experience. Apparently editing was not my strong suit 10 years ago. I also had many thoughts about church politics and events in the Middle East, so solidly on brand there. It included the text of the sermon I gave in the chapel senior year.
I was surprised at how well the sermon held up. There were definitely things I would change–stylistic tweaks I would make. Things I would add for clarity’s sake, and adjustments if I weren’t preaching in an academic community who all knew who Cyrus the Persian was***. But for the most part, the faith I talked about in that sermon is the faith I talk about today. I want to go back in time and high-five my younger self, and tell her “That’s it! Don’t be so nervous! You got this!”
On that note, here is my sermon from this Sunday. It’s less of a sermon, more of a very thorough outline, but the ideas are there. I wanted to talk about light and dark, and the limits of dichotomies in our dealings with God. So I talked about neurological things! As one does.
December 31, 2017
Fun story: For a few years in college, I saw things. Not interesting things, like visions of God or angels, or apparitions of the future. I saw flashing lights, floating dots, and ghost images around lights. All those symptoms that doctors tell you are Very Bad, and you should immediately go to a doctor should you experience.
Tests were all negative–they couldn’t find anything wrong with me, even after all the doctors had stared at me, and med students had looked worried at me. But the flashing lights, and weird floaty things persisted. And thus did begin my fascination with light–since suddenly, everyone else could see something clearly that I could not. This phenomenon I had taken for granted was now very apparent in my life.
(Fast forward a couple years, and doctors would conclude that nothing WAS wrong with me–that what I was seeing was the result of a fried cranial nerve during a bad migraine, and could mostly be fixed with surgery and good glasses. So please don’t worry about me–I am FINE. But my fascination persisted. Light, it seemed, wasn’t just light for everyone.)
Light/dark is a familiar dualism. Light= good! Dark=bad! Light makes us happy, and dark makes us sad. Light is the thing we want, darkness is the thing that scares us. This dichotomy is so familiar to us that we assume that this is apparent to everyone and we use that turn of phrase all the time. It’s everywhere. It’s in the gospels–and not just in the Johaninne prologue.
Recently, this turn of phrase has become controversial, because it has been used throughout history to tell people of darker skin that they are less than. Even so far as Joseph Smith telling Mormons that Indians and black people had darker skin because it was an outward sign of their sin. Now that’s horrific, and so equating light with goodness has become a problem not just for those of us with visual impairments, but also for the reason that it can hearken back to this really troubling history.
But if we listen, what the prologue tells us is that, in fact, the dualism we assume is not apparent. And it isn’t self-evident. When the light comes, John writes, the world doesn’t even notice. Even as the light illuminates the darkness, and even as the light has been present for all time, and lightens all creation. Such a powerful presence, and somehow we just don’t notice it. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.
In retrospect, we sit here, comfortable in the 21st century, and it is hard to see how Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t realize who he was. He was doing miracles! He was preaching such amazing things! How could people not stop what they were doing and noice?
Yet what’s fascinating throughout the gospels is how mundane the reasons people give for avoiding following Christ are. It’s rarely that they don’t believe, per se-more often it’s something more pedestrian. The rich young man really likes Jesus, but Jesus tells him to sell all he has, and well, his house is so comfortable! Business leaders in Jerusalem acknowledge the truth of what the apostles are preaching in Acts, they believe in the risen Christ, but they’re worried about their income. Pilate and Herod know who and what Jesus is–Herod asks for a miracle–but they have other, pressing political concerns.
Rather than a simple dichotomy, what pulls us away from the light of God seems not to be darkness–it seems to be apathy. We seem to be numb to the light, and to what it’s doing. It is all around us, and somehow, we just ignore it, or we don’t see it, because we’re so focused on other things. It’s not that we dwell in darkness–a big, bad, foe out to snatch us up–we just become immune.
It’s here that John’s prologue is at its most wise. John, in his poetry, reminds us that the light is deeper and more profound than a simple enemy to the darkness. But the Word, which is the Light, was in all things, and gave birth to all things, so when we stop and look around–it is in the light in which we live and move and have our being. There is nothing we can think, say, or do that is apart from the Light. And there is no darkness that can overcome or destroy the light. The light of God is what enlivens all life.
But our constant task is to realize it. To see the light as it shines around us, because while God never is apart from us, often we are so used to God’s presence that we begin to take it for granted. Our task is to notice. To recognize. To be aware of the light shining around us. To recognize the divine presence suffusing our existence, and not to be distracted by other concerns or worries. Not money, not politics, not family–not even the darkness. Because as John reminds us today, there is nothing in all creation that can snuff out God’s presence in this world. Thanks to the Incarnation, we are inextricably intertwined in the life of God from now on. The Light is here, and cannot be removed. Our job is to recognize it and mirror it back.
***Cyrus the Persian was the Persian emperor who conquered the Babylonian Empire, and allowed the exiled Israelites to return and rebuild Jerusalem. Despite not being Jewish, Isaiah LUUUUUVES Cyrus because of this–which is why I refer to Cyrus as the McDreamy of the OT. (Because he is.) (Prove me wrong.) (You can’t.)