“An Incarnate Hope”
Service of Healing and Wholeness
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Second Sunday of Advent — 12/6/20
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (NRSV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (NRSV)
In Genesis 1, when God began to create, the first rendering of God’s holiness is light. And according to the ancient storytellers, “God saw that the light was good.”
As for darkness, it seems neither good nor bad—at least not in the minds of those who first played with the notion that we are not alone in the universe. Those primordial mystics were most concerned with declaring their faith that, the lack of hard evidence notwithstanding, the mysterious presence they called God was as real as the difference between day and night.
John holds a slightly different view. While he refers to the same “beginning” to which Genesis refers, there’s not simply a contrast between light and darkness. The two stand in opposition to each other. The light, being good, becomes synonymous with life; and the darkness is, if not specifically evil, then certainly a realm in which evil and death hold sway.
It seems to me that, for us, the metaphors of light and darkness have fallen in line with John’s view more than with that of Genesis. Regardless of how theologically we may think, we tend to associate light with goodness, and darkness with things that frighten or anger us.
For people in the northern hemisphere, the Advent and Christmas seasons come at the darkest and coldest time of the year. So, when life seems most difficult—when light is scarce and darkness abounds—the primary religious tradition of our culture leaves many people struggling against, and resentful of a kind of soul-crushing demand to feel happiness, gratitude, generosity, and hope.
That tension is inevitable perhaps. At Christmas, Christians celebrate our foundational faith claim: The one whom we call God, is incarnate among us, and is constantly revealing God’s own Self to us. The mysterious Presence who is transcendent and unknowable is also fully present and available to us not only through scripture and prayer, but also through engaging the physical world through our five senses. The creation itself is not just a gift from God, but an intentional and grace-filled self-rendering of God. And light, being not something we see but that by which we see, is the seminal gift that illuminates God’s gift of the Creation, God’s presence in the Creation, and thus God’s desire that we experience and share the holiness of the created world.
At Christmas we proclaim the Incarnation of God which begins “in the beginning.” And while many of us do feel the joy and hope of the season, at least as many of us feel burdened by our creatureliness, especially when there are more hours of darkness than light each day, especially when our culture is experiencing the turmoil of rapid change, especially when a deadly pandemic keeps us breathing through masks and distanced from people we love, from communities that we need and that need us, and from many of the familiar activities, routines, and rituals that define us, comfort us, and renew us. And all of those things are on top of the normal beginnings and endings, sorrows and joys that human beings face regardless of the season or cultural context.
“In the beginning,” says John, God and the Word were intimately and equally involved in the act of creating. And he says that “the [true] light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
That’s the promise of Incarnation: That even in the darkest corners, God is present because the light and life of Creation do not and cannot exist apart from the Creator.
I wish this meant that we’d all be healthy and whole all the time, but we all know that such a fantasy only makes reality harder to face. Nonetheless, we proclaim that God is good because light is good, the firmament is good, the earth is good, the creatures are good, and, at our deep, light-drenched, incarnational essence, humankind is also good because, bearing God’s image, we can love and be loved regardless of the pain within us and around us.
I have a suspicion, a thoroughly subjective suspicion, that the relentlessness and the depth of the anxiety and outright pain around us are making us newly aware of the presence of God’s good and unconquerable light—or maybe our shared suffering is at least making some of us more determined to seek it. Whatever the case, it seems to me that this year more people have decorated their homes for Christmas with curiously early and vivid displays. Unless my memory is just getting short, even the town of Jonesborough has decorated the trees along Main Street not only with brighter and more colorful lights, but with more lights altogether. Illuminating the darkness with a kind of defiant hope, they widen our faces into smiles. They dance and flicker in our tears. They reveal something more radiant within us than “holiday cheer,” something more gracious than piles of wadded-up wrapping paper on Christmas morning. The lights speak to us of the Creation’s deepest, truest beginning from which, as Paul says, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us.” (Romans 8:38-39)
I know what specific darknesses a few of you are experiencing. And I know that none of us are exempt from loss, illness, anxiety, or fear. I also trust, with every fiber of my being, that we are not alone in the universe. When we open our eyes, the light by which we see proclaims that the Creation is not the handiwork of some freak accident of chemistry and physics, but a joyous, gracious, generous out-pouring of a loving and purposeful Creator—the One revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus reveals to us that God comes to us not only as one of us, but also:
in the dependable turning of the seasons,
in the delicious fertility of the earth,
in the renewing warmth of fire,
in the refreshment of water,
in the loveliness of the lilies of the field,
in the scent of lilacs in the spring and the aroma of rich decay of fallen leaves in autumn,
in the near euphoria of the caress of a breeze on our cheeks,
in the frenzy-stopping sound of music, of human voices singing songs crafted to share beauty and truth that words alone seldom convey,
in the divine comfort of a human hand in a time of sorrow,
in the twin ecstasies of laughter and weeping,
and in the sacred beginnings and endings, in the hallowing joys and sufferings without which life would be so barren as to make it not worth living.
Whatever these days hold for you right now, may you experience God’s healing presence in them. May you know God’s wholeness. And may you be, in ways great and small, incarnate vessels of healing and wholeness for those familiar to you, for the stranger, and for this entire, glorious, suffering, God-soaked Creation in which we all live, upon which we all depend.