Asbury First United
Text: Luke 2
It is dark as Joseph makes up the straw bedding upon which the Prince of Peace will be born. He fumbles a little in the demi-dark, his face dimly lit by a single candle. He remembers saying to Mary, early in the day, the words of confidence common to every domestic journey.
The trip is not long. Why, we are almost there. You will feel better when we get to Bethlehem. Tomorrow will be a better day. Loosen your tunic and sandals. Let the donkey do the work. I’m sure we’ll find someplace to stay. Things have a way of working out. I love you.
We take so much for granted, beginning with our very lives. We are busy with the journey, the road, the arrangements, so busy that we become blind to what is really happening all along the way.
Now Joseph sees his breath cloud the manger with mist. He shivers against the cold. He looks for a long, long, silent time into the flickering candle.
The birth of Jesus Christ touches the circle of life with the straight eternal line of Almighty God. As line touches circle, so heaven touches earth at a single point, a candle lit manger. Jesus-he will save his people from their sin.
Some of you have walked down Broadway toward Wall Street this fall. You have told me, or tried to tell me, about your journey. You have spoken about the Chapel of St. Paul, untouched as giant buildings crashed around it. There you saw the memorials-flowers, photos, notes, gifts, poems, keepsakes, anything that could make such horrid death more personal, more approachable, more survivable. We have survived, as others did not. Now we continue to press on to survive our own survival.
We are crystal clear this autumn about the human being’s capacity to hurt, to kill, to sin. It is as plain as the nose on your face. To be human, and so to be free in the image of God who is Perfect Freedom, is to have the power to maim, to sin. There are many dark places tonight, from Bethlehem to Bogota, but none darker than Lower Manhattan. Darker than 100 mid-nights down in a Cyprus swamp.
Into this dark world Jesus is born. Into this dark world comes the divine presence. Into this dark world, sodden with sin that is both personal and pervasive, comes the Prince of Peace, of the increase of whose government and peace there is to be no end.
We too went to the smoking ground zero, there to kneel and there to pray and there to ponder again the wondrous love willing to enter such a place as this and to walk under the looming specter of death. I can feel the hard pavement on which we knelt and on which so many died.
We also saw a play that weekend. This musical was much like the Puccini opera, La Boheme. I happened to hear the Puccini piece, sung by Robert Merrill, on July 15, 2001. It is about young artists, in a cold, dark garrett, on a bitter Christmas Eve. This modern musical is equally powerful and darkly beautiful.
Midway into the story a young woman appears at the door of her neighbor. Both are poor, lost, penniless and lonely. Like all of us, especially on this holiest of nights, we long to connect with others, with our own truest selves, and with God. She knocks on the door, looking for a match with which to light her candle, for just a little warmth, just a little light. And she sings, “Will somebody light my candle?” Since that day ground zero, since that night on Broadway, I cannot get the smell of the one and the sound of the other to leave me. Perhaps our clarity about the dark downtown helps us truly see the promise and the utter necessity of the light at midtown. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a young man wondering about profession, marriage, meaning. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a young mother, raising children alone. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a man, or woman, alone now for the first time at Christmas. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a grandfather listening for news of his grandson in the service, far away. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here is a preacher wondering how on earth the hopes and fears of all the years will ever be met tonight. “Will somebody light my candle?” Here you are, on the brink of faith, just about ready to accept your own acceptance, to connect with your own connectedness, to survive your own survival, to live in the peace of God.
At the close of this service we all will be invited to light a candle. This year, especially, may our tradition be infused with gospel and grace. I mean, do not light the candle unless you mean it. Light the candle if in the lighting you are ready to walk in newness of life, to live in faith, and to act accordingly.
“People know my faith”, you may mutter. “What has a candle to do with it?” How easily we so reason.
“My children know I love them” Really! How can they unless you tell them, show them, say so, give to them?
“My parents know how I feel about them.” Really! How can they unless you visit them, write to them, speak to them, show them.
“My staff knows how much I appreciate their work.” Really! How fortunate you are to be surrounded by such clairvoyant folks. How can they unless you say so, act so, give so, show them.
“My community knows how much I care.” Really! How would they unless you vote, pay taxes, participate, and share?
“My church knows how much it means to me.” Really! How could that be unless you worship, tithe, invite, serve?
“My Lord knows my faith.” Really! And how could He see it unless you live it? At least make a start. Go to that first Sunday service. Speak that first word of love. Attend that first AA meeting. Try that first tentative prayer. Befriend that first foreign, different person. Read that first passage. Write that first check. Take that first step, on the road to Bethlehem. And let the candle lit tonight be your personal, public declaration of intent so to do!
Listen, folks. Like dark Manhattan needs a candle lit, so those around you need to see and hear your commitment. Light a candle tonight, but only if you mean it. “Will somebody light a candle?”
A heart can be changed on Christmas Eve. It is in that way perilous to come to church on this night. You may be in for more than you bargained for. It is not the Methodist minister’s mellifluous monotone that changes hearts. That power and authority ride just on top of the preached word, coming home in divine presence, in holy, holy, spirit. God wants you for God’s own, and God will speak God’s word for you and to you in God’s own time and in God’s own way, including here and now.
You are the light of the world. Let your light so shine before others that they may give glory to God.
It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sin.
Maybe the difficulties of this autumn caused the beauty of one wedding this December to shine. We married here in the nave a handsome young couple, happy and deeply in love. They are just fine people. They both came from Pumpkin Hook. As they finished their vows, accepting both the commitments and delights of marriage, they watched as in the darkened sanctuary all their family and friends lit candles with them. I know that in the marriage of heaven and earth, as Jesus Christ takes his betrothed Church to himself, there is no need, really, for others. Christ and his church, the bride of Christ, are by grace embraced. But he offers us a place in the service, a seat in the nave, a word to speak, a candle to light. He gives us something to do to respond to His magisterial Love. What a great shame, a tragedy it would be, not to light such a candle!
My friend Sam Davis reminded me of the Auden Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being:
He is the Way
Follow Him through the land of unlikeness
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures
He is the Truth
Seek Him in the kingdom of anxiety
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years
He is Life
Love him in the world of the flesh
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.