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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
Christmas 2023

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.  (Isaiah 9:2)

 Last Wednesday I read that it’s been 144 years since Thomas Alva Edison first unveiled to the world a working light bulb.  What my little “this day in history” calendar didn’t reveal, however, was a story behind the story.  The year was 1879.  Candles and gas lamps were still the only way for people to light the darkness of night.  Thomas Edison, already known as a great inventor, vowed to create an artificial light powered by electricity.  From his laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ, Edison poured himself into the project as he did no other.  He and his sixty workers performed more than twelve-hundred different experiments.  He sent people all over the world to find and test thousands of materials that would burn brightly without burning up.  He spent over forty-thousand dollars (a veritable fortune in those days) and endured countless failures.  But finally, Thomas Edison had invented an incandescent light bulb, and it worked.  A world that walked in darkness would see a great light.

The story behind the story goes like this: upon completion of the light bulb, Edison disconnected his fragile creation, handed it to one of his young assistants, and gave instructions for him to take it up some stairs to another area of the lab.  On the way, the nervous assistant stumbled, and lost his grip on the precious cargo.  He dropped the bulb, and it shattered on the floor.  The young man was devastated.  What did Edison have to say?  We don’t know, but the only thing to do was to make another one – no easy task, given all that had gone into creating the first.  When the great inventor had completed a second bulb, he then did something perhaps even more remarkable than the invention itself.  Thomas Edison made a point of calling the very same assistant over to his side.  In the hearing of all he gave the same instructions for him to carry the light bulb to the other area of the lab.  Then he placed the wondrous instrument of light into the young man’s hands.  This time the assistant did not drop the light bulb.  For the young man, Thomas Edison’s gesture was a moment of redemption and rebirth.

The story of Christmas is in many ways a story like that.  It is the story of a great light coming into the world.  It is the story of a magnificent gift – a costly creation – handed to the people who walk in darkness: to the lost and lonely, to the frightened and confused, to the ignorant and the arrogant, to the cynical and the skeptical, to the simple and the sophisticated, to the young and the old, to me and to you, whoever you are.  What is this gift?  Isaiah the prophet called it a great light.  John the Gospel writer called it power to become a child of God.  He called it light and life.  It is the light that shines in the darkness: the darkness can’t comprehend it, and the darkness can’t put it out.  The magnificent gift we celebrate tonight is the light and life of God.  At a cost to himself unimaginable to us, God took on flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth.  God emptied himself entirely into the form of this one person.  God poured himself into this project as he did no other, “from the first days of our disobedience, unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this holy Child.”  God became one of us.  God became as small as an infant.  God handed himself to the world – to us, to be a great light for the people who walk in darkness.  Christ is our gift, and our chance for redemption and rebirth.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, God handed himself to the world in the little baby Jesus.  God gave us his living presence – not a religion, not a collection of teachings, not a list of commandments, not a set of rules and regulations to be imposed on people.  God gave the world his living, active, light and life in Jesus.  What would the world do with him?  What will we do with him?  No matter how many times I read or hear the Christmas story, I am always struck by the original cast of characters, and the miracle that they took hold of the gift at all, and not drop the light that God had placed in their hands. 

Consider Mary and Joseph.  In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  Then, as now, people who occupy the corridors of power tend to issue orders for their own inconsiderate gain – orders that send the pregnant, the weak, the children, even the elderly walking in the darkness.  Then, as now, some people really need to look up the word “sinful” in the dictionary.  For Mary and Joseph, Caesar’s decree would mean an eighty mile trek on foot in the ninth month of the pregnancy.  But even before taking on the hazardous outward journey, these two had already covered difficult inward terrain without stumbling.  Mary would have been young, barely a teenager.  We might fear that her youth and inexperience would make her unfit to receive such a gift.  Could she be trusted to bear the Son of God, to raise him and nurture him according to God’s will?  We might doubt it.  Yet God chose Mary – young, naive, trusting, inexperienced Mary – to carry his most precious creation into the world.  Mary said yes.  Mary didn’t stumble. 

God also chose Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus and fiancee of Mary.  As Matthew tells us, Joseph came close to dropping the light God was handing to him.  We know that Joseph was a carpenter.  As such he was probably a practical, level-headed, rational type of person.  Chances are he was much older than Mary.  When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy – a pregnancy in which he presumably played no part – he resolved to end the engagement.  We can imagine his skepticism of Mary’s claims that the child she was carrying was of the Holy Spirit.  Of all things to believe!  How easy it would have been for Joseph to divorce Mary.  Yet God persisted with Joseph, and spoke to him in a dream, and convinced him to take hold of the light that was coming into the world.  God handed himself to doubting, disbelieving, skeptical Joseph on that first Christmas.  Joseph said yes, which is good news for those of us who are naturally inclined to doubt the miraculous.

It is good news because tonight, on Christmas Eve 2023, it’s our turn once again to be handed the Light of the world, the gift of Jesus.  In just a few moments you will find yourself holding a lighted candle, kneeling in your pew, and singing “Silent Night.”  If all goes well the church will be dark.  No doubt, some of the bulbs and electrical systems in this place date from the days of Edison himself.  It’s a miracle that they go on and off at all!  Nevertheless, we will use them to simulate the darkness so that you can hold in your hands a light that shines.  But this year we don’t really need to simulate the darkness, do we?  We have glimpsed what it is to be the people who walk in darkness: in Israel, in Gaza, in Ukraine. 

Perhaps your path is darkened by loneliness.  You walk without the human relationships you crave: without the spouse you lost or never had, without the child you misunderstood and drove away, without the parent you rejected and neglected.  But then, even when we are physically present for each other, we yearn for more.  We have a strange yearning for perfection and permanence that no human relationship can fulfill.  Can any light pierce the gloom of sin and grief?  In heart and mind we go to Bethlehem, we peer into the manger, and our longings on this night are perhaps too deep for words.  On Christmas Eve we yearn for redemption and rebirth.  We hope for another chance.  We pray for peace on earth, or at least in our lives.  We yearn for the holy Child of Bethlehem to be born in us, just as he was born in those people some two-thousand years ago. 

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.

Well, hear this, all you people walking in darkness: tonight, God is shining a great light on those who dwell in the shadow of death.  Tonight, God is handing us light and life.  How shall we receive him?  It can be as it must have been for the young assistant in Thomas Edison’s lab, when the great inventor placed the second light bulb in his hands after he had broken the first.  It can be the next time you come forward to the altar rail, and extend your hands to receive his living presence in bread and wine.  Imagine Mary looking right into your eyes and asking, “Would you like to hold him?”  Imagine leaving here tonight daring to carry an entirely new perspective on your existence.  You have come into the world not by cosmic chance.  You are, and are aware of it, because God has handed you divine light and life.  St. John wrote, “This is the true light that lighteth everyone who cometh into the world.”  What will you do with the light of Christ implanted in your soul?  How easy it will be for us to stumble in the year to come.  We can dismiss it all as sentimentality, a fairy tale, a myth, a nice children’s story with a happy ending.  But for those who trust themselves to be trusted, Christ the newborn King was, and is, and evermore shall be God’s light shining in the darkness.

A story is told of a small group of people who literally walked in darkness.  They were refugees of war fleeing their country by foot, traveling by night over extremely rugged terrain.  Among the group was a young mother and her tiny infant son.  As they prepared to leave the refugees knew that each person would have to make it on his or her own strength.  They could not imperil the safety of the group for anyone who lagged behind.  The one concession they made was that each person would take a turn carrying the child.  Several days had passed on their hazardous trek when finally an elderly man collapsed and could go no further.  He told the group to go on and save themselves and allow him to die there.  This they began to do.  But then, the young mother took her child, knelt down to the old man, and said to him, “You cannot stop here; it is your turn to carry the child.”  And she placed the infant in his arms.  She handed him that little helpless boy – bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh.  Then the woman stood and began to catch up with the others.  Moments later she turned and saw the old man hurrying after her, carrying the child. 

The story of Christmas is in many ways a story like that.  Hear again the words of Isaiah: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. 

 Christmas is your turn to carry the child.  Christmas is your turn to receive God’s wondrous gift of life and light.  It is the light that shines in the darkness.  The darkness cannot comprehend it.  The darkness cannot put it out. 


The story of the refugees is adapted from a parable by Joseph P. Klock, which appears in a sermon by Beth W. Ely in Preaching as the Art of Sacred Conversation: Sermons That Work VI, Morehouse, 1997.