A few weeks ago as a pastor was preparing to step into the pulpit to deliver the Sunday morning sermon, one of the ushers walked forward and handed the pastor a note that had been dropped in the offering plate. The note read: "I have nothing to offer today but the hope for a better tomorrow."1
In the midst of our global economic crisis, I suspect there are many people who could write that note. "I have nothing to offer today, but the hope for a better tomorrow." With the terrible violence that is occurring in the Gaza Strip, with the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the Christmas day slaughtering of civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with food shortages and medical shortages, how many people around the globe could join that chorus: "I have nothing to offer today, but the hope for a better tomorrow."
As we gather on this first Sunday of the new year, we do so as people who are relentlessly hopeful. We are confident that we will survive difficult times, because we believe God is always with us, and God seeks to lead the world to better days.
Our hope stems from what we believe about Jesus of Nazareth. In the first few decades following his death and resurrection, the Gospel writers wrestled with how they could communicate their sense that when they experienced Jesus, they experienced God. They believed Jesus was the Messiah, the One for whom people of faith had been longing for centuries, but the title Messiah was not fully adequate. Jesus was more than Messiah, and so they also called him Son of God. The Gospel of Mark highlighted his baptism as the special moment when God's Spirit filled Jesus and he became God's son. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell of a miraculous birth, and ten days ago we retold that heartwarming story of the couple who traveled to Bethlehem where they encountered the inn with a "No vacancy" sign and were relegated to the stable. We cherish the nativity scene, the angel's announcement to the shepherds and the Magi trekking for miles, guided by a star. The birth of Jesus announced that God is not a distant deity, but is as near to us as our breath.
The Gospel of John announces this profound mystery of our faith - God in Jesus - in a completely different manner. Not with a dove descending at his baptism and not with the story of his birth, but with compelling poetry that echoes the creation of the universe. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." And then switching metaphors, the writer declares that Jesus is the Light that shines in the darkness.
On Christmas Day, Camilla and I drove to Richmond to celebrate Christmas with our daughter, Grandison, and her family. That evening, when we gathered at the table for our Christmas dinner, we lit a candle.
I asked our three grandchildren if they knew why we lit candles at Christmas, and I was preparing to seize this teachable moment. I was going to talk about the star in the night sky that led the Magi to the manger and I was going to tell them about John's Gospel naming Jesus as the light that shines in the darkness. But before I could utter a single word, our six year-old grandson, Matthew, said very sweetly and with certainty, "Light beats darkness." And God gave me the wisdom to tuck away my homily and say simply, "That's exactly right."
I am not sure if Matthew had gleaned this wisdom from hearing the Christmas story or from his current obsession with Star Wars Legos where the forces of good fight Darth Vader and his forces of darkness; probably a combination of the two. Whatever the case, he understands the essence of the Christian gospel as presented in the powerful opening words of John's Gospel.
Christ is the light of the world and "light beats darkness."
Christ's birth declares that God is with us. It does not claim that everything is fine, that evil has been swept away, that suffering has vanished and justice has finally been established for all. Jesus was born in harsh times and his life was never easy. Poverty was widespread, justice was anemic and a foreign power occupied his country. The Christian faith is realistic about the darkness in our world, but Christ's birth emphatically announces that we are not alone. God is with us when the wheels come off and life is a struggle. God is with us when the economy crashes and terrorists strike. God is with us when we lose a loved one or lose our job. God is with us when our health takes a nose dive or we are treated unjustly. We never have to face the darkness alone, because God is with us. And that not only gives us the strength to endure difficult times, but the hope for a better tomorrow.
Life presents us with a variety of futures. What will happen in the coming days and years is unknown because it has not been cast. The future that emerges is shaped by the decisions we make each day and each moment of our lives. Individually, God wants us to experience beauty, meaning, truth and joy. Collectively, God wants us to create a world in which everyone has freedom, where justice prevails, where poverty is eradicated and where we can live together in peace.
However, when our principle guide is narrow self-interest, we select a course that may bring rewards in the short term, but is ultimately unfulfilling and destructive. Think Bernard Madoff, who for years, made off with billions. He was driven not only by the lure of wealth, but by a need to be powerful and to be admired; and in the short term his scheme worked magnificently. But then the pyramid collapsed. His corruption caught up with him and not only destroyed his personal financial empire, and not only wiped out the investments of other people and colleges and charities, but also led two financial advisors who trusted him to take their own lives. When the guiding principle is narrow self-interest, the ripples of wreckage fan out and engulf others
However, when we make the commitment to follow the way of Christ, we embark on a path that leads to a richer life for us and a better world for all. We can choose to deepen the darkness in our world or we can choose to expand the light.
Six years ago, on December 29th, I received a lengthy email from Bob - not his real name - regarding the previous nine days of his life. Five days before Christmas he lost his job, and as he was driving home that day he was frightened. His mind jumped from one terrifying question to the next: How was he going to pay for Christmas? How was he going to pay the mortgage? What impact would this have on his pregnant wife? As the darkness began to close in on him, he became emotional and the tears began to flow, so he pulled off the road. I don't know if he routinely keeps a Bible in his car or he just happened to have one with him that day, but he opened it and began to read. He confessed in his email that he could not recall what passages he read; but the Scriptures calmed him and prompted him to pray.
I've held onto this email so I will quote him directly: "I thanked God for the blessings in my life. I gave thanks for my wife, my daughter, and the new baby on the way; it's a girl by the way. But most of all I thanked God for the opportunity to pursue a new path; a more meaningful career. I was terribly unhappy and felt trapped and it was beginning to affect everyone and everything around me. After awhile, I was able to continue home, but my world had changed because I was beginning a new and more meaningful journey."
"Being a recovering drug addict, this series of events is quite remarkable. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and turning to drugs - thus increasing the despair and depression - I reached out for love; and it was there. I was reminded of my accomplishments. I was strengthened by the thought of my loved ones and my church family. I was reminded of the horrors I had endured during my drug usage. But most of all I was reminded of the fact that God has been there all the time. I just refused to look."
Bob went on to say that he had decided to go back into counseling addicts - something he had stopped doing some time ago. He wrote, "I believe this is my calling in life. I feel in my heart this is what I am meant to do. I just needed a swift kick from God to open my eyes."
In the midst of disaster, Bob chose hope over despair. He remembered that giving to others had filled his life with meaning, and so he returned to spreading light to those who were stumbling in darkness.
How do you handle hardships in life? When it feels as if your world is caving in, how do you respond? Do you remember that Christ is the light of the world who comes to us despite the darkness that envelops us? Do you stop what you are doing, pull over to the side of the road and give thanks to God for the blessings of your life?
Theologian Douglas John Hall writes, "God is in the darkest place of your dark night. You do not have to look for him in the sky, beyond the stars, in infinite light, in glory unimaginable. God is alongside you in the darkest place of your darkest night."2
Knowing that God is always with us and working tirelessly to lead the world out of darkness boosts our hope for a better tomorrow. So, as we embark on a new, yet very challenging year, I urge you to open your heart, mind and soul to the new opportunities God sets before you. Keep your eyes peeled for new adventures on which to embark, always keeping in mind the profound wisdom of the Gospel of John and my six year-old grandson: light beats darkness.
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