Yet In Thy Dark Streets Shineth | Sermon from 12/10/17

Based on Luke 1:26-38

Standing, with help, on a balcony at the white house, Franklin Delano Roosevelt engaged in one of his favorite rituals of the presidency: the annual lighting of the Christmas tree on the south lawn. The tree was ready, the lights rigged to a button next to his podium. A band and choir helped lead in the singing of several hymns prior to Roosevelt’s brief address and lighting of the tree.

Just a few days before this event, Winston Churchill had flown into Washington for an unannounced meeting with Roosevelt. To ensure Churchill’s safety, almost no one knew of the meeting, nor Churchill’s presence, that Christmas eve of 1941. So there, on the balcony, stood Churchill, just behind Roosevelt, singing, according to historian David McCullough, and I think, much like me, “lustily but not always in key.”

Reports from those on the balcony with these two giants of history tell an interesting story as they sang O Little Town of Bethlehem. In the middle of the first verse of this famous Christmas carol, there’s the line, “yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” It’s said that Churchill became emotional, shedding a few tears, at the singing of that line.

For London was dark Christmas eve, 1941. The Germans had bombed it mercilessly, attacking civilian populations centers. As much of the city lay in rubble, the lights of the city shone much less brightly, if at all. Such was an apt symbol of that dark moment in British history, where they feared that they would not survive the expected spring offensive of their island nation. They had barely hung on during 1941 and, with winter closing in, they had only a brief respite. It was the “darkest hour,” as Churchill famously put it to the House of Commons.

But Churchill, always hopeful, saw within the people of London, and the people of Great Britain, the light of hope. They were standing steadfast, they were rising to the occasion, they were choosing courage, they were shining the light of hope into the darkest hour in British history.

Such is why Churchill shed a few tears, moved emotionally, as he sang:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light.

The streets were dark in a little village in Africa. Bono, the lead singer of the band U2, arrived at night to do relief work there. Upon his arrival with his band, he reported they found there a dirty, ramshackle, dusty, village of death and desolation. In slums around the world, like this one in Africa, images of God, human beings, barely eke out an existence in the midst of unsanitary and hopeless conditions. Their bodies quickly turn back “to dust,” which disappears, “without a trace.” Their faces are “beaten and blown by the wind,” and their feet are “trampled in the dust.” From “high on a desert plain,” you can see this slum, “where the streets have no name.”

But in their faces, in their lives, he saw a glimpse of their humanity. Bono sings, “when I go there, I go there with you, it’s all I can do,” a commentary on how when we look into each other’s faces, we see ourselves and we see God, for we are all made in God’s image. Unexpectedly, Bono discovered the depth of our human connection to each other; quite unlikely, he discovered the light of love that exists within each of us.

In the dark streets of the slum, he found the light of life that exists in each of us because God exists in each of us, in the image God implanted within us.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light.

In my mind, it was dark when Gabriel arrived. There’s no indication of that in the scripture, but in my mind’s eye, the glory of Gabriel, reflecting God’s glory, shows up in bolder and brighter against the darkness of Mary’s room. Into the darkness of the night, Gabriel delivers his message.

This scene, this moment in scripture, is so common and famous that we can easily forget how remarkable it is. I have never had an angel visit me and give me a message from God, nor do I know anyone personally who has, so the very fact that God has sent a messenger is remarkable enough. But then consider the world in which Mary lives. In her time, God didn’t talk to average people. God spoke through the priests and other religious officials at the temple. You went to the temple, or your local synagogue, to engage with your priest who would mediate God for you. There was little to no concept of direct access to God on your own.

But then here is Gabriel, breaking down that barrier, delivering a message from God directly to an average person. And not just any average person: a betrothed, but unmarried, teenager, of no standing in society, of no royal heritage; an average person, a nobody. Mary could have been any random young woman of first century Palestine. Mary could have been any one of us. This is highly unexpected.

In the dark streets of Nazareth, the glory of God shone into Mary’s life. God came and proclaimed the good news of the arrival of the Christ child! And it was to be through Mary! A great work was about to take place, so much reason for joyous celebration, the joy we mark on this Third Sunday of Advent, for the light of life, the light of love, the light of God, shown through the angel Gabriel as he announced the good news of great joy that would be for all people.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light.

But consider the journey Mary has before her. She immediately accepts Gabriel’s message, is humble and completely obedient, singing praise to God upon Gabriel’s departure. We hold her up as a model of faith: of how we should respond when we hear a message from God.

Which has its merits, for certainly that’s a faith worthy of our aspiration. But when we see Mary only as a model of faith, we fail to see the struggle she had.

When I was in high school, classmates would occasionally simply disappear from classes. After they’d been gone several days, we’d start asking each other, “what happened to her? Where did she go?” Inevitably, the word would come back: she was pregnant and her parents had either decided to homeschool or sent her to another high school. Either way, the point was clear: to save their daughter the embarrassment of being pregnant while attending classes with her friends, they’d sent her away.

The assumption we all made back then is probably no different than we make today: this classmate of ours had made bad decisions, had done something immoral. While we might have missed her, just under the surface was much judgment and condemnation, for this bad act. It was like the proverbial scarlet letter, except instead of a big red A for adultery, in our minds, we put a big red P for pregnant on our mental image of our pregnant classmates.

Such was the case for Mary. Forget for a second that she’s carrying Jesus, because no one around her knows, nor would believe if they knew, that she’s impregnated with the messiah, the son of God. All they know is that she’s gotten herself pregnant, hopefully by Joseph, before the marriage was finalized, before she was supposed to. But she can’t be sent away, she can’t go to another village, their lives are in Nazareth. There’s no running away, even though she probably spent many of the next nine months being judged and condemned.

And then, for those of us who have either been pregnant or have watched our wives handle pregnancy, consider the pain and suffering she went through while being ridiculed. Pregnancy is not easy and takes a huge toll. She probably was sick the first trimester. She probably had all the aches and pains that come from the body changing. Imagine how she must have felt, nine months pregnant, riding on a donkey along a bumpy rode to Bethlehem. None of us would blame her if she was cursing Caesar Augustus under her breath while she rode to Bethlehem to comply with the emperor’s decree to be counted in a census.

The pregnancy was undoubtedly a hard time in Mary’s life. All the judging my friends and I did of our pregnant classmates undoubtedly happened to Mary. All the harsh judgment, the unkind words spoken in whispers, the condemnations you’ve heard when you’ve learned of a pregnant teenager, all happened to Mary.

It’s not right how we treat pregnant teenagers among us and it wasn’t right how Mary was treated. She undoubtedly knew the darkness of being ostracized, rejected, defamed, and deplored. In Nazareth, whether it was the light of day or not, Mary knew all too well the darkness.

And yet, she kept the faith, she believed in what God was doing, because she knew that in this dark period of her life, God was bringing the light.

For sometimes, the only way to see the light is to be in the midst of darkness.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light.

For Churchill, to see the light of hope in the lives of his citizenry could only come because they knew the darkest hour in British history.

For bono and the band U2, the only way to see the light of our shared humanity was to know the darkness of that African slum.

For Mary, the only way to see the light after Gabriel had gone and judgment had set in was to know the darkness of people’s condemnation.

For us today, sometimes the only way to see the light is to be in the midst of darkness.

In the darknesses I have known, there’s always been a glimmer of light shining, breaking through, in the most unexpected of ways. In a hard season of life about seven years ago, when darkness seemed to threaten to consume a large part of my life, there was light in the forging of a new relationship that has become a mentorship for me. But that new relationship came out of what had been a difficult, challenging, and even bad relationship. The light broke through from an unexpected place.

In story after story I have heard from you, the light has broken into darknesses you’ve known, often coming from somewhere unexpected. You’ve known peace when there’s no reason to know it, coming from a relationship that was only marginal before tragedy struck. You’ve known hope in the midst of despair, sometimes coming directly from God when you least expect it, settling into your soul in a way that you could not have imagined. You’ve known joy that transcends the sorrow of an untimely death, coming into your life in a powerful way from the most unlikely of sources. You’ve known the light.

But without the darknesses of despair, sorrow, tragedy, and the like, you wouldn’t know the light. Mary wouldn’t know the light. Churchill wouldn’t know the light. I wouldn’t know the light.

For sometimes, the only way to see the light is to be in the midst of darkness.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

Under a street light, as night was settling, I found the person I was looking for. I had been downtown with a group of folks and noticed, after a while, that one of our group had disappeared. I went looking for him to make sure all was okay and discovered him around the corner, standing next to his truck, several papers in his hand.

He was crying when I found him. Not knowing the man really at all, I gently reached out my hand and placed it on his shoulder and asked what was wrong. He sniffled and quickly opened up. He told me something in our conversation had triggered a deep emotion in him and he needed some space and to come back to his truck and read the papers he was holding.

He showed me the papers. They were death warrants, issued by the state of Georgia, for his legal execution. Five times, while he was sitting on death row, the state and sentenced him to die. And five times, the execution had been stayed.

As I was pondering this, he looked straight at me and said, “Jesus set me free. Not just from death, for what is death? But from the life I once knew. Jesus set me free.” The light of joy flickered in his tear soaked eyes as he got in his truck and left.

Sometimes, the only way to see the light is to be in the midst of darkness.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

What dark streets are you walking this Advent?

A dark street of despair over the plight of a family member? A dark street of worry and fear over a diagnosis? A dark street of anger over the actions of a close friend? A dark street of jealousy? A dark street of unconfessed sin?

Whatever the dark street, God walks that dark street, too, shining the everlasting light.

The story of Mary; indeed, all the stories of this sermon, illustrate the point that Mary knew all too well in our scripture this morning: the light comes from where we least expect it. God works in mysterious ways, moving in power among the least and the lost, bringing hope out of despair, bringing life from the grip of death, bringing joy out of sorrow, bringing peace out of war, bringing love out of hate; demonstrating his glory from the darkest corners of the dark streets of life.

The question for us, as we walk our dark streets, is this: are we looking for the light?

The light is there. Probably in the garbage can on the sidewalk that’s overflowing. Or inside the boarded up storefront. Or with the homeless man we’d rather ignore. The light is there, in that dark street, but probably where we least expect it.

So if you’re walking a dark street this morning, ask God to give you vision to see the light. If you’re in the darkness today, the everlasting light still shines. The hopes and fears of all the years are met on that street by God’s light.

The light of Christ is with us. Sometimes, the only way to see the light is in the midst of darkness. That’s Mary’s word for us today: God is always breaking through our darkness, shining the light.

Sometimes, the only way to see the light is to be in the midst of darkness. If that’s you this morning, take heart, for the saying is true:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light.

In the name of the Father, and the son, and the Holy Spirit; Amen.

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