Longing for Christmas

Yet, in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

Phillips Brooks sat on horseback atop a hillside. This episcopal priest from New England had come to visit the Holy Land. As Christmas Eve approached, he journeyed out of Jerusalem toward Bethlehem, asking along the way where it was thought the shepherds were keeping their flock by night. Locals pointed him toward a hilltop.

So it was that on Christmas Eve, Rev. Brooks climbed the hill at night, looking at a brightly lit night sky. There were stars all around. And just off in the distance, the city of Bethlehem sat still, quiet, and dark.

The year was 1868, long before electric lights illuminated homes and city streets. The moment captured Brooks’s imagination. He felt overcome by that rush of feeling we often attribute to the Holy Spirit. Brooks felt as though he was looking back in time, seeing things as they might have been for the shepherds.

When he got home to Boston, wanting to record his feelings, Brooks wrote a poem. He began, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”

Brooks had experienced profound peace, profound silence, and the brilliance of a night sky unencumbered by artificial light. And so his poem continues: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

No matter the darkness, the light shines. Long for the light.

Let’s hear our scripture for this morning from the gospel of John.

John 1:1-5

Long for the light.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

Winston Churchill faced a dark reality. The Nazis relentlessly bombed the cities of England. He and his companions were forced to take shelter multiple times just like so many of his fellow citizens. There was constant concern, especially for the Prime Minister’s safety. It was with dismay and fear that, one day, an astute guard at the Prime Minister’s weekend retreat noticed the roads around the retreat formed an unintentional bullseye when viewed from overhead, as if to lead German bombers directly to where Winston Churchill resided.

It was a dark hour in England’s history. Churchill made no bones about that. His laments came forth in public speeches, helping the people to lament as well. He told them his longings, for peace and for an end to the war, not to pity himself nor the people but to encourage, to say that he longed, too, and that if they would embrace each other in their longings for peace, their longings for the light, they would make it through to the end.

One such speech came on Christmas Eve at the White House. Standing on the Truman balcony with Roosevelt, Churchill addressed the nation and the world. Churchill gave a short speech, remarking via radio and to onlookers on the White House lawn, “Therefore, we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.”

The next morning, Churchill attended church with Roosevelt. There, they sang, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Churchill’s biographers note that Churchill sang “lustily and heartily, if a little out of tune,” so we can imagine Churchill, belting out the words, a little off key. But, rumor has it that Churchill teared and choked up as he heard these words, words that conveyed a meaning like his speech the night before:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

The hopes and fears of 1941 were met in Churchill that morning. The longing for peace, release, justice, and joy, to be fully known in the world. The longing for the light of Christ to shine.

Churchill longed for the light.

Long for the light.

The time of the writing of the gospel of John was just such a dark time. This is the newest of the gospels, written last, and written at least fifty years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. By then, Christian persecution had picked up tremendously. Instead of persecution being regional, based on the sympathies of the governor of the region, the emperors themselves had taken up the cause of Christian persecution. As the faith spread like wildfire, the killings for entertainment, the imprisonments, and the executions picked up.

Christians longed for release from that persecution. They all knew someone who’d been jailed or executed or killed for sport in a stadium somewhere. They all had that personal, first-hand knowledge of death. And they longed to be released from it. Longing characterized the Christian people at this moment in history.

To write and disseminate a gospel at that time, then, was high treason. An act worthy of the worst persecution the Roman government could muster. It was at great personal risk that this gospel was not only written but passed around. It speaks of Jesus in a different way, captured here at the very beginning. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke begin with Jesus’s humanity, John begins with Jesus’s divinity, as there at the beginning of the world. He takes his cues from Genesis, noting that through Jesus, the divine Word as John puts it, all things were created and came into being.

All life owes itself to Jesus. And that life Jesus brings is the light of the world.

A light that the darkness did not overcome.

The darkness is all around them through persecution. And yet, they hear John say that the darkness did not overcome.

For John knows what Phillips Brooks saw and what Winston Churchill longed for:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

No matter the darkness that ensues, it cannot overcome the light.

Long for the light.

We live in a dark time.

As I planned for Christmas Eve services, I looked at the weather on the afternoon of Christmas Eve for the last fifteen years. The weather was perfect every year, even if a little chilly a couple of times. No rain at all. And as I made plans and continue to make plans, I’ve remarked often that it would be just like 2020 for there to be tons of rain and even storms on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

That’s a little dark humor on my part but it’s true of this year. Whatever optimism we might have once had has given way to a pessimism. It seems like a year where whatever can go wrong and can get worse will. We long for a return to normalcy. We long for a release from the pandemic. We long for a return to cooperative politics. We long for peace and harmony to return to our lives. We long for joy. We long.

And that might make it challenging to enjoy the season that stretches before us. For the next twenty-six days, we’ll live in the Advent season. It’s supposed to be a time of joy, a time of elation, a time of warmth from the love and meaning of the season. It’s supposed to make us feel warm and fuzzy from listening to our favorite Christmas music.

We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell!

But this year, we might be tone deaf to their singing. Yes, Jesus has come into the world but the darkness remains. The darkness of the pandemic, politics, our family life, our jobs and fortunes, our homes and businesses, our friends. Perhaps no greater longing exists than for relationships interrupted by the pandemic, people we haven’t seen in many months because travel is difficult and because of fear of spreading the virus to each other. Even if we’ve made decisions to see people and take on that risk, there’s still the gnawing in the back of our minds about that risk.

The darkness has come and settled in. We’re struggling up against that darkness, just like Churchill, just like the earliest Christians.

We all know the darkness this year. We’re all well acquainted with it. We all know longing this year. We are also well acquainted with it.

And we hear that the darkness has not overcome the light. We hear that in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. We hear that in those dark streets the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the light of Christ.

But what comfort is that during our present darkness?

For the next twenty-six days, we’ll hear the Christmas angels, their great glad tidings tell

But what comfort is that during our present darkness?

Standing in church one dark Christmas season, I heard a new Christmas carol. It’s in our hymnal but, like so many hymns in our hymnal, we never sang it. As I heard these words, I couldn’t help myself. Like Churchill hearing O Little Town, I choked up. The hymn, the Christmas carol, is, “I want to walk as a child of the light” and it goes this way:

“In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God; shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”

I needed the light so much that season. The darkness was all around me. I heard the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell, but their carols failed to resonate within me. The darkness was too great.

And then, this carol about light cut through the darkness and opened up my soul to be emotional. As we began the third verse, I could barely sing. It goes like this:

“I’m looking for the coming of Christ. I want to be with Jesus. When we have run with patience the race we shall know the joy of Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”

I was looking for the coming of Christ at that moment. I was running a race and about out of perseverance. I needed the assurance that, at the end of the race, I would know that joy again. That the light of Christ was still around me, still within me. That the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Later that season, I heard O Little Town again but picked up on this line as never before: Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. And I knew, I just knew, that in my dark streets, the everlasting light was shining.

I knew it because this carol gave voice to my longings.

And that was the light.

Churchill gave voice to the longings of his people and that was the light.

John gave voice to the longings of the early Christians and that was the light.

On the hillside where Phillips Brooks sat, staring at Bethlehem, angels gave voice the longing of the people as they told their great glad tidings to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. And their tidings, their voice, was the light.

What comfort is there in our present darkness?

Churchill, Brooks, the gospel of John, and the angels reveal to us a powerful truth we need today:

Giving voice to our longings leads us to the light.

Long for the light.

It’s in our longings that we best discover the light. And this is a year full of longings for peace, for normalcy, for joy, for restoration, for release from bondage, and for hope. All of those things are in short supply, and so we long for their return.

And when we long, it’s tempting to try and squash those longings, tempting to try and distract ourselves or deny that the longing is there. Because longing is uncomfortable. Longing is hard.

But it’s when we long, when we yearn, when we cry out, that we discover the light.

That’s what Churchill did. That’s what Phillip Brooks gives voice to in O Little Town. That’s what the gospel of John did. That’s what the angels did for the shepherds. They knew this truth:

Giving voice to our longings leads us to the light.

So this season, let yourself long for the light. Don’t tune out the angels with their great glad tidings. Don’t shut yourself off to the warmth and cheer of the season. Don’t harden your heart against the ways Christmas makes us feel warm and fuzzy.

Instead, embrace your longings. For when we do, we open our souls up to receive the light of Christ. When we embrace our longings, when we learn to long for the light, we give God space to shine in our hearts, showing us that in Christ there is no darkness at all, that there is in fact light around us.

Then, we can sing yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light and know, just know, that the light does indeed shine. Then, we can read “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” and be heartened by the message.

Because when we long, we open the door of our soul for Christ to come in and shine the light.

Long for the light.

Pray as you have not before: with authentic longing. Just tell God what you’re longing for. So often, we go in prayer to God and say to God what we think God wants to hear or what we think we’re supposed to believe. We might pray like this: “God, I’m weary from this pandemic but you are sovereign.” To pray with longing, we would just pray, “God, I’m weary from this pandemic. It’s awful. Show me the light.” We leave off “but you are sovereign,” because we’re not praying to reassure ourselves, we’re not praying to tell God who he is as if God has forgotten, we’re praying to give God our longings.

Because giving voice to our longings leads us to the light.

Long for the light.

To know the light, to find the light, long for the light. In the present darkness, long for the light. In prayer, long for the light. When singing Christmas carols, long for the light. When facing the unexpected bills, long for the light. When staring down job loss, long for the light. When fearful about the pandemic, long for the light. When fearful about politics, long for the light. When a family argument breaks out, long for the light.

When the darkness comes and overwhelms, long for the light.

For in our dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of 2020 are met in thee tonight.

Long for the light.

It’s hard, it’s challenging, it’s uncomfortable, but take heart: when we long for the light, we open the door of our soul for Christ to come in and shine the light that the darkness cannot overcome.

So open your hearts to your longings. Go to God in prayer. Be open and honest about your longings.

Giving voice to our longings leads to the light.

For in Christ there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus.

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

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