The Unlit Candle of Christmas

​​The Unlit Candle - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

This is a transcript from the December 1, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

In the beginning was the word. Those are the words that we use on Christmas Eve around here. Every Christmas Eve, we gather around that advent wreath that's behind me and in front of you and we recall those words from John, our passage today, and say, "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God." I decided to start advent the way we hope to finish it. To make a point that it is a journey and it's not automatic. In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.

The Unlit Candle of Christmas - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

He was in the beginning with God and all things came into being through Him and without Him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Him was life. The life was the light of the people. Then a verse that I hope will be our memory verse for this next month. John 1:5. "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it." Often we stop there, but I want today to push a little bit further in because there's this curious passage about a curious person in the New Testament.

The Unlit Candle of Christmas - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness. He came to witness and testify to the light so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light but he came to testify to the light.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.

The true light which enlightened everyone was coming into the world. Those are the words that we will say as we gather around the advent wreath, as we're holding candles on Christmas Eve if you're here for those services. It is what we hope for and it's what we long for, but there is a glitch in all of this because, I can't tell you in the last four to six weeks, I've had three, four conversations with groups of people and this phrase has come up in one way or another.

I like Christmas but.... 

It's what follows that is what keeps getting in the way right now. It's what keeps getting in the way of us being there already. It is the obstacles. "I like Christmas." I've heard people say, and then in one form or another, "I just don't have the energy. I don't have the time. I don't have the money. I just can't get married this year." "I like Christmas but it's going to be hard." Others have said. "It's going to be hard because the people who are normally with us aren't here. Somebody has passed. There's been a divorce."

"There's been a move. The people who are normally here to make it a good Christmas aren't here. I like Christmas but it's going to be hard." I like Christmas, others have said, but I dread it. I dread it because for all the things that I like about Christmas, I know this is also a time of division. It's a time of alienation. It feels like walking through a mine field when certain people get together. I'm just not sure I can do it again. I like Christmas, some have said, "But I avoid it." "I avoid it because there's just too many bad memories from long ago."

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.

Those shadows haunt every time we come to this season. I like Christmas but. I wonder how you would finish that sentence. What is it that gets in the way? What is it that holds you back? As you're thinking about that, I want to hold up this idea of why I want to talk this year about unlit candles of Christmas because just as the Eastman's began the service with, "Boy, here's what I'm thankful for. Here's what I'm not thankful for." It is a mixed bag. It's not an either/or. It's a both/and. This time of year, they will be celebrating and sometimes it feels like it's on automatic pilot, doesn't it?

It doesn't matter what you do. Something is going to happen. They're going to put lights up your street and you're going to probably have to put lights up whether you feel like it or not, and there's going to be candles that get lit whether you feel like it or not. There's going to be gifts, there's going to be things going on. There's going to be music going on, but it is a both/and, not an either/or because advent is at its core, it's a choice. We don't light candles except by just tradition and practice. We don't light the candles of Advent except by choice.

If we don't light them, they remain unlit. Yes, we may just decide to go along, to get along, but for anything meaningful, it requires a choice. Being distracted? That's by default. Being busy? That's default. Advent? In the work of Advent, the lighting of candles is a choice. It's one only we get to make. We gather around. We light candles of hope, and then each Sunday, a different candle.

The candle of peace, the candle of joy, the candle of love and finally on Christmas Eve, it is the Christ candle, and it is that little candle that we carry if you're here for those services that we take out as we hold here and think about the year that is ahead and that Christ has come. It is not easy, and there are those things that get in the way. That is the work of Advent. That's why we do this. Are you ready for Christmas yet? You don't have to be. That's why we do this. Part of this is to think through what needs to happen.

Advent, as one writer this morning in fact in an opinion page said,

"To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache. It is our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and in the incompleteness that we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, and darkness. I like Christmas, but, boy, there are so many things that are broken."

Isn't there a part of celebrating the Christmas that feels tone deaf? Isn't there a part of Christmas that if we allow it to, can just distract us and act as an escape from the real world when in fact the whole point of Christmas is to engage us in it.

It's a choice and there's this cosmic ache that goes on. This summer, I got to spend a wonderful evening at the home of one of our families who had two Iraqi students as exchange students. One from Baghdad and one from Kurdistan area. Mustafa, the Kurd, was there. He was just this wonderful, joyous young man. This week getting texts through his family who are sayings things are just deteriorating and this last week protests and 267 people were killed and/or hurt. The police, the supposed security police are coming from other countries.

He knows because one of them dropped an ID and it came from a different ID. He concludes his text, he says, "Molotov bombs were thrown at us by them. Snipers appeared again yesterday. They have direct orders of killing the protestors. They don't care how many." He finally says, "It's not protest anymore. It's a massacre." I like Christmas but there's this cosmic ache that goes on. There are the protestors that are in Hong Kong and we watch it. Sometimes we're tempted just to turn the channel to something more joyous and more merry.

When we do that, then we're just escaping from the world because there is something that keeps getting in the way. A friend, Tony, lives in London, and this week on his Facebook he posted in the last two years, they've had two terrorist attacks. One almost on the front door of his business and one this week just a few blocks away. Just the anger, the rage, the anguish, the pain, the cosmic ache of what goes on. The people who are in natural disasters. The people who are hungry. The people who sleep in their trucks with their kids because they have no other place.

There is something that is going on that we should pay attention to, and that's what advent helps us do. We don't have to flip the switch from Thanksgiving and around the table to now, "Let's light the candles on Christmas day." There's work to be done, and it begins with the work of hope. "Advent holds the space for our grief," the same author says. "It reminds us that all of us in one way or another are not only wounded by the evil in the world, but we're also the wielders of it. Contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness."

Unlit Candle of Christmas - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

It is an invitation to look into our own darkness. The only things that get in the way, and that's why there's a reason that the first candle that we have to light is the candle of hope. There is the world as it is and then there's this world as we believe it should be. Somewhere between, that great chasm as sometimes the chasm is huge, somehow between that, that's what hope does. Hope holds those two things together. We get to live in the world as it is even as we lean into the world as we hope it will someday be. It is there that we get to live in a different way.

It is there that we get to live creatively. It is there that we get to live and light candles of hope. The question of course is, whether or not hope is even realistic. I get to do a grief in the holidays workshop every year. One of the quotes that I like to use is from a guy named Andrew Grilley, another author. He talks about hope and this persistence of hope and questions and says, so is hope just unrealistic. He says the real question in fact, maybe the only question, the only real religious question in this life is whether this thing that keeps bubbling up, this irrepressible thing, this thing that called hope that keeps coming up, says, "Maybe it is just a cruel joke of the universe that it's there. Maybe it's a vestige, a leftover a vestige of some evolutionary development, sort of like our appendix, we don't know why it's there. It's sometimes more trouble than it's worth and sometimes it's even dangerous. Maybe hope is like that," or he says,

"Maybe it is the rumor of angels. Maybe it is this deep clue. Maybe instead of like an appendix that we don't know why it's there, maybe it is the spiritual GPS of our soul that keeps pinging and keeps pointing us in a different direction." "Maybe," as he says,
"It is the hint, an explanation the best insights we have
into what human life is all about."

It is right that we begin by lighting candles and we begin saying, "Will we choose to light candles of hope? Will we choose to do the work and light ourselves, the work between the world as it is right now and as it should be?"

Unlit Candle of Christmas - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

Part of the work of hope has to do with waiting. We began this service this morning with this passage from Psalm 1:30. "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits in His Word, I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning."

The Unlit Candle - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

In those days there were night watchmen who guarded the gates, and it was scary out there because when the lights went down, when the sun went down, you didn't know who was coming. There would be people who would be watching to make sure everybody else could sleep well. It wasn't until the sun came up that everybody could breathe a sigh of relief that there's nothing that was going to come out of the darkness at them. More than those who watched for the morning, I wait for God, more than those who watch for the morning.

That's what the work of waiting does. I keep waiting, I keep waiting. I keep looking but more than just the words, it is also the witness. I want to come back to this passage, I want come back to this funny little passage about a guy named John the Baptist.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.

John is one of those characters who is mentioned in all four Gospels. What's really interesting about John is even though they all describe him as this guy who was out in the wilderness, who dressed strangely and ate locusts and all kinds of crazy things going on, but they all mentioned him and what they're really talking about was not just the fact that he baptized Jesus, it wasn't just what John was, it's who he wasn't.

Because in those days, John the Baptist was a religious Rock star. People flocked to him. He had such a clarity of vision, he had such a purity of purpose. He had such an urgency of his task and what he saw, even in this world as it was, he could see what wasn't yet and he could see it. It did something to him. They had words for people like him. One of the words was crazy. He's just nuts. Because that's what happens sometimes with people who have that kind of vision in a world that is and they see something that is not yet and they act like it's true. People think they're out of touch with the reality, they think they're fools.

He was also a prophet. Sometimes, crazy and prophet go hand in hand. The real point was, and the real problem of John was, he lived so well that people kept looking at him going, "This is the light. This is the light of the world. This is the one we've been waiting for." Watch, if you ever get to read through the Gospels and the book of Acts, because it's still there, watch how many times John the Baptist is mentioned and watch how many times what they're trying to say is who John isn't. They're trying to say, "John isn't Jesus. John isn't the Messiah, John isn't the one," but he lived so transparently and so well that people kept confusing him with Jesus and people kept confusing him with the light.

The Unlit Candle - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

Even our own passage said, "No, he's not." There's this guy named John. Now, he wasn't the light, but he gave testimony to the light. I want to just pose this question. There are worse epithets, are there not, at the end of your life so that when people look at your life and go, "He lived so well that we kept confusing him with the light of the world. We saw this person we and saw Jesus instead." There are worse problems. There are worse ways to live and it has to do with starting by lighting a candle of hope. Here's what I'm going to suggest. I've got two and a half suggestions this morning.

The first one is this passage, I would like you to memorize this passage and make this our memory work for this month. You probably already know. You probably have it somewhere in the back of your mind, but if not, let's bring it to the front and let's keep that in front of us. You can pick up a card with this passage out on our welcome table.

"The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness did not overcome it." 

I think that's a great passage for going through advent. That's a great passage for the times we say, "I like Christmas but," it's a great passage when we are overwhelmed and we don't know what to do and we need to remind ourselves, the light has shone at the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

There's a second thing and one of the practices that we do around here of Everyday Spirituality is watch where Jesus is being revealed. Watch where God is being revealed in our midst. Where's God coming? Where is God showing up? It's a wonderful practice, I commend it to you. It is the practice of taking and noting for yourself, what are the characteristics, qualities of God, and where do we see them begin to emerge in the lives of other people like John the Baptist, so that we can point and go. See, that's God's showing up right there. There, right there.

We can look over and we can say, "This person is acting with compassion in such a way, that just looks like Jesus to me," or we can look at people who are giving fullest. There's that generosity and care and we go, "There, that's God showing up in our midst." Here's the point, the more that we can recognize where God is showing up here and now in the lives of others, the more likely we are to believe that maybe God could show up in our life too. We look at the Turkey ROCK Trot this last Thanksgiving and it was bitterly cold and yet, it sounds like they had record numbers of people and we have names for people who do that in the bitter cold and we call them crazy too.

It's like, what's wrong with them? Doesn't that just have the fingerprints of God all over it, that generosity and sacrifice and the giving and the joy and the doing it? We see people as they gather around somebody who's grieving or someone in a hospital, and so they aren't alone and people gather around and there is something about gathering as a community around pain and sadness. We go, that's got God's fingerprints all over it. The more you can begin to see where God is showing up right now today, the more you can begin to believe that God will show up in what you do.

Two things to do, the memory verse. Do this practice of noticing and whether you write it in a journal or whether you share it at the dinner table or with people that you see and then a half one, is just then act accordingly. Just act accordingly. Because, as we go through this month, we're going to be lighting candles and it's the work of advent. We're going to be lighting candles of hope and then of peace and then of joy and then of love. Then on Christmas Eve, we gather around the Christ candle and we'll have our own candles if we're here and we'll be doing that. We'll be doing that because it's a reminder that of all the candles you're going to light this year, the most important one is you.

Yours is the heart that needs to be reignited. Yours is the spark that needs to be given new life. Yours is the flame that needs to be blown on so that it can emerge. The most important candle, the most important witness to worry about is ourselves. How will we live in such a way that when people look at us, they'll say, "I don't know, that's not the life." This is the person who gives witness to the light in such a way that it gives hope to everyone around and their life casts a glow across this world. That is the hope that we all look for. Will you pray with me?

As we pray, I'm going to invite you to take the first few moments just to locate that place that's the most broken, where the biggest ache in your life is on this day, the first day of December. As you are thinking about where it is that needs to be tended for Christmas to take place with joy. Just in the silence, locate that place and sit with it. Whatever alienation, whatever anxiety, whatever fear, whatever pain that is, just take a few moments to be there.

And then, Oh God, we have the courage to go to those places because, we know of the future that is to come, and we believe that that is more than just an appendage that no longer makes sense but it is the truest sense of who we are. And because we believe that our hope is grounded in what is yet to be, it would be foolish not to. It would be foolish not to go and to be present in those places that hurt, even as it would be foolish not to lean into the places and the future, your future that is yet to be and give ourselves to it.

To that time where there will be no more tears, where there will be no more death, there will be no more sorrow and the joy will abound. To that time where all will be gathered up and all will become one in Christ and part of Christ's future. To that we give ourselves too. As we come to this table this day, this unique symbol, this unique offer, to stand in the place between what is and what is yet to be and to meet you there in hope. Through Christ we pray. Amen.