Sermon: The Night That Dreams Come True
Scripture: John 1: 1-14
Date: December 24, 2014 (Christmas Eve)
Bill Bryson, in his book, A Short History Of Nearly Everything, relates the story of Robert Owen Evans, a pastor in the Australian Methodist Church, who has spent a great deal of his adult life staring into the sky. He has developed a talent for spotting and observing the celestial phenomenon called a supernova. Now a supernova occurs when a giant star zillions of miles away from the earth (yes zillion is a scientific term for far, far away) explodes and emits a spectacular burst of light that is estimated to be equal in energy output to 100 billion suns. An incomprehensibly bright light. But by the time it travels the zillion miles to earth it is just an unexpected twinkle at a particular spot in the night sky where there was no light the night before. Most of them go undetected by the human eye. Now Pastor Evans began hunting supernovas in the 1950’s but it wasn’t until 1981 that he made his first official observation of one. Bryson comments: It takes a lot of patience to see something that most people don’t really see. I thought about that statement in relationship to what we come to celebrate this night. How many, down through the history of humanity, have searched for a Savior but have never really found one? Never really seen one. DWell by 2005, when the book was written, Pastor Evans had spotted 40 supernovas in fifty five years of sky gazing. According to Bryson’s article, Pastor Evans has trained his eyes to watch empty spaces in the sky so that at just the right moment, looking at just the right place, he can observe that burst of light, coming from far, far away and from the distant past to appear if only for a moment, in our world. And the article quotes Pastor Evans responding to the question of why he has done this for so long in this way: There’s something satisfying, I think, about the idea of light traveling for millions of years through space and just at the right moment as it reaches Earth someone looks at the right bit of sky and sees it. It just seems right that an event of that magnitude should be witnessed.”
Well I suspect that Pastor Evans would have found a kindred soul in the writer of the Gospel of John. Because what John is saying at the beginning of his story of the life of Jesus is that when Jesus came in to the world, that it was a moment just like that. Consider how he describes the birth of Jesus into a waiting watching world. He starts by placing the birth of Jesus in the context of time. In the beginning, he says. In other words, before anything else existed, more than a zillion years ago in earth time, but in our personal reality perhaps no farther back than the moment of our conception, there was God. God has always been. In a sense, John is saying that transcending all of our concepts of time, God has always been on a trajectory towards Bethlehem and that manger. Passing by and through all that was created on this earth until He appeared as that momentary light in the midst of the darkest place in our universe where He can be seen and witnessed to by us. It was the light that the writer of Genesis describes as the first act of creation. I love the way that these first words of John are summarized in the Bible Paraphrase call The Message. The writer, Eugene Peterson says this: What came into existence was Life, and the Life was the Light to live by. The Life-light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.
You see, it is no coincidence that light is recurring theme of our Christmas celebrations. Because humanity has always gazed into the darkened sky, searching for the light of God. At Christmas we seek to be witnesses once more of an event of great magnitude, that in the end, most of us really miss. James Harnish puts it this way: (Christmas) is the season in which we watch, wait, and prepare to bear witness to the coming of the true light of God’s presence in Jesus Christ. Through worship, Scripture and prayer, we train our eyes to see what the world never sees so that in the hubbub of the holidays, we are prepared to celebrate a “holy day” – the day when God came down among us in human flesh.
Charles Wesley wrote the hymn that we began the service with, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, but he also wrote a lesser known Christmas hymn called “Glory Be To God On HIgh” in which he said this: Now God comes down . . God the invisible appears . . . And Jesus is His Name.”
For me, Christmas is a time of remembering. Memories of family and friends and church gatherings and Christmas pagaents. Sometimes people wonder I know, why we put out so many decorations. Well ultimately it’s because there are so many memories associated with those decorations. Memories of loved ones who have passed. Of parents and brothers and sisters. Of thirty seven Christmases with Karen. Of Christmases when Anna was a child. As I put out the decorations, I remember. Elsworth Kalas writes:
Christmas is the season of memories. It’s a time when the computer of our souls plays back an endless series of episodes from other days. Often these are beautiful memories, but there’s something peculiar in our human psyche that tells us that the present is not as wonderful as those good old days, and that the future will never quite be able to duplicate such wonder.
As I have gotten older, more and more I have this sense that the month of December is, at least in part, a quest to recapture the perfect Christmas, that is really more a product of my memories than of reality. For instance, I remember, as a kid, that I couldn’t wait until the toy catalogs began to arrive in October and November. Because once that happened I could start composing my Christmas list. I would study those catalogs harder than I ever studied in school, because I had the sense that what I put on that list was a matter of extreme importance. And once it went on the list, there was no turning back. I thought the key to Christmas was “the list.” Now, it didn’t take me long to realize that there was an inherent danger to placing so much importance on the list. If I got something that was on the list, the anticipation was usually greater than the gift itself, and if I didn’t get something that was on the list that I really had my heart set on, there was always the potential for disappointment. Humorist Dave Barry once wrote a column on the dangers of not meeting a child’s expectations at Christmas. He wrote:
Make sure you get your child exactly what they ask for even if you disapprove of their choices. If your child thinks he wants Murderous Bob, the doll with the “face you can rip right off”, you’d better get it. You may be worried that it might help to encourage your child’s antisocial tendencies, but believe me, you have not seen antisocial tendencies until you’ve seen a child who is convinced that he or she did not get the right gift.
Well that might be a little extreme, but hope can quickly turn to disappointment, when it comes to Christmas lists.
And as adults, I think, we still make Christmas lists, whether we realize it or not. We have wishes for our families and our friends and our health and our careers and our community and our church and our world. And those lists have the potential for disappointment. When tragedy strikes during the holiday, or we are not somehow lifted from the despair, the darkness, that has nearly overwhelmed us in the past year, we are in danger of missing the light when it comes. And that’s when the dreams that we have been talking about the last few weeks, the dreams of hope, and joy and peace, seemingly become impossible. Several years ago David Foster wrote a song entitled “Grown Up Christmas List” in which said:
As children we believed
The grandest sight to see
Was something lovely wrapped beneath our tree
Well heaven and earth surely knows
That packages and bows
Can never heal a hurting human soul
No more lives torn apart.
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
Everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end
This is my grown up Christmas list
Well, the people of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth had a list. It was a list of what they were searching for in a Messiah. They wanted their Messiah to be a great King like David who would unite the country and lead them back to power and prominence. And they wanted a Messiah who had the wisdom of Solomon, the eloquence of Isaiah, the devotion of Elijah, and the leadership of Moses. They wanted a Messiah who would recreate them in the mode of Adam and Eve before the fall. But when the package was unwrapped on that first Christmas morning in the baby of Bethlehem, for many hope turned to disappointment. They missed the burst of light in the midst of the darkness in which they lived their lives. How could this baby, born in such a way, to such a mother and father, possibly be the Messiah they had been searching for all these years? Even His own cousin John the Baptist, who baptized Him in the Jordan River, seemed disappointed when he sent emissaries to ask if He was “really the one, or should they expect another.” And I wonder if John was satisfied with Jesus’ reply. “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” But is that really what the Jews expected of the Messiah.
One writer says:
For thousands of years, the Jewish people had been praying for a Messiah, a deliverer who would conquer their enemies and establish a kingdom of righteousness and might. Then reign in peace and prosperity. But along comes Jesus, a poor carpenter with questionable friends. He claims to be the long-awaited Messiah who has come to set up a very different kind of kingdom. And so we can forgive even Jesus’ strongest supporters for asking, “You’re the answer to our prayers? Really?”
And I’m not so sure that it’s so different this Christmas. The world pauses to celebrate Jesus’ birth. But I wonder is He really what we expected. Because we make our list of what we want Jesus to do for us. Heal our bodies. Give us wealth and prosperity. Take care of our kids. And our parents. Shelter us from grief and pain. Lift us from the circumstances of life that threaten to oppress us. Bring peace to our world. And when those things don’t happen, we begin to wonder, is Jesus our Lord, or should we look for another. This baby in a manger. This carpenter’s son who hangs out with outcasts doesn’t look like a God. Is He what we expect when we come to church? When we worship Him?
John’s question can sometimes be our question. Sometimes Jesus is not the one on our list. He is not what we expected. He doesn’t look like our Lord. And so we try to make Him look more like our perfect Christmas. Beautiful decorations. Shiny lights. Majestic music. We have made our list of what we want the Lord of our life to be, and sometimes Jesus just doesn’t fit. A poor little baby in a borrowed cave with an unwed mother. What kind of Messiah is that?
In an article in Decision Magazine, Marlene Nance tells of a day when her little daughter was playing with paper dolls. They were Biblical characters. But Jesus was missing. Mother and daughter looked all over the house, but they couldn’t find Jesus anywhere. Sometime later Emma, the little girl, came running to her mother all excited. She had found Jesus in a magazine that she had found. But as she held it out to her mother, Marlene said she gasped. Because in her hands was the picture of a tall, bearded, homeless man dressed in rags. Dirty and unkempt. And Marlene said that she started to scold her daughter and tell her that was not Jesus, but then she remembered what Jesus had said to John. The blind see, the lame walk and the Gospel has come to the poor. This was, indeed, the picture of Jesus. Had she somehow missed the light in the overwhelming darkness?
But Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is God’s gift to us. And the problem for those who have rejected Him, who did not recognize Him, and who continue to reject Him because they (we?) do not recognize Him. is not that He does not meet our expectations, it is that our list is wrong. Because God did not send the Messiah in power, to exercise authority over all that threatens us. He sent Him in love, to live with us in the midst of all that threatens us, to be light in the midst of our darkness but not always instead of our darkness. “For God so loved the world that He sent His Son” and we call His name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Perhaps when you open your presents tonight or tomorrow or in the days ahead, you won’t get everything that’s on your list. And perhaps the coming days of your life won’t bring you everything you desire. Not perhaps, you won’t ever receive all that you desire on this earth. But that’s okay. Because a baby was born in Bethlehem, the light burst forth into the world, you can have everything you need. You can dream impossible dreams with the assurance that Jesus in your heart and life makes all things possible. Do you recognize Him? Or are you staring at the sky looking for another kind of light this Christmas?
During the great depression, a mother and father and six year old son, didn’t have any money to buy presents for Christmas, but that didn’t keep them from celebrating. They decided to make pictures of the presents that they would like to give each other. So they drew them and cut them out of catalogs and magazines. And then they put the pictures in boxes that they had left from previous Christmases, and decorated the boxes and put them under the tree.
On Christmas morning the tree was surrounded by gifts full of dreams. For Dad there was a new car, a boat, golf clubs and a new suit. Mom found her dream house, a diamond necklace, a new dress and a silver tea service. The little boy received the most gifts. He opened a camping tent, a bicycle, a kiddy car, games and sports equipment and a back yard swimming pool. They had a great time opening their “presents”. When all of the imaginary presents had been opened, the little boy crawled under the tree and pulled out one last present that he had prepared for his mother and father. When they opened it they found a picture that their son had drawn. It was a typical drawing for a six year old, made in bright colors from his box of crayons. There were three people, a mother and father and child and they were standing side by side with their arms around each other laughing. It was obvious they were very happy. And at the bottom of the picture, the little boy had printed just one word: US.
Us. God with Us. Immanuel. The Life Light. The fulfillment of our greatest dreams. A baby in a manger who wants to grow to be the Lord, the Savior, of our life.
And you know the thing I find most exciting about gazing out there for supernovas. Even if we see one, even if the light breaks forth into our world for even a moment, we know that it does not stop there. That the light goes on. Forever and ever, as long as somewhere in God’s vast creation, there is some creature like Pastor Robert Owen Evans, who is willing to stare into the darkness in order to see the light. And surely that is the wonder of Christmas. The light that came into this world more than 2000 years ago still shines tonight for all who wait and search. The light of Christmas goes on forever and ever. The article about Pastor Evans concluded with these words:
I suspect that Robert Owen Evans, is out there tonight, staring into the sky, waiting to be a witness to the wonder of light breaking through the darkness. Given the wonder of the way God came down to us in Jesus, “it just seems right that an event of that magnitude should be witnessed.”
And so we gather tonight, in this moment, to witness to the light that breaks forth in even the darkest moments of our lives.