Updated: Dec 29, 2021
The people walking in darkness
are seeing a brilliant light—
upon those who dwell in a land of deep shadows
light is shining! (Is. 9:3, IB) 1
In the name of the one God: Our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
It’s a strange and most mystifying thing. Darkness – the partial or total
absence of light. Or, a different definition, darkness – wickedness or evil.
Darkness is that from which no light is found; where there is no hope, no joy,
no peace. Yet, darkness is sometimes beautiful, in its terror and mystery.
Though I have not been perfectly acquainted with complete darkness—not in
a physical way—I’ve been to a variety of places around the world and
experienced something very close to darkness:
On the west coast of Scotland, on the tiny Isle of Iona, I slept in a cabin barely
large enough for two single beds and my backpack, perched atop a high
mound that looked out over the North Atlantic Ocean. In the paddock below,
all I could see was two rather dim lights, and stretching out over the sea was a
blanket of stars with the tiniest fingernail’s slip of the moon hanging above the
swirling icy water.
Or in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where our nearest gas station was
across the border, in Canada; our nearest stop sign was 35 minutes away;
and the nearest McDonald’s easily took an entire afternoon to get to... Above
the beautiful conifer trees hung a sky streaked with slender ribbons of clouds,
which softly dimmed that same heavy quilt of stars.
I’m sure we could think of so many other dark places—the north rim of the
Grand Canyon twenty minutes before sunrise. At the Parting of the Waters, at
Two Ocean Pass, where the rivers change directions across the Great Divide,
a six-day horseback journey from the nearest ranch. On a boat, out in the
Bering Sea, with its lights dimmed so you can watch the aurorae borealis
dance across the horizon...
We are a people who do not know real darkness. I will risk sounding like a
Luddite and name it: We are cursed by electricity! We have to go miles and
miles into the wilderness, into John the Baptist’s territory, to avoid light
pollution from even the dimmest street lamps in the smallest villages in the
most compact of valleys, to find darkness… and even then, there is the light of
the moon! I imagine I’m the wrong dimensions to know anything remotely
interesting about exploring caves, but the only place I can think of where we
might find true, primitive darkness is a deep, dank cavern, pitch-black from
having never been greeted by the sun’s rays.
Our ancestors, however, with their oil-burning lamps and dry-wood fires did
not have to expend much effort to imagine or even experience the true
darkness of night. For many early civilizations, the dark was a threat against
their existence. In the darkness was where crime happened; where evil
prevailed; where things went wrong; where uncertainty, threat, and sadness
haunted even the warmest of dreams.
These shepherds in our gospel story were among the poorest, most outcast
members of Judean society under Roman occupation, and they often made
their living in the darkness. They slept in the fields with their sheep and goats,
being close at hand in case any predators wanted mutton for a festive dinner.
They would be very used to staring out across the Palestinian countryside,
their half-squinted eyes adjusting to the severe darkness, watching for rustling
of grass or the unfamiliar shadows of those things that go “bump” in the
night... The darkness was their home, more than any village nearby, and they
intuitively knew how to survive it.
And yet… In the middle of the night, when the sky was its darkest, still another
hour or two before the sun peeks its lazy head over the distant horizon: in an
instant—the blink of an eye—beams of dazzling light illume the soft, rolling
hills, making every blade of grass gleam with dew. From the center of this
great light, they can start to decipher a figure, and they were filled with fear. It
wasn’t an ordinary fear—not of wolves or of Rome, but of something
The figure appears more clearly and they see this angelic beast, who tells the
shepherds on that first Christmas morning: “Do not be afraid… I come to
proclaim good news to you—news of a great joy to be shared by the whole
people…” (Lk. 9:10, IB paraphrased).
OK… I promised myself this wouldn’t be another sermon about how scary
biblical descriptions of angels could actually be to these people since their
minds weren’t warped by Jim Henson, cable television, or any piece of
science fiction about aliens and monsters… That’s 100% not why we’re
here… you’ll have to look for images of “scary biblical angels” on
Google—after the sermon, of course. Anyway…
The terrifying beast with a voice like thunder: “Do. Not. Be. Afraid!”
I wonder if that really worked!?
I am uncertain if the shepherds would have any real knowledge of this tell-tale
introduction of a heavenly being found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. I’m
sure if they were devout studiers of scripture, they’d recognize it as a greeting
from God’s messengers… Because it happens a lot! The Lord comes to
Abram in a vision, saying “Do not be afraid, Abram” (Gen 15:1). The angel of
God calls to Hagar from heaven, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Do not be afraid!”
(Gen. 21:17). (I think the angel went off-script that time.) “Do not be afraid, you
worm Jacob, little Israel” (Is.41:14). “Do not be afraid, land of Judah! Rejoice
and sing,” (Joel 2:21).
It is throughout our Advent and Christmas readings, as well (which the
shepherds would, for many reasons, have no clue about): “Zechariah, do not
be afraid; your prayer has been heard.” (Lk 1:13) “Do not be afraid, Mary, you
have found favor with God.” (Lk 1:30).
Would you not be fearful if a mysterious figure showed up at your bedside and
spoke bizarre things to you? Wouldn’t you reach for the baseball bat hidden
under your bed? Or have Alexa call 911? Or would you be faithful, listen, and
say yes? I don’t imagine it’s an easy thing to do.
This fear is a curious thing to think about for a Christmas morning sermon.
Anyone who’s exchanged an email with Rev Deb might recognize the quote at
the close of her email signature: The opposite of faith is not doubt; the
opposite of faith is fear.
Fear is a natural thing when you live in a world of literal or figurative darkness.
These messengers to the shepherds, to our forebears, to us, are saying, “Do
not be afraid, because God is with you.” The angel continues saying to the
shepherds, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the
Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in
bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
These shepherds were so stirred by their celestial visitor that they rose up, left
their flocks, and went into the town straightaway to search out the Messiah.
They found Mary and the newborn child and, with rejoicing, spread the news
to all those around Bethlehem what they had seen that night.
They did not let their fear overcome them. They were not plagued by their
anxieties or haunted by visions of angelic beasts creeping around in the
shadows… Their fear turned into hope, undergirded by their faith, by their
belief that their darkness could turn to light. Like the darkness, fear is defeated
by the light. MLK famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only
light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” 2 Faith,
hope, and love will always be the light to drive the darkness back into the
And yet: We must always remember that Jesus was born into a world of
darkness as an outcast: a brown-skinned child from the backend of beyond,
born under Roman occupation; brought forth into life by an adolescent, unwed
mother, miles away from her family and kindred; suckled for the first time in a
cave, wrapped in leftover fabric, laid to rest among the warm hay; surrounded
by lowing cows and covered with the thick, primal scent of a barnyard.
The first Christmas was nowhere near perfection. It was dark. It was
fearsome. And yet, the great light shone forth and brought to us the Child that
we were long-expecting.
1 Priests for Equality. The Inclusive Bible (p. 651). Sheed & Ward. Kindle
2 King, Jr, Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Harper & Row, 1963, p. 37.