Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
29 December 2019 + Christmas 1
John 1.1-14 (Nativity III)
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
When I was in college, I worked for about a year as a student campus security officer. In hindsight, even a student job in public safety wasn’t the wisest choice for me, as someone who is very easily startled. But Concordia’s a small, private, liberal arts college on one landlocked square mile in the bubble of suburban River Forest, Illinois. What could go wrong?
Nonetheless, student patrol officer Josh Evans – badge #C14 – reported for duty! Part of our rounds included something called a “clock run.” Which was really a misnomer because it didn’t involve clocks nor did we run. What it did involve was a handheld reader device and about a hundred small strips mounted in various locations around campus – which you would then swipe with the reader and it would beep – proving that you had been to that particular corner of campus and all was safe and secure.
These one hundred strips were strategically placed around our one square mile campus (overkill much?) – from mechanical rooms to emergency exits to the one building whose basement was home to a long-defunct (or so we hoped) animal testing lab. There were also strips located in each of three houses along Monroe Avenue, on the western edge of campus – all of which functioned as offices.
On one particular overnight shift, probably around 1 or 2 in the morning, I was on my “clock run” and approaching the last of these house-offices, home to the football coaching staff, nestled in the northwest corner of campus, between the football field and track and a small wooded area. Every house had roughly the same floor plan, and as soon as you walked in the main entrance, which was technically the backdoor, there was the entrance to the basement.
When I walked in to the football house, I immediately noticed the basement lights were on – which didn’t strike me as particularly out of sorts…absent-minded faculty and staff constantly left lights on and doors unlocked. So I went upstairs first, as was my pattern, to swipe the reader strip in the bathroom, and then I headed back down to swipe the strip in the basement…and the lights were off…
Now, a good security officer would have used their radio to alert the dispatcher about their location, call for the other patrol officer on duty to come for back-up, and investigate further. Safety in numbers, right? So what did I do? I left that house as fast as I could and didn’t look back! I was an 18-year-old college kid who was making federal minimum wage…no way did I get paid enough for that. To this day, I still have no idea what happened in the basement of 1123 Monroe Avenue that night.
Now I tell that story for two reasons: (1) It’s amusing and a little self-deprecating, and who doesn’t enjoy a few laughs at one’s own expense? And (2) It’s a great example of the power of darkness and light.
It’s one thing to patrol remote corners of campus when it’s light outside. There’s something familiar and comfortable about the security of daytime. But in the darkness – even though of course nothing has changed and it’s the same building – there’s something unsettling about it.
Of course, there are blessings in the darkness, too. Our scriptures contain example after example: Jacob wrestles with God through the night and is blessed for it. God leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt under the cover of night. An angel visits Joseph while he sleeps to tell him of Mary’s pregnancy.
But the blessings of darkness don’t always take away its power to instill fear and uncertainty. Darkness is a creepy basement on a patrol of campus…but darkness is also despair, anxiety, depression, diagnosis, or grief. We know darkness, and it’s scary.
Last Sunday, we heard Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Eve, we heard Luke’s version. Today, we hear John’s account. But there’s no Mary and Joseph, no shepherds, no angels, no manger. Jesus isn’t even explicitly named…but we do have light.
Light is powerful. John knows that and uses that imagery to describe the birth of Jesus, the coming of God’s Word into the world, taking on human flesh to live among us.
Recently I’ve started watching The Crown on Netflix – a historical drama that chronicles the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. In one scene from the first season, as Elizabeth is being crowned, her uncle, Edward, who had previously abdicated the throne, watches the coronation on TV as he comments to his guests on the seeming absurdity of so much pageantry: “Oils and oaths. Orbs and sceptres. Symbol upon symbol. An unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy… Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry?”
Which strikes me as a fitting explanation for John 1 – the gospel writer’s seemingly complicated but intricate and intentional prologue to his re-telling of the Jesus story. Jesus is the light that shines in the dark places of our lives and the broken places of our world. In Jesus is life – abundant life – offered in the midst of scarcity and uncertainty. Life that cares so much about us, here and now, that it takes on human flesh to live among us. Life that brings us into God’s family, that gives us the power to become children of God, in turn to be light-bearers to each other.
When we held up our lit candles in the darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve and looked around at the light that filled the room…it’s a powerful moment. A tangible reminder of the ways we bear God’s light to each other and a reminder of Jesus the Light who comes into the world. Sure, we could have just spoken the words of the litany. But who wants words on a page when you can experience candle-light? Who wants prose when you can have poetry and magic and mystery?
The birth of Jesus is mystery, but we can experience its afterglow: The Light of the world gives us new life and equips us for our baptismal calling: Let your light so shine before others…that they may experience God’s love and light through you.