Sermon for January 4, 2008–
Matthew 2:12-21 and John 1:1-5 and 10-14
For me, one of the most beautiful and profound parts of worship is watching the youth and children light and extinguish the candles during the service and then, following the benediction, carry the light out of the sanctuary.
The ritual of lighting candles goes back to the Old Testament, where the symbolism of light is referred to often and the ceremonial use was prescribed by God for the church’s worship. Light and the things related to it, such as fire and the burning of incense, are symbols of God, of sacrifice and of prayer. Candles have been used in Christian worship for centuries because they signify that Christ is the light of the world. As I shared in a children’s sermon a couple of weeks ago, the light of the candle is a reminder that God in Christ is always present among us.
The youth and children responsible for the lighting of the candles during worship are known as acolytes— folks who assist a member of the clergy in a liturgical service by performing minor duties. Sounds like a boring and mundane task, doesn’t it? But the origin of the word acolyte actually reveals it to be a sacred and powerful responsibility. The word comes from the Greek akolouthos—which means companion/helper/follower on the path. Thus an acolyte is not just some assistant, but the bearer of God’s light on the faith journey that we all take together—a journey that at times takes us through dark and treacherous places where the light is needed the most. The acolytes are modern day versions of a certain light bearer in scripture—a figure who is barely noticeable in the Christmas story and the life of Christ—Joseph, the husband of Mary and surrogate father of Jesus.
We don’t know much about Joseph. John’s Gospel never mentions him. Mark’s Gospel refers to him only as the carpenter dad of Jesus. And Matthew and Luke’s Gospels briefly include him in the stories of Jesus birth and early childhood—a handful of verses that are void of any of Joseph’s thoughts, feelings or his own words. By the third chapter of Matthew and Mark, Joseph disappears from the rest of the story and the reader is never told why.
Joseph, writes James Howell, a United Methodist pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, “stands in the background of Christmas pageants, looking on, not doing much besides gazing (or hanging on to the donkey), his face solemn, looking a little bit sheepish, even foolish, while attention is focused on the real stars of the drama: Jesus and Mary.”
During the Christmas season, Christians have tended to move quickly from the birth of Jesus to the visit of the magi, without giving anything more than a nod to Joseph, before immediately jumping into the scriptures about Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry.
As a result, Christians often miss seeing Joseph fulfill a task that is integral to the entire story of God and humanity: Joseph faithfully and courageously protects and bears God’s light, the Christ child, in the midst of deep darkness in Israel.
Today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel tells us that shortly after the magi leave by another road (because they’ve been warned in a dream to not return to Herod), an angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream. With a great sense of urgency, the angel tells Joseph: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph—without question, hesitation or fuss—flies out of bed, grabs Mary and Jesus, throws some belongings in a sack and leaves their home in Bethlehem. Thinking only of Jesus and Mary’s safety, Joseph takes the family to Egypt and remains there for many years while the darkness strangles Israel with the grip of a mad king.
Infuriated that the magi did not return with the location of Jesus’ home, a bile-filled Herod sends his soldiers to kill all of the children in and around Bethlehem who are 2 years old and younger to ensure his kingship and prevent the so-called messiah from seizing his throne!
Can you imagine the darkness of streets soaked in blood by the hands of a black-hearted king? Mothers and fathers with pale faces and tear-stained cheeks crumble to their knees to cradle the lifeless and mutilated bodies of their once happy child tightly to their chest. The parents wail and gnash their teeth at the darkness that has stolen so much from them.
This horrendous event is a jarring reminder that Jesus, Emmanuel (God-with-us) came into a world of darkness. In the words of the author Ann Lewin whose prayer was shared for the Call to Worship: “At the heart of Christmas, there was pain, bleeding and crying…not to a sanitized stable did God come, but to a world that needed mucking out.”
The world still needs mucking out today. Anyone can turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper or surf the Internet from a cell phone and agree that there are many places in this world that are covered in the muck, the murk, the dark—particularly during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. This recent holiday season seemed to showcase some of the worst atrocities I’ve ever heard or seen:
· A 34-year-old employee of a Wal-Mart in New York trampled to death by the crowds that rushed into the store on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
· Terrorist attacks in Mumbai India from Nov. 26 to Nov. 28 that left 179 people dead and more than 300 injured.
· A California man who, dressed as Santa Claus, shot 9 people to death at a Christmas Eve party before killing himself.
· The Israeli invasion of Gaza that began last weekend during the celebration of the Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah, and continues today with both the Israeli army and the terrorist group Hamas engaging in a war that is leaving many innocent men, women and children dead on the streets.
· Reports of corporate greed, massive job layoffs, and spikes in unemployment homelessness, and violence.
So much muck.
So much murkiness.
So much darkness.
So much hopelessness
Lest we remember Joseph…the righteous one who never abandons his family or his responsibilities to them and God. Joseph pays attention to God’s visions and goes with the dream. After all he is a creative type, a woodcraftsman and artist who has spent a lifetime dabbling in the art of turning something out of nothing; of discovering the unexpected. Joseph understands more than most this creative and imaginative God who comes to save the world as a baby in swaddling clothes. As a recent Christmas song by the rock band The Killers suggest: “Joseph, you’re a maker, a creator not just somebody’s dad.”
Joseph—maker, creator and father to Emmanuel (God-with-us)—puts every ounce of strength and love into following God’s ways and protecting the child so that God’s light will continue to shine in the darkness. Like his Jewish ancestors before him, Joseph must’ve understood the power of God’s illuminating presence in the dark otherwise he would’ve kept the family in Bethlehem, exposing the child Jesus to a premature death.
In her best-selling novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, Ann Rice imagines how Joseph the light bearer gave hope to his family as they hid out in Egypt while darkness scoured the desert sands for them. The author gives insight into Joseph through a fictional conversation between Mary and a teenage Jesus:
“Only after a while I heard stories, stories of what had happened in Bethlehem. Tales of a Messiah born there had caused a jealous rage to come from King Herod. He’d sent soldiers down from his fortress only a few miles away. They’d killed every little child in the village! Some two hundred children murdered in the darkness before the dawn,” she says to her son.
She bows her head and her face tightens.
She looks up at Jesus, her eyes are moist with tears.
She continues “I said to Joseph, ‘Did you know that was going to happen? Did the angel who came to you tell you?’ He said, ‘No, I knew nothing about it.’ I said, ‘How could the Lord let such a thing happen as the murder of those innocent children!’
She bites her lower lip. “I couldn’t understand it. I felt, ‘We have blood on our hands!’ Joseph said to me, ‘No, the blood is not on our hands. Shepherds came to worship this child. Gentiles came to worship him. An evil King has sought to kill him because the darkness cannot abide the light, but the light can’t be quenched by the darkness. The darkness always tries to swallow the light. But the light will shine. Don’t you see? We must protect him and that we will do, and the Lord will show us how.”
Joseph saw in God’s light a hope for the world—a hope he was charged to protect, to bear and to share with those around him. More than 2,000 years later, both Jews and Christians are taking up Joseph’s mantle of bearing God’s light in the darkness.
Just 10 days ago, hundreds of people gathered in Mumbai to commemorate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and honor the memories of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, and others who were killed in terror attacks last month on a Jewish center and other locations. According to a report from CNN: “people stood at the Gateway to India monument for the lighting of a menorah, the nine-branch candelabra. In addition to commemorating the slain, the ceremonies underscored the religious movement’s determination to rebuild the center, continue its activities and impart its spirit in Mumbai, where it has served the Jewish community for many years. Said the Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, the father of Rivka: ‘We will continue. A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.’”
I know the rabbi’s statement to be true based on the things I’ve witnessed in this congregation over the past few months. Hundreds of you have stood up to be bearers of light for those whom the darkness tries to swallow whole—whether playing with children in Honduras or repairing houses in New Orleans or shopping with Rainbow Village children or housing guests through the Family Promise program or starving for 30 hours so malnourished children can eat or collecting clothing for the Clifton Night Shelter or serving in a soup kitchen or comforting a friend who has unexpectedly lost a family member. Your little bit of light has dispelled a lot of darkness.
May you continue to be a bearer of God’s light like your ancestor Joseph and know that wherever you go, the light you carry shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it…Amen.
Repentance, Faith, Holiness, and Love: An Advent Study by James Howell for www.TheThoughtfulChristian.com, 2007
Merry Christmas, a prayer reflection by Ann Lewin for Just One Year: A Global Treasury of Prayer and Worship, edited by Timothy Radcliff, 2006
In Mumbai, a festival of light rekindles Jewish hope, www.CNN.com, December 26, 2008
Joseph, Better You Than Me by The Killers, Elton John and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, Dec. 22, 2008
Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, Ann Rice, 2005