Rev. Wesley Spears-Newsome
Sometimes, I’m tempted to think of Jesus as simply a good teacher, a sayer of good things, a well-principled person. It’s easier than one might think, when we depict Jesus as a man wandering around ancient desert settlements in a robe and sandals, to believe that Jesus just lived in a simpler time and had some good ideas—and those ideas give us some good, broad-stroke moral principles to follow in our lives, but at the end of the day Jesus was simply that: a guy who lived a long time ago, said some good things, and lived a pretty good life. He was just as limited by his time as the rest of us are and we shouldn’t take what he said too seriously.
Of course, to say that is to totally ignore most of what the Bible actually says about Jesus. Jesus was not simply a moral teacher—no matter how dull your ethics class might be, no one is going to kill you for it. No, Jesus was not just a moral teacher; he angered the political and religious establishment to the point that he got himself killed for alleged capital crimes. He upset the status quo wherever he went and called people to a kind of life that threatened political power. Beyond that, the beginning of John’s Gospel makes abundantly clear that Jesus was not just somebody with good ideas.
“In the beginning …” John starts his Gospel in the same way that the Book of Genesis starts. John says Jesus was not just a person, but “the Word,” present at the beginning of creation. Before all things “came into being,” “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is not just the product of his time—Jesus exists before time itself. Jesus is the “light of all people,” which gives life to everyone. John tells us that Jesus is divine, of the same God present at creation, present in the burning bush before Moses. Jesus is of the same God that parted the Red Sea, issued the Ten Commandments, and called the prophets.
When we think of Jesus as only the sum of his teachings, we miss the fact that, as John says, Jesus is the “light of all people.” When we reduce Jesus to some admirable things he said a long time ago, that light can so easily go out. As just a person with good ideas, Jesus dies instead of being resurrected. As just a person with good ideas, Jesus doesn’t come back and assure us that death will not have the final word. As just a person with good ideas, Jesus doesn’t have Thomas put his hand in his side, assuring him that no wounds the world inflicts will be final. That idea of Jesus leads us to think the light has gone out, that hope has been lost, that the night will never end and dawn will never come.
It’s all too easy to believe that, though, isn’t it? It’s very easy to believe that the light has been snuffed out, that the sun will never rise again. It’s easy to lose hope when you read the news every day: when climate change threatens extinction, when gun violence tears apart our schools and communities, when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s easy to lose hope when pressures close in on our lives: when we get surprise medical bills for just trying to stay alive, when rent and utilities go up beyond our ability to pay, when you lose a job right when you could least afford to go without a paycheck. It’s easy to lose hope when loss lurks around the corner: when you or a loved one is sick, when family and friends become estranged, when life just feels so heavy.
But John tells us that the light of hope has not been snuffed out. No, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John readily admits that the world is a dark place, full of nightmares and frustrations. There is room for doubt, struggle, and grief. But in assuring us that the light shines, John says the darkness is not the end.
I think of all those times faithful people have huddled close together in times of darkness but persisted knowing that the darkness would not overcome the light.
Harriet Tubman knew what it meant to have faith in the light. She earned the nickname Moses for setting people free from slavery, boasting that on her Underground Railroad she never lost a single passenger. At night, in the dark, between the South and the North, I’m sure she was filled with doubts and fears. Slavers had put a bounty on her head and the federal government had passed a law to make her work illegal and punishable. I’m sure it felt like the night would never end, but she and those she freed from slavery still travelled the world by night, and the light kept burning. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Theodore Parker openly defied the entire United States government to protect his church members. He and other abolitionists in Boston offered sanctuary to refugees who had escaped from slavery in the South. They resisted slave catchers, Southern slavers, and even the President of the United States to keep people free. At night, though, I’m sure Theodore didn’t rest easy. His house could be bombed, he could have been killed, and politicians and slavers alike plotted his demise. Those cold, dark nights were full of doubt and fear, but the light kept burning. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
André Trocmé, a pastor in occupied France during World War II, led his whole town in providing illegal and secret sanctuary to Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Their town is known for courageous resistance now, but I’m the nights were long and dark in rural France. Doubts and fears accompanied the march of Nazi soldiers searching for traitors and their harborers. I’m sure at night they wondered if the darkness was ever going to retreat or if the light would finally die out. Nevertheless, they saved the lives of over 3,000 Jewish neighbors and the light kept burning. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
When the Freedom Riders road South to challenge segregation and racism, they got sent to the notorious Parchman Prison for weeks on end. In prison, they would sing to their jailers, saying “The buses are a’coming,” that the jailers “better get ready,” because they would not be alone, they would not be the only people in prison for fighting for freedom. But I’m sure the nights were long and dark in Parchman, deep in dangerous Mississippi. But despite all the fears and dangers, the light kept burning. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Nelson Mandela persisted through years in prison for his fight against apartheid in South Africa. While we know his story now as one of triumph over the evil forces he opposed, I’m sure it didn’t always feel that way for him. In his years in prison, he faced sham trials, engaged in hunger strikes, and struggled with illness. The outcome was never assured, but the light kept burning. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Scott Warren was a geography teacher in Arizona who cared about his neighbors, no matter where they came from. He works with a charity called “No More Deaths” that helps immigrants in the Southwestern desert, giving them food, water, and shelter so they don’t die in the sands and dirt. Scott got caught feeding and sheltering two migrants without papers and Border Patrol arrested him. He won his court case, but I can imagine the days in between were often full of doubt and fear. He faced counts of felonies, jail time, and more, but Scott and others persisted in caring for their neighbors and the light kept burning. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
People yearn for the light to shine all around the world, and so do you and I. The Good News of John’s Gospel is that Jesus was there long before our troubles began, and Jesus will be there long after they end. Jesus will suffer with us through all things, and nothing but the light of all people will have the final word. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
When faced with unspeakable tragedy in his own life, Scottish minister Arthur John Gossip, wrestled with doubts and fears. But in the darkness of grief and despair, he said, “I don’t think you need to be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail; and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely. But we have a wonderful God. And as Paul puts it, what can separate us from [God’s] love?” The message of John, and of Christmas, is this: we gather here to welcome God into a world full of darkness as the light that will never burn out. We gather here to welcome God in the confidence that the night always yields to the dawn. Our present struggles are real and painful, but they will not be final, because, as John said then, and would say today, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world.”
We’re facing the end of one tumultuous year after another, but through it all, we have come to this sanctuary each week, broken bread together, worshipped together, and suffered together. As we close 2019, we look forward to a 2020 that seems just as in doubt, just as scary, just as rife with division and strife as years past. But we’re still here. And each week, our acolyte carries in and carries out a light, a light that represents Christ, the light of all people. And that light is eternal. It was here long before we were and it will shine on long after we’re gone. We are not alone, and we never will be. Through all our troubles, that light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Amen.