Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, Minnesota)
Text: Luke 2:1-20
I have what might appear to some as an unhealthy fascination with fire. I mostly keep it under control, but do light candles nearly every day of the week. There’s usually always one burning on my desk, and I can tell you the location of every stash of candles here in the church. Occasionally I’ve been teased for my preoccupation with fire, as well as my messy habit of melting one spent candle’s wax into another. I should just learn to make candles, and then I can justify this obsession as a life-enriching hobby. But at my current rate of combustion, smoke inhalation will probably get me first.
Christmas is a good time of year for those of us with a mild case of pyromania. My friend Quinn Caldwell points out that “fire-setting kicks into high gear” in this season. “Advent candles on wreaths, bayberry candles in the windows…. And don’t forget the lights on your Christmas tree,” he says, “which are really just a form of safety fire that’s less likely to burn the house down.” I think flame is especially important at this time because of its heat and its light. When it’s frigid outside and daylight ends in midafternoon, candles at the window, hearth or table give evidence of another reality. They testify that cold, dark winter will not be the end of us. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
The shepherds knew much about the darkness, since much of the time they “watched over their flocks by night”. It’s easy to picture them huddled in layers watching the sheep, trying to stay warm and awake through the night. Shepherds had plenty of time to reflect on the things of darkness. They thought about sheep that the wolves and sickness had pulled down: preying on the weak and vulnerable, striking even the most favored ones. They thought about Emperor Augustus with his decrees and registrations and taxes, which had the power to compel mass migration and hardship. They thought about Quirinius, and all the human misery he governed over in Syria. They thought about their own loneliness, “scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.” The shepherds thought about all this, and pulled their coats more tightly around them. The darkness seemed gloomier and more powerful than ever.
Then suddenly, as though the world’s largest match had been struck, “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Shocked and blinded for a moment, the shepherds stumbled to their feet, disbelieving the divine light that threw back the night. “Good news of great joy!” the angel declared, “A Savior!” The flame of one angel was then surrounded by a multitude of the heavenly host, all singing and giving glory to God, a great forest fire of light in the midnight sky. When angels had left the shepherds and darkness returned, it no longer had the same gloomy, foreboding power. It was as though the light of heaven had fallen right into their eyes, giving a new glint of mission, meaning and purpose.
With hurried steps they traveled the dim streets of Bethlehem, knocking on doors and asking if any had seen this child. When they came on the scene of the Messiah’s birth, they saw the one who had been promised: “A child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” No mighty ruler by the judgments of the world, but a King nevertheless. Humble Joseph and faithful Mary beside him, treasuring the mystery of this newborn life.
The shepherds made known to Mary and Joseph what the angels had said and sung. This child is where God’s light shines through. The Light of the world shone in that Bethlehem manger. “There is a crack, a crack in everything”, sings Leonard Cohen, “That’s how the light gets in.” The world of midnight cracked open at Bethlehem, and the glow of Christ entered in forever.
The shepherds—people who walked in darkness but had seen a great light—did not keep this light to themselves. They told Mary and Joseph, confirmed the presence of the Light in the manger, then went throughout the town creating a ruckus, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Those who have once seen God’s Light give witness to it ever after, showing its warmth to others, and telling all the world of its promise.
The testimony of those first shepherds is what brings all of us here tonight. The shepherds were candles tipped to the warm flame of Christ. When lit, they went and carried that light to others, with the promise that even in places of deep darkness, God’s light will shine. The Light came into the world two thousand years ago, on the other side of the world. And yet person after person has carried the light—from shepherds to fishermen, tax collectors and tentmakers, to popes, kings, and missionaries, to scribes, reformers, and diplomats, to Saint Paul Park church planters, to Sunday school teachers, to confirmation youth, to elderly homebound hosts, to the youngest voices squirming and crawling here now. This holy night glows with the darkness-defying light of Christ, from all the way back in that Bethlehem manger. We are the shepherds gathered again, bearing witness that the Light shines forever, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Where do we see the Light today? Faith in Christ helps us see his light, even when the world seems filled with gloomy night. With the eyes of faith, you can see the world cracking open, revealing divine Light within even now. For just one example, the Light is visible in Canada, where refugees step off planes to be embraced by their new Prime Minister. The entire country is preparing for 25,000 refugees by the end of February. One businessman, Robert Nunn, was looking for a way to celebrate his recent retirement. He picked up flyers for a motorboat, and also from a refugee organization seeking donations. But according to a news story: After reading both, Mr. Nunn decided to make the donation rather than purchase the boat….“A fancy trip, a car or boat, kind of diminish and memories fade,” said Mr. Nunn, who had never supported any refugee group. “This refugee effort will have effects that go on for generations. Where is the best value, where is the best return? I threw away the boat ad.” The Light of Christ shines in one person, and through a nation’s generosity, offering warmth and rescue after the chaos of war.
The Light shines through this community also—I have seen it time and again. My phone chimed recently before worship with a text from one of our members. She has wanted to come to church for weeks now, but is also very pregnant and even little movements are exhausting. Her regretful text asked for prayers from the church to make it through the remaining weeks of her pregnancy. Of course we did so. At the same time, church members and friends mobilized on her behalf to prepare for this baby’s arrival. They’ve already pulled together a car seat, bath items and toys to deliver. Someone else has arranged for fleece blankets, made by the Girl Scout troop that meets downstairs, to go to this family. The church responds with prayer and material aid when possible to help those in need. This is where the Light shines through—with prayer and material aid when possible to show comfort and care.
Maybe this is why I’m so fascinated with fire. Every candle is a flaming sign, lit today for the one whose coming tore the sky apart with light. We modern-day shepherds wait for so much: peace in our world, renewal in the church, and healing in our own lives. And yet, just when the darkness of what is missing threatens to overwhelm, the Light breaks through night’s gloom with rays of promise. Where do you see the Light of Christ? Where can you testify to His warm presence? When you look in the mirror, can you see yourself as a prism of that same Light, shining from within you? We need not fear or curse any darkness, no matter how deep, for the candle of Christian hope is lit forever. God is with us, Christ is born, and His Light will fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Let us pray: Christ our Light, you were born among us to illumine all darkness. Kindle the flame of your glory within us, that every word and action of our lives may burn brightly to show others your presence. Amen.
 R. Alan Culpepper, commentary on Luke 2:1-20 in The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 65.
 Ian Austen, “Syrian Refugees Greeted by Justin Trudeau in Canada”, New York Times, December 11, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/12/world/americas/syria-refugees-arrive-in-canada.html.