Illumination

We started our worship this morning with the well-loved hymn, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” It is a fitting beginning to our Advent season, I think, reminding us of the awe-inspiring reality of God’s love and continual presence with us. The first verse says,

Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word;
tell me the story most precious, sweetest that ever was heard.
Tell how the angels in chorus sang as they welcomed His birth,
‘Glory to God in the highest! Peace and good tidings to earth.”

The verses that follow shine a light on some of the chapters of Jesus’ life we all recognize: his time of temptation in the desert; the way he was treatment by those in power; his cruel crucifixion; and the important and life-changing fact that his living presence is with us still. As we begin this Advent season, it’s good for us to remember not just the sweet origin story of Jesus’ birth but His life as a whole, a life that was and is a model of goodness, purity, compassion, and righteousness lived out in a real world, with real struggles and real needs.

Jesus showed us not only how to live so that more and more of God’s light can shine through us; he also taught us in a very practical way how to relate to God in our own hearts and lives. He demonstrated the importance of putting God first, trusting God for the answers, opportunities, protection, and provision we need. Jesus taught us methods that smooth out our relationships both with God and our fellow humans; he took time to pray, he spent time with those he loved best, he alternated his teaching time with plenty of room to reflect and feel refreshed. He showed us how to keep first things first in our lives, and he demonstrated that every day of his own.

We all love the Christmas story—and for good reason. We have so many sweet memories, dozens of favorite carols. We love the lights—electric and candlelight. We are encouraged and touched that God chooses ordinary, good people, to bring about a divine event unlike anything the world had seen before or since. God chooses Mary, a young, engaged, conscientious teenager, to bring a baby into the world who would change the course of history. Her fiancé Joseph is a good man who stands beside her, protecting her honor and providing the stability and support she needs. God enlists Mary’s cousin Elizabeth—older but deeply faithful—to bear a son who would open the way and prepare people to understand the message of the Christ child. And her husband, Zechariah—who becomes a bit of a comedic character when he is rendered mute because the angels don’t trust him to keep God’s secret—is overjoyed that after decades of faithful prayer and service, God is finally going to bless him and his wife with a child.

Ordinary, good people were a big part of the story of Jesus. Today you might find them on Facebook, posting something about their holiday plans or asking for friends’ suggestions for a good pediatrician. We might pass them on the way to church on Sunday or sit next to them in a restaurant without even knowing. The fact that God chose not the great and powerful people of history to bring His story to light but simple, faithful, good people tells us that God chooses the humble and true—ordinary, everyday people like us– to carry the light of his love forward in the world. If what God wanted was a big media blitz—to spread the story of Jesus as fast as possible, all around the world—he would have chosen those with the most power, the greatest reach, or the biggest microphones. Instead, God chose those with good hearts and listening spirits, those who would live and share—with compassion and humility—the plan God had in mind for each of them. It’s a quiet, daily walk. And it’s a light that lasts.

We run the risk of missing that connection—that the Christmas story is our story too– when we over-focus on the miraculous parts—the angels speaking to humans, the star leading the three wise men, the angel chorus singing in the sky. If we think of the miracles and not the everydayness of it all, we might end up putting Jesus on a pedestal we reserve only for the Son of God. Of course miraculous things happened, we think. God was preparing for His own son to come into the world.

But when we put Jesus up on that pedestal, we also put him out of reach. I doubt Jesus—at least the Jesus I read about in scripture—would want that. Not to be above us, not out of reach, not an unattainable, unrealistic example that we all know we could never live up to. Jesus wasn’t born into this world to flaunt his divinity but to lift our humanity, Jesus was born among us—as one of us—into a normal, everyday family in a small rural town outside of the thriving economic centers of the time. He was meant to travel alongside us, helping us along, showing us step by step where we can open our hearts to one another, where we can let go of grudges and prejudices, how we can really find and know and love God with our whole hearts.

In George Fox’s encounter with Christ on the hillside in rural England, Jesus spoke directly into the darkness of Fox’s pain and hopelessness, and Fox knew instantly that, “There is One, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.” That was not an encounter with a miraculous, otherworldly Jesus but a real, living, everyday Jesus who is as close to us as our next breath, our next thought. The living presence of Christ helps us understand our experiences, shining God’s light into our thinking so we can see and correct our mistakes, dissolve our judgments of one another, and begin to truly follow him, with God’s grace and peace leading the way.

This idea of learning from our experiences with the help of God’s light is part of our Old Testament reading:

To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd. You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty. You, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.

The psalmist here is pointing to a fascinating and curious thing you may have noticed yourself: If we’re paying attention, our normal daily experiences often mirror areas in our lives where we need more light. For example, suppose that over the holidays you’re not looking forward to seeing a certain relative because she always stresses you out. Perhaps she makes judging comments or is always putting somebody down. You’d rather just steer clear and avoid her if you can. But then, in a moment of quiet, you hear this thought bubble up: I could probably be more generous with her, you think. It’s a curious thought and has some energy attached to it. It seems to come out of nowhere. Maybe it was a suggestion from God.

So you spend a little time thinking about that, what it might mean. Something about the idea feels good, there’s a bit of a heart glow about it. When you go to the gathering and see your relative, the thought comes back as a question: How could I be a little generous with her? The answers are probably simple. Maybe you smile when you see her, and she smiles back. Perhaps your conversation is lighter. No judgment. No put-downs. When she walks away, you think, Huh. That wasn’t so bad.

The psalmist says that when we act with faithfulness, God shows himself faithful in the experiences we encounter. When we make an effort at purity, our experiences reflect God’s purity coming into our lives. When we try to be more generous with someone we’ve previously judged, the whole experience shines with grace. And not an otherworldly grace; an everyday grace. One that is capable of changing everything, one heart at a time.

Over and over again, Jesus stood steady in murky and tension-filled situations and clearly shared the light of God’s presence with all who were willing to see it. When people were in conflict, Christ shined the light of peace and clarity. When folks were sick and suffering, Christ’s light brought God’s wholeness and comfort. When the Pharisees were plotting against him, the light of God’s truth made everything plain. Throughout his whole story as we have it in scripture—from his birth in the stable in Bethlehem to his last appearance to the disciples after he was raised from the dead—God’s light shined clearly, purely, and lovingly through the person of Jesus and the presence of Christ. And it continues to be so today.

In our New Testament story, Jesus has been speaking to the crowd and says something so profound that likely few—if any—among those gathered understood it. He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Ellicott’s commentary here suggests that Jesus was speaking to the crowds during the festival of the Feast of the Tabernacles, which is in part a celebration of light reminiscent of the pillar of fire which led the children of Israel through the wilderness in Moses’ day. Ellicott adds, “On this night the light is not to shine; but the true Light, which was ever in the world, is now in His own Temple, speaking the words of light and life to His own people. There is a Light there whose rays are to illumine, not only the Temple, or Jerusalem, or Judea, … but the world.”

Jesus’ statement, I am the light of the world, is an important one for Friends and it is one George Fox—and many others—experienced and experience personally. The phrase walking in the Light of Christ means we Friends believe that God is with us and we are each able to have a personal, direct experience of God in the quiet of our own hearts and lives. Our silent worship is based on the idea that by quieting our busy minds and turning our hearts toward God, we will be able to sense and understand the leading of the Inward Light, the presence of Christ with us in our daily experience.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting created a lovely list of the ways Friends experience this loving presence. We believe the light of Christ

  • Accompanies, comforts and loves us as we seek Divine truth;
  • Reveals who we are, including what we would prefer not to see about ourselves, and leads us out of spiritual darkness or dryness;
  • Illuminates, inspires and transforms us;
  • Shows us how to live with love, compassion and justice towards others;
  • Gives us energy and power to change ourselves and the world in small ways and large;
  • Leads us to the right decisions in our meetings for worship with attention to business;
  • Provides ongoing revelation of God’s truth.

You may be able to add some ideas of your own to this list based on your personal experience of Christ’s Light with you. Each of these tasks is an important part of the living, loving, ongoing presence of God, traveling with us moment by moment and illumining our darkness—inside and out. The hope and the goal is that we will discover in an unmistakable way God’s love and joy in the center of our hearts, and that we will begin to follow—step by step—and shine the light we’ve found into the world around us. That is not Christ on a pedestal, waiting to be worshipped. That is Christ beside us, Christ within us, illumining and enlivening each of our moments with truth and peace and love.

It brings to mind a poem from the Persian poet Hafez:

How did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its beauty?
If felt the encouragement of light
Against its being.
Otherwise,
We all remain
too frightened.”  

Perhaps this Advent, as we prepare once again for the birth of the Christ child, we can let Spirit show us where we have been too frightened to love, too timid to share our beauty and shine our light in the world. The loving light of Christ will inspire and encourage us and help us along the way. This is not about a baby born in a manger thousands of years ago on the other side of the world; this is about the presence of perfect love with us now, with us always, loving and guiding us home to the tender embrace of God.

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