Light One Candle

Light One Candle

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Christmas Eve • December 24, 2016

What did you bring with you tonight? Who did you bring? I am so aware that especially on Christmas Eve, we come here with so many memories. Some here are in a place that has served as a lighthouse in the sometimes troubled seas of life: a constant point of reference, a place that is familiar and comforting. Others haven’t crossed the threshold of a church in a while and may be a bit nervous; to you we especially say, welcome, we promise, you’ll get out of here unhurt, safe and sound.

We all bring memories. Perhaps you remember being a child, bundled up, taken to a church, made to sit still, hushed when everything in you is vibrating with expectancy. Maybe you sat with family later on as an adult or you came to church hoping to recover that joy, that hope, that light. Of course, we come here as well with more recent experiences. Things happened this week; there are victims of violence today who were happily getting ready for Christmas last Saturday. There are refugees today who are traveling, just as Mary and Joseph traveled. And there are babies. A picture of a baby that moved me this week showed a baby in Aleppo, Syria, sleeping in a cardboard box. And tonight we read Luke’s story of another refugee baby named Jesus.

The Story of Jesus’ Birth

We all know this story, or think we do. But if we delve into the details of the Bible story instead of the greeting card version, we may be surprised. The story starts with big, threatening people: Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius. They are the Donald Trump, the Andrew Cuomo of their moment. They’ve ordered a census, a count, and the reason as Luke’s readers know is so they can tax people. This story starts with people on the road, forced there by a government of the great and powerful.

But it’s mostly a family story. Just before the section we read, Mary finds out she’s pregnant. What does she do? She runs off to Aunt Elizabeth’s house: she goes to family. There she finds the strength and faith to return and bear the child. The journey to Bethlehem is caused by Joseph’s family connection. His line goes back to David and comes from there, it’s their ancestral home.. Joseph is going home and taking his fiancée with him. It’s the family that sustains them; it’s the family that lasts. Long ago, God said to Abraham and Sarah, “I’m going to make your family a blessing to the whole earth.” The great and powerful parade; the family endures, the blessing blossoms from them.

So this family, just at its beginning, slowly moves in the darkness of the winter toward the old family home. I’m sure they hope they can get settled before the baby comes; I’m sure they hope to find a warm, safe place for their first child.

But babies don’t wait, babies don’t care about convenience, so along the way, we read that the baby comes. Most of us have watched Christmas pageants that imagine a Holiday Inn with a No Vacancy sign but that’s not actually what Luke says. Big houses in Palestinian villages had a room called a ‘kataluma’, sometimes translated an upper room. It’s where you put guests; it’s where Jesus will someday gather his followers for the last supper. It’s this room that’s full and so these travelers do what travelers have always done, they sleep in a barn. The baby is born; they wrap him in swaddling clothes. The Syrian mother I mentioned put her baby in a cardboard box; Mary puts Jesus in the first century equivalent, a manger, a sort of box for feeding grain.

God works through babies

Do you remember the seeing a newborn baby? One of the first churches I served had lots of families having babies and I still remember the wonder of those hospital calls. I wasn’t a parent yet but I could still see something earth-shaking had happened. Later on, as a pastor in my own church, there were times I felt overwhelmed and defeated. One of the ways I learned to find God’s love again after hospital calls was to go to the nursery and just see the new babies there. Lasts summer, I came home from vacation when Rosemary was born. She was so tiny. She was born prematurely and I remember her stretched out, naked to the world, so vulnerable. Yet this is how God changes the world. Like lighting candles in a dark room, God works through babies born to bless us all.

The story of Jesus moves on. We started with the power people of the time, we end with the powerless: shepherds, a group of rascally boys everyone rolls their eyes over. But they have something the powerful people will never have: they have a vision, a light, a visitation from angels. This is a truly amazing thing: God is moving into the world but no one tells the powerful; the angels do not sing to them, do not visit them. Herod, the local king, in fact, according to Matthew, is going to have to ask some foreign wise men where all this happens. The powerful have no idea what’s going on; the shepherds are already on their way to the stable. God is working here but it’s not the powerful who get it, it’s the ones who are watching, who have room in their lives for the light of God. Do you have room? We have so much: this story asks if we will make room for God.

Light One Candle

In a moment, we’re going to light candles, beginning with the Christ Candle. The candles remind us that God began with the smallest of lights, a baby, a family, one cry in a barn, one child being born. I began by asking what you brought with you; now I want to ask what you will take with you. I want to suggest this: take the candle. Tonight, tomorrow, we celebrate the birth of Jesus; tonight, tomorrow, we remember God is in the world, God’s kingdom is within us, waiting and wanting to burst out. We are, each one, a light.

So take the candle home. It’s not a big candle; God doesn’t need big, God is great. Take the candle home: set it up. Light one candle. Peter, Paul and Mary have a wonderful song that says,

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago

Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart

And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts 
Don’t let the light go out!

It’s lasted for so many years!

Don’t let the light go out!

Let it shine through our hope and our tears. (2)

Take the candle, set it up, light it up. It’s a small candle. But then, we’re celebrating the birth of a small baby tonight and this is what he says about small. 

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches…

Light one candle: one small candle, one small light. See how God, who came to us in the person of a little baby, who created the light, can make the light a beacon of love. Let the candle remind you of that light, that love; let it remind you to shine, to become yourself a candle, shining with the light of Christmas, the light of God’s love.