Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

How dark is it, today?  If’ I’m going to be talking about light in the darkness, it ought to be dark, don’t you think?  I’d like to speak for you a poem that was written in some very dark days.  It was Christmas Day in 1863 when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words… some of which have become quite familiar to us since they were set to music, and have been recorded by many different people.  Some of the words, though, are rarely—if ever—sung.

That year, Longfellow’s oldest son, who had signed on as a soldier in March, had been severely wounded in November.  On Christmas day, Longfellow wrote:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
          and wild and sweet
          The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
          Had rolled along
          The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
          A voice, a chime,
          A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
          And with the sound
          The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
          And made forlorn
          The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
          "For hate is strong,
          And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
          The Wrong shall fail,
          The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

I almost stopped before the last verse.  I nearly left us in the despair of which Longfellow wrote, because I see that despair bowing the shoulders of many people in the world today.  We may not be in the midst of civil war today, as we were in 1863, with cannons belching balls of destruction from soot-blackened maws determinedly pointed at enemies of ideologies.  …or maybe the cannons are just different…

Yesterday I read of some hate-filled words from a politician (not our president-elect) aimed at our president and his wife.  One person commenting on the slurs said, “I don’t care who you are or who you’re talking about, you don’t say things like that!”

It seems as if many of our cannons today are blackened not by gunpowder exploding behind iron balls, but by hatred exploding from darkened hearts.  How harmful are the words spoken from the cannon of a hate-filled heart?

They can cause pain.  They can destroy the community.  They can incite others to deeper hatred.  Fear takes root and grows.

I read also yesterday of other horrific acts that are taking place around the world and in this land.  It does seem to be exactly what is written in an earlier chapter of the prophet Isaiah:  a land of deep darkness.

But we, we are not about the darkness.  Our Gospel tells us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

We gather here at Christmastime, and through the years we’ve gotten used to the story coming together in a certain way.  We expect to hear about Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus in the over-crowded city of Bethlehem.  Then there will be angels appearing to shepherds in the hills, and a bright star in the sky leading the magi to Jesus.  Over the years we’ve made it into one somewhat cohesive story that can be reenacted in a pageant by children of any age.

But the story in the Bible doesn’t read quite that way.  The story with the star leading the magi to Jesus says nothing of shepherds or a manger.  The story of the shepherds and the manger mentions no star.  And the story we read this morning speaks of the miracle of the Word of God becoming flesh, but does not even mention Mary or Joseph—or even Bethlehem!

It does speak of darkness, though, and a light that really has nothing to do with a star in the sky.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  That’s what this Gospel says.

It tried.  It still tries.  (That is, darkness tries to overcome the light of God.)

Darkness tried to overshadow the light of God coming into the world from the beginning of time, telling us we could be like God.  Darkness tried to discourage the young couple, with no good place for the baby to be born.  Darkness tried to obliterate the promise, by slaughtering all who might possibly be the promised Messiah.  Darkness tried to steer Jesus away from the path of righteousness, both in the wilderness and throughout Jesus’ ministry in the land of Israel.  Then, darkness tried to wash it all away with an illegal trial resulting in conviction and execution on the accursed tree of the cross.

Finally, darkness threatens to try to hide the light from this world even today, in uncounted ways beyond the examples I listed earlier.

But we are not about the darkness, because that darkness cannot overcome the light that God has given to this world in Jesus Christ.

Even the scandalous crucifixion could not snuff out the light of Christ in this world.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ overcomes all darkness!  And we, we live that light, wherever we see darkness.  We fill the mitten tree with mittens, hats, and scarves to protect from the cold of winter, and we stock the shelves of the food pantry.  We stand for those who are oppressed.  We speak for those whose voices are silenced.  We embody the light of Christ in the world today.

The light of Christ is not overcome by darkness.  Rather, it shines in every good work that is done yet today.  The light of God is not limited to the star that shone in the sky all those years ago, of which is written in Matthew. 

The true light that came into the world in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, continues to shine, as God’s Holy Spirit inspires us to every good deed.

No matter how dark the world around us may become, Christ’s light continues to shine… and that light is most bright where the world seems to us most dark.

So… sing the last verse of Longfellow’s poem with me, if you will:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
          The Wrong shall fail,
          The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
(Please remember this was written in  a time when "men" meant all people.)

 In Jesus’ name.  Amen