Return to Sermon Index Page

From the Darkness Comes the Light
Sanford V. Berg

There is a sadness beneath the surface joy this time of year. Christmas brings out our yearnings to be connected. The child in each of us wants to feel unconditional love-to be truly "at home." The adult part of us wants to be able to give that love to others. The gulf between our vision of the Christmas ideal, and the reality of our lives can plunge us into darkness in the holiday season. I try to acknowledge this empty place so I am not caught by surprise when the sadness slips in. And I know I have to deal with it to be ready for the fourth candle of the Advent Wreath: the candle of Joy.

Advent offers us the opportunity to slow down and reflect on our lives, to acknowledge the pain and sadness of life. The color of Advent is purple, the same color as in Lent. It represents mourning and repentance. It recognizes that only if we are carved out by experiences can we be truly filled with joy.

During Advent, we have heard the choir singing about keeping our lamps trimmed and burning: "Days of Darkness soon be over, the Light is drawing nigh." Waiting faithfully is required of us.

However, our culture wants us to skip over the spiritual preparation directly to "Joy to the World" the day after Thanksgiving. The music of the mall's message is that Santa Claus is coming to town. All the cultural cues emphasize Christmas as a time for enjoying material goods. The four weeks leading up to Christmas present us with images of products and experiences guaranteed to make us happy. Secular Santa introduces serious tensions in our lives, with the cultural emphasis on what Marcus Borg, author of "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time" calls the "three A's: achievement, affluence, and appearance.

Borg says that "We live our lives in accord with these values, with both our self-worth and level of satisfaction dependent on how well we measure up to these cultural messages. Not only is the effort to measure up burdensome, but even when we are reasonably successful at doing so, we find the rewards unsatisfying." He argues that we try to substitute achievement, affluence, and appearance for the inner work and the
strengthening of relationships that give us grounding in true joy.

I know from my own experience that achievement doesn't yield lasting joy. My father was an alcoholic. We never knew when the calm might be shattered by a "scene". Especially at Christmas, I'd find myself tiptoeing on eggs, so Dad wouldn't have an excuse to drive off to the local tavern. Advent had many moments of darkness and pain. I didn't realize at the time that alcohol was his way of dealing with the emptiness and
disappointments of his life. In reaction I chose to avoid alcohol, but I developed my own addiction: achievement. In high school I escaped the family dynamic by retreating to my room to study obsessively. In college, I became a resume-niac . . . engaging in activities and serving as an officer in various organizations--just to add lines to my resume.
After college, I had my share of career struggles here at the University of Florida. I was put up for early promotion, and then turned down by the department. Maybe my chairman should have done a better job of canvassing the department, but it certainly shattered my confidence. Larry and Sandy ministered to me, helping me pull through that tough time. After a year, I received tenure and promotion. Few of you know that six years later, my colleagues tabled my promotion from associate to full professor. So I waited for five additional years. They gave little weight to my outreach activities and questioned my scholarly contributions. Without the support and affirmation of the church for other facets of my identity, it would have been difficult not to become bitter or frustrated by the long delay.

Especially in a university community, with its heavy emphasis on academic and professional advancement, it is easy to equate "success" with achievement. We often pass those values and pressures onto our children. Clearly, it is a matter of balance: in my case, a focus on trying to prove my worth through academic achievement caused me to delay doing the inner work necessary for my own spiritual development.

Marcus Borg identifies affluence as the second cultural goal. Again, this too can become a hollow substitute for joy. We know that money is not the metric for measuring a life of depth and meaning. But it's easy to slip into the pursuit of affluence. So much of our time is spent earning, shopping, spending, upgrading: bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger TV's, travel, faster computers, the latest electronic gizmo's to make life easier. I'm susceptible to the siren call. The Holiday Season encourages the ultimate in frenetic shopping, and a
tidal wave of catalogues proclaims that we'll find happiness through expensive gifts. Underneath our busy-ness we still feel the pangs of loneliness and questions of what this thing called life means. During Advent, we often keep busy, keep shopping to numb ourselves from the questions and the pain.

Yet we all know that to live a meaningful life and ward off the darkness inside, something very different is required.

As an economist, I've puzzled over how best to balance my pursuit of money in the context of life's spiritual journey. Practical voices whisper the virtues of hard work, earning, owning. Yet Jesus' words call us to renounce possessions and give ourselves away. The Jungian teacher Robert Johnson says that the religious experience lies exactly in living at the center of the paradox. Each of us has to make choices that work for us, balancing the inner and outer demands, recognizing that our most valuable possession-our attention-ought not be wasted on activities that diminish our souls.

The saying goes, "The best things in life are free." That's wrong. The best things in life are non-monetary. But they're not free. They require choices and sacrifices. Deep down we know that our most precious gifts aren't bought with money, but are given in our love, in our words of support, and in the time we spend with one another. None of these precious qualities is free.

Marcus Borg's third "A" is for Appearance. Each of us has times of deep sadness, of financial struggles, struggles with health and children's growing pains. But often we don't show what is going on inside; it is hard to ask for help and others' prayers. Without meaning to, we perpetuate the fašade of "The Church of the Successful." We pretend the darkness doesn't exist.

Let me be specific. Marriage is the most complicated relationship I can imagine. Catherine and I have had many, many hard times. We only told a few people when we went to marriage counseling during several particularly tough periods. We didn't share much of our children's struggles in making their transitions to adulthood. Because we were very private and "kept up appearances," we hurt ourselves.

In my career, in our marriage, and in our child-rearing, we would have benefited from more help, more sharing, more prayers. But we were too proud to ask. In our congregation, giving is not the problem-people are generous with their resources, time and love. Asking is difficult, however, because it signals that we are needy . . . that we are vulnerable. Up come the masks.

In this last month, however, we learned a powerful lesson. At Catherine's routine health check-up, the mammogram indicated micro-calcification consistent with cancer. Like many here who have gone through a similar experience, we went through a stressful period waiting for the biopsy results. She shared her situation with Church Council, the Choir, and others here in the congregation. We can testify first-hand how precious are the
prayers and emotional support of the church community. And we can report that the news was good-no problems.

Still, we regret that our earlier lack of candor might have unintentionally discouraged others who are struggling, by making our life look in some ways too easy. Perhaps it is true for all of us that behind every well-posed Christmas photo and between the lines of our well-crafted Holiday letters are unshared images and stories of pain and failure.

We are all broken. And unless we ask for help from one another, we deny others an opportunity for helping us become whole. God is present in the helping hands and stories we share.

Let me summarize: we know that a focus on Achievement, Affluence, and Appearance creates darkness in our lives. These may be by-products of a life well-lived . . . but they are not objectives in and of themselves. But in community, in sharing our hopes and fears, we make each other whole. At Christmas, we remember that God was made vulnerable and fragile. That vulnerability reminds us of our own. For me, that sense of
vulnerability makes the tears rise up in the poignant carols and memories of Christmas. The color of Advent is, indeed, purple. But finally in the darkness of the courtyard on Christmas Eve, we light our candles. And we trust and know that passing the flame to another does not diminish us, but spreads the light of life in a sudden bursting forth of true "Joy to the World".

Responsive Reading: The Way Less Traveled (adapted from Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg)

Leader: What then is the way that leads to life?

Women: The way less traveled is life in the Spirit. It is the life that Jesus himself knew.

Men: The path of transformation of which Jesus spoke leads from a life of requirements and measuring up to a life of relationship with God.

Leader: But that is a challenging message. Our culture's secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Spirit. It looks to the material world for satisfaction and meaning.

Women: The gospel of Jesus-the good news of Jesus' own message-is that there is a way of being that moves beyond secular conventional wisdom.

Men: It leads from a life centered in culture to life centered in God.

Leader: It leads from the bondage of self-preoccupation to the freedom of self-forgetfulness.

All: It leads from the darkness of anxiety to the light of peace and joy.

We find it difficult to pierce the darkness to see who we truly and fully are. Yet when we do not tell the truth to ourselves, let alone to others, we run a great risk.

God, we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are. Little by little we come to accept instead the highly edited version which we display for others to see.

Help us to understand that our masks may seem more acceptable than the real thing. But if we continue to wear masks, we remain in the darkness. Your light is available to all-it is the essence of Advent. Help each of us to find the light and the hope that this Season offers.

Benediction: "We are somewhere between the fact of darkness and the hope of light. We are comforted because the Light of the World is coming. The challenge of it is that it has not come yet. Only the hope for it has come, only the longing for it. We watch and wait for a holiness to heal us and hallow us, to liberate us from the dark."

Frederick Buechner