A Light Still Shines: For the People Who Dwelt In Darkness

Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-4, 6-7

First Sunday of Advent 2017




The brilliance of the Christian calendar comes not solely in the little explosions of grace that take place on the highest of holy days scattered throughout the year, the ones that reminds us of God’s presence in a real and unmistakable manner, but also in the periods of preparation that give each of us time to evaluate our lives and to make ready a place for God’s spirit of reconciliation and love to arrive again and anew. Times in which to set aside time to be in prayer, to be watchful, to be calm, to make ourselves ready lest we miss the coming of God. This time of Advent, this time that we commence on this morning, this Sunday, in which we, together, take the first few steps towards the manger, this is the period with which we have been gifted to be silent, to be still, and to wait. 4 weeks where we can take our place outside the Christmas season that will soon engulf us all if it has not yet happened. And I have to imagine that we can each look back into the past and see those moments when the water has gotten above our heads in the midst of this most wonderful time of the year. Times in which our own personal quests for the perfect gift for our loved ones, times of attending or throwing Christmas parties, of cleaning the house for guests, of turning corners in our houses and being surrounded by the crisp memories of family members and friends that have passed on, of stressing out over trying to force ourselves to have those magical Christmas moments that maybe sit at the base of our memory from our own childhood or maybe just a print produced by Currier and Ives that encapsulated everything that we wished our Christmases could be, and all of this can at times weigh us down until rather than hope, rather than peace, rather than joy, rather than love, all we really experience is the weariness that can only come from the pursuit of the perfect Christmas. It is any surprise that most people report having an increase in the feelings of depression and hopelessness around this holiday season. When each year, the Normal Rockwell family Christmas that we are sure is going to emerge begins to slowly but inexorably resemble a Griswold family Christmas. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, we know that something is not quite right in our preparation if we feel as if Christmas morning feels like the completion of a marathon rather than a celebration of the arrival of the Christ-child. But it is hard for many of us to even begin to know how to properly prepare for Christmas. In a time in which, for many, Advent is only observed as a countdown of days until the big day—commencing somewhere after Thanksgiving and going to Christmas Eve. And this isn’t completely our fault. Christmas is easier to understand. It is an event that sits in history that we celebrate. A baby, born in a manger, with shepherds and wise men, King Herod and the escape to Egypt, a great company of the heavenly host appearing over Bethlehem and declaring, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace for all those upon whom favor rests.” We get that, we can understand that, it fits well on a Christmas card. Less easy to understand is the time immediately before that for the people of Israel and for us today. “The people who dwelled in darkness will see a great light,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. This is a statement of expecting. This is a statement of ultimate hope in which a whole nation of people, many of whom had been crying out for relief from persecution, would finally find some amount of relief from oppression. The people who had been strewn far and wide, the people who had had their country ransacked and their capital sacked, the people who had experienced starvation and struggle, for them the light of God would again shine. And I wonder, if we really search our souls, if we cannot understand a bit of how those early Israelites felt listening to Isaiah and his message of ultimate hope. In a world in which many are hungry, many are homeless, many find themselves stuck in prisons of depression and stress and addiction and in a seemingly never-ending quest for dignity, and knowing all this, maybe, even if it is only for a few minutes, we can understand a bit of darkness.  “The people who dwelled in darkness will see a great light,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. This is a statement of waiting in the midst of what must have seemed like forever.  For a people who had not spent an evening in their own home in sometime, had not plowed their own crops, or walked around the streets of their hometowns, who had not seen their friends, or families, or neighbors for sometime. Yet still they waited, faithfully, for light to emerge in their worlds. And I wonder if we may not sense a bit of that ourselves in the midst of this holiday season. We know that Advent is a time for waiting and yet, we don’t always know what it is that we are waiting for. We know that Advent is a time for waiting and yet, we don’t always know how to wait for what we are waiting for. We too often feel like we must force God to come, force the Spirit to move, force Jesus to emerge in our lives in real and tangible ways. We feel like we have to have the perfect Christmas experience and in our efforts miss the blessing that waiting provides. We miss times of silence in our efforts to create the perfect silence. We miss times of “thin places” where creation and God pass so close that we could reach out and touch the Spirit of God. We miss the journey by rushing to the destination.  “The people who dwelled in darkness will see a great light,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. This is a statement for a group of people who had to be running out of hope, for a people desperate to know that God still loved them, that God still sought to take care of them. This is a statement, in which the reality of the situation, that is the despair of the situation could not overcome the hope that remained. And we need this kind of a hope to today, don’t we friends? We need to know that the ways of the old order of the world do not get the last say in our lives, in our world, we need to know that we can still dream dreams and have visions, that we can still imagine the world a better place, a more peace-filled place, a more loving place and we need to believe that with God’s help we can make those dreams, visions, imaginations a reality. We need to know that even in the midst of preparation of our hearts and souls, even in the midst of times of doubts and weakness that there remains a light that illumines our spirits and our world. We need to have eyes to see the world as Isaiah saw it. We need to have eyes to see hope in a hopeless world and so we pray to God for the vision to see the hope emerging from the darkened world.  “The people who dwelled in darkness will see a great light,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. This is a prayerful statement and we need prayer today. In the midst of our busy lives, in the midst of our preparations, in the midst of now we need those times to sit and breathe and try to hear that still small voice speaking words of peace and hope and love. Yes, love. We need to know that in the midst of struggle in the midst of the mundane in the midst of life, is love. We must pray so that we can give voice to our feelings, our desires, our needs. We must pray so that we can put away the rest of the world, the parts of the world in which darkness still covers, still devours, and we must listen for guidance of how to see the light and how to be the light. Scientists tell us that some 14 billion years ago, in the midst of soul-piercing darkness, a tightly packed ball of matter, fueled by the energy collected by so many particles in such tight quarters, exploded in a brilliant display of light, firing the earliest piece of this existence far and wide forming what we would later call the universe. A unity off all matter in which primarily space dust eventually came together to form galaxies and moons, comets and supernovas, and our little part of the universe, earth. And while we might theorize about those earliest beginnings, while we might be able to say with some veracity what happened in those moment immediately following inception, we are still wholly unable to comprehend from where all this matter arose and what exactly set all of it off, ablaze with energy to fill the void that it continues to grow into today. And the time, 14 billion years, is literally impossible to grasp with our human minds, our own lifespans so small a piece of the larger timeframe that to express it is in a percentage would take 7 zeros after the decimal point. The amount of time human beings have occupied in the larger history is also less than a single percent. And if we cast our eyes forward, most estimates are that the sun has roughly another 100 billion years that it can burn and some make the argument that even that is too conservative a number making the time that we have traversed since the big bang only a sliver of the total amount of life found in the universe. We are literally immersed in a timeframe that we can neither wrap our brains around the portion of time that has already occurred and even less so that which is yet to come. And so we cannot depend on time.  In a similar manner, we find ourselves in a tiny corner of an ever expanding universe so immense that the best that scientists can do is to use their knowledge to create theories about how big the universe really is and how small a percentage of it we both occupy and have even explored. We cannot begin to wrap our minds around the sheer enormity of it all and to even try makes our individual and collective heads spin. Almost all of it will never be explored by human life and certainly not in any of our lifetimes. But everything we do know suggests we are but a mere speck on a tiny planet in a universe with millions of galaxies and billions upon billions of planets. In 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe snapped a picture of the earth from 3.7 billion miles away showing the earth to be but a small speck in the midst of other small specks, it’s pale blue light the refraction of the suns rays. A single pixel against the immense backdrop of darkness and emptiness. Everything we know about the universe and our place within it suggests that we cannot depend on our place in space.  And yet, on this nondescript planet in a universe the size of which we can’t even imagine, in a frame of time that is so small a portion of the time allotted to the universe everyone we know and love has existed. Everything that brings our lives meaning has happened here. All the wars and blood spilled over land and conquest. All the moments of great and colossal change that has altered the way in which we think about one another and act towards one another. Every birthday and wedding and funeral and baptism has taken place right on this singular pale blue dot. Every atrocity and every hope and they are all contained in this place. And at a time that we cannot know for sure, at a moment that we can’t be certain who was even there to witness it, the child of God, slipped into this broken and beautiful world. Slipped into a world of war and atrocity, of conquer and conquest, of love and hate. Slipped into a world of tyrants and kings, of struggle and oppression, of occupation and misery. Slipped into a world in which mothers wrap babies in swaddling clothes, in which shepherds gather watching their sheep at night, slipped into a world where magi from the east followed a star to the place where the baby slept, slipped into a world where the cattle lowed and he woke up, slipped, into a world in desperate need to know that someone, anyone still cared. Slipped into the world and brought hope.  This journey upon which we find ourselves once again, asks us all to prepare to relive that moment, asks us all to prepare for God to enter into creation again, asks us all to prepare for hope. But it cannot be a one-time episode in the midst of the otherwise mundane living of life in which Jesus appears one moment and the next we return to our daily lives, to our daily existence. It cannot be that we note his appearance alongside other events on our annual calendar. There are simply too many people in our midst who hurt and struggle. Too many wars still plaguing our world, too many swords needed for plowshares and spears needed for pruning hooks. Too many seeking to be on the mountain of God. With this season comes hope, but with hope comes responsibility to carry that hope into the streets, into the country, into the world. We might once again have hope but it can never be a cheap hope, never be a solely a Christmas card or carol. It must be a hope that changes the world in which we live. Again. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.

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