Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Living Light

Isa. 2:1-5; Rom. 13:8-14; Mt. 24:36-44[1]

I think it is amazing how powerfully our state of mind can affect our actions. For me, driving on the Gulf Freeway serves as a pretty reliable benchmark for my psychological state. If I’m feeling lousy, I can get angry at the tiniest (perceived) slight from another driver. At the same time, if I’m in a peaceful frame of mind, the whole freeway can be dominated by the rudest and most dangerous drivers, and I can keep my cool and just calmly get out of the way. I think it’s also amazing how quickly our state of mind can change. How many times have you been in the middle of an argument with your significant other, convinced that you’ve been mistreated or misunderstood? Suddenly, a thought comes into your mind that is like flipping a switch and in an instant you realize you were the one in the wrong—and your whole demeanor changes almost instantaneously. You go from being convinced that you have every right to be indignant to being embarrassed with your behavior.

It seems to me that, among the many influences on what we do and how we relate to others, our state of mind plays a very powerful role. There is a great deal of truth to the religious traditions that advocate serenity as a spiritual discipline.[2] They call it many things—being “centered”, staying mindful, getting peaceful. But it all boils down to recognizing that no matter what happens “out there” we can choose who we are “in here.” Regardless of our external circumstances, we can choose how we feel, what our attitude will be, and what kind of state of mind we will take. And that makes all the difference in how we act and how we relate to others.

As we enter the season of Advent and look forward to something better, I can think of no better place to start than by looking at ourselves. Are we the kind of people who take things in stride, who bring peace to a room, who spread kindness and compassion to those we meet? Or are we the kind of people who get angry at every little thing, complaining constantly, the kind of people whose company others prefer to avoid, who enter a room and the mood turns instantly tense, or anxious, or hostile? I think it’s no small question. Because it seems to me that we are the ones who are responsible for being light in our world. If our world is one where injustice and violence and oppression and suffering thrive, at this time of the year when we look forward to something better, I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to that suffering, or whether we are contributing to the peace that God is bringing into the world.

I think that’s what Isaiah was trying to say to the people of Israel and Judah. The prophet Isaiah saw God’s justice and peace as light that brings life to the (“pagan”) nations. [3] But he did not just see that light as something for an indefinite time in “days yet to come.” He believed that the extent to which the Jewish people themselves became living light, the nations would be attracted to that light and come streaming to learn the ways of God and to hear the word of the Lord.[4] And so he urged the people of Israel and Judah to “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa. 2:5). I think that had as much to do with the kind of people they chose to be—their frame of mind, their quality of spirit, the attitude of their heart—as it did with the way they acted.[5]

Our other lessons serve to highlight the benefits of living this way—you don’t have to worry who’s watching you; and you have no regrets about your life. I think the first one may be at least part of what the Apostle Paul had to say. He used the analogy of darkness as the time when people do what they don’t want others to see them doing. He contrasts living in a way that we are an open book—everything we are and all that we do is on display for anyone to see. And I think the difference has to do with whether or not we are living out of a love for those around us (Rom. 13:8-10). It has to do with the kind of people we choose to be.

I think our Gospel lesson brings out the second benefit of living this way—having no regrets. Jesus uses a different analogy—that of sleeping versus waking. Some live their lives like so many sleep-walkers—oblivious to the fact that what they do and who they are affects those around them. Adopting a rather ominous perspective on the coming of the Son of Man as a day of judgment, I think Jesus urges us to live in such a way that we are constantly ready to face even the most intense scrutiny to our lives. And when any such scrutiny comes, we can “stand in our own light,” which in this case consists of a spirit of kindness, and generosity, and compassion.

As we begin the pilgrimage of Advent, I think it is good to be reminded that one of the important aspects of looking forward to something better is to look at ourselves. I’m not just talking about what we do, because if the Bible has anything to say about how we live, it is that who we are determines the quality of our lives. That may sound discouraging to you—as if we’re left solely to our own resources for this. But the good news is that the light of God—God’s gracious presence—is available to us all.[6] That means we can choose to be the kind of people who are essentially living light, living out of a spirit of kindness and generosity and compassion. Because the light of God’s presence is available to us all, we can be people who shine the light of God in what we do and say. And as we live our lives singing, marching, dancing, praying in the light of God, we become living light for those around us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/28/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See especially, Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness.

[3] Hans Wildberger, A Continental Commentary: Isaiah 1-12, 95-96. He says (p. 96), “Even though there have been numerous changes in the global political situation since the days of Isaiah, the promise which is proclaimed here still remains in force. The message about ‘peace among the nations’ cannot be silenced. But Isaiah’s promise also reminds one that the peace among all peoples can be an ongoing reality only if it is a ‘fruit of righteousness’ (32:17*), but remember that ‘righteousness’ also means recognizing the legal claims of the downtrodden. Wherever this becomes a reality, as a consequence of the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion, it will be because those who have come have submitted themselves to the will of the God of Jacob.”

[4] Christine Roy Yoder, “Hope that Walks: An Interpretation of Isaiah for Advent Preachers,” Journal for Preachers 25 (Advent 2001):17-24. She says (p. 18), “Isaiah refuses to leave the vision a distant abstraction, but calls on Israel as one of the many nations to begin its pilgrimage today.” Cf. also Hans Walter Wolff, “Swords into Plowshares: Misuse of a Word of Prophecy?” Currents in Theology and MissionInterpretation, 51 (Jan 1997): 61-64. 12 (June 1985): 133-147; Fredrick C. Holmgren, “Isaiah 2:1-5, Between Text and Sermon,” See further, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:28-33 and 4.3:56-60, where he summarizes the biblical witness to this theme, especially in the Hebrew Bible.

[5] Cf. Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” NIB VI:70. Regarding this vision he says, “Wishing, and even praying will not necessarily make it happen. But it will certainly not come unless we imagine it, unless we believe and articulate the vision the God wills the end of war.”

[6] Cf. Wildbarger, Isaiah 1-12, 94.

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