Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Light in the Darkness

Light in the Darkness
Isa. 11:1-10; Rom. 15:4-13[1]
  One of the challenges we face at this time of year is the fact that it gets dark so early.  It seems like it was just the other day that we still had daylight after dinner, and now it gets dark even before you sit down to eat!  It makes it hard to keep your spirits up when you’re used to a lot more sunshine. There’s even an official diagnosis for it: it’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  For many people, the months of December and January are excruciating literally because of the fact that so much of our “day” at this time of year is spent in darkness.  I think that many may suffer from a kind of chronic form of this.  We all have personal disappointments, and even tragedies, that just take the wind out of our sails and leave us feeling stuck in the mud.  These experiences that most of us will endure at some point in our life can rob us of the joy of living and leave us feeling as if we’re constantly walking around in darkness.
  The thing about darkness is that you really can’t see very well in it.  I would think many of us have had the experience of being in the dark, alone, someplace that may have been unfamiliar.  When you’re in that situation, it’s easy to imagine that there are dangers lurking in every nook and cranny of the darkness.  Not being able to see clearly frightens us, and our fearful minds can imagine all kinds of things.  Fortunately, even if we find ourselves in a place where the darkness seems oppressive, we have the hope that the sun will come up soon, and it will be light again.  I’d hate to live in one of those places where it’s dark for weeks on end!
  I think that’s one of the reasons light plays such an important role for us at this time of year.  We light up the Christmas tree, and we light up our houses (some really light up their houses!).  The light is something that gives us hope in the midst of a world that can feel very dark.  The prophet Isaiah sought to give people that kind of hope.  He spoke of one who would come to lighten their burdens, to right the wrongs, to restore all things to way they were meant to be--a way that makes it possible for us all to live full lives of joy and purpose.[2]  And he said this coming one would not only be for the Jewish people, but that all the nations would turn to him as well.  I like the way the Contemporary English Version puts it: the one who was coming would be the “signal for the people of all nations to come together” (Isaiah 11:10, CEV).[3]
  Now, this particular expression of the hope of one who would come to set things right was spoken before the Jewish people’s lives reached their darkest point in exile.  Though there were threats looming on the horizon, they were still relatively safe at home in Zion.  But all was not well.  The prophets like Isaiah pointed their fingers at the Jewish leaders for neglecting their duty when it came to caring for the least and the last and the left out in society.  That was their role--as priests and teachers and even the King--to be shepherds who would lead the people in the ways of the Lord and care for those who needed help the most.[4]  But throughout their history, they gave up that role in favor of simply looking out for themselves.[5]  They relished their power and prestige, and forgot about the widows and orphans and immigrants in their midst. 
  That’s why Isaiah spoke of the coming of one who would set things right.  Although the Jewish people had not yet reached their deepest and darkest valley, there were many who were already living in darkness (cf. Isa. 9:2) in a land that seemed to be doing just fine.  Isaiah spoke of the one who would set things right to give hope to the widows and orphans and immigrants who were already living their lives in the darkness of poverty and fear and hopelessness. [6]  And he offered it to them as a light that would lessen the oppressive burden of the darkness they had to endure.
  As we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s coming into this world of darkness, I think it’s important for us to face how truly dark the world can be.  We cannot delude ourselves with the propaganda that has covered over the hardships many have to bear.  Make no mistake about it, we are walking in a world that can be very dark at times. It can be dark for all of us, and it can be especially dark for the least and the last and the left out in our world.  But the good news of Advent is that Christ’s coming into the world brings a light that is powerful enough to shine into every dark corner that can exist for anyone anywhere. 
  And so as we light up our trees and houses this year, let’s remember the reason why we do it.  We do it to remind ourselves that we have a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.  We do it to remind ourselves that there is no place so dark in this world that the light of Christ cannot shine on it.  And we do it to remind ourselves that we are to bear that light to the ones who are walking in their own darkness, to share with them the joy and peace of our hope.[7]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/8/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 311, “Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End--The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 62: “Because Israel’s experience of God is the experience of liberating, saving and justice-creating righteousness, this righteousness also determines Israel’s hope for the world: the promised Messiah ‘will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’ (Isa. 11:4).
[3] This is essentially St. Paul’s point in the reading from Romans 15:4-13 (especially 15:8-12).  Cf. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible X:747: “It is not that God has done one thing for Jews, and another thing for Gentiles; God has designed mercy for all (11:28-32).”  Referring to God fulfilling his promises, he adds, “The promises were both to Israel and through Israel to the world” (emphasis original).  Regarding “the idea of a risen Messiah ‘ruling the nations,’” he says this is “packed with explosive political implications, especially in a letter to Rome whose own emperor claimed to rule the nations.”  He further elaborates (p. 750), “a church that all too obviously embodies the social, ethnic, cultural, and political divisions of its surrounding world is no real challenge to the Caesars of this world.  It is only when representatives of many nations worship the world’s true Lord in unity that Caesar might get the hint that there is after all ‘another king’.”  Cf. similarly Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 225.  He adds, “If in the present time that reality still remains a hope, it is a hope grounded in the power of God himself.”
[4] That this is to be the role of the King in Israelite society is made clear by the Psalm lesson from Ps. 72, especially Ps. 72:4 “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”  Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:963: “Everything said about or wished for the king depends ultimately on God’s justice ... and God’s righteousness.  Justice and righteousness are first and foremost characteristic of God’s reign ....  In short, the role of the king is to enact God’s rule” (emphasis original).  Cf., similarly, Mays, Psalms, 236-38; H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 78-80 (especially to the point is the comment on p. 80: “It is the king’s duty to care for the poor”).
[5] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:964: “Perhaps the most obvious observation to make about Psalm 72 is the disparity between its portrayal of the king and the actual behavior of the kings of Israel and Judah.”  He adds (p. 965), “The same disparity is evident ... when we call the church ‘the body of Christ’ and then observe the actual behavior of the church.”  On the failure of justice in Judah, see also Hans Wildberger, A Continental Commentary: Isaiah 1-12, 475–476.
[6] Cf. Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” New Interpreters Bible VI:141: “The ideal king exercises power to protect the weak.  The character and administration of the king here are those that the people hoped for--but never fully realized--as each new descendant of David took the throne in Jerusalem.”  Cf. also Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 105-107; cf. also J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77-79.
[7] Cf. Gene Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” NIB VI:142: he says that Isa. 11:1-10 is “not a call for action or even a criticism of injustice.  These lines simply present unqualified good news.  Whether in this world and history or beyond, they cry joyfully that God wills--and will one day bring about--justice and peace for the world and all its living creatures.”  Cf. also R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet , 104: “Jesus addressed the poor, the hungry, the discouraged, and the persecuted with the message that God is on their side, supporting them in their struggle, and that God’s just will focuses on their relief.”

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