Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28
When I was in Sunday School, we studied the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is the first of the books written by C.S. Lewis in the Narnia series. You might know the story. The main characters are four children who live with a professor in the English countryside. They stumble through a closet into a wintery place called Narnia, where it is always dark and cold, and Christmas never comes. The one visible glimmer of hope in Narnia is a lamppost, a light that shines in the darkness of that cold place. It is the light of the lamppost that guides the children back home through the closet.
We have talked about preparing as a theme for Advent. Another theme is waiting. Waiting for Christmas. I watched in the mall the other day the children lined up to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas. They know what waiting is all about. As a child, I remember going to bed on Christmas Eve and I just couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t bear the wait for Christmas morning when we would open gifts.
It is hard for us to wait for anything. Some of the traffic lights in Vancouver take so long to change because of the amount of traffic, that you can begin to see drivers getting impatient. I saw a driver making a right-hand turn behind a long line of traffic that was going straight drive his vehicle up onto the sidewalk, so he could bypass the traffic. Waiting is hard for us whose lives pulse with activity and production, with energy and busyness. Yet at Advent, the Scriptures tell us to wait for Christmas, to wait with longing for Christ to come. To wait for the light to once again come into the world and dispel the darkness.
In the days of Jesus, along came John the Baptist. He is a disheveled-looking man who has spent time in the wilderness in the eastern part of Palestine. We are told that he eats locusts and honey. His clothes are simple garments. In this morning’s lesson, he talks about waiting for the coming Messiah, but note that when all of those around him are uptight and anxious about waiting, he is serene and calm. The priest and the Levites, or local church leaders, surround him and question, “Who are you?” He borrows his answer from the Prophet Isaiah. He is a voice, one preparing for the way of the Lord. John is bearing witness to the light that is coming. A light which will shine in the darkness. A light which cannon be overcome.
Some of you might remember the hymn, Jesus bids us shine. I remember singing this as a child. Over the past number of years, we have changed the words to this hymn to better reflect our understanding of the darkness. In my youth, we sang the line, In this world OF darkness. Now we have changed this phrase to In this world IS darkness. The change is important. This is not a world of darkness. This is a world where there is darkness. As the song says, Many kinds of darkness in this world are found – sin and want and sorrow.
That hymn was written about 150 years ago for children. However it speaks to our universal experience. We all experience times of darkness in our world and in our lives. The German theologian Karl Barth once said that the Christian must read the Bible with the newspaper in the other hand. Today, the news seems to be full of darkness. I sit there and wonder about some of the atrocities in our world. Every day, in the United States, 93 people are killed with guns. Lest you think we live in a safe country, about a thousand people per year are killed with guns in Canada, twelve times the rate in England.
There are people who slept on the streets of our city last night while over twenty-five thousand homes sit vacant in Vancouver. I think St. David’s does an excellent job supporting First United Church Mission as it seeks to feed people in the downtown Eastside. At the same time, each year 31 billion dollars of food is thrown out in Canada because it is “below seconds”, totally safe and edible food but misshapen and not appealing for the shelves of grocery stores or we’ve bought too much and it has spoiled before we eat it. In this world is darkness.
So I see where the priests and Levites are coming from. They know the light has not yet come. There is still darkness. I understand their anger and frustration with the way things are. I don’t think these are bad people questioning John. They are good people who are pinning their hopes on the coming of the Messiah, the one who would redeem the people. They are waiting for someone who would come along and put the world back into proper order. They are sick and tired of all of the pain in the world. They despair the crushing poverty of their day. They despise the aggressive violence of the Roman Empire. They feel for the broken-hearted people they see on the streets of Jerusalem every day. They want the light to come now. John tells them that the light is coming. The light will be full of grace and truth. This light will shine in the darkness. In the face of a suffering world, John, points to the light of hope.
Why is it that in the month of December many of us become more aware of the challenges that others in our society face? I think that Christmas hampers for those who can’t afford a Christmas dinner are great, and I am so thankful to those who give a little extra of their money and time at this time of year. Does the lengthening of the night during December call upon something in the human soul, creating the desire to shed a little light into that darkness? What is it about the approach of Christmas that seems to open up the human heart? Somehow the human spirit wishes to spread light into this darkest time of the year.
John the Baptist offers hope. John places his hope in the God of Israel, whom he says has fulfilled past promises and as Isaiah tells us, promises to redeem the world, to bind up the broken-hearted, to set the captives free, to bring liberty to the oppressed. Both John and Isaiah give testimony to hope in the coming Messiah. As we look forward to Christmas, they also looked forward to this Advent of God in the human realm.
Each Christmas I take time to listen to Handel’s Messiah. It is a stunning performance, the story of God’s Messiah. Handel was swimming in debt when he composed Messiah, struggling to hold on to a career spiraling out of control. Amazingly, he wrote the score in only 24 days. Its 1742 premier in Dublin was a benefit concert for a local debtors’ prison. That first performance raised over 400 pounds and freed 142 men from their debts. Throughout the rest of Handel’s life, he conducted his Messiah in prisons and hospitals. He raised money to support orphanages and care for the sick, so much so that one newspaper reporter wrote: “The Messiah fed the hungry, it clothed the naked, it fostered the orphan, it gave hope to the hopeless.” The story points out that the outcome of Christian hope lies in our hands. We hope for something and then we work towards that hope. This can be in society as a whole, but it can also be in our own personal lives. What are you hoping for? What are you doing to make that hope a reality?
Many psychologists believe that the single biggest key to living a healthy life is staying optimistic. One psychologist I heard on the radio said, “Optimists have less stress, better relationships, healthier diets and get more exercise. Optimists generally believe things are getting better, humanity is improving, the world’s problems are being solved. Optimists tend to live longer than other people.”
Our hope is different from optimism. Christian hope is a gift from God, rooted in the birth, life, ministry and death of Jesus Christ. Optimism strikes me as the power of positive thinking. It is believing that our mental attitude can change the way things are, however you and I know, as beneficial as optimism is on a day-to-day basis, there are times in life when we need something more than our optimism to get us through. Christian hope takes into account this reality. It sees the degradation of God’s good creation, the injustice and inequality in the world and in our own lives, and acknowledges that life is not always sunshine and roses? In our lives there is sometimes darkness. Christian hope doesn’t bury its head in Christmas parties and other forms of merrymaking. Christian hope is the belief that it is possible for the light of something better to push its way into and light up the darkness. Christian hope is the belief that God has given us everything to fulfill the visions of Isaiah, the ministry desires of Jesus and that God is a partner with us as we seek to live out our lives. Christian hope, at its very base, is when we realize that God’s justice, healing and liberation are for us for each and every one of us and that from that starting place we can reach out to the world with light.
When I think of hope, I am reminded of a story a friend told me. He was travelling in Central America and went to a small cinder-block church in a rural village. The service started more or less the way our service would start, but when it came time in the service for the congregation to receive the bread and the wine at communion, they started singing and dancing and rushing forward. My friend was shocked at the intensity and the spirit in which they received the sacrament. After the service he told the minister he was moved by the faith of the people. The minister asked him how they did it where he was from. “Well, we line up in single file rows and we patiently shuffle down the aisle. We do sing.” The minster exclaimed, “Lines! You make them wait in a line for the bread of life?” My friend replied that nobody makes people form in lines, its just how we do it in Canada. The minister looked at him and said, “Some of these people don’t know where their next meal will come from. Some of them don’t know if their newborn baby will live through the year. Some won’t sleep under a roof tonight. Christ is their hope. We can live for many days without food and shelter, but we cannot live for a single moment without hope.”
I think of the lamppost in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was the light of that lamp which led the children back home to the professor’s house. That lamp shining in the darkness showed them the way back to safety and security. Jesus Christ is a light shining in the darkness. We are drawn to that light because it is the place of home for the human soul. Because we are drawn to that light, not only can we live in hope for our world, we can be beacons of light in our world.