A Light is Shining in the Darkness

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian on 12/4/22, the second Sunday of Advent, based on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Galatians 4:4-7. It can be viewed on the Perinton facebook page.]

“Hello darkness, my old friend/ I’ve come to talk with you again.” (Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence”) That haunting opening line in the song made famous by Simon and Garfunkel comes to mind when I read the opening words of this messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

The Bible deals with darkness and light a lot. Darkness is mentioned about 200 times; light over 260 times. The Bibles declares that God is present in both darkness and light. Psalm 139 says it well: “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:11-12) Darkness may sneak up on us, but it never sneaks up on God.

Artists know the power of darkness and light on the same canvas. Rembrandt was a master of using light sparingly against a dark backdrop, as in the “Descent from the Cross.” Notice how the body of Jesus commands the sparse light. In Van Gogh’s most famous work, “Starry Night,” against the darkness of the night sky, light is radiating. While darkness often conveys a sense of the ominous, even evil, it is not always so. Darkness is often the canvas for God’s light to shine.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

This was a word of hope. Judah, the southern kingdom had suffered a series of bad kings, with Ahaz the latest. It was a time of spiritual darkness. A new king was arising, Hezekiah, with promise for a better day. Isaiah couldn’t see it all, but he points beyond any earthly king to a king unlike any other: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” For them, that would come about seven centuries later; for us it happened about 2,000 years ago. That birth in Bethlehem is the hinge of history. In the darkness of that time, with Israel occupied by the Roman Empire, the light of God came as never before. As John 1 says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.”

God’s faithful people have always lived in the midst of spiritual darkness, but always filled with hope for God is always with them, with us. That is just as much our reality as it was in times past. There is much spiritual darkness in our land. There is a wave of violence in our day. In November there were more acts of mass violence in our country than days in the month. There are so many that we don’t even hear of all of them. Too often, such violence targets people groups, minority groups. Three groups are especially vulnerable to targeted violence:

  1. There is much anti-Black targeting, such as earlier this year when a young white racist killed ten people in a Tops Market in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo.
  2. There is much anti-Semitic targeting, such as the killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a few years ago.
  3. There is much anti-LGBTQ targeting, such as the killing of five people and wounding of another 19 at the Club Q in Colorado Springs just two weeks ago.

There are no safe places. Schools are vulnerable, like Sandy Hook in CT and Robb Elementary in Uvalde TX. Houses of worship are vulnerable. We remember that killing of nine people at a Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, just a few years ago. Just last weekend, anti-Semitic and anti-Black symbols and words were sprayed on the welcome sign of the Church of the Resurrection in this town. Up until 2000, under 1% of acts of mass violence were in houses of worship. The last three years, that number is approaching 20%.

The Department of Homeland Security issued an alert last week: “Targets of potential violence include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQI+ community, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media, and perceived ideological opponents.”

This is no time for people of the light to say, “Let’s move on. God is in control so we can sit back.” Spiritual darkness is real. True faith is never an excuse to ignore bias, hatred, and violence. Biblical faith recognizes that God is present in the darkness and in the light, and we are called to be present with God in the darkness and in the light. God calls us to be people of his light, his justice, and his righteousness. Jesus commissions us to be with him in his ministry as he is with us.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

The darkness is real, and God is present. In Isaiah 9:2-3, the word darkness occurs twice, the word light occurs twice, and the words joy and rejoice appear three times. We do not forfeit our joy in the midst of spiritual darkness; we let our joy shine, even as we work for God’s justice and righteousness.

Let this sanctuary be a place of great joy, but also a place of honest faith and struggle. This is not a place for people who have everything together; this is a place for searchers and seekers, for believers and doubters, for the hurting and the rejoicing. All people are welcome here. We seek to follow the orders Jesus gave us: to love God with our whole beings and to love others, all others.

Advent calls us to prepare carefully. I love the thought of Dag Hammarskjöld, who was the second Secretary General of the United Nations and a thoughtful Christian: “How proper it is that Christmas should follow Advent. For him who looks toward the future, the manger is situated on Golgotha, and the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  We look forward to celebrating the birth of the one called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We look for the day when his peace shall be known in every corner of this weary planet. We look for that day and we work for that day.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” A newborn is laid in a manger. From crucifixion will come his resurrection. In the darkness, God’s light is shining.

People of the light are making a difference. I read a few days ago about the small parish of St. Thomas in Kagiso, South Africa. The pastor said to some American visitors, “Everything we do is worship.” This congregation, comprised of predominantly poor families, feeds lunch to children in the neighborhood school; brings school books, shoes, and uniforms for children in the community; stands as guardians for families of child-headed households; and makes sure that those dying from AIDS have their homes cleaned, are eating healthy food, and know they are loved. They are showing that God that cares, through their caring.

People of the light are making a difference. The Rochester chapter of Habitat for Humanity is planning to build or remodel 300 homes in a needy neighborhood just east of downtown. What a vision that is. I see this congregation supporting and participating in that vision.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Jesus has come to shine God’s light in our lives and all over this planet.

Isaiah ends this passage with this proclamation: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” We will never be able to bring about God’s kingdom in its fullness. We will never be able to bring the reign of Christ’s peace in its fullness. God will do that. Jesus will do that. But he calls us to work with him. Let us be people of his light, the light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome.

I live in hope for that day when cancer is gone, when hunger is gone, when poverty is gone, when hatred is gone, when are is no more. God will bring that day, but the pattern in the Bible is that when God does something momentous, God uses some ordinary people to work with him, like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph. Like you and me. Let us walk in the light of the Lord. Amen.

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