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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Always Before and After

Darkness covers our lives in different ways but in Christ Jesus God has entered that darkness with light; now, whether it is light or dark, we know God’s grace is always with us.  And now, we tell others of the light we have seen.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Third Sunday after Epiphany, year A; texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; Matthew 4:12-23

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

“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.”  Such a powerful word of promise, Isaiah’s grace note.  This note, this song has continued to ring through centuries, a melody of hope in a world of darkness.  A note which Matthew heard before we heard it, and upon looking at Jesus, the Son of God, realized, “Ah: this is what Isaiah sang.  This is the light shining in the darkness.”  A melody which John the evangelist heard and also named as Jesus when he sang of the light no darkness can overcome or understand.  A song Andrew and John, James and Peter heard that was so compelling they left their work and their lives so they could walk with this light, and eventually sing of this light to others in the midst of deep darkness.

The joy of hearing such a word, such a song, comes if one has experienced the darkness.  If all is sunshine and light, such a word, though still beautiful, somehow seems like a lovely but unimportant, distant song.  “The people who walked in darkness?”  They knew they had no light.  For them, light shining meant everything.

So are we ever in the dark?  Does Isaiah’s song sing to us?

We need to know what darkness is.  If it’s literal darkness, the absence of physical light, we live in an age unlike any other in the history of the world.  We never need be in darkness, we have lights everywhere, on all the time.  Even in this building there are lights in hallways that never, ever turn off.  Unless we are in the wilderness, when can we walk and be in darkness, what with all the street lights, porch lights, car lights, sign lights?

From space, our planet looks like a great Christmas light.  We have to be told by scientists that sleep is better served by full darkness because even in our bedrooms we have so many lights hardly anyone knows what it is to be completely in the dark.  Isaiah’s song might be meaningless to us.

But maybe we’re obsessed with keeping lights on at all times because we can’t cope with darkness, true darkness.  Maybe there’s another reason that we don’t ever, ever turn all the lights off.  Maybe we, more than any other age in human history, have truly become afraid of the dark.

Like a child’s game of peekaboo, where if she closes her eyes, nothing exists, but in reverse, maybe we pretend that if we never have to face darkness we won’t have to think about true darkness, it won’t be real.

Because that’s the truth about Isaiah’s song, isn’t it, that it sings not of physical darkness, the absence of light waves and particles, but of metaphorical darkness, the dark night of the soul, the fears and worries and sadness and confusion and pain and all that which we call darkness?

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and we’re not talking about the sun, or the moon, or candles, or 5,000 watt spotlights.  The reason this note of grace has sung in the depths of human hearts for centuries is that true darkness has nothing to do with light switches.  Darkness has long been an image which helped us describe our lives without God.  And it still works.

And we’ve played with words of light to try to describe how this works in our lives.  We’ve talked about being enlightened, said, “I see,” when we meant we understood.  We’ve talked about having “insight” when our confusion was pierced with grace.

So, if that’s true darkness, then is it real to us?  Is this truth about our lives?  Because if it isn’t, then this song will also not ring true, nor will it be necessary.

Isaiah said, “the people who walked in darkness.”  If you’re walking in darkness, you’re stumbling around, bumping your shins on all sorts of things, feeling lost the further you go.  You know there’s a problem.

Matthew, strangely, changed it a little.  He said, “the people who sat in darkness.”  If you’re sitting in darkness, you’ve either given up or you are frozen in indecision.  You’re not going anywhere, you’re not seeing anything.  You’re just sitting.  In darkness.

If this is not foreign to us, well, then, there is some very good news.

When the early believers saw Jesus, they said: God has come into our darkness.

This real darkness that pervades our lives, our fears, our confusion, all that, seems to dissipate in the presence of Christ Jesus for us, too.  His words, his grace, what he does for us, all are the same song Isaiah began 3,000 years ago.  The word of God’s forgiveness and love breaks upon us like a light in the deepest darkness.

And we see, we see.  We find clarity where once we were confused.  We find calm where once we were anxious, gladness where once we were sad, comfort where once we were in pain, hope where once we were afraid.  Life where once we were dead.

Because we know true darkness, this light of Christ is deeply real and life-giving for us.  And because of Christ, we begin to understand other things about darkness and light.  We begin to see that God is there in both places, now that we’ve come to know God is with us at all.

Psalm 139 begins to make sense to us in ways we hadn’t known when we thought all was dark.  “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

That now makes sense, because of course our fears come back, our confusion returns.  Our pain, or new pain, strikes once more, and anxiety rears its head just when we thought it had gone.  And death always looms.

But now, now we know the truth: we are not alone, and God has brought light into this darkness.  So even when it seems dark again, we have a secret to which we can cling and find hope.  We have become children again, and our heavenly parent has turned the lights on in our room and said, “See – it’s all safe, it’s all fine.  It’s only a coat sitting over a chair that you were afraid of.  And when the lights go off again, now you know: I’m here, and it’s all going to be fine, even if for awhile it will be dark.”

That now is our life and our joy: now the darkness cannot truly frighten us anymore.  We can sing, “the LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” and know that to be true.

Darkness will come again, it always does.  But now we know the truth, and more, we know where the light is.  Who the light is.

And now we can look at Andrew and the others for a moment.

This call of Jesus to them we just heard is different perhaps than we thought.  After hearing John’s account last week we now see differently what really happened on that beach.  We see that this call of Jesus wasn’t a cold call to these four, wasn’t their first encounter.

First Andrew and John, then Simon Peter, met Jesus and learned the truth about who he was.  Then they went about their work and lives.  Until the day Jesus came to them at their place of work and said, “Now we need to go, and I need you to help.”

They knew what darkness was and in Jesus they saw light.  They saw what they were looking for, hoping for.  So when he came to them later and asked them to follow, they were ready, they were willing.

They were willing to go into dark places with others on his behalf.  Probably not at first.  Probably at first they followed because he was light and they were in darkness.  But later, after the resurrection, they all did it.  They all, like Jesus, entered the darkness in which other people sat, or walked, and brought light.

And that, of course, is our call, too.  To follow, not just so that we can see light always, even when it’s dark.  But so that we can be light-bearers to others in darkness.  So we can listen to others in their darkness and speak of the light.

So we can sing Isaiah’s song to them by our very presence with them.  So we can say, though it is fearfully dark, “I have seen a light, and I will walk with you in that direction until you can see it, too.”  And so we can sit with those who cannot yet imagine how to walk or even to get up, and by being with them, be the light of Christ in their darkness.

As much as we talk about witnessing, this is the real gift, the real thing.  We know what light in the darkness really is, what God has really done.  We are the ones, the only ones, who can hold that light for someone else in darkness.

We prayed in our Prayer of the Day today this confidence: “Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us.”  Let that be our witness.

Because we know it is true: darkness is not dark to God, darkness is as light, and so before us and after us, wherever we walk, God’s light is with us.

We might not have any other thing to offer someone else in darkness, any other skills.  But we have seen this light.

That, that we can share.  That, that is our gift to offer.  And in the dark, it’s all you need.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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