November 17, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for November 19th, 2017.
Texts are Isaiah 9.1-7 and John 8.12
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
To the people walking in darkness …
The message we heard from Isaiah in our readings today was addressed to the people walking in darkness (Isa. 9.2).
Walking in darkness is an appropriate image for this season. We’re coming into that time of year where the daylight hours are shrinking, and the nights are growing longer. The darkness is bleeding right into the daylight hours.
You leave for work, and it’s dark. You leave work to go home, and it’s dark again.
There’s that chill in the air, too. Cold and dark—the old one-two punch. Dark and cold is a lonely combination.
Of course, we don’t have Alabama winters here in this part of California. There’s nothing quite as depressing as an Alabama winter. Alabama winters are a tedious slough of one pale, murky, grey day after another. The rain settles in long about late November. It turns the ground into mush, and then freezes solid at night. You slip and slide around on muddy ice. And then sometimes the power lines will break with the weight of the ice, and the electricity goes out. And you just sit around in the cold, damp darkness. Watching the steam pour out of your nostrils when you breathe. By candlelight.
We never did get a White Christmas in Gurley, Alabama. But one time it flooded, and the floodwaters froze over. Thank God the power didn’t go out that time.
Some people are energized by winter. It’s like the long, cold, dark nights flip some old evolutionary switch, and they go into full-blown survival mode. Like our ancient ancestors, fighting for their lives all winter long. Dark and cold is an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality. Taunting us with the fearful truth that one day the sun will set on us permanently, and our cold bodies will be delivered to the cold earth. Some folks know this, instinctively. So they fight against the frigid darkness of winter. Maybe that’s how some of you confront the winter season. A jittery, nervous energy overtakes you. Your heart gets pumping; your blood starts flowing; your mind is a bit quicker than usual; there’s that extra little kick of adrenaline. You rage against the dying of the light; the darkness of the season will not overcome you.
Other people—and I fall into this category—don’t do winter so well. Personally, I’m kind of an autumn person. A mid-autumn person. I’ve talked to God about this, actually. I’ve requested that it be forever October in my patch of the new heavens and earth. Cool, not cold. Sweater weather. The horizon blazing with trees whose leaves are gold and red and orange and brown. The harvest always just safely gathered in. We’ll feast on casseroles and hot apple cider every day. And the kids can come by our place and trick-or-treat every night. Kind of the exact opposite of walking in darkness.
But seriously, that long winter darkness does really bad things to some folks. There’s a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. Which is a totally appropriate acronym. They used to call this the winter blues, but it’s actually much worse than that. It’s a real case of depression that comes on with the season changing. It’s a struggle to even get out of bed. You lose interest in everything. For some reason folks who struggle with SAD tend to carb load, which leads to weight gain. You’re anxious and agitated all the time, but you don’t have the energy to do anything about it. When it gets really bad, it leads to feelings of shame and worthlessness. Some even lose all hope and contemplate suicide. Medical professionals have seen enough of it to know it’s a legitimate condition, but they’re not completely sure what causes it. Some think it’s because the long hours of darkness disrupt the body’s internal clock, and everything gets thrown out of whack. Others suspect that diminished daylight messes with hormone levels. Like serotonin, which regulates our moods. And melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycles. It may very well be all of the above. And if you’re here and you’re struggling with something that sounds like what I’ve described, I implore you to talk to someone about it and see your doctor.
Even though the medical community isn’t 100% certain what causes SAD; they know how to treat it. Medication can regulate your hormones, and therapy can help you get through the really ugly parts of it. But aside from those, the most effective treatment for SAD is light therapy. And especially a technique called dawn simulation, where a light is set to gradually come on over a period of time, mimicking a real springtime sunrise. Even through the darkest days of winter. There’s something about the dawn that gives people enough hope to keep going.
Winter Is Coming
While we’re riffing on the long, cold, dreary darkness of winter, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, the motto of House Stark may be echoing through your mind. Winter is coming. The motto has a double meaning. First it refers to the actual season of winter. But in the Game of Thrones universe, winters are unpredictable. You never know how long winter will last. Think about how terrifying that would be. There was once a winter that lasted an entire generation. It was night for years. Imagine that. Living your whole life in darkness. Not knowing when or if the sun will ever rise again. At least with real winter, our winter in this world, you know it will be sunny and warm again in a few months. And that feeds into the second meaning of, Winter is coming. It also refers to the dark seasons of our lives. It means that even if you’re in the summer of your life—a bright, happy, fulfilling season—eventually events will turn against you. The darkness will overcome you. And you may not be prepared. And you don’t know how long it will last.
Okay, so maybe you’re here today and the only thing winter means to you is you need to put on a jacket or throw an extra blanket on the bed. Or maybe this language of the winters we go through in our lives—those long, dark, cold lonely periods—doesn’t click with you. Maybe you’ve tended to winter well in your life. You’re not afraid of walking in darkness. Well, you need to hear what I’m about to say, too. Because you have a responsibility to be a source of light and warmth and hope to your brothers and sisters who may be walking through a dark winter season in life. And who knows? Winter may be coming for you, yet.
The people Isaiah preached to in our lesson today—the people walking in darkness—were living through one of those long, dark winter nights of the soul. They’d been defeated by enemy forces and driven from their homes, to wander as exiles and refugees in an unfriendly land. Some of them were reaping the consequences of their own sins and poor choices. But others were collateral damage. The sins and poor choices of others had brought them to this cold, dark, lonely place. You know, sometimes we choose to walk in darkness. And sometimes the darkness chooses us. Often, it’s some strange, twisted combination of both the darkness we’ve chosen and the darkness that’s overtaken us that brings us into a winter season of our lives. Tangled up to the point you can’t unravel it to play the blame game.
Isaiah had warned the people this time would come. Right before our lesson today picked up, he foretold a time when the people would turn toward heaven and look to the earth, but they will see only distress and darkness, random movement, and the anguish and doom of banishment (Isa. 8.22). That was Isaiah’s way of saying: Winter is coming. A cold, lonely, night that seemed to go on forever. Everywhere they looked—even in their own hearts—they would see only emptiness and desolation. Even their prayers would sound hollow, and disappear like the fog from your breath on a cold, dark winter night.
Here comes the sun / Son
But that’s not all Isaiah saw for these people. No sooner had he warned them to brace themselves, because winter was coming; he also promised them that spring would return. The sun would shine on them again. This is what Isaiah saw:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. (Isaiah 9.2)
Do you notice that’s all in the past-tense? Here’s something you need to understand about how the biblical prophets spoke. Sometimes they would talk about something that hadn’t happened yet as if it had already happened. That’s because they knew it would happen. God had already promised them. God had already given them a vision of what would come to pass. So they would boldly, confidently, brazenly assert that it had already happened, even if its fulfillment was still a long way off.
Isaiah gave his people a wonderful gift. As they were going into the winter of their lives—and they had no way of knowing how long that winter would last—Isaiah promised them it wouldn’t last forever. Already they had a promise from God that the warmth and hope and new life of spring would dawn on them again. They could count on it. God had already shown it to Isaiah.
That’s really the only thing that got our ancient ancestors through the dark, lonely, deathly months of winter. Knowing that it doesn’t last forever.
Isaiah foretold that in the fullness of time, a light would dawn to break their winter. And that light would be a person. Isaiah said: A child is born to us, a son is given to us. And this child will be God’s light and warmth and joy given to everyone who’s been walking in darkness.
And if I can amend slightly the words of a classic Beatles song: Here comes the sun, here comes the son, and I say: It’s alright.
Because Isaiah says when God gives this son, things will be more than alright. The people will again rejoice before God as with joy at the harvest. They will have everything they need. God will break the winter and end the darkness that has oppressed them. [Sub 1] In the name of this son, one day all wars and terror and suffering will end. Isaiah says: every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned, fuel for the fire, because of this son God has promised to us (Isa. 9.5). This son from God won’t just thaw the winter that has frozen our hearts and chilled our souls. He will thaw the winter of sin and death that has fallen over all creation.
Isaiah says this son will be given vast authority, and will bring endless peace, with justice and righteousness now and forever (Isa. 6.7). And because this son brings peace and justice and righteousness—he makes everything right again—people will put all these fantastic titles on him. Like Wonderful Counselor and Mighty God. And Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace [Sub 2]. Those names tell us this son God would send isn’t just an ordinary person. You can’t call any human names like Mighty God and Everlasting Father.
This son would somehow be God coming to live among his people. In fact, in the chapters leading up to our lesson today, Isaiah had already given this son a name: Immanuel. Which is a Hebrew phrase meaning, God with us. In fact, Isaiah uses this phrase twice, in chapter 8.8, 10. In those verses, Isaiah reassures the people that, no matter what darkness overtakes them; no matter how their enemies threaten them; no matter how hopeless things look in their eyes; Isaiah promises: God is with us.
He is the light of the world … and so are we
And to make good on these promises God made through Isaiah, God sent his Son, Jesus. To be our Immanuel. God with us. God for us. God on our side. To break the long winter of sin and shame and death that has our lives and all of creation in its grip. To be our light, so we won’t have to walk in darkness. As we heard Jesus himself say in our readings today: I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life (John 8.12).
Jesus went to people and places that were in darkness, and shined the healing light of God’s love and mercy. At the cross, it looked like the darkness had overpowered him. But really, Jesus absorbed the darkness of our world. Took it on himself. Took it in the grave with him. And when God raised him, Jesus defeated the darkness. And if we follow Jesus, the darkness won’t overcome us, either.
So no matter what long, cold, lonely winter you’re slogging through:
Chronic pain or illness.
The hope that gets you through it is God’s promise that it won’t last forever. And as you go through it, you’re not going through it alone. Jesus is with you. For all of you. For all of us. Jesus is our Immanuel—God with us.
Two things I want to make sure you don’t hear me saying. I’m not saying Jesus magically takes away all the pain or the fear or the sadness. And I’m not telling you not seek out your doctor, you therapist, or even the legal authorities to help you deal with these troubles if you need to. If you read your Bibles, you’ll quickly learn that God usually works through human courage and creativity; through structures and institutions and authorities; even through the creation itself; to bring about God’s will. What I am saying is God is with you and God is on your side as you walk through the cold, dark winters of your life. And God promises that your winter will not last forever.
One more thing, church—and then the lesson is yours. Jesus said he’s the light of the world. But in Matt. 5.14, Jesus also points at us and says: You are the light of the world. I know, some of you are slogging through your own dark, cold, lonely winter. And you hear Jesus say that, and you go: Who? Me? Surely Jesus doesn’t mean me! But he does. See, because Jesus dwells with us and in us and among us, we’re called to shine in the darkness. The world and its people are in the grip of a long, cold, dark, lonely winter. Jesus has left us here as a light to restore their hope, to burn through their darkness, and to thaw the coldness in their hearts. And that’s not easy work, but it can be simple and practical. Like listening and withholding judgment. When somebody tells you they’ve been abused, your first reaction should be to listen, to believe them, and to get them help. When somebody tells us something hurts them, we need to listen, to believe them, and to do what we can to bring healing. When somebody says they’ve reached the end of their rope, we need to be a safe and gentle place to fall. You know, people who were walking in darkness welcomed Jesus as their light. People trapped in a long, cold winter of sin or shame or suffering welcomed Jesus as their warmth and hope. That’s what it means to be the light of the world. And that’s what Jesus has called you and me and all of us together to be.
Through prophets like Isaiah, and then through his Son Jesus, God has spoken. Through Jesus, our Immanuel, God is with us. May we join with Jesus in being the light for those who walk in darkness. Amen.