Was the world collapsing, or were you just freaking out?
Was cryptocurrency a fad or just having growing pains?
How should we think about the rise in transgender youth?
Was Chris Rock asking for it?
These are a few of the arguments and issues that engaged Americans this past year, according to a summary overview by the New York Times [December 25, 2022] The article identified twenty- two such questions including how to end the war in Ukraine; whether student loan forgiveness moved us closer to a more just society or was an underserved handout; the politicization of the Supreme Court; perception of crime; responses to inflation; and this one:
Are we raising a generation of snowflakes, or are some classes simply unfair? (Relating to educational standards across all age groups.)
It’s indicative of this national moment, I think, that “debate” was the lens through which the questions were explored, but also and importantly reminds us that life is complicated. We need help navigating life’s highways that are vast but full of potholes and blind alleys and seem always to be under construction.
We need… light.
Light to help us find our way. It’s not just 3-year-old Ever who needs a nightlight–none us of can say we aren’t afraid of the dark that envelops us sometimes. We need illumination to counter discouragement and even paralysis, and ignite or re-ignite our moral imagination and faith.
Light references abound in Judeo-Christian Scripture (and in the sacred writings of other religions), and you’ve seen some of them woven into the liturgy and hymns this morning. Our gospel text actually quotes centuries–old promises proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah to connect them with the opening ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. A reading from the gospel according to Matthew, in the fourth chapter, verses twelve through twenty-three.
Listen for God’s Word–and directions to where the light is.
The picture Matthew paints of Jesus’ first days of ministry reveals where to find the light and how it illumines and heals human life. Born into relative obscurity, Jesus moves to the more cosmopolitan city of Capernaum to announce the coming Kin-dom. He “goes public” with his message to demonstrate that it is not about a private, individualistic spiritual experience, but one firmly rooted in the world’s complexity, diversity, beauty and brokenness.
And just listen to his first sermon! “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Here, repentance is not focused upon confessing and seeking forgiveness for wrongs committed. It means going a new way and embracing a new set of values; it means a change of direction and a reclaiming of the Divine nature endowed to each of us.
Jesus calls disciples to follow his lead, to join him in making a difference through acts of compassion, healing, and restoration.
Friends, maybe our path remains cloudy and confusing because we are looking for light in the wrong places. Maybe we prefer the darkness we know to the penetrating light that exposes our self-absorption, our devotion to things, and the illusion of control and of the rightness of our perspective. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and it’s pretty hard to do that when one’s line of sight is focused exclusively inward. Jesus calls us out of ourselves and our lives to follow him, to go where he goes, to do what he does. Very soon the disciples will be “fishing for people”–all kinds of people. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that some of those people today include the “nones” and “dones” of millennials, gen x, y, and z.
And not long after that the disciples are called to choose between the values and priorities of this world, and those of God’s kingdom. In the shadow of the cross, they will get up close and personal with the cost of doing Jesus’ business: the marriage of truth and suffering; the sacrifices love requires. Days later, at a grave that is missing a body, they will see the light, and find a new beginning.
But the thing about Jesus’ disciples that compels me is not their extraordinary insight–it’s their almost complete lack of it! They follow Jesus without knowing where he’s leading them; they don’t get enlightened and then take off on a successful teaching and healing ministry. Their first steps are in darkness; taken only by faith in the One who calls them.
I believe with all my heart that illumination comes as we do the same. When the night is long, when clouds obscure the sun, when we are uncertain how to move forward–that is the time to tune our spiritual ears to the Word of God; to trust that the next steps will be revealed.
But here’s the thing: Jesus is calling us, calling us to practice love in action; calling us to demonstrate God’s love to one another, our community and world. Friends, let us not delay making the decision until we have it all figured out; don’t wait for that perfect, sunny day. Decide to follow Jesus and learn what it is to walk in the light.
Young children can be our teachers here (though I promise no sappy stories about the brilliance of my grandchildren… unless you ask). Toddlers are too inexperienced to have expectations; almost everything is new and worth trying. Yeah, they fall down a lot. Sometimes they melt down. It takes them sooooo much longer to do stuff. But there is hardly anything more awe-inspiring than watching a kid do try something and see their surprising joy–and the determination to do it again.
Walk where the light is. Take one step. And don’t take it alone.
The drama of the boiler failure on Christmas Eve is a memory now (and I think Ron wrestled a blessing from it in his sermon a couple weeks ago!), but at the time, it constituted a full-blown disaster for me. Singing Silent Night with a sanctuary full of beloved people holding tiny candles provides illumination to carry me through a lot of tough stuff. The thought of not being able to do it was… unthinkable. It was our music director/administrator Charis (whose name literally means “grace”!) who shifted the perspective for me in that moment. “Come on, Louise, Jesus is still going to be born; the light is going to shine.”
And of course she was right, though I appreciated the reminder. And crowded into the chilly narthex, some three hundred people sang convincingly and without a verbal cue or bulletin note, raised their candles aloft, flooding the space with light bright enough to distinguish faces, clear enough to gladden discouraged hearts with joy, hope, and peace. That singular gesture proclaims unmistakably that sustaining hope will be produced only when the light is shared, only when it is held in a place for all to see.
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.
Arise, beloved Central, and let your light shine.
Thanks be to God.