The People Who Walk in Darkness

Scripture Passage:  Isaiah 9: 2-7

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For 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. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

In a national survey this past week, The Washington Post found that the top three words that people use to describe 2020 are “exhausting”, “lost”, and “chaotic”.  We can probably identify.  We’ve spent this season of waiting looking for something, looking for a light in the darkness, a hand in the shadows, an order to the chaos.  Well, the darkness is beginning to fade as the light has begun to make its way into our lives.  The thing is that we have to be prepared to see it.  Are we?  After this long season of preparation in a longer year of chaos, have we done all our preparing?  Are our eyes adjusted?  Or will we again need turn away and look toward the darkness because we are so unprepared to see the light?

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. 

These verses begin by speaking of past events.  Darkness is a metaphor for despair and death and the light symbolizes joy and life.  What probably began with a joyous mood over the deliverance from a particular oppressor (perhaps the Assyrians) becomes a vision of perpetual peace and joy.  Then midway through the passage, the writing changes to present tense.  Taken together, it is a reminder of what God has done and the proclamation that God is indeed doing it again, this turning darkness into light.  This announcement of a joyous and hopeful birth, the fulfillment of the promise of a son of David’s house, was written probably eight centuries before the birth of Jesus.  They were probably uttered about the birth of a specific king in Judah.  The words became part of the lives and the faith of the people and were handed down as a glorious reminder for generations that followed. So when the early writers of the Gospel began to write what had occurred with the incredible birth of Christ, they drew on these words, affirming that God has acted graciously and fulfilled promises before and that God continues to do that.  They are powerful words—that God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace is made flesh in the smallest and weakest of human creatures, a baby in a manger, a light that shines on those in the darkness.

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. 

But we are a people that tends to run from the darkness.  We don’t do well with it.  We don’t do well with the unknown, with not being able to see (and maybe even control or clean up) our pathway.  And yet so much of our faith journey is made in darkness.  In fact, so much of our faith journey actually begins in darkness.  Creation begins in darkness.  Seeds sprout in darkness.  Birth begins in darkness.  Even light begins in darkness. But we try our best to dispel the darkness, to light our lives with whatever artificial light we can find.  And we fill our lives with enough light so that we will never experience the darkness.  And because our lives are so full, there is no place to begin.  There is no room for light. 

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. 

In my old neighborhood, there was an old French colonial house with wonderful verandas lining both floors of the house.  For years, the house would outline the verandas with twinkling Christmas lights.  It was beautiful.  Then, for some reason I’ve never completely understood, they began to add more and more lights.  They started by stringing lights across the verandas three, five, seven, fifteen times.  Then the next year, they did the same to the house.  They must have had 50,000 lights!  I would describe it as a veritable blob of holiday lights—so many lights, in fact, that you could no longer see the lines of the house itself.  The house had been overtaken by light.  And, let me tell you, it was no longer beautiful.  Light is not pretty or comforting or even helpful alone.  In fact, it’s blinding.  Light is at its best when it illuminates the darkness and creates shadows and contrasts so that we can truly look at the light.

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. 

Part of our Advent journey is traveled in darkness.  Part of our lives are traveled in darkness.  It is a darkness where we wait for what is to come, not really knowing how or when God will come, but knowing that the light is just up ahead as we journey down this Holy pathway, never alone.  Traveling in darkness means that we must look to the One that guides us.  And, here, in the darkness, we will be able to see the light as it dawns on our world.  Do not run from the darkness, do not try to make it go away before its time, do not attempt to dispel it from your life because that is where the Light will 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 journey of waiting is nearing its end.  The Light will soon again pierce the darkness.  Think about that first journey.  Mary and Joseph were not wealthy, prominent citizens of the capital city of Jerusalem.  They were poor working class citizens of a no-name town in what was essentially a third-world country.  Remember the Scriptures:  nothing good comes from Nazareth.  There was nothing there.  And we tend to romanticize their trip to Bethlehem, making it into some sort of painting of a starlit camping trip with a lovely dark blue backdrop and a beaming star above.  That wasn’t exactly the way it was.  If they did indeed have to make that journey as the writer of the Gospel According to Luke claims, it’s about an 80 mile trip, a 4-day journey under the best of circumstances.  But, as we know, the teen-age Mary was pregnant and at that time, they would probably want to avoid Samaria (which was not the friendliest of territories to the Israelites), which means they probably would have circled through what is now modern-day Jordan, making it an even longer trip.  And, remember, the whole reason that they were traveling at all was for the tax census, imposed by a foreign government to pay for foreign rulers that ruled their lives.  These were not the best of times.  They traveled in darkness.  But that part of the story often falls away.  We need to remember that the darkness is part of the story, part of every story of God.

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. 

In every beginning, there is darkness.  The darkness of chaos seems eternal, Yet form emerges: light dawns, and life is born.  (New Union Prayerbook.)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

What is Left

flower_ashes_by_dennisallendorfScripture Passage: Joel 2: 1-3

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.

I know.  What a way to begin the season–darkness and gloom, devouring fire and flame, and desolate wilderness!  I know what you’re thinking.  Can we go back to that manger scene now?  Can we go back to being bathed in light with the hope of the world nestled in our arms?  Well, the problem, is that somewhere on this journey between seasons, we forgot.  We forgot who and whose we were.  Somewhere along the way we became self-sufficient and sure of ourselves.  Somewhere along the way, we thought we had figured it out, thought we were so right.  Somewhere along the way the trumpet announcing the birth of our Savior became our own horn.  Somewhere along the way we forgot that we were blessed not by what God has given us but by what God has called us to do.  You know–scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful, filling the hungry and sending the rich away.  (Hmmm, that sounds distantly and vaguely familiar.) And now we sit in ashes wondering what to do next.

This has been an odd couple of months for me.  It seems that I have turned many times and have run smack-dab into loss of some sort—some have been real honest-to-goodness losses and others have been, well, maybe just sort of grandiose pity-parties because things have not gone as I had planned.  Either way, loss is a time that invites us to move, to pick up the pieces, and hand them back to God.  And as we begin walking, God takes what is left and once again breathes life into it.

Lent is our chance to begin again.  Because, think about it, those ashes that you are going to spread on your forehead today are what is left.  They are what has survived.  After all of the devouring fires scorching the gardens, they are left.  They are the remnant.  They are the hope for what will come next.  So we begin our Lenten journey in ashes because we repent for what we have done.  But that is not the end.  God does not leave us on the ash heap alone.  God picks us up and recreates us, walking us through the wilderness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the Cross, to Life.  The ashes, the “what is left”, are the beginning.

So what will you do with what is left?  What will you do with your share of ashes?  Repent and turning–that is what this day is about.  No longer do we wallow in morbid shame and guilt; no longer do we pound ourselves down for our past mistakes; no longer do we sit on the ash heap sullen and morose.  This is the day when we begin to begin again.  Pick yourself up!  Dust yourself off!  And start.  This is the day when we begin the journey to life.  But we are called to travel light.  God has given what we need.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  (Luke 1: 46b-49)

As you begin this Lenten journey, what things do you need to leave behind? What things do you need to take with you?  Remember, we are traveling light.  The wilderness journey is long and difficult.  But we are traveling with the one who created us and calls us to live life freely and blessed.

And for a program note…I’m going to try to post every day again during this Holy Season, but sometimes it gets away from me (or I get away from it–I don’t know which).  So, true confessions…I may do some “rehashing” of past blog posts (this one was–with some new tweeking).  I mean, I guess it’s OK to plagiarize yourself, right?  Either way, I hope that it makes for a meaningful season for you.  So, give something up or take something on or just go a little bit deeper than you usually do.  Have a wonderfully profound Lent!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

More To the Story

Light into the world2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Solomon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.  And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,* 8and Asaph* the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,* and Amos* the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.  12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.* (Matthew 1: 2-16)

We Christians sometimes seem to have this notion that Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, Messiah, the Savior of the World just sort of dropped out of the sky one cold winter night in Bethlehem and the world began. But the story of the birth of the Divine One into this world is not the beginning but the next chapter in a story that had been read into the world for volumes of the story before.  Jesus came, God with Us, after eons of the earth straining to see the Light.  He came into centuries upon centuries of waiting journeyers, those who had prepared the way for his coming, not knowing what that would be but knowing that it would be.  Those that came before are not just a prelude to the story but are part of the story itself.

I would guess that most of you sort of skip over these verses in the Gospel from the writer known as Matthew. After all, the names are hard to pronounce and, really, what do they bring to the lovely story that we have compiled from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and a little “tradition” thrown in. But they ARE important, SO important. They are the story of our connection. If the writer had not been of Jewish descent (I think the fact that he (or she!) starts with Abraham is the first of many clues in that Gospel version.), the story might have gone back to the beginning—you know, that “in the beginning” part. It’s all part of the story.

In the beginning, God came into the darkness, into the chaos that was the world and filled it with Light. And it was good. And God went on to fill the illuminated world with Creation—waters that bring and sustain life, soils that would continue to birth life from decay, green and blue foliage reaching into the earth for their nutrients, animals of prey and animals that would become companions to us (including the one that just demanded that I open the window blinds so he can make sure no one is going down his road!), and we humans. And then God continued to walk with the Creation, guiding them through the times that they listened and patiently waiting for their return when they did not. And after generations of both failed and incredibly wonderful journeys, God again came to once again bring light to a world who had allowed part of the light of Creation to go out. And it was good. And this time, God came not as the Light on us but the Light within us, coming as one of us to show us how to be Light.

No, Jesus did not just pop out of nothingness. The story had been in place long before. And we, too, did not just appear. Our lives are not merely individual existences that we have worked so hard to create. Our lives are part of the ongoing story of the world becoming more and more illuminated until the darkness is no more. THIS Advent, remember the story and do not forget the light that you are called to carry forward into the next chapter of the story. Even now, God is bringing Light to a partially dark world. We can only imagine where God will take the incredible story next.

God showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in a palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my minds’ eye and I thought, “What can this be?” An answer came, “It is all that is made.” I marveled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, “It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.” And all things have their being through the love of God. In these little things I saw three truths. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. The third is that God looks after it. (Julian of Norwich)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

 

Coming Out of the Dark

Mystery Forest8For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. (Ephesians 5: 8-9)

It doesn’t seem right to talk about darkness in the middle of Advent, does it? Maybe we could deal with it during the season of Lent, but not Advent. Advent is the season where we look toward the Light. And yet, much of Advent is about darkness, about the unknown, about the Light that has yet to come. And so we wait, in darkness.

We have a sort of aversion to darkness. We have somewhere along the way convinced ourselves that darkness is bad, “anti-light” if you will. And so we do everything we can to stay away from it. We fill our lives with light—the 75 watt variety. And we push the darkness away. But what else are we pushing away with our artificial light? After all, when you live in a city with street lights and porch lights and motion detector lights, how many stars do you see? Darkness is not bad; darkness is needed to see light. Light on light lets us see things, those things that the light illuminates. And we find ourselves lost in things. But darkness…in darkness we see the Light.

Remember the darkness of our beginnings. Creation began in darkness…and then there was light. Creation is found in darkness. Birth is found in darkness. Hope is found in darkness. Faith is found in darkness. Darkness gives us what we need to begin again. Darkness enables us to see the Light as it breaks into the world. In the darkness, we are able to see the Dawn.

So in this Advent darkness, be content. Embrace the present. Be content to wait—to wait in hope, to wait in faith, to wait for the Light that will soon dawn. Perhaps our places of darkness are where we come to be because they compel us to look for the Light and it is then that we will finally know how to see our way out of the dark.

 Too many of us panic in the dark. We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli