Yogi Berra once famously said of the left field in Yankee Stadium, “It gets late early out there.” Yogi’s comment was meant to describe the challenge that outfielders had with the setting sun, but it’s hard for me not to think he’s talking about December.
|About this Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
December 13, 2020—Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11; John 1:6–8, 19–28
We’ve pushed the end of Daylight Savings Time to the first weekend in November, so late in the year that by the time we make the jump backward, sunset had already been close to six o’clock and now it suddenly jumps to before five. It gets late early out here now.
It seems like every time I turn around, it’s dark out. Now, part of this is that I’m a night owl and far more likely to have long stretches of post-sunset evening. But it’s not just me—the days are darker now than they were in June.
And as we move through Advent on our way toward Christmas, we cannot help but be more and more aware of how dark it is. The days are getting shorter and shorter. The light wanes earlier and earlier. The late afternoon glow through the windows of summertime has been replaced by panes of blackness. The world seems closed in.
It is a time when our moods are affected. We become crankier. We eat more. We become more prone to depression and anxiety. We just want to stay in bed. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re driven to conserve our energy in a time of scarcity. There is something about the darkness that makes us want to retreat inwardly. And we long for the light.
A rabbi I know once told me that as a child growing up he loved Christmas time. He said that New Haven, Connecticut in winter could be a dreary place, and the sudden emergence of millions of Christmas lights all about town made for a more bearable December.
It’s dark out.
And I’m not talking only about the cycles of earth’s rotation on its axis producing seasonal variations in the length of the day. There is economic anxiety in the land and overseas. There is a global pandemic taking the lives of three thousand of our fellow citizens a day. There is anxiety about access to healthcare. There are political unrest and uncertainty. There are White Supremacists marching in the streets of our cities. There are millions of people wondering how they’re going to put food on the table for their families. There is a fear that the economic systems in which we dwell are hopelessly unjust. There is the weight that so many are experiencing living under systems of racial inequality. There are so many living under oppression. There are so many worn down and brokenhearted. Struggling with pain within. There are so many captive and in exile, prisoner to circumstances or addiction, estranged from the people and the families they love. So many who mourn, whose lives are dominated by grief. So many who long for justice and relief. So many whose lives are dust and ash.
My friends, there are not enough Christmas lights in the world to overcome that kind of darkness.
It’s dark out.
II. The Light in our Faith
The role of light in our religious life is hard to overestimate. The very story of Creation begins with God summoning existence into being by declaring “Let there be light.” So important is light and its relationship to God that the author of Genesis informs us that the sun, moon, and stars are not even created until day four; God is the source of light, not the celestial bodies we behold.
We read about light in the story of the Exodus in God’s presence as a pillar of fire. There is a star in the skies to announce Jesus’ birth. When Jesus is baptized the heavens are torn open and light shines forth. At Jesus’ crucifixion darkness covers the face of the earth, but his resurrection is known as the new day is dawning.
And the whole Bible ends with the proclamation that in the New Jerusalem, the massive thousand-mile square city of God, “there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…” (Revelation 22:5 NRSV).
Light is the beginning and end of the story. From the creation of the world to its ultimate redemption, the story of God’s work in the world is a story of light.
III. The Birth of the Light
It is no coincidence that Christmas is celebrated at the time that it is. We don’t know when Jesus was born. Even considering the gospel evidence (which is very, very slim) all we would know is that Jesus was born “when shepherds watched their flocks by night,” which many argue would be in the spring. The early church seemed largely uninterested in marking Jesus’ birth and was much more focused on the day of his death and resurrection.
It was not until Christian Rome in the Fourth Century that observance of Jesus’ birth became common and those Christians elected to do so on the 25th of December, a date associated with the winter solstice and the Roman festival of the Saturnalia. The solstice would also have been a favorite of Emperor Constantine who was a worshipper of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, and the solstice marks the day that the sun reverses its retreat and begins its return bringing with it ever more light.
And so, the declaration of the day of Jesus’ birth as the day that the light is unconquered is telling, and a powerful image. For Christ, too, is a light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.
IV. Testifying to the Light
We read as much in the first chapter of John’s gospel to begin Jesus’ story. John’s gospel, like Mark’s, doesn’t have a birth narrative, but it begins with a declaration:
“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”John 1:4-5
The coming of Christ is identified with the coming of the light “of all people”—a light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.
But then the text tells us:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.John 1:6-8
Now, as I mentioned to you last Sunday, scholars will often note that John the Baptist was a very popular figure in the First Century and that his followers continued to be a movement after his death. So, this might be the Gospel author’s way of reminding the Christian reader that while John was important, he was not the light, but “he came to testify to the light.”
He came to testify to the light. That’s an interesting idea. What does it mean? In a world of darkness, what does it involve to ‘testify to the light’?
How do you testify to light? Do you describe its speed? Do you mention that its speed is the upper limit of speed in the universe? Do you describe it as a particle that behaves like a wave? Do you note how light refracts and can be split into varying waves of the visible spectrum? Those things might tell us something about light, but they are hardly testifying to the light. How does one testify to something so much a part of life that we barely even notice it?
I suppose that’s the kicker. Light often goes unobserved, unnoticed. And indeed, unless someone is shining a light directly in your face, you don’t really notice the light. Light isn’t really seen, when you think about it. We see the objects that light reflects off of. We don’t see the light here in this sanctuary, we see the people, the pews, the colors of the banners, the colors of the altar decorations.
But even though we think we’re seeing the objects, in reality, all we’re really seeing is the light. The light is what helps us to see and what we see is the light.
It is the same with love. When we are in love we see the one we love as the most beautiful, the kindest, the smartest, most wonderful person. We think we’re seeing the person, but what we’re really seeing is the love. How do we testify to the love? We describe what we see and the love is made plain. How do we testify to the light? We describe what we see and the light is made plain.
V. WHAT WE SEE
The sixty-first chapter of Isaiah is a poetic unit that describes a human servant of God, anointed for a task: to do the transformative work of God in the community of the people of God. And so we hear these evocative words:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.Isaiah 61:1–3
These words are also found in Luke’s gospel, where they are read by Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, as the inaugural vision of his ministry. It is read by Christians in that context, making particular note of the word “anointed,” which is what Messiah and Christ mean.
But the Isaiah text is not necessarily predictive of anything. It is a text addressed to a distressing situation in the life of Israel then and there. Likely written after the return of exiles in Babylon, it speaks to the longing of the marginalized and the weak. Those who are “oppressed,” “captive,” “prisoner,” and “brokenhearted.” To a people who are still experiencing hardship and darkness and longing for “good news.” This text describes a human agent, appointed by God to proclaim this good news to the disenfranchised, those for whom the world is so very often darkness.
It is important to note that this chapter follows right on the heels of the beautifully evocative chapter 60, which begins:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.Isaiah 60:1-3 NRSV
In effect, the agent of God in chapter 61 is like John the Baptist, the one who testifies to the light that has come into the world. And how is that light testified to? By describing what is seen.
And what is seen but a world in which the oppressed are brought good news. The brokenhearted are bound up. The captives are set free, the prisoners are released. Those who mourn are brought gladness, those whose lives are ash are given a garland.
This is how we testify to the light: we testify to the vision of the world that we know through Jesus.
But there’s something important to bear in mind. See, we read John’s gospel and we see John the Baptist announcing the coming of the light, and the greatness of the one coming. We read Isaiah’s beautiful poetry and we recognize it as Jesus’ inauguration of his ministry. We see the words “anointed” and right away we think of Jesus and his ministry.
But the Isaiah text does not say that this passage refers to a coming messiah. In fact, it seems oriented to the time and place in which it was written. What that means is that each of us—every one of us—can be that one “anointed to proclaim.” Every one of us is called to testify to the light. To proclaim the brightness that is breaking into the world.
We can testify to the light by describing the vision that we see: a vision of justice, peace, love, and reconciliation. And it’s important to describe the vision that we see illuminated by the light.
But light can also be reflected. We can serve as the mirrors for the light of God, shining that light into the dark corners of the world.
Every time we work for justice and liberation, we reflect the light of God into the darkness and the oppressed receive good news.
Every time we build communities where everyone is welcome and loved for who they are, we reflect the light of God into the darkness and bind up the brokenhearted.
Every time we work for freedom: freedom of speech, of religion, of conscience, and fight for human dignity for all people, we reflect the light of God into the darkness and proclaim liberty to the captives.
Every time we work to break the social, economic, and political barriers that divide or entrap us, we reflect the light of God into the darkness and proclaim release to the prisoners.
Every time we open ourselves to love, to be there in solidarity for someone else, we reflect the light of God into the darkness, and comfort all who mourn.
Every time we live our lives in love, we reflect the light of God into the darkness and testify to the light that is transforming the world.
Arise, shine, for our light has come. And we have been anointed to proclaim and testify to the coming of the light into the world.
It’s dark out. But the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11 • The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
John 1:6–8, 19–28 • There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.