December 24, 2018 The United Churches
The people who walked in darkness. I think that we feel as though we are these people…the ones that walk in darkness. We live here in the Pacific Northwest, Western Washington where we enjoy a lengthy 8 hours and 24 minutes of daylight every day. We have just passed the winter solstice this week, meaning that we added 3 seconds of daylight on the 22nd, 8 seconds on the 23 and 14 seconds today, the 24th! Things are on the upswing as far as light is concerned. I lived in Alaska as a child and barely remember the 4 hours of daylight that I enjoyed each winter day, probably because I was in the confines of the school house and it was too cold to go outside. A number of folk among us suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it is known, a depression that is related to a change in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same time every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Some of you have told me that you suffer from this form of depression. Whether you are depressed this season or experiencing grief, or anxious about the state of our country or the state of our world, you might be experiencing hopelessness. You might feel as though you are walking in darkness, longing for light.
These people, in Isaiah chapter 9 walked in darkness, though the word in Hebrew isn’t darkness as such (Zalmaweth). It is the same word used in Psalm 23 which appears to mean shadow-shade of death. The same word Zalmaweth may have been the name of a minor Canaanite deity of evil, lurking in dark places ready to destroy the unwary. Think of your child crawling in your bed at night complaining about a monster in their closet. Think of the fear that breaks into a cold sweat when you hear some unexplained noise in your house, and you are perhaps too fearful to investigate. Think of the crushing grief you experience after the death of a partner…the depression that weights your head to your pillow hours after you were supposed to be somewhere. The people that walk in darkness…
The valley of the shadow…deep darkness. Though we are not aware of the specific darkness that 8th century Isaiah may have had in mind, it seems both universal and ubiquitous. They, and we need a “great light.” Isaiah declares that the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. They are experiencing joy…great joy like during the time of harvest or dividing plunder after a military victory. They have been set free from oppression, a new day has dawned.
For unto us a child is born, a son is given and authority will be upon his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. These royal designations have inspired great music and a bedrock of hope. This piece in Isaiah 9 was most likely written as a coronation hymn for a Judean King, most likely Hezekiah. The words seem hyperbolic calling this human one as some sort of deity that lives forever. It is not a wonder that the words were seized upon by early writers of the gospel as the one they called Christ, the son of God, believing that Christ was God in human flesh.
Tonight, we will be reading from the gospel of Luke chapter two. We will be reading the words that Linus quotes when he explains to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about: “I bring good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
The titles “savior” and “lord” were titles that in that time were applied only to the Roman rulers, so it might have seemed a bit odd to early Christians have these titles applied by the angel to a powerless baby.
All of these amazing accolades: wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace, savior, lord and messiah constitute quite an enormous weight of hope to lay upon a little baby. A defenseless little baby is quite a contrast to a rich military ruler, protected by vast armies, border walls and bureaucracies.
But our hope has always been found in a defenseless little baby, hasn’t it? We don’t find hope in wealth and riches, because if some people are more fortunate than other’s have to be less fortunate. We don’t find our hope in military might because if we are the victorious than others are the oppressed. We don’t find our hope in being the most powerful, because if we are the powerful than someone else is powerless. We don’t find our hope in winning, “so much winning that you will get tired of winning” because if we are winning, then someone is losing. This is NOT where hope is found.
Hope is found in a helpless baby. A helpless baby calls forth the very best from us. A helpless baby requires that we give of ourselves fully. A helpless baby assures that we will put our own needs and desires aside for the good of another. A helpless baby requires that we turn aside from our fear and despair and tiredness and that we keep going, keep caring. A helpless baby brings out a desire from deep within us to protect and to care…to love. That is where hope is found. That is how the world is changed.
There is not a person in this room, no matter how depressed, crushed with grief or tired they might be, that would not get up and investigate if they heard a baby crying. That is God’s subversive way of changing this world. God brings light and hope by coming to humanity at the margins in the form of a helpless infant in a stable-cave in nowhere, Bethlehem to peasant people.
God changes the world from the bottom up, through the lives of ordinary people like the shepherds of Bethlehem, like the family of a Galilean construction worker who meet God and are forever changed by the meeting. You don’t change the world by having the sort of authority that make people bow down before you and serve as slaves washing your feet when you come in walking from dusty roads. You change the world by being the one that does the foot washing, being the one who serves others in love.
This is totally a slow and messy way of bringing hope to a weary dark world, because on the surface it looks week and inefficient. We are used to the power grab, but we know by now that though the power grab might look effective, it is not. We might be able to overpower someone, but not change their hearts and lives in the process…not bring hope and healing. To bring hope, to bring healing, we need inner transformation.
When I was in the District of Columbia over the Thanksgiving holiday, I snuck off for a walk to the Eastern Market and looked around. The Eastern Market has a number of independent artists who create and sell wonderful art. At one stall this t-shirt caught my eye: hope dealer. I found my size and I purchased it. For me it’s a “wanna be” tee shirt. I may not currently be a “hope-dealer” but I want to be a hope dealer. That means I must trust in the subversive way of God who does things from the bottom up. I know that you are hope dealers too.
On Monday after the devastating train derailment, like many of you, I was so depressed. For some odd reason, I am still on the phone tree for Providence from my time working there. I listened to each message after I answered, asking for all clinicians to come in, notifying of codes, finding places for workers to stay. First responders, clinicians, victims and casualties were not far from my mind all day. Midmorning, I was driving down Eastside on my way to visit a parishioner and passed the blood bank. People were lined up for two blocks to donate blood, standing in the freezing cold. Tears sprang to my eyes as I recognized them: the hope dealers. These are the small actions of ordinary people, acting as Jesus said like a small lump of yeast working its way through the flour, like the tiny seed being planted in the ground growing up into the largest plants. These small acts of love are the light in the darkness, the most potent force to change the world. So let’s go from this place, this forth Sunday of Advent, this Christmas Eve and be hope dealers, doing acts of love and trust the results to God, incarnate.