Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from Jesus Christ, who is light in the darkness. Amen.
You might remember a few years ago, at roughly this time of year, we had a pretty massive Wednesday night thunderstorm come through the northern suburbs. I remember that it was a Wednesday night because we had to cancel confirmation, as there was no power in the building. There were lots of trees down, and many homes without power. It was a really big storm.
I was in the south suburbs when the storm hit, and then had to drive home afterwards. I still remember the eeriness of it all. I drove up 35W, crossed onto 94 west, came through the Lowry tunnel, then up that little rise and over a hill. It was nighttime as I was driving, and about a half-mile ahead of me there was a line that stretched as far as I could see to my left, crossed in front of me, and then continued to the east as far as I could see. It was a line of darkness. It was the line that separated the part of the city that had kept power, from the part of the city that had lost power.
The line of darkness crossed 94 somewhere around Broadway. South of Broadway, there were streetlights, store lights, lights on in homes, stop lights operating…but north of Broadway, there was complete darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. It was so weird…like a cloud of darkness had just sucked the light out of everything.
As I approached that line of darkness, I still remember the odd sense of irrational anxiety that welled up inside of me. Like a scene from a bad science fiction movie, I half expected my car to cross the line and to suddenly lose power, and to coast to a halt.
Well, of course, it didn’t. The drive home was dark, but fine, and the next day we and all our neighbors, were out cleaning up branches. Lori and I lost a big chunk of the tree in our front yard, so that took awhile to clean up. After about 20 hours after the power went out, the lights came back on.
But what really surprised me, and what I still have a very vivid memory of, was this level of strange nervousness and anxiety that I felt when I realized that I was driving into this area of darkness. Why is that? Why is darkness something that from childhood, we fear?
Well, rationally, of course, we understand this fear: it’s the unknown. It’s the question of “what’s out there? What’s up ahead that we cannot see?” It’s the challenge in trusting something that is blind to us. It’s so simple, most 2 year olds could tell us: darkness is scary. And where there is anxiety within us, we cannot experience peace. And when we lose any sense of peace within us, our life can feel chaotic. And crossing from peace into chaos can feel like that stepping across a line, into darkness.
The imagery of darkness and light can be found throughout the scriptures, and the metaphor seems clear. To follow God is to be in the light. To wander off of God’s path, is to wander into darkness.
But then along comes the prophet Isaiah, who gives us a much deeper and richer understanding of what it is to be in the light. He encourages us to approach the house of the Lord, “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah goes on to say that nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; they shall not lift up sword, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” So Isaiah is equating living in light with being at peace.
Robert Caro wrote a book on one of my favorite historical characters, (Hi, I’m Todd, and I’m a history nerd.) the very complex former President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson was known for many things. Some may remember Johnson for his War on Poverty. Others may remember him for his role in the Vietnam War. Or perhaps, you may simply remember him as the man who became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 50 years ago this week. Robert Caro found, however, that the people in the Hill Country of Texas where Johnson first began his career as a congressman remember him for something completely different.
Caro notes that when he was interviewing in the Texas hill country, no matter what he was talking to people about, he found that one phrase was repeated over and over again concerning Johnson. The phrase was, “He brought the light. We don’t care about the war, or poverty…we love him because he brought the light!” They were talking about the fact that when Johnson became congressman from the Hill Country in 1937, at the age of twenty-eight, there was no electricity there. And by 1948, when he was elected to the Senate, most of the district had electricity. Lyndon Baines Johnson, way before he was President of the United States, brought light to the Texas hill country.
The prophet Isaiah was telling those who would listen that “light is coming.” And that God wanted the people to live within that light.
When the writers of New Testament scripture sought to describe what Christ meant to humankind, it’s not a coincidence that they compared Jesus to light coming into a world of darkness. The Gospel of John expressed it best: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” I’m reminded of what my high school physics teacher told us once when talking about wavelengths: “in physics, light always beats darkness. Darkness never beats light.”
The same is true in our faith lives. Light always defeats darkness. Darkness never defeats light. And we live in a world that can sometimes feel pretty dark…pretty broken. I believe that the world needs light…that it wants light…but it isn’t sure where to look.
To put it simply, Jesus is the light. Jesus is the peace. Isaiah’s words are clear: he says “House of Jacob…follow in the light of the Lord.” He reminds us that life is about concern for the least and the lowest. It is about simplicity and beauty and love. It is about nations beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. It is about lives of faithfulness, harmony and peace.
A couple of summers ago, we loaded up the Buegler family mini-van for the traditional family vacation to the Black Hills. We had a great time together. One of the things we did was take the tour at Wind Cave National Park. If you haven’t been there, the Wind Caves are these huge, amazing caves…really a cave system that stretches deep underground, through the whole area. There are over 140 miles of explored caves.
So we’re with the ranger, deep in the caves, hiking around. They have these lamps that they use the illuminate the areas where they bring the tourists. The ranger counted down from 3 and flipped the switch to turn off the lights. Samuel, who was 7 at the time, instinctively grabbed my hand. (Or, maybe, I grabbed his.) It was dark, like I’ve never seen dark before. Dark like you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. It was scary dark.
In the dark, the ranger talked for a few minutes about what it must have been like for the first explorers of the cave, who were dependent on candles. Then she flicked on a lighter. It was amazing. After being in the dark for a couple of minutes, that little flame completely illuminated the space we were in. It wasn’t as bright as the lamps had been, but that small flame, it was enough.
This is what life feels like from time to time. We live in a broken world, and the list of our problems, issues and fears seems to go on forever. It can seem overwhelming, and it is easy to live in anxiety, or even fear. We all experience darkness…for you it may be relationships, or financial, or health. Life may feel dark.
But Isaiah reminds us that it need not be that way. There is hope. That hope is found in God’s love for all of us. We don’t have to give in to the darkness in this world. In Jesus, light has penetrated that darkness. He is the light that the world seeks.
And embedded in Isaiah’s prophecy is an important promise: notice that he does not say that nations could beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. He says they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. The light will one day expel the darkness.
As people of faith, we look both backward and forward. We look back to the historical Jesus, who lived, taught, healed, died and was resurrected. But we also look forward to the Jesus who brings love over hatred, peace over war and God’s Kingdom to earth. How does Jesus do this? Well, at least partially, he uses us. It is God’s work, but he uses our hands.
The Jesus of the past, and the Jesus of the future: they are both vital parts of our faith. If you believe that God has intervened in human history to reveal himself and his hope for creation, then you also believe that the world as we know it is not God’s last word. The anticipation of God’s kingdom is what gives us hope in the midst of our deepest despair.
I met a remarkable woman in Beaufort, North Carolina once when Lord of Life had one of our sr. high mission trip groups there. Her name was Miss Lucille. She was probably closing in on 80 years old…and spent time in the shade on the work site, in her big floral print dresses and fuzzy slippers, looking after the Habitat for Humanity volunteers, force feeding us lemonade and sweet tea. By herself, Miss Lucille had managed to feed, clothe, and educate eight children while living in a plywood shack. And now, as she was getting older, she had cataracts, and her vision was failing her. How did she keep going? She told me: “I’ve seen…I’ve seen a new world coming.” She could look forward and see the future. She could see what the love of Jesus was bringing. Even as she was losing her sight and was entering darkness, she hadn’t lost her vision. She could look forward through the lens of hope. And hope is a powerful, powerful thing.
So where do we find this hope? Where do we find the courage to look ahead when the world can seem so dark?
As people of faith, we go to the source of the light and begin there. The light is Jesus. And Jesus is here. The light does not go away. We open our eyes to God’s light that surrounds us. Open your eyes and see. He is what you have been seeking. He is the one who holds the future. Like the people in the Hill Country of Texas who say “He brings the light,” we can do the same. But we point to Jesus…”He brings the light.” And he brings peace to chaos. He is the hope of the world, and he brings light into the dark places of your life.