Scripture: Isaiah 9 – selected Verses
These words from the prophet Isaiah were spoken to a people who were mired in despair. The sound of war was encroaching upon them, and they would soon be facing exile from their beloved home. Isaiah’s words promised salvation with the birth of the Messiah. And this Messiah also came into the world at a time of darkness, a time when the Jewish people were under the rule and the oppression of the Romans. These were people walking in darkness, longing to see light.
This Advent and Christmas season is also, for many of us, such a time. Rev. Quintin Caldwell, a UCC minister so appropriately says “it seems to me that every Advent service ought to be a Blue Christmas service. The Bible makes clear that the context for Christmas isn't rejoicing, it's desolation. It's not fullness; it's need. It's not presence; it's absence… if you can't quite get into "the Christmas spirit," then you're just who God came to save.”1
We hear this scripture about people in darkness, and so many of us can relate. When the prophet says that they have seen a great light, I believe he is writing not about what has happened to these people, but rather about a hope for a time when this light will BE Coming. Perhaps it would be more accurate for the words to say “Those who walk in darkness will see a great light.”
This time of year often makes those of us who are struggling seem like we’re out of place, out of sync with the rest of the world. Everywhere we go, there are lights blazing, music blaring, TV shows and ads blasting images of exuberant joy. Yet amid the gleam all around us, at this time, many of us feel like we’re in a black hole, a place where the force of our sorrow is so strong, that light is not able to penetrate. How do we reconcile our true feelings of sadness with all the glaring brightness we see around us?
The light Isaiah talks about is the light of justice and of peace, a light of love and hope. It is a light that shines not glaringly, but gently. When I hear the scripture about the people in darkness seeing a great light, or think about images related to the Christmas story, the light I picture always is the light of the stars – whether it’s the star leading the magi to Jesus, or the stars illuminating the sky when the shepherds and angels came to praise him. And while in truth, in the reality of the cosmos, these stars are humungous, colossal balls of gas and light in the heavens, what we here on earth actually perceive with our senses are stars as just tiny pinpricks of light.
This speaks to me of how we often perceive God’s light and love when we’re struggling with our darkness. We may in our minds believe the truth that God journeys with us closely and holds us tightly, that God loves us expansively, that God gives to us grace that is extravagant and unbounded, bright and big – but all we can perceive in this time is often a small, miniscule part of all the light that God offers. So while God’s love is a blazing fire, all we can know of it is a tiny, barely perceptible spark.
But the Advent season, even though it holds the time with the longest nights, is not a season of darkness. It is a season of dawning light. The color of Advent is not black, but rather this dawn blue – signifying a trust that we are just on the brink of daylight – a trust that the sun will yet break forth, even if we have no reason to believe it. This is the color of faint light that promises to grow brighter – even if we cannot see its brightness yet.
As such, Advent is a season of hope. We lit these candles up here, and they remind us of the themes of Advent – the first which is the theme of hope. We put our trust and hope in even that pinprick of faith that we have, that tiny part of us that can still believe in a God who cares for us and will see us through. Sometimes we need to take this on faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen because we can neither see nor feel God’s presence. But we trust that even though darkness is all that we may perceive, that somehow God is working even through that to birth something new. I pray that these rays of hope will burn brighter, that they will light our way through darkness and despair.
Our second candle in Advent is for the theme of Peace. It is a season that reminds us that God loves us no matter where we are in our journey. Although this may not be a time when we feel peaceful and calm, God welcomes us to be real with whatever we are feeling. We may be railing at the world, at the state of affairs in our country, at struggles with family and friends. We may be angry at God for letting things happen - for the death of a person we love dearly, or for a situation in our lives that fills us with despair. Yet peace comes in knowing deep down that God is alright with whatever feelings we have, that God accepts us, and loves us, and journeys with us despite our pushing God away, despite our closing ourselves off to God, despite our never wanting to speak to God again. Even in our anger, our sadness, our apathy, our doubts, God holds a candle of light out to us, welcoming us back always into God’s loving embrace. May knowing and believing this bring us a glimmer of peace to light our way.
The third week of Advent, which we are in, reminds us that this is a season of Joy. Seeing joy in others at this time of year may make us even sadder because we so long to feel some gladness again. And yet in times of despair, I personally find that just like stars shine brighter the darker the sky, that acts of kindness are magnified for me in times of darkness. A tender touch from a friend, a gentle word of encouragement, a thoughtful gesture of care no matter how small can move me to tears especially when I’m struggling. All of these things can bring joy once again to my heart - these small acts that normally I would appreciate, but that would not make a huge impact on me – these become for me, in times of sadness, unexpected sources of joy.
And our fourth week of Advent focuses on love. It’s sometimes hard to let people love us when we’re hurting. But what a blessing to open ourselves and allow others to support us – those who will really listen and accept our feelings as they are, those who will let us cry when we are sad, who will listen to us rant when we are angry, who will pray with or for us when we need that. Those who just offer a kind and gentle presence to accompany us on the journey of grief. If you would be helped by someone like that, let me know. We have trained Stephen Minsters who can offer just that kind of love.
Not only is it hard to let others love us when we’re sad, but it’s hard for us to love others. When we’ve lost someone we love especially, it’s easy to be afraid of risking the possibility of hurt and loneliness again. In her book A Cure for Sorrow, Jan Richardson writes this blessing:
Let us agree for now that we will not say the breaking makes us stronger or that it is better to have this pain than to have done without this love.
Let us promise we will not tell ourselves time will heal the wound, when every day our waking opens it anew.
Perhaps for now it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating
As if it were made for precisely this-
As if it knows the only cure for love is more of it,
As if it sees the heart’s sole remedy for breaking is to love still,
As if it trusts that its own persistent pulse is the rhythm of a blessing we cannot begin to fathom but will save us nonetheless.2
Tonight we have also lit the Christ candle, to remind us of the one who has come to save us in love, the one who brings light that even the darkness cannot overcome. And so, in this season, and always – let us allow ourselves to be open to the light of hope, of peace, of joy and love in Christ. And even in our deepest grief, may we trust that whether we sense it or not, all who walk in darkness are accompanied by the light of God journeying with them, the light that promises to break forth and guide our way now and forevermore. Amen.
2Richardson, J. L. (2016). The cure for sorrow: A book of blessings for times of grief. Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press., pp 33-34