03 January 2010

Advent Carol - Light in the Darkness

Sermon for 20 December 2009

Micah 5: 2-5a; Luke 1: 39-55

By Sharyn Hall

On this day we are beginning a seasonal turning-point called the winter solstice. In these hours, the earth completes its turn away from the sun. It is the time for us in the northern hemisphere when our days shorten and the darkness closes in upon us. We now recognize that more darkness than light in our lives can have a profound effect on our well-being, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Darkness can foster feelings of despair and hopelessness.

Darkness in the bible is a physical and spiritual reality as well as a symbol for some of the most profound human experiences. In these seasons of Advent and Christmas, we read about the darkness in the lives of the Hebrew people. The prophet Isaiah describes the people walking in darkness as they struggle to survive the oppression of conquering armies. In the darkness they have lost their way, they have been separated from God, and they long for a light to lead them back to God and to freedom.

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

To me and perhaps to some of you, those words of scripture are forever linked to music in Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah”. Handel appropriately set this text to a bass voice, and the melody meanders up and down without a clear sense of direction to capture the idea of being lost in darkness, but when the people see the great light, the melody rises upward as the people are lifted up out of darkness on to the path of salvation. Although I can remember the melody, my best imitation of a bass voice would give a poor impression of the wonderful musical effect.

The deep bass voice reminds us that we feel darkness as bound to the earth, and we look up for light, which comes from the heavens, from the mercy and love of God. To the ancient people of Israel, the light of God was a sign of hope for the future. They kept this hope alive in their prayers and worship and religious customs, which continue in Jewish communities all over the world to this day. Our Jewish neighbours have just concluded the festival of Hanakkah, also called the festival of Lights.

Recently I read a story about a Hanakkah celebration in a small Jewish community of the American state of Montana. Montana does not have many Jewish people now, but in the late 19th century, there were thriving Jewish populations and synagogues in several cities. The number of Jewish families dwindled as children grew up and moved away. In 1993, in the city of Billings, Montana, vandals broke windows in homes that were displaying menorahs of lighted candles to celebrate Hanakkah. In a response organized by local church leaders, more than ten thousand of the city’s residents and shopkeepers put make-shift menorahs in their windows to protect the small number of Jewish households. The vandalism stopped. Hanakkah is now a special time of celebration in the state of Montana.

In this story, Christians brought light to their Jewish neighbours in their time of darkness. The lighted candles on a Jewish menorah are reminders of God’s faithfulness to all people. The ‘great light’ that the prophet Isaiah foretells is the hope of the Hebrew people that God will send them a Messiah. The prophet Micah predicts that a Shepherd-King will come forth from Judah to bring peace and security to a people who have been lost.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the people hold on to the hope that the light of God will break through the darkness of hardship and oppression. That light and that hope would be a Messiah. When young Mary humbly accepted her role to give birth to the child of God, she praised God’s mercy for her people, for this child would be the salvation of her people according to the promise made to Abraham and to his descendents forever. The birth of this child would be a turning-point for the world, a turning away from darkness toward the light of justice, compassion and peace. The history of the world since the time of Isaiah and the time of Jesus has revealed that darkness is an insidious force, which must be vanquished again and again by courage and faith in an eternal God of love. Like the turning of the earth away from or toward the sun, there are points in history when humanity has turned toward or away from God.

As we experience again the winter solstice, when the darkness of the longer nights begins to slowly fade into the growing light of longer days, do we see the hope of new light in the world? Do we see greater respect for the dignity of every human being? Do we see greater understanding and acceptance of the worship and customs of other faiths? As Christians, we see that beacon of light in the life and ministry of Jesus, who was born into a world of hardship, war and cruelty. Every year we celebrate a festival of light, not the twinkling lights in the winter darkness, but lights of hope for peace and good will among all people. Like the festival of Hanakkah, we remember that God is our eternal source of light to lead us out of whatever darkness clouds our lives. In the midst of darkness, we can see light because in our worship, our prayers and our praise, we welcome again the hope of a baby born two thousand years ago into a world as dark as our own. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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