December 11, 2011

Third Sunday of Advent

Pointing to the Light

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Luke 1:46-55

John 1:6-9, 19-28

We are deep into Advent. The days are short because there is so much to do to get ready for Christmas –yes – but also because the sun sets so early. December 21 is the day of the year with the least amount of total daylight but today is one of the days with the earliest sunsets. The sun will go down today at 4:20vand we will be wrapped in darkness for almost 15 hours – 14 hours, 48 minutes to be precise.

A very long nighttime. A lot of darkness.

Except…. There are lights everywhere now: twinkling white lights draped over the eaves of houses,big colored bulbs on outdoor bushes and trees, tiny candles set in the windows. One house that I pass on my daily commute has dozens of giant lighted snowflakes hanging all over the surrounding trees. It is so magical; I’ve seen it over and over and it is still making me smile.

I think part of the beauty of all the lights is the kind of brave statement they make. When the world is shrouded in night, literally and figuratively, it is an act of courage to let in the light. In a way, when we string up our Christmas lights, we are symbolically doing what God has done – causing the light to shine in darkness.

That is how the gospel of John tells the story of Jesus’ coming -- not with angels and shepherds or wise men and mangers. This gospel starts long before any of that: “In the beginning (it sounds like Genesis, doesn’t it), was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1-2)

The Word is God’s holy act, made flesh in Jesus. At creation, God’s first act, God’s first word was about light: “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) And God is still speaking the Word that brings light into the world: As the gospel tells us: “What has come into being in him – this Word which is the Christ – 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 1:3b-5)

And John was the one who was called to point to light. He understood his role to be like that of the prophet Isaiah: “’I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,’ he said, echoing the ancient scripture:
 ’Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (John 1:23)

But what exactly is this “way of the Lord,” this way of light and life. Isaiah tells us that, too, in prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. The way of the Lord is good news to the oppressed, healing for the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives,
 and release to the prisoners. It is an era marked by God’s favor for those who seek God, and God’s judgment of separation from love for those who do not. It is comfort for those who mourn and God’s praise to encourage faint spirits. That is the way of the Lord, the way of light, and we, like the prophets before us, are called to point to the light.

But what does that mean? How do we do that? Isaiah tells us this, too. Those who live in God’s light “shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:4)

Isaiah was likely speaking of the aftermath of the siege and war and occupation of Jerusalem and the need to rebuild all that had been destroyed. But 2500 years later, the instructions still apply, and they apply to us. We, too, witness to the light by rebuilding what is ruined, raising up what is broken down, repairing what has been devastated. The rabbis call this work tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase which means repairing the world.

There is much in our world that needs repairing. There is much that is ruined, broken, and devastated. In the midst of great abundance, children are starving and old men are homeless. The gap between the richest rich and poorest poor is greater than it has ever been in human history. For reasons that are incredibly complex and also simple and completely obvious, violent crime is increasing in our cities. Basic health care is a luxury for most of the world’s people.

This is not the way of the Lord.

And if you think seriously about the brokenness of our world, if you do not turn your eyes away from suffering and devastation, it is all too easy to despair. The world’s troubles are so complicated, its problems so insurmountable, the challenges so great – how are we to accomplish anything? Aren’t all our efforts the equivalent of lighting a tiny candle in the midst of overwhelming darkness? How can we be successful? The work of tikkun olam seems beyond our ability. We aren’t very powerful; we aren’t very rich. We can’t possibility change the world, can we?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but here is the good news of the gospel: we don’t have to. God has already done that. God has changed everything. Isaiah knew it, Jesus knew it, and Mary, his mother, knew it.

Just look at Luke 1:46-55. This is the Magnificat, that beautiful song of Mary. It speaks of the way of the Lord, the straight way, where all inequalities are leveled out. Do you see what God has done? God “has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

This is the way of God: no one is high and mighty and no one is down and out; no one is eating caviar and filet mignon all the time and no one is starving; all are equal in God’s sight and all have an equal share of the world’s goodness.

But the world isn’t this way, is it? So why did Mary sing as though this had already happened? A little grammar lesson might be helpful in understanding what she was saying. The form of these verbs is what is called the present perfect tense. According to Wikipedia, that is a grammatical construction that is used to express a past event that has present consequences.

A past event that has present consequences. We know what that past event is, don’t we? The light of the world that has come into the world, the light has been present since even before the beginning. And that past event, the coming of the light, has present consequences for us. In it we are called to engage in tikun olam, repairing the world, our beautiful, broken world.

No, we can’t fix everything, but remember that we don’t have to. All we have to do is point to the light. All we have to do is live in the light. All we have to do it light our own little candles and let them shine. Because tikkun olam, the work of repairing the world, begins within our hearts. We don’t have to fix everything. What we do have to do is witness to the light with our own lives, our words, our deeds, our prayers; our intentions and attitudes and actions. What we have to do is let the eternal light shine through us.

A song by the poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen has this refrain:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. And in our cracked and broken world, even in our cracked and broken hearts, the light still gets in.

The light still shines. And the darkness has not overcome it. Thanks be to God!

© Martha C. Highsmith

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