simple gifts: Christmas lights … the light shines in the darkness ….

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

We’re less interested today in a particular text or particular texts, than an image—a particular image used throughout Scripture to describe God or the presence of God with us in the world—what it means for God to be with us in the world—what it means for us to be in the world in the way of God. Why this particular image, we’re going to wonder together. And then we’re going to note how that particular image coincides with some of the most popular images of the season.

Because when we think of Christmas, some of the first images to come to mind are images of light—and light in the dark, in particular—lights on trees, lights in windows, lights on bushes, lights on houses, lights on candles in wreaths, lights on roping, hand-held candles raised up high as we turn the lights down low singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, the lights of luminaries lining the driveway of the church, lining the streets of some neighborhoods, the garish lights of 34th street and that one house over on Gittings—another on Regester! Years ago, when we gathered as family in Richmond, VA, we would usually take an evening when we were all home to hop in the car for a tacky light house tour. Course you always have to be careful not to attribute your own perspective on to someone else, but it sure seems like it’s sometimes not so much the season being celebrated anymore, but the homeowner, right?! Cherie posted a picture on Facebook this past week of a house all decked out with Christmas lights and then the house next door with the word simply spelled out in light, “DITTO.”

So lights are integral to Christmas. and then throughout Scripture we find God associated with light. Old and New Testament. the Torah, the writings, the prophets, the gospels, the epistles (Exodus 13:21; 2 Chronicles 21:7; Job 24:13; Psalm 4:6, 13:3, 18:28, 27:1, 49:19, 76:4, 90:8, 104:2, 118:27, 119:105, 139:12; Proverbs 13:9; Isaiah 2:5, 9:2, 10:17, 42:6, 16, 51:4, 58:8-10, 60:1, 19; Daniel 2:22; Micah 7:8; Matthew 4:16, 5:14-16; Luke 2:32, 8:16, 16:8; John 1:4-5, 7-9, 3:19-21, 8:12, 9:5, 12:36, 46; Acts 9:3-6, 13:47, 26:13-18; Romans 2:19, 13:12, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6; Ephesians 5:8-10; Colossians 1:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:5; 1 Timothy 6:16; Hebrews 10:32; James 1:17; 1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 1:19; 1 John 1:5, 7, 2:8-10; Revelation 21:23, 22:5). Sometimes God seems to be the light. Sometimes the light is God’s word—the manifestation of God—God’s glory. Sometimes, it’s the state in which the people of God live and move and have their being. Or it’s their identity—their witness.

Now, if we focus on the image—not the texts—the image of the light—particularly the high contrast image of the light in the darkness (John 1:5), what do we get? A lot, right?

There are certainly some images you’re not supposed to play with too much. What’s it called? Pushing the metaphor—the limits of the metaphor? A metaphor gone too far? Metaphors gone bad? I keep thinking there’s a phrase for this I’m blanking on—which is sad because I so often flirt with that line! Straining the metaphor—the bounds of the metaphor? Taking it in a direction it was never meant to go—to carry freight it was never meant to carry?

It’s when you draw out some logical inference from the imagery of the metaphor—like goats are somehow inferior to sheep and because the goats were sent to Jesus’ left, there’s something sinister about the left. Abusing the metaphor?

It’s a risk to all representative images—particularly images of God for whom all images must inevitably fall short. But some images—some metaphors—can take more stretching than others. Is this one of them? Yes! In part because it’s not one image—light in darkness. I mean we might each have an image—one image, but there are so many different ways of envisioning light in darkness and so many of them illuminate various insights—offer various prayers. So I invite you this morning into some reflection on light (get it—reflection on light?!)—light in darkness. This is by no means intended as any kind of exhaustive list—just one to get us thinking … and associating.

You all ever had that experience where you stand in the dark, and you can’t see a thing. Then someone lights a candle? And after a moment or two, someone comments on how much that little light shines—how much of the darkness it illuminates. And maybe you sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

I think I’ve mentioned before, in college, climbing Old Rag mountain in Madison County, Virginia—climbing 3,291 with a friend and his dog by the light of the full moon. In the dark, it doesn’t take much light at all to make a tremendous difference.

The other week, Greg, Heike and I spent part of a day, a night and part of the next day at Lillian’s farmhouse. And if you have a tripod (and the wind isn’t blowing too hard!), you can take a picture from her dock across the Choptank River, and if you leave the shutter open long enough, the distant lights of Easton will give you a picture you can’t see with the naked eye. It’s a powerful affirmation: if we can muster but a little consistent light in our living (a little love, a little compassion, a little grace, a little forgiveness), it effects far more than we might ever suspect. Because over time, exposure to but the smallest levels of light is illuminating. You see “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” isn’t always some brave brightness, but even an imperceptible-in-the-moment kind of little light.

That might be good news for some of us—not to have to pray for a brilliant, dazzling, radiantly luminous living, but for just enough consistency to make a difference? Not as an excuse, mind you, for doing less, but as a good word for doing enough. Might also be a warning not to judge—if light we can’t even see makes such a potential difference?

Now we might think also think of spotlights—spotlights from below. I think of several of them swiveling together in intricate, synchronized choreography at some grand opening: a club, a restaurant, a movie. What would it be like if all the churches of a community got them for Christmas Eve? Imagine light dancing up from Woodbrook and Brown Memorial Presbyterian, Church of the Redeemer Episcopal, Rodgers Forge United Methodist, St. Pius Catholic, Central Presbyterian, and Ascension Lutheran. And maybe the focus might thus be less on the particular churches and their differences and more on the event and the God they all try and honor and celebrate. Imagine that! “Thank you God for the story that transcends any and all tellings of it—and is honored less in argument about detail than in unison celebration of all light.”

Conversely we might think of a spotlight from above, from a helicopter, let’s say, flying overhead—a solitary beam of light penetrating the darkness, probing, searching. A more disconcerting—certainly a less comfortable image. What are they looking for? Who are they looking for? Why? Should I worry about this? There are dangerous possibilities to this image. Is God looking for the lost? Or God looking at the hiding? Does the spotlight from above find me wanting to be found or wanting to stay hidden?

I was talking to Dad this past week, and he remembered words he used in a sermon at Cary Baptist Church in Henderson, NC and then again at the International Baptist Church in Hamm, Germany. Mind you these are words he remembers from almost 50 years now! “Under the the leaves, there is a world of scurrying things. Lift a leaf, and there is a sudden darting for the dark into subterranean passages. The little things are not afraid of being stepped on. It is light they fear.” Jesus warns at one point of things said in the dark that will be heard in the daylight—of things whispered that will be shouted from the housetops (Luke 12:3)! Illumination—revelation—not always pleasant—not always wanted. So while we might pray, “Find me, God. I am lost and want to be found”—while we might take comfort in the searching God, we might also pray, “Give me the wisdom to be known, the courage to be seen for who and how I am. Give me the strength to be loved.”

We tend to make of light in darkness a very comfortable, comforting image. But that’s putting our own parameters on the image, isn’t it? Because the light in the darkness can be, as another example, the intensity of a late night storm’s lightning. And if you’re out driving in it—out in the middle of it, it’s precisely the light in the darkness that can give you a splitting headache. In that stark black and white illumination of a landscape—the novel and disquieting impression of what should be—what normally would be—hidden—requiring a new focus on seeing—an intensity of looking that’s painful.

So we might pray, “Disconcert us, God, with visions of a different way of seeing. Remind us of the intensity required to see with your eyes. Remind us that we are not here to enjoy the view, but to cultivate the discipline necessary to journey into the light and see what others might not.”

Thinking of driving (through the storm), another image of the light shining in the dark is the light of a car’s headlights—the light that illuminates the way ahead. It’s an image of trust, isn’t it? Not knowing what lies ahead, but trusting that the way continues before us and that it will be illuminated at the right time. “Let me see enough of your way in and for this moment, God, trusting my future to you and your way.”

Makes me think of the story of the woman given a lantern and told to make her way in the dark. “But I can’t see where I’m going!” she protests. Comes the response, “You can see the few steps in front of you, and when you get there you’ll see the next few steps. Just keep moving!”

Of course, there’s also the story about the man left in the darkness who bitterly questions his master’s judgment, but is told, “I didn’t leave you in the dark. I left you in the dark looking for the light.” And we might imagine praying, “All I have is the thought that thing should be different—the wish that things were other than they are. I’m looking for an alternative to what is. Sustain my searching, God.”

There’s a verse I love from the Gospel of Thomas, related to verses in the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) —a verse in which Jesus says: “Come to know what is in front of you, and that which is hidden from you will become clear to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not become manifest.”

Let’s see, that all started with the image of driving and following your own headlights beaming ahead. But there are also the lights of other drivers. Ever noticed that it’s at night, on the road, that everyone is known just by their light. On the road at night, we are all children of light. But then we run into all the lights of traffic coming back from Thanksgiving on I-95 and find ourselves really wishing we were alone with our light in the dark and didn’t have to deal with anyone else! And that can be church too, can’t it? Driving and community are often the discipline of accepting the others on the way with us.

There’s the distant light of airplanes in the sky that always makes me wonder who’s up there and where they’re going. I wonder what they do and what they want and what they dream. A distant light that somehow reminds me I’m connected to them up there; they’re connected to me down here—even if we never know each other.

There’s the even more distant light of falling stars—not to mention the stars and planets. There’s the fact that you sometimes have to get away from our lights to see those lights. Reminders of the bigness of creation. Reminders of what is made not by our hands.

I guess we should include the sun at this point—the fullness of light that illuminates everything—except the shadows created by the light. Light so intense you can’t look at it—like Moses unable to look at the fullness of the glory of God—like walking into Fellowship Hall on a Wednesday afternoon when the sun angles through the upper windows and there are places you’re just blinded. That’s a popular light image for God—not the light shining in the darkness, but the light that chases the darkness away. One image—one good image, but one image among many.

Our psalm this morning repeats the imagery of God shining, and there’s the hymn “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” a favorite of many here. Okay, and at the risk of effecting your view of that hymn, I can picture God shining (like the sun), and Jesus (with a transfiguration kind of thing going on), but I must confess, when I think of people shining, I think of sweaty people … bald heads … heavily made-up faces, or I think of body-builders, all oiled up. And there are the flourescent, neon lights of commerce designed not so much to shine in the darkness as to stand out even in the lights. And do too many Christians and churches focus on that? We want to stand out among those of our kind—the light that tries to outdo light.

There are always the warm, soft lights of hearth and home. Driving just the other night, admiring the candles in windows that some people put out this time of the year, I was considering how that was different from windows simply lit from the light within. I love the candles, but wondered if maybe I should concentrate on seeing the lights of life and love throughout the year.

There’s playing under the lights which may make you think of the Ravens or the Orioles and the prayers they prompt, but also makes me think of our church softball team and prayers that have less to do with winning and more to do with gratitude for fun and fellowship and the opportunity to play together—and not because we’re bad!

There’s the celebration of fireworks. And the guidance and direction traffic lights offer. The flashing lights of the police or the ambulance—the fire truck that you either really want to see or really don’t!

There’s light reflected—deep into the darkness of a wet street—the traffic lights. The sun on a river—the ocean. Light reflected off clouds, trees, flowers, houses. There’s that Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the light of the already set sun reflecting off the wing of a bird flying high above.

We have a host of different images with a host of different connotations. And maybe it takes a host to sing glory to God! And suddenly there was with the image, a host of images praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest!”

Such a simple image: light in darkness. But so very rich. So very illuminating! So varied. So differently relevant. A simple, but good gift for us at Advent. Marsha Garrison, thinking about Sunday School, posted on Facebook just this morning, “Just when you think there is no light left at all, we come to Advent.”

So some of us may feel like celebrating this morning. Some of us may need to embrace the idea of the light that searches us out or the warm light of having found a home within relationship and love. Others the light that sears an alternate view of the world into our awareness. Some may look for the trust that only comes from following the light into and through the darkness. And it’s the promise of the saturation of all that is with the light of the daybreak from on high some of us most need affirmed today.

It’s the first Sunday of Advent. God’s simple gifts surround us—promising to fulfill our being.

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