Jeremiah 31.7-14Psalm 147.12-20
When I was a child, I was terrified of the darkness. I can’t remember when I first realized that darkness was terrifying, but I know that up until I was in junior high school I could not sleep at night unless I had a night light. I can’t tell you what it was about the darkness that terrified me so. We didn’t live in a dangerous neighborhood; we lived on a farm far from the violence we saw on the evening news. We didn’t leave the doors unlocked at night. My parents were always very intentional in bolting the doors as we went to bed. There was nothing in the darkness that could harm me, yet simply the fear of the unknown was enough to keep me scared of what I could not see.
I remember when I was about 12 years old I happened to be visiting the older boy who lived near us, since he was the nearest neighbor who was around my age. He wanted to watch a horror movie, and though I was not a fan of horror movies, I wanted to be cool and accepted by an older peer more than I feared the violent images of a horror film. We watched the film, and before it was over I was physically ill. I spent several minutes in the bathroom as my body wretched in fearful agony and expelled my dinner. I was crying as I walked home to my parents that night, in the dark, mind you. It was a fearful journey, but I didn’t stop long enough to be scared by the darkness. I only wanted to get home as fast I could so that I could be safe in the arms of my parents.
I’m not sure I left our house for several days after seeing that film, and if I did, I was as skittish as a frightened animal. If serial killers wearing hockey masks lived outside of my neighborhood, then I certainly had no desire to ever leave my neighborhood. And so, I became a prisoner in my own home. A prisoner held captive by fear.
It’s not only children who are held captive by fear; institutions can have fears as well. The church, like a little child in so many ways, is afraid of the darkness. We are afraid of the world around us. We are afraid of being rejected by those around us who might think that we’re religious nutcases. We’re too scared to speak up when others are maligned and abused for fear we might also face such violence. We are afraid to stand up against oppressive regimes and proclaim the truth of the Prince of Peace—that violence is never redemptive. We’re too frightened to stand up for what is right, and good, and true, in a world that is becoming ever darker because we are afraid of the consequences. We allow fear to take us prisoner, and in so doing, we fail to be the light of the world Jesus has called us to be.
We cower in fear, while the Spirit of God dares us to move in faith. The Spirit commands us to shine as light in the darkness. And why shouldn’t we?
We are children of a God who called creation into existence with but a word. God spoke a word into the darkness of the primordial world and brought forth light in all corners of the universe. We believe in a God who created a people from an aged, barren couple and through them blessed all the nations of the world. We follow a God who heard the cries of God’s children anguishing under the oppressive hand of slavery in Egypt and raised up a ruler in Moses who led God’s people through the waters of the sea into a land of freedom, hope, and promise. We listen for a God who spoke words of challenge and indictment through the prophets to the leaders of a nation who didn’t give a damn about the poor in their midst; a God who reminds us always that there are consequences for our failure to care for those in need. We have been healed by a God who brought comfort those exiled in a foreign land; a God who moved kings and queens to restore a people to their land.
We are the children of a God who has never been content to be separated from God’s creation; a God who violated the boundaries between heaven and earth, becoming part of the creation itself in the form of a tiny, fragile, vulnerable baby. We follow a Savior, who though he was a humble carpenter from rural Palestine, dared to challenge the height of power and domination in the Roman Empire. We worship a Lord who gave up his very life as a common criminal, crucified on a cross, in order to teach humans a better way.
Knowing all of this, we still allow our fears to keep us from shining as light for a dark world. We come to church every Sunday and sit in our pews, lulled into complacency by the familiar rituals of our faith. This is familiar, this is comfortable, this is safe.
We worship a God, however, who inspires not only warm sentimentality, but also awe. Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers, has written:
The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.
I am always reminded of Lucy’s question to the Mr. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when she was told that Aslan was a lion.
“Is he safe,” she asked.
Mr Beaver replied, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
We are a bit like the people who were always asking Jesus for a sign to prove his identity. Jesus reminded them that they had Moses and the prophets, what more did they need? We, like them, want an assurance that if we’re going to risk something, that it won’t cost us anything. That isn’t really risk is it? I suppose it isn’t really faith either.
Aslan, the great Lion King, could teach us something about the meaning of faith. He offers his life to the White Witch in stead for Edmund, knowing that she will kill him. He does so, dimly aware of a vague promise from before the dawn of time that when a willing, innocent victim gives one’s life in place of a traitor, death itself shall be denied. Faith is stepping out and acting, uncertain of the consequences, but convinced that it is better to do something rather than set on the sidelines. Faith is something which we lack in the church today.
Think of the faith that was required for Jeremiah to speak the audacious words of hope we have heard today. The Hebrew people had been in exile for decades, and yet Jeremiah dares to promise that God will gather them up and take them home. Think of the faith that the author of Ephesians demonstrated when boldly proclaiming that God had blessed the church with every spiritual blessing under the heavens. The church was a tiny, heretical sect of Judaism at the time; hated by both Jews and Romans alike.
Our faith is a faith of bold, daring hope. Our tradition is one of people who dare to look beyond the darkness of the world, and see a light shining in the midst of it all, and dare to proclaim that one person, one small band of committed followers can, and will make a difference.
We cower in the shadows, fearing what the powers that be in the world will do to us, and yet we claim to follow One who has defeated the ultimate evil of an unjust death. Our Savior boldly proclaims that he has the power over life and death, no more shall death separate God from God’s people.
And yet, John dares to say that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Here at this table, the Word that brought creation into existence, that became the light in the darkness, stubbornly shines still. Here at this table, with an extravagant welcome to all, the Word continues to take flesh and dwell among us. As Christ’s life was a beacon of hope in a world dark with oppression and despair, so our welcome of all to this table shines as an example for all the world. This is life as God intends it to be lived. When all people are invited to sit down at a table where each will have enough to satisfy the hunger within, then, and only then, will the reign of God come on earth as in heaven.
May God give us the courage to step out and extend that welcome to all people, that we might be the light shining in the darkness of this world.
--The Rev. Wes Jamison,
2nd Sunday After Christmas,
January 2, 2005
The Rev. Wes Jamison lives on a farm near Pulaski, Virginia, and is a minister-at-large for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. He currently chairs the Open and Affirming Ministries team for GLAD (Gay, Lesbian, and Affirming Disciples) and serves on the Renewal and Nurture committee for the Virginia region. He also works as a counselor with a social service agency. He has been in the search and call process for almost four years now and has yet to receive a call. In spite of the frustration and pain, he continues to believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot and will not over come it.