December 31, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
The rest of the world is busy packing up Christmas for another year, but we still have it out on full display around here. The tree isn’t still up just because Nancy and Phebe and the rest of the Worship Committee and their crew haven’t gotten around to taking it down. The garland and the red bows are going to stay up for another week. We are still singing Christmas carols. The candles circling around the wreath over there still proclaim what they announced last Sunday night during our service of lessons, carols, and light: that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The light shines in the darkness; the power of God is powerful enough to overcome every shadow of fear and every pit of hopelessness. God has come to us, bringing to us the things that we could never earn, never acquire, never accomplish, and never find all on our own. We are still reveling in what God has brought, and we are still telling ourselves the story of just how it happened. In the church, we are still talking about the frightened parents, the humble circumstances, the shepherds and the barn animals, and the angels and their song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among all people.”
We are spending a little bit more time than the world spends on the whole story because we have to make sense of it. That is why this section of Isaiah’s writings we just read is useful to us today: because it helps us make sense not only of what happened in that stable in Bethlehem on that silent and holy night, and it helps us to see what we are supposed to do about it.
The prophet Isaiah, of course, wrote these poetic lines of praise several hundred years before Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and angels and all the rest were around. He wrote in a time when God’s people were not thinking existentially about being saved from sin and death or thinking therapeutically about being saved from fear and feelings of hopelessness. They were thinking about the very real problems they had been saved from: conquest, exile, alienation, and chaos. God had just brought them through one of the most difficult times in their history, they had finally won after being defeated so many times with such awful consequences, and they felt all of the feelings that one might feel at such a time.
They were also keenly aware that they would never have been able to accomplish their victory and their restoration all on their own. They did not save themselves because they could not save themselves. God had saved them. Isaiah found some metaphors to describe their feelings and their deliverance. It is like a bridegroom and a bride getting ready for their wedding celebration: they could never get dressed up in all of their elaborate clothes and jewels without help from their friends and family, who create the adornments and help them put them on. Or it is like a sprout coming forth from a crack in the earth. The gardener can till the soil, plant the seeds, make sure there is enough water and no birds or squirrels around. But still, there is something else that causes the shoot to spring up, and that something else is just a part of the natural order as God created it; the transformation of the dry seed into the verdant sprout is beyond the power of the gardener, but is simply a gift from God.
So it was with God’s people and their victory. All they could do was to praise God for what God had done. Isaiah said, “my whole being shall exult in my God.” His whole being: he would sing with his voice, and he would dance with his body. He would take in a deep breath of salvation with his lungs, and he would pump righteousness to every limb and every digit with his heart. He would look for God’s work with his eyes, he would listen for it with his ears, and he would reach out for it with his fingers; he would even taste God’s work, and smell it. And he would engage his mind, too, in contemplating what God had done for him and his people, and he would pay attention to his soul to let it feel deeply what it is like to be drawn nearer to God.
But that exultation, that moment of being swept up in awe and wonder, was not where Isaiah would stop. In celebrating what God has done, it is not enough to revel in the glow of a hundred candles, calm and bright and radiating heavenly peace. That was important, but it was not enough. The prophet went on: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch.” God’s acts to save God’s people are powerful, but they don’t really mean anything until they are shared. If he doesn’t tell other people about them, Isaiah said, they would simply be private moments of loveliness, but have no real power in the world. But when the stories are told, and when God’s work is amplified through the prophet’s own voice, then they gain their power. Again, Isaiah used metaphors: it is like the sun peaking up over the horizon at dawn, obliterating any sign of duskiness or gray with its pink and orange and golden spectrum of color. It is like the burning torch which clears a path through the obscurity and guides the traveler to a safe and warm place. The prophet’s sharing of the story of God coming to God’s people, of God saving God’s people, is like a light shining in the darkness of the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
God’s acts to save God’s people, whether it is from their enemies who conquered them or whether it is from the overwhelming feelings of fear and hopelessness. But the power of those acts of God coming ever nearer and ever nearer to us is never revealed if we simply hold them as private, personal moments of loveliness. They gain their power when they are shared. They become what they are meant to be when they are proclaimed. They shine like light in the darkness when we steadfastly refuse to keep silent. They burn like a torch and radiate like the rising sun when we say with Isaiah, “I will not rest until God’s acts shine.”
In Isaiah’s words, this season of Christmas finds its meaning and its power; it becomes something more than just a tree and some garland left up a little too long because the worship committee hasn’t gotten around to packing it away just yet. In this season of Christmas, we gaze on the tree and the garland, we repeat the sounding joy of the carols, and we contemplate why those candles are still burning with the proclamation of Christmas: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And then, if we do it right, we ask ourselves what we are going to do about it. We exult in that moment, sure: we recall in our bodies and our minds and our spirits what it felt like to sing of the heavenly peace which was born that night in that baby. But we also must refuse to stop there. Like Isaiah, we must refuse to keep silent, and we must get up from our rest. We must make a commitment to amplify the story, again and again, of what God has done in delivering God’s people, in saving us from sin and death, and in overcoming all fear and all hopelessness. We must speak hope into the world’s despair. We must work against that which is dusky and gray which is all that so many people see when they look around them; we must clear a path through the obscurity that so many people find themselves in to places of safety and warmth.
But now, let’s get real: so often, folks think it is the Pastor’s job to proclaim the good news and talk about what God has done. Or maybe folks think it is the job of the Sunday school teachers, or of the choir, or of the Elders or the Deacons, to make sure that people hear a message about what God has done to deliver God’s people. Or maybe it is the church’s job to frame that message about God coming close to us, as if the church is something separate from the people who make it up. But Isaiah’s song shows otherwise. The church is nothing more than the people, the leaders here have no more responsibility to share the good news about what God is doing than any of the rest of us, and really anyone who has rejoiced in what God has done has everything she or he needs to share that joy and hope with others.
And often, even if we see it as our job to speak of what God has done to the world’s fear and hopelessness, we get tangled up in the questions of how to say it. But there is no one right way. In some situations, the best way to deliver the word those folks need to hear right now is through an e-mail or a Facebook message; maybe it is through a public speech or even a sign you can put on your front lawn or office door. Sometimes, though, the best way to speak of God’s acts to the fear and hopelessness is through a personal phone call, or through a letter, or perhaps with an invitation to a cup of coffee or lunch. Sometimes, the word of hope someone needs to hear will explicitly name Jesus, and sometimes it comes with a different vocabulary altogether that still shares some good news that God is moving toward creation, God sees us as more righteous than we can ever be on our own, that God can and will save us from anything that we need to be saved from. Sometimes the word best spoken to fear is a word of praise, directing the other person’s attention away from their problems and troubles and toward the beauty, love, justice, and promise that only God can create.
Christmas finds its power when we refuse to keep silent. We have to take on the responsibility of speaking of God’s acts; we have to find the right way to communicate to the fear and hopelessness that keep so many people living in the dark. So I want you to think for a minute: who do you know whose fear is making them lost? Who do you know who needs a word of hope right now? Think about the people you know at your work, in your neighborhood, in your family, and among your friends; think about the people you encounter regularly enough that you know when they are having a hard time. Maybe it’s a whole crowd of people: your whole team, everyone who comes to your neighborhood meeting, your whole women’s circle or men’s group, maybe even this whole church. Or maybe it’s an individual, with whom a more intimate conversation is appropriate. But who do you know that needs some light shining into their darkness?
And how are you going to deliver the message of God’s acts to save God’s people? How are you going to share the praise which has welled up within you as you have heard this story again of the frightened family, the humble circumstances, the shepherds and cattle and angels and “Glory!” How will you amplify the message that God is coming ever nearer to us? Think about that person or those people you know again. Do you need to offer them encouragement or reassurance? Do you need to tell them a story? Do you need to simply spend time with them, just listening and affirming them in their struggles? Do you need to offer them advice, or do you need to refrain from offering advice, because there are way too many people already in their lives telling them what to do or what not to do? What will you do to make hope shine like the dawn for that person? What will you do to overwhelm their fears, like a torch overwhelms the darkness of the night? I want you to think for a minute about what you are going to do…
“I will not keep silent…I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn and [his] salvation like a burning torch.” As we travel through the rest of this season of Christmas, I pray that we might all make that commitment. I pray that we might speak to the people around us in ways that communicate that God is coming ever closer to us with those gifts that we cannot earn or create for ourselves, but only God can give. I pray that we might bring the light of what God has done to deliver us into the shadows of fear and hopelessness. I pray that we will not keep silent.