A sermon for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Throughout this season of Advent, each week we hear a selection from the book of Isaiah. And I know you already know this—you’re top-notch Biblical scholars—and at the very least you’ve probably heard me preach on Isaiah before. But I think it never hurts to do a little review.
Isaiah lived in time of great difficulty for the people of Israel. The once great nation had declined; the nation of the great King David and the wise King Solomon, unified under their rule, was no more. The people had forgotten God; they had strayed from God’s ways, and they were living a life of division, corruption, greed, faithlessness, and injustice. They had forgotten to love their neighbor; they had forgotten to take care of the widows and orphans; they had forgotten to treat the foreigners in their midst as if they were citizens; they had forgotten to treat each person with dignity and respect as the image of God in which they were made. They had forgotten the ways of justice and peace and mercy and grace and love that God teaches in the commandments. And so God let them decline; God let them face the consequences of their action, even to the point of allowing the Babylonians to come in and to scatter them into exile. It was a very dark time for the people of Israel: a time of sorrow and lament and grief. “They sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept”, wrote the psalmist during these years.
And into this darkness, God sent Isaiah to do two things: first God sent Isaiah to diagnose the problem; to tell the people that the reason this had happened was because they had permitted and they had committed injustice; that they had strayed from God; that this feeling of abandonment was because of that. And second, God sent Isaiah to offer them hope, to let them know that God had not actually abandoned them; that God was still with them through it all.
“Hope—that thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without any words and never stops at all”, as Emily Dickinson wrote in that famous poem. During the season of Advent we hear selections from Isaiah that are all about this hope. Hope that the world will be transformed; that this darkness was not permanent. Transformation such as the mountain of God rising up above all the mountains; the mountain the people could not see anymore in their exile; the mountain of God in which they were no longer at would rise up and the nations would stream to it. Transformation as the desert bloomed abundantly, and the sand turned to pools of water to quench their thirst in the parchness of the wilderness in which they lived. Hope that the lame would leap like deer, and that the speechless would sing songs of joy; hope that the predator and the prey would rest and play and eat together in peace, and that a little child would lead them, as we heard in today’s installment.
Each of these messages of hope that Isaiah was sent by God to deliver was a candle lit in the darkness of their exile, of their despair. And these words of hope that Isaiah preached are a light in the midst of the darkness of this season and of our own lives. We cannot control the darkness; life is full of darkness. Individually in death and pain and illness and challenge and difficulty, and collectively as a community, we do and will experience darkness. We cannot control that darkness, but we can control the light. We can light candles of hope to brighten this world. That is Advent: While the world literally gets darker and darker as we move towards the solstice, every week we light more and more candles as we approach that time. We resist the darkness with light, with hope, with love.
Several years ago my family started a tradition of eating dinner during Advent primarily by the light of our Advent wreath. That first week is dark—one candle. But by Second Advent, by tonight, we’re going to double the light at our meal, double the light in our life as we light that second candle. And by the time you reach Fourth Advent, you are basking in the abundance of light—the light of four whole candles to lighten your meal.
We are sent by God, like Isaiah, to light candles in this world, to brighten it. Each of us individually is sent out into this world wherever we go—in our work, in our home, in our lives, in whatever communities we may belong to – to bring hope to people, to bring love and grace and mercy to enlighten the darkness, to shine hope.
And that’s what we’re trying to do here as a community, also. Every meal that we serve at the Saturday Breakfast is a candle lit in the life of the darkness of someone. Every warm greeting, every smile given to our guests when we treat them with dignity and respect at that meal is a candle lit in the darkness. Every Ho! Ho! Ho! Stocking that you fill is going to be a candle brought to a little child who’d otherwise have a dark Christmas. Every time we gather together as a community, we are shining more light. Every prayer we offer is light that we are sending out into the darkness.
We are sent to enlighten the world, and as we light our Advent candles this season, and as we light our candles of hope in the world, we prepare ourselves and this world for the brightest of all the lights: the light that came into the world, the light that darkness cannot overcome, the light embodied in a person, in a child born in a manger, Jesus Christ, our Lord, a little Child who will lead us in all hope. Hold on to this hope, and continue to enlighten the world everywhere you go.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, I leave you this week to ponder a question: what candle are you going to light?