Sunday’s sermon: A Glimmer of Hope

darkness

Text used – Isaiah 2:1-5

  • “The Neverending Story” is a classic kids’ movie from the 1980s.
    • Basic plotline
      • Features Sebastian – kid who enjoys life in books more than his real life → “borrows” a very special book from a rare books store called The Neverending Story → takes it to school where he hides away for the day (not in class!) and begins reading
      • Story = epic tale of child warrior who sets out to save his land from a force that is destroying it piece by piece → force simply known as “The Nothing” – gaining speed and strength as the story progresses
      • The magic happens when Sebastian discovers that, as he is reading The Neverending Story, he is also becoming a part of the Neverending Story. The characters in the book can hear him when he speaks out loud or cries out.
    • Now, for our purposes this morning, I have to tell you about the ending of this movie. I hope I’m not ruining anything for you.
      • Turns out The Nothing = children’s lack of belief in magic and wishes → eating away at the world of imagination
      • The Nothing eventually ends up destroying Fantasia → After the destruction, there’s a scene in which the empress of Fantasia and Sebastian are standing together in total darkness. The empress explains to Sebastian that Fantasia has been completely destroyed and that the one, glowing grain of sand that she holds in her palm is all that’s left of the once-beautiful world. When Sebastian finds himself face-to-face with the empress in this place of darkness and nothingness, the first thing he asks her why it’s so dark. The empress replies, “Because in the beginning, it is always dark.”

neverending-story-scene

  • Friends, we are in the beginning again. We are in a time of waiting … of watching … of darkness and light, of anticipation and hope, of wonder and joy and holy ground. Can you feel it? As Paul says in Romans, “The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation.”[1]
    • Waiting for the Messiah
    • Waiting for the Christ-child
    • Waiting for God to come down and take on flesh – to share with us in all that it means to be a living, breathing, aching, rejoicing human being
    • And God is indeed coming! That’s what this whole season of Advent is about – waiting, watching, hoping, revealing. So throughout this Advent season, as we wait and watch and hope for God’s ultimate revelation in the birth of Christ, we’re going to do so listening to the voice of the prophet Isaiah – a voice declaring that anticipatory hope and promising God’s revelation in a time of painful waiting and watching.
  • Context for the section of Isaiah
    • Prophet during time of war
      • Nation of Israel = split into 2 different kingdoms
        • Northern kingdom: Israel
        • Southern kingdom: Judah
      • Israel has forced Judah into tenuous alliance with Assyrian empire → backfires when Assyrians attack Judean capitol: Jerusalem
    • In the face of this betrayal and the ensuing assault, King Ahaz turns to the prophet Isaiah for guidance and wisdom and a word from God. → our Scripture today is part of Isaiah’s response
      • Promise of elevation – text: In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of the mountains. It will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it.[2] → double meaning
        • About prestige – about God’s mountain being higher than all the rest and about God reigning over all
        • Also about safety – the higher your stronghold, the harder it was for your enemies to sneak up on you
        • Both a testament to God’s power and a reminder to the people – a people in fear for their own personal safety as well as their nation’s safety – of who they are and whose they are: reminder that they are God’s people
      • Promise of God’s guidance and security – text: Many nations will go and say, “Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion; the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.[3]
      • Promise of God’s justice and peace – text: God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.[4]
        • Especially powerful promise in the face of the war that the Israelites were embroiled in at the time → When you are in the midst of sending your husbands, your fathers, your sons off to war, what better promise can you be given than that there will be war no more? And yet that is the unsurpassable peace of God that Isaiah foretold for the people.
        • Especially powerful promise in the face of our current circumstances, too → Not all swords and spears are made of metal and wielded with the hands. Sometimes the greatest damage that we can do is with our words, as I think we’ve found out with this recent election cycle and the aftermath that followed. Words can be toxic. Words can be painful. Words can be just as assaulting and ruinous and cruel. Don’t we indeed long for a day when the swords and spears of political discourse – the mudslinging, the fact-bending, the name-calling, the grandiose-but-empty promises … don’t we indeed long for a day when all those swords and spears will be beaten into the iron plows and pruning tools of compromise, of good intentions, of working-together? Those are the tools not of war and aggression but of peace and prosperity.
  • And yet, still, we wait. In this season of Advent, this season of darkness, we wait.
    • Sometimes waiting in darkness = difficult → Very often, the analogy of “being in darkness” is used to express a negative place.
      • Place of unknowing → being “in the dark” about something = being in that place of unknowing
        • Misinformation – unintentionally “crossed wires” (either you misheard or someone else misspoke)
        • Disinformation – intentionally false information
        • Lack of information all together
      • Place of anxiety
      • Place of utter sadness/loss
      • Place of fear
    • But that doesn’t always have to be the case. That darkness in which we wait can be a place of learning, a place of strength, and even a place of exceptional grace.
      • Barbara Brown Taylor from Learning to Walk in the Dark: “Darkness” is shorthand for anything that scares me – that I want no part of – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. … The problem is this: when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life, plunged me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there really is only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.[5]
        • Certainly true from physical standpoint – our bodies need dark in order to rest and rejuvenate → Ask anyone who’s ever spent time working an overnight shift about trying to get their full 8 hrs of sleep during the daylight!
        • More to the point: true from a spiritual standpoint → If we didn’t have those places of fear, of anxiety, of falling to our knees not because we want to but because we cannot help it … if we didn’t have those times in which the only way forward was by relying on God to get us there, what would our faith look like?
          • One of my favorite Scripture verses – James: My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.[6]
          • If it weren’t for the dark places, would we recognize that light? Would we understand it for the glorious, life-giving, soul-sustaining power that it is?
        • As the empress said to Sebastian, “In the beginning, it is always dark.” … But that isn’t the end of the story. – rest of the scene: Empress explains that with every wish that Sebastian make, Fantasia can be remade – even more beautiful than it once was. → Out of that moment of darkness – that necessary moment of darkness – comes greater beauty and hope and power than Sebastian could have ever imagined.
  • So like Isaiah and the people of Judah, we wait. We wait in anticipatory hope for the birth of a Savior. We wait in anticipatory hope for the coming of Emmanuel, God With Us – God With Us in the darkness as well as in the light. We wait in anticipatory hope for a tiny, vulnerable, beautiful baby boy who will carry all people in his heart and his outstretched arms. We wait in anticipatory hope for the Light of the World that is to come.
    • Explain bulb analogy → after being planted, spend time waiting in darkness for the time to emerge in all their beauty and glory
    • Explain narcissus bulbs
      • [POUR WATER INTO BOWL]
      • As we wait and hope and grow in our faith together throughout this Advent season, we will watch our narcissus bulbs grow. And hopefully, they’ll bloom on Christmas Eve.
      • Watch their roots grow downward, grounding them and feeding them
      • Watch their shoots grow upward, seeking out the light
      • And so, friends, in dark beginning of this season, let us wait and watch and hope … together. Amen.

[1] Rom 8:19.

[2] Is 2:2.

[3] Is 2:3.

[4] Is 2:4.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark. (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 2014), 4-5.

[6] Jas 1:2-4.

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