Amanda and I have a longstanding, ongoing prank that we have pulled on each other since we were first married. We like to scare the you-know-what out of each other. And this particular prank works best in the dark. It all began, when Amanda and I were newlyweds. We lived in this small, one bedroom, third-floor apartment. It was set up so that the dining room and living room were on the other side of a wall from where the kitchen and the master bedroom were. Our nightly routine before going to bed was to shut out all of the lights in the living room, and then turn the corner to take a hallway to our bedroom.
Well, one night, all of the lights in the apartment were already turned off except for the living room. So, I led the way around the corner towards the bedroom while Amanda was a couple of steps behind me turning off lamps and lights. But instead of continuing to the bedroom, I stopped in the darkened hallway. When Amanda had switched off the rest of the lights and turned the corner expecting me to be further down the hall, I was actually standing right there, hidden in the dark. When she was right up on me I roared like a monster. Amanda, not expecting me to be there, crumbled onto the floor into a heaping mess of tears and laughter. And thus, began our prank war.
The back and forth between us waxes and wanes at times, but we just can’t seem to stop scaring the crap out of each other. Even recently, we were preparing for bed and I had just finished washing my hands in our guest bathroom. The house was dark and I heard Amanda walking in my direction. So, I turned off the light and waited. As soon as she crossed in front of the darkened bathroom, I roared. She was so scared she literally clawed at the wall trying to climb up it to get away from the danger. I mean, the darkness is already intimidating on it’s own, much less when a pesky husband wants to scare his wife. Also, I want to note that this is my sermon so I’m only telling you about my favorite times scaring Amanda. If you want to hear about when she’s scared me, you’ll have to ask her yourself.
And isn’t it interesting, that as children we would see the places and situations that look innocent enough in the light of day become places of terror in the darkness of night? In the daytime, under the bed was where toys, shoes, dust bunnies and dirty laundry seemed to hide. Yet, at night, it became a hideout for monsters and trolls whose job it was to reach up and grab us when we least expected it. In the daytime, the closet was where we hung our clothes (sometimes) and stored all of our stuff, right? But at night, it was a doorway to an unknown, frightening world where creatures lurked and children were in constant danger.
It’s a good thing, expect for the occasional spousal scare prank, that becoming adults has cured us from being afraid of the dark. Or has it? A child’s fear of the dark is universal. And if we’re being honest, many of us still feel uneasy in the dark. Maybe we walk from one streetlight to the next. Maybe we take a quicker pace through a dim alley. Maybe we wonder if the thing in the dark backyard is something that will hurt us. Maybe the darkness feels suffocating because it seems to be the place we feel the most vulnerable, alone, scared, and exposed. Whether it’s being afraid of the dark as children, making sure that we don’t have a leg or a hand hanging over the edge of the bed for the monster that lives underneath to grab, or a prank war with your spouse where you try to scare each other at night, we all feel the effects of the fear that comes with darkness, don’t we?
We all have fears. We might not think there is a monster under the bed or a troll in the closet, but we do have fears that go through our heads late at night. I know for me, when the lights are out and the children are safely tucked into bed, the fears I wrestle with come out and torment me. Did I get done all I needed to do today? Did I support Amanda as much as I should have, even if I do scare her from time to time? Was I patient enough with my kids and did I look them in the eyes instead of at my phone? Did I pay attention long enough to see the sunset or a neighbor in need? Did I treat everyone I met today with the love of God rather than with arrogance or judgment? When will I ever get a chance to slow down and enjoy this one precious life? Am I enough? Where is God in the darkness and chaos of my life when I clearly see the monsters, but I don’t see the presence of the divine?
You see, in the light of day I feel that I can navigate pretty well through the messy maze of life – taking out the trash, doing many loads of laundry, going to the kids’ basketball games, going to this meeting and that appointment, reading my Bible, visiting someone in the hospital, studying and writing and studying some more. All of this feels doable in the daytime. It’s easy to keep the scary stuff at arm’s length during the day when we are too busy to think, to pray, to rest, to dream. But when our world slows down a little, when darkness falls, that’s when the fears creep in. The fears of failing health and diminishing finances and suffering loved ones and wars with enemies and lying leaders and hurtful encounters rush into our lives, our hearts, our minds, our very souls. And we become scared and anxious and exposed. Does it always have to be this way? When will God create light in the darkness and bring order to chaos?
We are not alone in feeling this. The early Hebrews experienced the fear of darkness, as well, and that is the world into which the prophet Isaiah came. You see, the people of Israel were living under the darkness of oppression. They felt the weight of the empire, the Babylonian powers, and the Assyrian powers, and eventually Roman powers. They probably felt fear all of the time. But the good news that the prophet Isaiah announced to the people of God was that God was sending a king who was coming to bring light into their darkness. And that wasn’t just some pie-in-the-sky promise. The prophet looked forward to the birth of an actual king who would bring freedom into their captivity, who would bring justice to set right the wrongs, and who would lift the yoke of oppression from weary shoulders.
We aren’t sure if that king actually came and if Israel actually got relief. But what we do know is that into the darkness of their oppression, God brought light. And we see that light all throughout the Hebrew Bible. God’s presence as light was very real to the people of Israel. The Psalmist said, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” God’s presence as light was always accompanied by salvation, by freedom from oppression. And it is the light of God’s presence that dispels the fear of darkness.
And we know that light doesn’t get rid of darkness totally. The night still comes. The darkness still comes. But what the light does is dispel the fear of darkness. In the same way, God’s presence doesn’t always turn the night into day and the chaos into order. God’s presence doesn’t always make the pain lessen or the burnout better. The things in this world that cause oppression, injustice, and pain will always persist. But God’s presence persists even brighter. God’s presence lifts the fear itself and remind us that whatever we may have to suffer in this life is not the ultimate truth of our lives. God’s truth is that when we follow and do the work of God, we are beloved and brought into beloved community. When we are sitting in darkness, the presence of God and the love of our community brings light!
Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and to those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” That’s the message we need today, isn’t it? We want to no longer sit in the darkness of prejudice, greed, pain, and hate. We want the shadow of death to leave us alone and the light and hope of God to dawn in our lives. We want this to be true, more than anything. We want to believe that the light that brought order to chaos at the beginning of creation will find us and illuminate us so that the dark nights don’t feel so forbidding and frightening.
Don’t we need the light? Don’t we need for all of the places of hurt and fear and pain in our lives to be more manageable? Because, in the end, the moments of darkness will continue to come. The medical reports will still come, the divorces will still happen, our children will still make poor decisions, anger will still burn among friends. And we will become afraid all over again when the darkness takes over our lives once more. And we will look back at the ancient scripture and yearn for it to be talking about us. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Those of us sitting in darkness have actually seen the light. The light is with us, we simply need to open our eyes and reach out in hope to the Light of Life, to the bright star that leads the way, to the burning bush that dances always if we would just approach it.
And that’s what we get in the Gospel Lesson for today highlighting Jesus’ first mission. Jesus had just experienced the arrest of his cousin, John, the friend who baptized him and drew out the voice of God in his life, the voice calling him beloved. And it was after this that Jesus retreated into the isolation, the wilderness, and the fear of the darkness. And I think it was in this dark night of the soul for Jesus that he leaned into the light of God. Jesus realized that the light of God, brought into the world through him, was a light of hope, a light of strength. Jesus knew that following him into the way of God was the only light that could not be overcome by the darkness or snuffed out by the winds of change that constantly blow through our lives. And it is in the light of Christ, when we follow Christ, and add our own light to a hurting world, add our own love to the shadow of death, that we begin to see the world transformed into beloved community, that fewer and fewer people will sit in darkness.
“There was a story about a church that was built way in the highest mountains of Switzerland. It was a beautiful church that had been built with great care by the villagers who lived nearby. But there was one thing that the church didn’t have. It didn’t have any lights. You couldn’t just go into the church and switch on the lights like we would be accustomed here. Yet, every Sunday evening the people who lived on the mountain-side opposite the tiny church saw something remarkable happen. The church bell would ring and worshippers would make their way up the mountainside towards the church. They would enter the church and then all of a sudden, the church would light up brightly. Why do you think that happened?”
“You see, the people had to bring light with them – so they brought lanterns. When they arrived at church they would light their lanterns and hang them around the church on pegs set into the walls, so the light would spread all around and all through the church. If only a few people came to church the light would be very dim because there would only be a few lanterns. But when lots of people came to the church there would be plenty of light.”
“After the service the villagers would take their lanterns home. At this time, to those who watched from a distance, it was as if a stream of light poured out of the church and over the mountainside. For many it was a sign that all was well. God’s light was with them and in them and among them. The only time the little church lit up was when people were there. That’s when it truly became a church. That’s when the light shone most brightly.”
And that’s why Jesus told his first followers, “Hear the good news: ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.’” Because that is the message for us, this morning. We are to follow God’s light and be light in the world. And like new, green plants which grow instinctively toward the sun, our exposure to the true light of Jesus calls us to grow toward him, to live in the warmth of his love, to learn who we are and how to use the gifts and talents God has given us to ‘catch people,’ to be fishers of people, to love people, to bring the light of love into the dark corners of this world and into the hurting lives of others. As we follow Jesus, we are transformed and made new. As we follow, we are no longer alone or afraid. As we follow, we can grow into who God wants us to be. As we follow, we no longer stay in our fears and failures and faults. We are followers of Jesus now! And no longer do we sit in darkness.