Sunday, November 27, 2016
Sermon: Walking in the Light
Walking in the Light
James Sledge November 27, 2016
Well, we have arrived. On the secular calendar, at least, we are officially in the Christmas season. The Thanksgiving parades have passed by with Santa at the tail end, and no one can complain that it’s too early for Christmas or decorations at the mall.
When I was growing up, this was the time when genuine excitement about Christmas would kick in, when my brother and I would start to dream about what gifts would make for a perfect Christmas morning. We were raised in the church and attended Sunday School most every week, so we knew all about the “real” Christmas story with Mary and Joseph and a manger. It was a warm and beautiful story, very much a part of our family’s Christmas traditions, but that story had almost nothing to do with the excitement I felt as Christmas neared. If Christmas was going to change my life, make it better or happier in some way, it wasn’t going to be because of Jesus. It was going to be because of Santa, or at least some of his “helpers.”
I’m reasonably sure that my experience was not that unusual. Jesus may be “the reason for the season,” but most of our hopes at Christmas are not really about Jesus or Christian faith. We’re not much expecting all that much from Jesus or faith in this season. If Christmas is going to provide any magic, it will likely be through some moments of goodwill, the warmth of nostalgia, families gathered together, and the joy of children.
These last two help explain why not many will be here if you come to worship on Christmas, one of those dreaded years when it falls on a Sunday. Many, and I don’t exclude myself, would just as soon spend the morning at home with loved ones, enjoying the delight of children opening their gifts, or simply remembering such delight as we open our own.
Now if you’re worried that I’m about to get on a rant about how we’ve lost the real meaning of Christmas or how we need to de-commercialize it, you needn’t. I’m all for simplifying and toning down the conspicuous consumerism. But I think that we invest so much into the Christmas season because it speaks to some deep longings that we have, longings for goodwill among people, for families and communities to be united, for us to know once more the joy and hopefulness and even naiveté of children.
Such longings are hardly exclusive to Christians which is one of the reasons that Christmas appeals to many outside the Church. For a moment, the world can feel a little kinder, a little more joyful, a little more hopeful. For a few weeks, we can get caught up in something and at least imagine a slightly better world.
Our scripture this morning says, The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw… I usually think of hearing a word, but Isaiah saw this one. He’s given a vision that he shares, but the vision is not about weapons transformed into farming implements. That happens because of the vision. What Isaiah sees is Mount Zion raised up higher than anything else and people from all nations streaming to God’s Temple.
There God does two things: teaches and arbitrates between peoples. People are taught the ways of Yahweh so that they can follow them. Instruction, Torah, goes out from Zion. God also judges between the nations. And because God does these things, because all people know God’s ways and because God settles disputes between nations, war ceases to be necessary. There is no longer a need to learn war.
As we enter into the season of Advent, into a season of waiting and expecting and preparing, I find myself wondering about just what we are awaiting and getting ready for, just what it is that we long for. Can we hope and prepare and long for something more than a good Christmas? Or is that the best we can manage? I’m asking myself as much as any of you. Sometimes it feels like it would be a success if we simply managed to be a little nicer to one another, a little more caring and kinder, for most of December.
But other days, I have a little more faith. On those days, I am able to hope, even to trust, that God is faithful. Not that God will make everything wonderful and happy, but that the future does belong to God, that finally, history will be bent to God’s will.
On those days when my faith is a little stronger, I can hear the prophet calling me to learn God’s ways and walk in them. I can hear Jesus calling us to follow him as disciples, learning his ways and sharing them with others.
Some of you are familiar with Diana Butler Bass, who has written a number of books found in our library, and who happens to live just down the road in Alexandria. Like many, she’s been horrified by how hate has been stoked in the recent election, how hate groups have felt empowered. But the other day on her Facebook page, she posted a more hopeful note.
She writes, “This morning, a Muslim vendor at the local farmers market cheered me up. She was amazing. ‘There's nothing new here,’ she said. ‘It is just all in the open now. And that's an opportunity for good people to do good.’” Or as the prophet Isaiah might say, “It’s an opportunity to walk in the light of the Lord.” Or as Jesus might say, “It’s an opportunity to live as my disciples.”
Of course that gets us back to the issue of teaching and instruction and Torah. And that’s not just an Old Testament thing. When the risen Jesus commissions the Church at the very end of Matthew’s gospel, he says that disciples are made by two things, by baptism and by “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
This Advent season, let us prepare by recommitting ourselves to being shaped and formed by Jesus’ commandments, by God’s instruction so that we can walk in the light of the Lord and give the world a small glimpse of the new day God will bring.