Sermon from December 3, 2017, First Sunday of Advent

Hope in the Power of Light    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
December 3, 2017   
First Sunday of Advent, Hope Sunday
Isaiah 60; Mark 13:24-37


Today’s passage in Mark addressed struggling and suffering people who were deeply divided as their social and religious institutions and whole world order seemed on the verge of collapse.  It speaks to us, too, if we suffer or struggle, or if we feel our society is irreconcilably divided and world endangered.

Advent begins in the kind of place where Bill Coffin would say, “When things seem hopeless, don’t forget to hope!”  Mark and Lisa Kutolowski, our Advent program leaders, are teaching us how to transform our fear into trust through contemplative practices.

Lisa talked at the last session about the phrase, “Hallowed be thy name.”  She said that in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the word translated as hallowed means preparing a space for something to happen, like clearing a piece of ground so a seed can sprout, or like going into an abandoned house and cleaning it so someone can live there, or like opening our heart and lungs so we can breathe.

Lisa invited us to work with that image in silent prayer.  I imagined a crowded, cluttered, Fibber McGee closet of a room inside me.  I tossed enough things aside to set a chair upright, and then I felt tired, so I sat down in it.  Something remarkable happened.  I found that I did not need to clear away anything else.  I sat in that chair amid chaos and felt deep peace descend.

Advent can be like that.  We do not have to drop out of life—just give us a quiet corner and twenty minutes, or give us a neighbor in need and a way to serve, and we can feel transformed.

In fact Jesus promises that when things are most a mess and the world seems most lost,

we will see “‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”  He says, “Beware, keep alert… keep awake.”

Jesus is echoing the prophecy of Isaiah that says,

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you
and his glory will appear over you.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice….

Advent challenges us to hope that these promises may come true, opening the opaque curtain of our hopelessness a tiny crack and letting this brilliant shaft of sunlight flood our darkened room.

Imagine your light has come.  Thick darkness covers the earth and all its peoples including you, and yet at the same time you sense that God is arising upon you, God’s grace and glory are around you, and suddenly you can see the blessing of God’s presence.  Seeing it, your heart thrills and rejoices.  You shine.

Nothing has changed in a way, it is still dark, the struggles and suffering of life continue, and yet you have a sun that does not go down, you have a full moon that no cloud obscures completely.  You have light.

What happens when we fill ourselves with all the hope a glimpse of God’s light can bring?

The great Jewish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, wrote a collection of Hanukkah stories called The Power of Light.  I know that some in this congregation love this book as much as I do.  Many of the stories take place in warm, well-lit rooms filled with delicious smells, but the title story takes place in a freezing, lightless basement where two children were slowly starving to death.

The Nazis had bombed and burned the Warsaw ghetto.  David was fourteen, and Rebecca, thirteen.

“It was winter and bitter cold outside.  For weeks Rebecca had not left the dark, partially collapsed cellar that was their hiding place, but every few days David would go out to search for food.”

One frigid day Rebecca sat shivering in the cellar, knowing that if David did not come back, she would die.  The Nazis had killed their families, and shot any survivors.  Every time David went out, they knew that they might never see each other again.  After a long while, she heard David return.  She cried out in relief and they hugged and kissed.  David reported he had found a treasure—frozen potatoes, mushrooms, cheese, a bag of candy and a surprise.

They were ravenous, but ate only a little to make it last.  Rebecca asked about the surprise.  David said, “Today is the first day of Hanukkah, and I found a candle and matches!”

David said the blessing and lit the candle, and for the first time in weeks they saw each other’s faces.  They were filthy and much thinner, but their eyes shone.  They had talked about trying to escape, but fear and the impossibility of it had held them back.  Now the light of the candle filled them with hope.  Rebecca said, “Let’s leave.”

David had a plan.  The Nazis guarded every exit from the ghetto, but he had found an entrance to a sewer. It was dangerous.  They could drown or freeze to death in the dirty water, and the sewers were full of ravenous rats, but it was their only chance.  To remain in the ghetto meant certain death.

The Hanukkah candle began to sputter.  They gathered their few belongings and the remaining food.  It was a terrible, long journey just getting to the sewer without being caught, but when they got down in it they found the water frozen and the rats gone.  They crawled for hours, resting from time to time.  Finally they heard the noise of a streetcar overhead and knew they had made it out of the ghetto.

They hoped to find Jewish partisans who were hiding in the forest beyond Warsaw.  After a week, they finally stumbled into a partisan who took them to their camp.  It was the last night of Hanukkah, and they played dreidel on a stump in the glow of a fully lit menorah.

Singer knew this story because David and Rebecca told it to him in their home in Israel one Hanukkah evening eight years later.  Their little boy was playing with the very dreidel that the partisans had played with that night in the forest.

Rebecca said, “If it had not been for that little candle David brought to our hiding place, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.  That glimmer of light awakened in us a hope and strength we didn’t know we possessed.”  That hope enabled them to journey out of suffering and struggle through a dangerous wilderness to the Promised Land.

The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, is the director of the Center for Action and Contemplation.   Rohr says that for those of us living in the bombed-out basement of depression or grief or addiction or hardship of any kind, for those of us wandering lost as strangers in a strange land, being transformed by Christ’s light “is not an abstract spiritual theory but a survival strategy,” and when “we ourselves have [suffered, changed] and been healed is [when] we are most in a position to be an effective [agent of change] for others.”  Rohr says, “Transformed people transform people.”    (from Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent p.65f)

The wisdom of Advent says go into the darkness, go into the uncomfortable silence, go into all your suffering and struggle, go into your divided and endangered world and wait, and watch.  You do not have to go with hope.  Just go and open wide, because a light is coming.  It may be just a little stub of a candle, but its flame will work a miracle.  It will give you hope where you had no hope.  It will give you strength and courage.  It will lead you to change what needs to change in your life.  The light will transform you so that you may help transform the world around you into something more like God’s realm of lovingkindness and peace.

Transformation comes by passing through whatever darkness we face to the light within and beyond it.  That journey gives a person or congregation tremendous gifts.  It gives us the power of light to use for the good and to share with others.  Transformed people transform people.  Transformed congregations serve as centers of transformation.

So if you face any kind of darkness, if you are struggling or suffering, then congratulations, then rejoice, rejoice, because Emmanuel is coming even now!  Hope in the power of light, let it change you, do what it inspires you to do, and you and this congregation will be a light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not overcome.  Let us pray in silence…


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