LIGHT FOR THE DARK PLACES
Isaiah 9: 2-7; 42: 5-9
John 1: 1-9
DECEMBER 12, 2004
The Third Sunday in Advent
a sermon preached
the Rev. Maxwell Vines
First Baptist Church of Oakland
Telegraph Avenue at 22nd Street, Oakland, California
Darkness has always been a threat to humankind. Most of us have experienced anything from mild discomfort to outright fear of the dark. As children we were anxious about the dark; when we were older we began to wonder why this was. Was it simply because the darkness made us more vulnerable or because those who might harm us, burglars, thieves, and others of their ilk choose the dark hours to do their despicable work. What is the origin of this uneasyness? Is it simply a matter of the physical and material, the occurrence that with the revolving of earth in relation to the sun there is a period we call day and another we call night, or is there some deep psychic explanation for the fears and the apprehension in the human mind. Old troubling stories about Count Dracula and the vampires give great significance to the night whereas the coming of the morning light puts paid to the nefarious activities of the Prince of Darkness.
In earlier times the significance of the darkness was intertwined with the threat of evil. The bedouin of the desert would stand by the campfire and look out into the night, speculating on what djinn were out there eager to exercise their mischief or their magic. Among primitive African tribes and among Native Americans the night was a time of particular danger from the spirits who walked in the darkness and could harm the unwitting. Even after the coming of the Christian faith up into the middle ages the night was seen as harbinger and dwelling place of evil spirits, of witches, of hobgoblins and foul fiends. We have a reflection of this in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. I know it isn’t chic to quote Shakespeare: he’s so far back. However we quote the Bible and it’s further back. You may recall that Hamlet’s father has recently died and his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, has married the widow, Hamlet’s mother. During a walk at night on the battlements of the castle the young prince sees his father’s ghost and he learns that his uncle actually caused his father’s death. Now he begins to struggle with the problem of justice for the murderer and what he himself can do about it. He is desperate with grief and torn with guilt as he contemplates how he will expose and kill his uncle, now his stepfather. In the deep darkness nearing midnight, as he ponders his situation, he is heard to say-
‘Tis now the very witching time of night
when churchyards yawn
and Hell itself breathes out
contagion to this world.
Now could I drink hot blood
and do such bitter business
As the day would quake to look on.
In these words we sense the threat and the power of darkness, the evil present in the night, but also that daylight is different and of a nature more benign.
As humanity moved into the modern era the superstitions attaching to darkness and the night have been shed; yet we are still wary of the night, for that is when those who would do wrong to their neighbors choose to work. “Men love darkness rather than light,” says John, “because their deeds are evil.” When we travel we prefer to do it in the daytime. We still speak of illness being worse at night, and we want to rest well because then we will feel better when morning comes.
On the larger screen of history, light and darkness are seen as waging this continuous warfare. One of the scriptures among the Dead Sea Scrolls is The War of the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. In Zoroastrianism there is a constant interplay between light symbolizing the good and darkness as the symbol of evil. The prophet Isaiah who gave us our classic promises of Messiah’s coming to be light amid the darkness wrote also of Israel being a light to the nations, foreseeing the manifestation of God’s light in the Messiah.
So whether we think of light and darkness as just functions of where the planets are or of darkness as having sinister significance, we know there are dark times and dark places in human life which are more difficult to cope with.
It is against this background that the fourth gospel emerges with its philosophical language about the Logos or the Word and again the interplay between light and darkness -
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God . .
All that came to be was alive with his life
and that life was the light of humanity.
The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness has never overcome it.
He says of John the Baptizer: “He was not himself the light; he came to bear witness to the light. The real light which enlightens everyone was even then coming into the world.” (John 1: 7-9). This echoes the Advent message, the coming of Christ’s light into a world of darkness.
When we move into the new calendar year the lectionary readings will bring us again to what John wrote about the Word, the Logos, and we will look more closely at what this means, but for now we focus on what he says about the light. He is addressing this same situation: the life of men and women and their struggle through the dark places. The One whom John called the Word, the Logos, Jesus, later said: “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness . . “ Here is a promise of light for the dark places.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the movie about Alexander the Great. One episode reminded me of an old legend concerning Alexander. The Macedonian servants of King Phillip, Alexander’s father, were trying to master a magnificent horse which refused to be broken. Young Alexander noticed that the horse was shying from his own dark shadow, of which he was apparently afraid. He asked permission to go to the horse and amid a good deal of amusement on the part of onlookers, he went to the magnificent animal and turned him around into the sunlight so that he could not see his own dark shadow. With steady gentleness young Alexander finally mounted the horse. Again, the interplay of light and darkness. In this scene we learn that the darkness of which one can be afraid may even emanate from one’s own self; it is our shadow-side. We know there are both shadows and dark places in life’s experience of which we are afraid, for in such places it is hard to feel near to God.
In Bernard Cornwell’s novel, Heretic, set in the fourteenth century, Thomas of Hookton, an English archer, rescues a young woman, Genevieve, from being burned at the stake on spurious charges of heresy. He discovers that she had already been tortured by a Dominican priest and he feels deeply for her because his own knuckles and fingers are deformed from torture he endured at the hand of an inquisitor of the Church. In one of their quiet moments, Genevieve suddenly says: “I hate him,” and Thomas knows she is talking of her torturer. “He was called Father Roubert,” she goes on, “and I want to see his soul in hell.” Thomas, who had managed to kill his own torturer, does not know what to say, so he retreats into an evasion: “God will look after his soul.” “God seems very far away sometimes,” Genevieve says, “especially in the dark.”
We all have our own dark places. An experience of personal failure, a breach of trust, the waywardness of a child, the memory of a betrayal, the fracture of a relationship, the loss of a beloved spouse, a bewildering grief, disappointment or disaster of one kind or another. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you Lord, are with me.”
I believe it was a French comedian who told the story of this man on his hands and knees under a street light searching for something. His friend arrived and asked him what he had lost. He said that he had lost a valuable ring and, for all his searching, was unable to find it. “Where do you think you dropped it?” his friend asked and the searcher pointed off into the darkness and said: “Over there, somewhere.” “Well, why don’t you search over there?” “Oh,” said the man, “It’s so dark there. There’s more light here. It’s better.” The man who lost his ring and who was avoiding the dark place may have been naive for searching where he was but at least he knew that where there was light it was better.