A sermon preached on December 2, 2007, based upon Isaiah 2:1 – 5 and Romans 13:11 – 14, entitled, “Light and Darkness; Waking and Sleeping.”
“Come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” This verse from Isaiah expresses the universal quest of all great faiths; to live a life pleasing to God.
All great faiths offer advice on how to live what we refer to as “the spiritual life”. Since spirit is invisible, as God is invisible, there is an immediate challenge confronted in this advice giving: our language is inadequate. We plod along as best we can with our imperfect language, using metaphors: we speak of something we have some understanding of in order to get at that is beyond our grasp.
There are two metaphors that are used in this morning’s scripture lesson to try and get out what we are about in the spiritual life. These metaphors are linked, and both involve dichotomies: light and darkness; wakefulness and sleep.
The usefulness of these metaphors seems clear enough: When you are asleep, you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’re sleeping next to someone, you can jab them with an elbow to their ribs, or steal the covers, and have no clue that you’ve done these things. You can sleep walk, raid the refrigerator, never realizing you’ve done it, because, after all, you’re asleep. So to be awake means being aware of your actions, which is something we are aspiring to do as we engage in this thing we call the spiritual life. To be conscious rather than unconscious.
In a similar fashion, the night — the time of darkness — represents the time when people do things they don’t want seen by others, because to be seen would bring them shame.
This was all the more obvious in the ancient world when there was no electrical light. The daytime with the bounty of sun light was the time you did things you weren’t afraid to have your neighbors see. So walking in the light implies living a life that you would not be ashamed to be seen by others.
In this morning‘s epistle lesson, the apostle Paul declares, “Lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” What are the works of darkness? They are those things we do that if they were exposed to others to see, we would feel ashamed.
A couple of well known movies are helpful to illustrate the usefulness of these metaphors.
Do you remember “To Kill a Mocking Bird”? In a southern town before the civil rights movement, a black man has been arrested and accused of raping a white woman. The story is told from the point of view of the daughter of the lawyer who represents the accused man. There is a scene in the movie in which the black man is locked up in the town jail. It is night time, and the lawyer, aware of the evil that can be done at night, has decided to spend the night seated outside the jail. A mob of angry white men show up, intent on taking the black man from jail by force, skipping the trial. They intend to lynch him.
At just about the same time, the little girl — the daughter of the lawyer — shows up as well, wanting to visit her father whom she wishes were back at home with her. She recognizes the men, knows their children from school, and greets them. “Why are you here?” she asks. They are ashamed to say. Suddenly the eyes of a child witnessing their actions evokes shame in regard to what they were planning to do. The crowd disperses, no longer able to carry out the work of darkness.
You may remember another movie, entitled, interestingly enough, “Witness”, with Harrison Ford playing a cop given the job of protecting an Amish boy who, in a rare trip out of his community with his mother, witnesses a brutal murder committed in a men’s room at a train station.
The Harrison Ford character discovers that the murderers are actually crooked policemen, trying to cover up their own corruption, and aware of the danger that both the boy and himself are in, he flees with the boy to the boy’s Amish Community.
Towards the end of the movie, the corrupt cops figure out where they are, and come to the boy’s farmhouse with their guns, intent on murdering Harrison Ford, so as to once more hide their evil deeds. In the final scene the boy, realizing the danger his friend is in, runs off. The film maker has set it up such a way that we think the boy has gone to retrieve his friend’s gun, betraying his community’s principles of non-violence in order to save the life of his friend.
But this is not what the boy does. Instead, he rings the loud bell that calls forth his neighbors in his Amish community. They come, dozens of them, not with guns to fight the evildoers, but with light to shine on their darkness. If you kill this man, their presence says, your evil deed will be witnessed by this community. It will not be hidden.
In a certain sense, therefore, the spiritual life seems simple enough. To live in the light, means not doing those things we would be ashamed to have others witness.
And yet, its not always as simple as it seems. The metaphors of being awake and asleep, and light and darkness, have their limits of usefulness.
For instance, our “awake time” can be the time when our self-denial functions most strongly, and our sleep can be the time of our greatest honesty, when our dreams tell us truths that we were reluctant to acknowledge when we were awake. And sometimes it is in the middle of the night, when we’re all alone, that we are most honest with ourselves.
And then there is the fact that creation has this rhythm that includes both light and darkness, sleep and awake. Plants require both light and darkness; animals require both times of sleep and being awake. This would suggest that an attempt to avoid either sleep or darkness might well be doomed to failure.
There is this distressing way in which often times people can aspire to be children of the light, and in doing so, end up children of the darkness, because their need to believe that their actions are strictly light filled leads them to deny their own darkness. Jesus’ ministry was rejected by the Pharisees, who were the people of his day most intent on living in the light, and doing good deeds rather than bad deeds. They were consumed with what they believed to be following God’s will. And they were also the ones who orchestrated Jesus’ murder.
The ones who welcomed Jesus and opened themselves to the grace he offered, were those who were most aware of themselves as struggling with the darkness — as sinners in need of redemption.
The fact of the matter is that this journey we call the spiritual life is often a confusing journey, with many stumbling and setbacks, and one of the distinctly odd aspects of this journey is that sometimes the stumbling and the setbacks are actually detours necessary to make progress in the journey, because they lead us into a deeper awareness of God’s grace.
A father had two sons, Jesus said. The younger son, known as the prodigal, did everything wrong, squandering his inheritance, rebelling against his father’s will. The elder son did exactly what he was supposed to do; he did his duty, staying put on the farm. At the end of Jesus’ little parable, the prodigal son ends up walking in the light, while the elder brother is stuck in the darkness.
There is light and darkness in us all. We can try dedicate ourselves to doing only good; for instance, we can make a commitment to always be friendly and helpful and to turn the other cheek, and it may seem to work for a time. But then this pressure begins to build up inside us — the unacknowledged darkness, the repressed anger, and before we actually realize what we‘re doing, we lash out, doing something far more destructive than the simple irritability of which we had tried so hard to rid ourselves.
We’ve all heard stories of famous preachers well known for exhorting their congregations in various ways to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”, who end up with very public tumbles, wherein it was discovered they were doing in the darkness the very things they were railing against in the light of day.
So how do we go about walking in the light of the Lord?
Well, I think the first thing is to simply acknowledge the utter importance of honesty. Pretending the darkness isn’t there when it is, well, that just won’t work. The folks in alcoholics anonymous have learned this. There’s this paradox: the first thing necessary in beginning to gain control over your life, they tell us, is acknowledging that you’re not in control of your life.
It’s a humbling step to take, but until it is made, no real progress will be made. Twelve step programs are based on the principle of absolute honesty. Bring all the darkness out into the light of day, even though what you’re bringing can be pretty ugly. No progress will be made as long as there is denial going on in your heart.
Now here is where the Christian take on the spiritual life is unique. First off, Christianity assumes that all of us, everyone of us, has our dark side — or to put it another way, we’re all sinners. To say I’m not a sinner but others are simply means I’m stuck in denial.
But the thing about Christianity is that, at its heart, its Good News. “Good news of great joy come to all people,” is how the angels announced it to the poor angels. Christianity doesn’t proclaim a God who will kick our butt if we screw up. It proclaims a God who loves us more than we know — a gracious God who welcomes the prodigal home; who takes the lost sheep up into strong but gentle arms, calling the angels to rejoice because the lost has been found.
So we don’t have to pretend. The love we discover in Jesus makes it possible to own up to our darkness.
And in so doing, through the light of God’s wondrous love, we begin, most often slowly but nonetheless surely, to change, progressing towards the great love revealed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus eats with sinners. This morning, in holy communion, he invites us to dine with him.