A Light in the Darkness

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candle-2038736__480This is the third of my eight week sermon series “Jensi’s Story.” In this episode, Jensi and her great-aunt Elizabeth talk about the darkness that sometimes overshadows our lives, and Elizabeth recalls a confirmation class from many decades ago.

       Following her husband’s death, Jensi had begun spending every Tuesday evening with her great-aunt Elizabeth. The weekly visits had been Elizabeth’s idea, and Jensi gladly accepted the invitation. After the tragic accident, she needed all the support she could get.

      They would eat supper together; sometimes in silence, sometimes chatting, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing. Elizabeth always accepted whatever Jensi seemed to need, giving her space to grieve. Jensi was thankful for her aunt’s empathy and patience, and so always looked forward to their time together. Thus the drive to her house each week was one of hopeful expectation.

         But this past Tuesday, Jensi was feeling a bit different. The closer she got to the house, the more nervous she became. For this night, Jensi would tell Elizabeth about what happened at the bridge along the trail. Some of you already know that story, but for those don’t, let me give a quick summary.

       Unable to sleep one night, Jensi walked her favorite trail in the darkness. While she stood on a bridge over a flowing stream, the voice of Jesus came to her, reassuring her that she was not alone. A week later, Jensi again stood on the bridge, and the voice told her that the child in her womb would play a special role in God’s work, and that Jensi would help prepare the child for that role. Jensi was reluctant to take on such a task, but the voice promised her the support of other people, including her great aunt.

         Remembering these things, Jensi arrived at the house, and, with heart pounding, walked to the door. “How will Aunt Beth react?” she wondered. “Will she think I’m crazy? Will she think my grief has driven me to hear things that aren’t there?”

       Taking a deep breath, Jensi opened the door and called out, “Aunt Beth, I’m here!”

       Elizabeth quickly appeared, her face glowing radiantly. “My dear child,” she said, “I’ve been waiting anxiously for you. You have something to tell me, don’t you?”

       “Yes, but how do you know?”

      “I’m not exactly sure. But during my time of prayer and meditation this morning, you suddenly popped into my mind. And as I was visualizing you, the phrase ‘good news of great joy’ kept swirling in my head. So, tell me: what is it?” 

      Jensi then went on to tell her that the voice of Jesus had spoken to her, saying that child now in her womb would one day lead people to center their lives in God, to feed the hungry, to build bridges between people who are different, and to care for creation. The voice had also said that Jensi had a role to play in this work, by raising the child and preparing the child for these tasks.

       Then Jensi said, “Aunt Beth, on the one hand I’m excited about having a baby, and raising the child up to follow God. And yet the world is so dark and gloomy, that at times I don’t know how I can do it. I look around and see so many bad things. There are bullies in schools and in other places. And we hear of swastikas being painted on synagogues, and of gay people being demeaned. And the polar cap is shrinking, glaciers are melting, weather patterns are changing, and yet some of our leaders just laugh it off as if nothing is happening. It’s as if they don’t care what the future holds for our children and grandchildren. And there are places on our planet where hunger and starvation are daily realities. There’s so much anguish and darkness and gloom, that the idea of raising a child is nothing short of frightening.”

         “There’s a lot to be bleak about,” her aunt agreed. “But being honest about the problems is the first step in dealing with them. That’s why I so appreciate the Hebrew Prophets of the Bible. They are not afraid to name the darkness. But they don’t stay there. They also speak words of hope, hope that God is present in even the darkest time, and that God is working new life.”

         Jensi said, “I don’t know a whole lot about the prophets. Who were they?”

Elizabeth said, “They’re names were

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel,

Hosea, Jonah, Joel,

Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah,

Haggai, Malachi, Zechariah

Amos, Habbakuk, Obadiah.

         “Wow!” Jensi laughed, “that’s a mouthful!”

         Elizabeth said, ‘Maybe you’ll want to name your child after one of them.”

         “I don’t think so,” replied Jensi. “Some of those names are weird.”

         “Indeed they are,” smiled Elizabeth. “And it’s not always easy to make sense of what they are saying. Their writings are long, and at times difficult to understand, for they were written in a time and culture in many ways different from our own. But I’ve found it’s worth the effort to grapple with them, to listen to what they are saying. For example, I was just looking ahead to the readings for this coming Sunday. We’ll hear some verses from Isaiah, that Matthew would later use  in describing the work of Jesus. Isaiah said,  ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of darkness—on them light has shined.’ Whenever I hear these words, I recall something that happened when I was a confirmation student.”

Then Elizabeth told Jensi this story.

         I was fourteen years old. One day in confirmation class, our pastor led us into a storage room in the church basement. “Ever been here before?” the pastor asked.

         “Uh, no,” was our reply.

         Then, without warning, the pastor turned off the light. We screamed, “It’s dark in here!” It was so dark that we couldn’t even see our hands in front of our faces.

         “Darkness,” said the pastor, “is sometimes used to describe the condition of our lives. It refers to the times we may be confused or afraid or not sure of what’s going to happen next. Can you think of anytime like that?”

         “Sure,” said one of the students. “When you are picked on at school, and no one wants to be your friend.”

         Said another, “It’s been a sad time recently for my family. I have a cousin who died of cancer.”

         Said another, “My brother is beginning military service next week. I’m afraid of what might happen to him.”

         A few more students added other times of darkness. The pastor and the class stood in silence for a few moments. Then the pastor struck a match, and lit a small candle he had carried with him. 

         And the pastor said, “No matter how dark it gets, we are never alone. Jesus is with us. The gospel writer John says that Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, the light no darkness has overcome.”

         Having told the story from her confirmation days, Elizabeth said, “I often think of that dark closet, and what our pastor told us. It comes to mind every Christmas Eve when we sing ‘Silent Night’ with handheld candles. And like one of our pastors once suggested, I take that Christmas Eve candle home with me, and light it from time to time, while I say the words of Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

         On her way home from her great-aunt’s that night, Jensi stopped to buy a box of candles. “I’ll light one for a few minutes each day,” she thought. “Doing so will continually remind me that Jesus is the light of the world. And as my child grows, we’ll light the candle together and say,

         “Jesus, come to us this day;

           Be our light, and show the way

           Of humble trust in you.

           Jesus, come to us this day;

           Be our light, and show the way

          Of sharing wealth with all in need.

          Jesus, come to us this day;

           Be our light, and show the way

          Of caring for your planet earth.

           Jesus, come to us this day;

           Be our light, and show the way

          Of building bridges that unite.”    Amen.

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