Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Light We've Been Waiting For

Kirkebo Lutheran of Perley, MN
Nora Lutheran of Gardner, ND
Advent 3/December 11, 2011
John 1:6-8, 19-28

The fact that we are in a thus-far “snowless” December is freaking some folks out.   Just the other day I was speaking with a friend, a fellow who is prone to SAD—seasonal affective disorder.   He was bummed that there isn’t snow on the ground yet.
Why? I asked (thinking that a break from the record snowfalls we’ve seen over the last few years isn’t all bad).   “Why do you miss the snow?” I asked my friend.

“It’s because the snow reflects light.  It makes the daytime brighter.   Right now it’s too brown, too dark out there for my soul.”

My friend has a point, of course, and maybe you share it.  We need light to live—to get around in the world.  Our bodies need light for good old Vitamin D, if nothing else.  Our eyes need light for them to work.  Our souls need light because God did not create us to be bottom-dwellers of the ocean, like those fish who live so far below the water’s surface that they don’t even have eyes.

We need light to live, pure and simple.

But there is a catch here.  Like so many other good things God has given to us, we need some but not too much.   If we utterly lack light, we die (in one way or another).

But too much light will kill us, too.

My mother, who passed away at age 93 this past July, was a Twin Cities girl transplanted to the family farm in southern Minnesota back during WWII.   She went from being an urban dweller to being a dirt farmer, helping my dad in virtually every aspect of farming.   My parents farmed at a time when no one was wearing sunscreen—when we weren’t conscious of the cancer-causing qualities of ultra-violet radiation.

So in her latter years, my mom—perhaps like some of you—had to make repeated visits to her dermatologist, to have a little slice of her beautiful face removed—little patches of skin cancer on her ears, her forehead, her cheekbones.

Light is good.   Without light we die. 

But with too much light, we also suffer and die.   Light is also bad.

So which will it be?  Is light good or bad?   The biblical witness is clear on this point—it always “sides” with light.   The scriptures that we treasure are not big on window-blinds, shades, curtains or sunscreen.   In our story of God, light is always something to be welcomed.

In fact, our faith consistently describes God in terms of Light—God is filled with Light.   God is always dispersing the darkness.  In the first epistle of St John we read:  “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all”  (I John 1:5).

So in today’s gospel lesson from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel we have John the Baptist.  Only, in this gospel (as opposed to Matthew’s, Mark’s or Luke’s gospels) John the Baptist isn’t so much a water-guy, as he is a light-guy.   The Fourth Gospel emphasizes John as a testimony-giver more than as a washer-away-of-sins.

John the Baptist, to be sure, was a pretty bright fellow.  No wallflower, he made a splash wherever he showed up.

And yet, to John’s credit, he knew his place.  John realized that he wasn’t the Light of God itself…but rather, he came to “testify to the light.”

There’s a reason why so many artistic portrayals of John the Baptist show him with his forefinger outstretched.  It’s because John was always a “pointer”….his finger was always directing the gaze of others toward Him who is the Light of God in this cold, dark world—Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friends, we have this gospel lesson before us in these Advent days because this Light is coming to us once again.   He who is the Light of the World is making tracks in our direction once again.

And, as always, he comes to us “in the bleak midwinter.”   Well that’s not exactly true.  Christmas doesn’t come in the middle of winter.  Rather, Christmas falls just a few days after what is technically the start of winter—the winter solstice, the shortest, most light-deprived day of the year.

In that winter darkness, when we wake up in the dark and come home from work in the dark, precisely when light is most scarce and therefore most precious, as the hymnwriters like to put it:  in the darkness of our sin, Jesus comes bearing light.

So, to give our own witness to that fact, we go a little nuts in Advent and at Christmas-time decorating our homes and workplaces in ways that spread the light of Christ.    This becomes the time of the year when I hope and I pray that the fire marshal will not visit the Wohlrabe home in north Moorhead, where Mrs. Wohlrabe (She Who Must Be Obeyed) goes a little overboard with the decorating.  She loves Christmas because so many of her decorations have her name on them (her name is Joy).   And she really loves Christmas lights and candles—and like a typical guy, I just hope we don’t knock over a burning candle or blow a circuit breaker or two and burn the whole place down.  Now THAT would be a light to behold!

But, all kidding aside, there are good reasons why we upper Midwestern “Luterans” crave the light right about now.  It’s because we know, deep down, that despite the perils of too much light, most of the time we never get enough of it.  We all have a touch of SAD—seasonal affective disorder.  We all crave the light.

And I think that’s because we know, deep down, that the light is good for us.  And the light of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ is the best Light there is—end of story!

This Light is always, always, always good for us—but not because it is always gentle with us or kind to us.  No, that’s not how it works.

The Light of God shines upon us and the first thing it always does is to expose us, to bring to light all the things that are making life miserable—all the things that are killing us.  Luther nicknamed them “sin, death and the power of the devil”—an evil trio!

God shines his light upon us, and at first we want to cover our eyes.  It’s a little like when the eye doctor dilates your pupils and shines that awful-bright light into your wide-open eyes, to see if your retina is A-OK (I know—I do that twice a year!)  It hurts like the dickens!

And God does that sort of thing to us as well.   God’s light exposes all the ways we’re pretty much “stuck on ourselves,” all the ways we imagine that the world revolves around us—what we call sin.   God’s light exposes how, even though we think we’re in control of ourselves, we’re not.   We’re prone to being led astray—we call that “the power of the devil.”   And God’s light forces our eyes to see how we do not possess life—how easily and swiftly life slips through our fingers.   We call that death.

The Light of God is good for us, but only because the first thing it does is diagnose us and confront us with all the things we’d rather keep under wraps, hidden in the darkness of our souls.

God’s Light in Christ forces all of those things out, into the bright light of day….not so God can hold them over us, but so that God can deal with that old nasty trio on our behalf.

God’s Light in Christ exposes what is wrong with us, so that it can reveal to us all the ways God in Jesus Christ is going to work to forgive sin, to defeat the power of the devil, and to put an end to death’s hold on us.

In Jesus, in the Baby who came at Christmas-time, God’s Light shone with a clarity and a power, the likes of which this world has never seen.   Jesus pulls back the curtain and puts the spotlight on who God is for us and what God graciously does for us:   ending sin’s stranglehold, sending the devil scurrying, depriving death of its stranglehold on our souls.

This is the Light John the Baptist came to point us toward.  This is the Light that is coming right toward us this Advent.

My dear friends, don’t flee from this light.  Embrace it.  Bask in its beauty.   Allow the Light of Jesus Christ to burn away all that needs to be discarded in your lives.  Let the Light of Christ shine as you decorate your homes—even if you risk getting a citation from the fire marshal!

For this is the Light we’ve been waiting for forever.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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