This first Sunday of December marks the first Sunday of Advent, the four-week season of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas season actually begins on December 25, and lasts for 12 days - until Epiphany on January 6. Our Advent series for worship focuses on the prophetic visions and images in the book of Isaiah. To help us in our focus, we commissioned a series of banners, created by artist Linda Von Holten. You can see more about the banners and Linda's artwork on our church website at www.firstpresbyteriansterling.org
A King Like No Other
December 1, 2013, First Sunday in Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Darkness is heavy. It weighs down on us, sometimes, like a physical presence.
You can imagine that the darkness of Isaiah’s time, around a thousand years before the birth of Christ, was much darker than any darkness any of us have ever experienced. The only sources of light, in the night, would have been small oil lamps or fires. If you were poor, the same oil you could burn in a shell or a hollowed out rock was the oil that provided necessary fats in your diet, so you weren’t burning the midnight oil much.
Shepherds or nomadic people built watchfires, to keep the wolves away, to provide warmth, to push back the darkness. People went to bed when it got dark, and they didn’t get up until sunrise. They didn’t go out at night unless there was some kind of emergency – say, to rouse the neighbors if the house was on fire, or to fetch the midwife, if somebody was having a baby.
Early civilizations worshiped the sun, thought of themselves as people of the light. Darkness was not a good thing. It was threatening, frightening, dangerous and seemingly invincible. But we need darkness, it turns out. Scientists who study these things are increasingly concerned about light pollution, and what the ability to have endless daylight is doing to the human animal. We have in our bodies circadian rhythms that respond to the cycles of night and day. Our bodies are made to sleep at night, and when we disrupt that cycle, we suffer. There is even research that suggests that night owls (and I’m one of them) tend to be more devious and deceitful than morning people. (Hey - I’m working on it!)
The loss of true night darkness also means the loss of certain human experiences. Did you ever camp out in the wilderness, or drive out to the prairie, in the middle of a dark moonless night, and look up at the stars? There is something about that, lying on our backs, looking up at the endless night sky spread out like velvet and sprinkled with the bright jewels of the milky way, something that gives us a sense of perspective. And we are losing that experience. Because of light pollution, two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.
We need darkness.
We need darkness because it gives us an appreciation for light. We need night, because it prepares us for day. If you have ever walked out in the country on a dark night, alone, you will immediately know what it means to see a great light. If you have ever spent a long wakeful worried night, you know what it feels like to finally sleep, and wake to a glorious dawn. If you have ever groped your way through the unlit corridors of depression, grief, or anxiety, you know the feeling of lightness when you finally experience relief.
This promised king, in the prophetic voice of Isaiah, is a light shining in the darkness. He shatters the yoke of oppression, stills the pounding boots of thundering warriors, burns the blood-soaked garments of war. He is the lord of all the heavenly hosts.
He is … a helpless infant.
He is the hope of all the nations, and he is a tiny mewling swaddled baby. Normally, such a child would be born in a palace, and be schooled in all the kingly arts, coddled and cared for as a valuable state asset, controlled and perhaps manipulated by regents until he came of age. He would be crowned king in a glorious ceremony, celebrated as he ascended the throne, guarded day and night.
But this is a king like no other.
He comes in the darkest season, a tiny, flickering light, a candle lit and shining bravely in the night. He does not drive away the darkness, but illuminates it, so that we can find him. In this season of waiting and preparation, in this time of his coming, we watch for him. Through the descending gloom of the long nights of winter, we await his advent. In the most unexpected places, we encounter him. In the bleak midwinter of grief and sorrow, his light reflects on the iron-hard ice, and melts our gloom.
In the shadows of our sadness, in the gloomy passageways of our hopelessness, we hear his infant cry, and we see his light. At this table, we meet him. If this child were born today, would we see a king? We would, if we seek him. We would see a king like no other, the great light shining, the light of a new dawn, a new day, a new life, a king who is both God and human, a king who humbles himself, even to the point of death, taking on the form of human likeness and meeting us where we are, inviting us, over and over again, into the light of love.
“Arise, shine; [the prophet said] 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. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms." (Isaiah 60: 1-4)
Lift up your eyes and look around, this Advent season, and you will see that the king is coming, a king like no other, and he invites you to come into the light, to the brightness of his dawn, to the warmth and comfort of his presence, and to the bounty of his table.
We who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. He is coming, and he is here, shining in grace at this table, the light of love waiting to be kindled in us again.