St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral
Feast of Lights 2017: The Thrill of Hope
The Reverend Sandy Webb
January 8, 2017
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We begin tonight with the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Familiar in our mouths as household words, Isaiah’s prophecy would have sounded very different in his day.
Six centuries before the birth of Christ, the world was dark. God’s chosen people had been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. Their temple had been destroyed, and they had been taken into exile. They were separated from the land that God had promised to give them, the land towards which they had wandered for forty years, and they had very little hope of ever going back again. The Psalmist captures the mood: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept...”
Into this dark night, Isaiah speaks: Your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen. Really, Isaiah? This is light? This is glory? C’mon now!
On the ears of Isaiah’s original listeners, this warm and familiar prophecy was, literally, unbelievable. They had no light. They had no glory. They had no thrill of hope. But, Isaiah saw things differently. Isaiah looked past the sufferings of the present time and put himself in the larger context of God’s unfolding story.
When Isaiah wrote, nobody believed him. Nobody understood what he was saying. But, as the centuries rolled, people came to believe. People shook themselves loose of their present reality. In the fullness of God’s time, the Israelites did return to the Promised Land, they did rebuild their temple, and the very same Psalmist who had written about weeping in Babylon later wrote: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.
Fast forward to the days of Jesus. Notice how the story repeats itself: The world is again dark. God’s chosen people have been conquered by the Roman Empire. The people are living under an oppressive king, and the emperor is plotting to destroy their temple.
Into all this darkness swoops the Angel Gabriel. In Luke, he appears to Mary. In Matthew, he appears to Joseph. His message is the same: God’s light is about to break into the world in an entirely new way, and these two young people – not much older than many of you – have a very special role to play in making that happen.
Neither Mary nor Joseph can believe that the prophecy is true. Neither one can believe that they have the power to make that kind of difference in the world. But, it is, and they do.
Mary and Joseph needed some time to figure out what God was doing, but Elizabeth did not. Elizabeth knows the truth as soon as the child in her womb leaps in Mary’s presence. The shepherds have their “Eureka!” moment when the angel returns, and the wise men their Epiphany soon thereafter. Even King Herod believes, because he knows with certainty that his reign of injustice and oppression will not last forever.
Fast forward now to present day. We have our share of darkness – wars, poverty, and disease; racism, bigotry, and hate. But, we have gathered once again to pierce the night with a marvelous light, and to celebrate an age-old truth that has been handed down to us by Isaiah and Gabriel, by Joseph and Mary, and by “all those in every generation who have looked to [God] in hope.”
The whole history of our faith can be described as the struggle of light to break free from the clutches of darkness. Like a chick cracking through the shell of its egg, like a sprout pushing up from the ground, light is persistent. The day refuses to be pinned down by the night.
Scientists tell us that light is unique. It is both a particle and a wave, and it has amazing properties that we still do not fully understand. Do you know what scientists say of darkness? It is nothing. It is literally not a thing, even though it often feels so heavy, so threatening. Light is dynamic, and complicated, and colorful, and warm, and energetic, and historic, and intriguing, and empowering. Darkness is but the absence of light.
There will be days when the world feels too dark. There will be days when your own life seems to be pushed down by the night. There will be days when you simply cannot believe that God’s promises are true, or that you have any role to play in bringing them to fulfillment. On those days, think back to Isaiah, remember Joseph and Mary, shake yourself loose from the present moment, and sink your roots deep in the ever-unfolding story of salvation.
St. John the Evangelist writes, “What has come into being in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [is powerless] overcome it.”
Bask in that light, my friends, and banish the night. God’s light is yours, and it is yours to share.