Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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Light in Darkness Sermon

(This sermon was given on Sunday, December 18 at Trinity UMC in Fernandina Beach, for the Memorial UMC Service of Light in Darkness.)

When I was a kid, there was a show on TV called, “Are You Afraid of the Dark.” It was basically a child-friendly version of Twilight Zone. After an episode the night was full of monsters and villains and my imagination would populate the unknown around me with so many forces of evil that I would keep a flashlight beside my bed to ward them off.

There is something scary and unnerving about the dark. In the daytime we can see what is coming. We know what to expect. There are very few surprises during the day. At night, however, everything changes. Familiar streets get cast in unfamiliar shadows. It is impossible to see someone coming your way until they are already next to you. Sounds fill the air all around you, but you can’t see their origins.

Physical darkness, however, is the easiest of the darknesses that fill our world. There is no flashlight that will drive away the darkness of grief. There is no candle to ward away depression or anxiety. There are deeper darknesses in our world which stand in the way of the light and cast long shadows over our lives. These dark places often get lost amid the lights of the Christmas season. With such an emphasis on joy and peace, the realities of sadness, distress, and worry often get pushed to the side. However, if we look at the Christmas story there are both light and dark places.

We see the light in the angelic visions, but often miss the fact that the angels appear to Joseph and Mary in the dark as a dream. The Shepherds are watching their flocks by night when the heavenly host appear in all their glory. And the star the wisemen follow to the new-born King was like every other star, only available to them when the brightness of the sun no longer shone in the sky.

What do we make of this shadow-side of the nativity?

I believe the darkness is there because it is a part of the world we live in. From the very beginning when God separated the light from the darkness, each one was given a name and a space in creation. I remember when I lost my grandmother, in seminary, I was thinking about my grief and tears and I realized that the pain I felt at her passing was rooted in the very love that I had for her when she was alive. Even as difficult as grief can be, I cannot think of anyone who would give up the love they have for the one they lost in order to make it go away.

Darkness can obscure our vision, cast doubts about our future and our purpose. The loss of a job, adjustment to retirement, the change from one way of living to another is disorienting and confusing. Our once familiar life and purpose is covered over by a new reality that remains to become fully present.

Walking with a loved one through the shadow of death can be darker for the caregiver than the one who is in the middle. Watching a loved one slip away, we are forced to live in the tension between how they are now and how they were before. In some cases, our memories of them are stronger than theirs are. With the loss of the spouse, friend, or relative, we also loose the future we had hoped to live with them.

In other ways, darkness has a way of focusing our attention. In the daytime there is a lot of distractions. The myriad of colors and shapes which surround us each day all merge together because we cannot take it all in at once. In the dark, however, those colors mute and the shapes soften. It is then that other things come into focus. The stars, for example do not appear in the evening. Instead, it is only when the brightness of the day has faded that we are finally able to behold their steady beads of light. When life gets difficult, it brings other things into perspective. I have spoken with so many people who have a terminal illness that after their diagnosis they didn’t worry as much about their work, their business, their money, or any of the other things that had previously filled up their lives. They began to cherish the time spent with family, the long chats with good friends, walks on the beach, and spending nights laying out on a blanket gazing into the heavens.

I do not know everything about the darkness that you have brought with you today. But I do know that Scripture is clear, darkness is a temporary phenomenon. Psalm 30 declares that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

In the nativity story, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sings a song of praise to God which proclaims that:

Because of God’s deep compassion,
The dawn from heaven will break upon us,
To give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.
(Luke 1:78-79)

Before Jesus was even born, the prophet knew that the night was almost over—a light was coming. This can be hard to see in the midst if the darkness. When all around you are shadows, it is easy to forget that there is a light. It is easy to get lost in the darkness, however, the story of Christmas is that a light “did come into our world.” That light did not wait until our eyes had adjusted to the dark. It did not ask us to leave the darkness and come into the light, it came to us instead.

Hear again John’s declaration about the light:

“What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.,,,The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
(John 1:3b-5,9)

This is the core of the story. Even in the dark world the light appeared to Mary and Joseph, to shepherds, to wise men and now to us. And that Light cannot be overcome by our darkness, but instead, that Light enters into where we are and makes his home among us so that we know that no matter how dark our lives get we are not alone.

As you go throughout this holiday season, as you see the lights on houses and trees and everywhere else, I pray that you would be reminded that Jesus has come to be with you in the darkness and lead you forward wherever you need to go.

(Note: I am grateful to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” for being a helpful thought partner and a general good read.)


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Sermon: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

[Side Note: Little did I know that four days after I preached this sermon, our son Malachi Emmanuel would be born. God is good, unexpected sometimes, but always good.]

Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36

Several months ago, the worship planning team was thinking about what to focus on for advent, and I made the half-joking suggestion that we should do a series called “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” At that point, Jessica and I were several months into our pregnancy and that classic book had become a regular part of our reading. The more the team thought about it, the more the idea came together. Both pregnancy and advent are times full of expectation and anticipation, and both are counting down to one particular day. For a baby you count down forty weeks, whereas Advent only lasts four. As so many of you have told me, having a baby changes your whole world. The child who is born at the end of advent changes not just the life of His parents, but also the whole course of history and every life that has ever lived. And so over these next four weeks we will be going through the process of preparing for the birth of Christ.

One of the things I have learned about pregnancy is that there is not a lack of information. In our living room is a bag full of pregnancy books with detailed accounts of what to expect at each stage of pregnancy. What a woman may feel. What her body is doing, how the baby is growing. Week by week, trimester by trimester, it tells you what to look forward to and what you should do. Every single possibility is laid out and described in very detailed ambiguity. You may feel this, or you may not. Some women experience this, others do not. Every book tries to answer every question, touch on every possibility that they can think of.

For this reason, one of the first things the doctor told us when she recommended books was that we should not read ahead. The same advice does not apply to the season of advent. The first Sunday traditionally always jumps straight past the birth to the very end, the second coming of Christ.

Whereas reading ahead in a pregnancy book could cause unnecessary fear and anxiety, reading ahead in the Christian story and knowing that Christ will return gives us a sense of comfort and hope. Because we know the end of the story, we can live through difficulties in the middle with confidence and assurance that God will see us through.

Both of our texts for today are set within dark and difficult times in Jewish history. Jeremiah lived during a time when Judah was caught between large and powerful empires who were vying for control. Jeremiah tries to advise the rulers and the people on how to faithfully navigate between them, but they do not listen. And so, in the year 587 BC, the Babylonians entered Jerusalem. Their army slaughtered the leaders in front of the people, they destroyed the Temple, and captured many of the people and shipped them away as exiles. In the wake of their brutality, the Jewish people who remained were demoralized, shaken, and unsure of what their future would hold.

For most of the Jewish people, these events were completely unexpected. How could the God who made a special covenant with them, who brought them out of Egypt, and gave them the Promised Land allow them to be so utterly destroyed, the very symbol of their covenant laid to ruins?

It is into this thinking that Jeremiah speaks this Word from God, ”I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. I will raise up a righteous branch…” In the middle of the broken forest, Jeremiah tells the people that God has not given up on them and that God is working on their restoration.

Over six centuries later, as Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the Great Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but the worst is yet to come for the Jewish people and the followers of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus’ words to his disciples are again words about the future.

Jesus describes the end of the story, the Son of Man (CEB-translates this Human One) coming on clouds with power and splendor, bringing everything under His rule and control. This image of Christ’s victorious return has helped Christians throughout the centuries to persevere in persecution, to face lions, fires, and gun barrels with hymns of praise, and through it all to share the Good news of Jesus Christ with everyone they met.

Before the second coming, however, Jesus paints a bleak picture as he describes what the world often looks like in this in-between time. All the earth will be turned upside down. Nations will devolve into chaos, and nothing on earth or in the heavens will be constant or secure. In other words, we are to expect the unexpected.

In many ways Jesus could be describing our world today. The attacks in Paris a couple of weeks ago were a violent reminder of the fragility of life and the illusion of safety. The normal lives of people enjoying a sports game, concert, and drinking at a coffee shop brutally interrupted by extremists bent on shaking the very foundations of Western society.

In many places around the world, fear is a regular part of daily life. For people living throughout the Middle East, drone strikes, suicide bombs, and hostile check points keep people constantly on their toes. Families in Nigeria worry each day if their children will come home from school. In our own country many racial and religious minorities describe their fear when those around them do not understand who they are or where they come from, and many women are nervous to go outside because of the catcalls and inappropriate looks they receive from men on the street.

As I read these passages this week, I realized that in addition to terrorist attacks, there are things inside of us that also turn our world upside down. The death of a spouse, a parent, a child, or a friend can also shake the ground beneath out feet. The loss of a job, a divorce, a diagnosis, or an illness can call into question the foundations of how we understand ourselves and the world around us.

In these moments of crisis, when what we had expected is gone and pain and uncertainty are all we have left, we look around for something that will help us get through the darkness.

Could it be that in these times when chaos and fear are swirling around us, Jesus is calling us to look for the signs of his coming?

I believe in the second coming of Christ. I believe that at a certain point in the future, Jesus will return, the Kingdom of God will come and at that time, all things will be brought under the reign of God. This is the truth that the Scriptures teach us, and I am confident there will come a day. However, Jesus also told his disciples, “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matt 28:20). In four weeks we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom we will call, “Emanuel, God is with us.”

The reality of Jesus’ second coming does not have to be separated from the reality that God in Christ is here with us today. In a world fractured with violence and filled with fear, Jesus’ second coming reminds us that this world is not as it should be, and that God is making it better. The reality of Jesus’ presence with us now as Emmanuel is a daily reminder that God does not leave us alone in the meantime.

Every day, Jesus comes into the lives of people and communities and shares their grief and suffering, experiences their depression, and despair. And, while it may not be as dramatic as riding in on clouds, Jesus nonetheless enters into those situations with power and splendor to bring forth comfort, peace, joy and hope.

The world in which we live is one where things do not always go according to plan. People suffer for no reason at all. As many of you know, I am experiencing this in my own life. Several months ago, when our child was diagnosed with a serious heart defect the news was entirely unexpected. Since then, there have been times of sadness, grief, anger, and fear, but there have been many more moments of great joy, excitement, and hope.

Conceiving and bearing children is a beautiful thing, but it is also something that is incredibly difficult. Many families have stories of infertility, miscarriages, the tragic loss of a child, as well as many other complications of pregnancy. These stories are but a few examples of the brokenness and suffering found in our world. But they are also not the end of the story. For many of those same families adoptions, medical treatments, mentorships, and unexpected friendships, conclude their stories of pain and loss in ways that were inconceivable earlier on.

As people who have read the end of the story, we know that God’s work in our world does not stop at suffering but continues through to life and hope.

We know that violence and fear are very real and present in our world. All of us have seen the power of suffering in our world either in our own life or in that of someone close to us. The violence and suffering in our world is a symptom of its brokenness. The message from our texts today is that fear is not the end of the story.

Jesus’s description of His second coming calls on each of us to turn these symptoms into sign posts to the Kingdom of God. To confront the evil and injustice in our world with the confidence of people who know the end of the story.

So often we turn our attention away from the brokenness and pain of our world. Some people use alcohol, drugs, or other substances to dull the pain and divert their focus. Others insulate themselves by focusing on their work, their hobbies, sports team, or even celebrity news. In this holiday season, how tempting is it to distract ourselves from the cares of the world with the cares of our to do lists, our shopping and decorating, and gift giving. Jesus warns us against this: “Take care that your heart’s aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.” When we are distracted and distanced from the broken and hurting people and places of our world we are at risk of missing the coming of Christ into those very people and places.

By paying attention to the brokenness of our world. By being vigilant in our prayers for our others and for ourselves, we are able to bear witness to the fact that our world is in the process of being remade. We are able to speak God’s word of hope and assurance so that the world may know that even in the darkness, God provides light. Even when everything has been cut down, God provides new growth, and even when fear threatens to overwhelm us and the ground beneath our feet is unsteady, God stands firmly on the clouds bringing order to the chaos and reminding us that our redemption is near. Amen.