December 10, 2017
In Your Light, We See Light
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old.
One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering.
An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. The angel said,
“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God.He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you.
Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered why he was in the sanctuary for such a long time. When he came out, he was unable to speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he gestured to them and couldn’t speak. When he completed the days of his priestly service, he returned home.
* * * * *
Zechariah has to be one of my favorite characters in the whole Bible. Here he is, doing what he’s always done, doing what he’s supposed to do, keeping the faith, serving the Lord, taking his turn… not so much minding his own business as tending to the business of God. He is a righteous man. And BOOM! Here comes Gabriel, an angel of the Lord, smacking him upside the head with news that is just unbelievable. I mean, really unbelievable!
“Guess what?!” Gabriel says.
“Have I got news for you!”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Gabriel, a messenger from God. By the way, you should know that.”
“What do you want?”
“Oh, it’s not what I want, it’s what God wants. Listen, God’s decided you and Elizabeth are going to do something really special! You get to be parents of the one who’s going to get the people of God ready for their Savior! And Lord knows, that’s a job and a half. God’s already got your son’s name picked out: you’re going to name him John.”
“Um, that’s great, and I’m sure God’s got a great plan going here, but there’s a slight problem. We’re old enough to be grandparents. It’s – ahem – a little late for all that.”
“What!? Are you doubting my word?! Are you doubting GOD’S word? Just for that, you can’t talk until that baby is born.”
And so it was, John the Baptist came to be the forerunner of Jesus.
Isn’t that such a great story?
I love that story, because it says so much about hope, and what gets in the way, and how to get all that stuff that trips us up when we try to be hopeful. It wasn’t that Zechariah didn’t have hope. It’s that he couldn’t see what was standing right there in front of him; he couldn’t see what was right before his eyes.
Because sometimes we can’t even see what’s hope-filled even when it’s right there in plain daylight. When it’s standing right there, bringing good news. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe, even when it comes straight from God; even when we’re looking for hope.
And this Advent season, it’s hope that we’re looking for.
We know better than to think we can manufacture hope. We can’t make ourselves hopeful. Last week we talked some about where hope really comes from. If we think hope comes from feeling optimistic, we’re bound to be disappointed. If we’re counting on evidence that we should feel hopeful, it’s not likely to happen. Hope is an orientation of the spirit, of the heart. And real hope, the hope we can count on, that kind of hope comes from God.
But it isn’t something we passively wait for, either. There are things we can do to cultivate hope, ways to practice it, ways to look for it. In fact, God’s counting on us to do just that. We’re participants in God’s living hope.
Next week we’ll talk about being part of what’s hopeful in the world, things we can do, ways to be. But I think there’s an important step that has to come first. I think the first thing we need to do is be able to see signs of hope. Before we can be signs of hope, we have to see signs of hope. We need to train our eyes to see in the dark, if you will. To see the light that’s already there.
Because it’s easy, when we’re afraid of the dark, to simply close our eyes and hide. It’s tempting, in troubled times, to assume that everything is dark. And when we feel hopeless, it’s the most natural thing in the world to focus on the very things that make us anxious and scared.
A writer named Clarissa Estes wrote an essay called, “We Were Made for These Times.” In it she says,
In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there.[I]
Look, instead, for the light. Even in the darkness, focus on the light. Because, she says, “The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire.”
As we were working on this sermon series I came across a Psalm that models this very thing for us – both naming the reality of darkness, but also turning toward the light. Look at how the Psalmist turns from one to the other:
Sin whispers to the wicked deep in their hearts;
they have no fear of God at all.
In their blind conceit, they cannot see how wicked they really are.
Everything they say is crooked and deceitful.
They refuse to act wisely or do good.
They plot evil even when resting in bed!
They are set on a path that is not good;
they make no attempt to reject what is wrong.
But then the Psalmist turns from this darkness to something so much greater. The Psalmist turns to hope:
But your loyal love, Lord, extends to the skies;
your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the strongest mountains;
your justice is like the deepest sea.
You care for people and animals alike, O Lord.
Your faithful love is priceless, God!
All humanity finds refuge in the shadow of your wings.
You feed them from the abundance of your own house;
you let them drink from your river of pure joy.
Within you is the spring of life.
In your light, we see light.
“In your light, we see light.”
That’s how we practice hope. Living in God’s light, seeing light.
In one of our worship planning sessions, we started talking about where we see light, and Tracee and Paul Laing’s names came up. They’re the ones who run Healing Arts Mission – you’ve probably met them at our Holiday Fair where they sell artwork from Haiti. Trip had invited them to have dinner with our college group, and they shared the work that Healing Arts is doing in Haiti.
Now if you know anything about Haiti, you know it’s impoverished. It is one of the poorest places on this planet, and the needs are chronic and dire. It would be easy to lose hope, working in a place that battered and bruised. But Tracee and Paul haven’t lost hope.
I think it’s because their mission is so clear. It’s not based on curing or fixing, but on cultivating what is life-giving. Listen to what their website says:
For almost 20 years, Healing Arts Mission has helped support the people of Haiti. Our focus is to provide resources and funding to rural communities that lack access to basic resources, such as healthcare, education, employment, and clean drinking water. The lack of these resources creates the condition of structural poverty. Our aim is to support Haitians by providing access to these fundamental Human Rights. We are committed to fostering the dignity of the individual, respecting the ways of the community, and reflecting the strength of a loving God. [ii]
When Tracee and Paul talked to our college group, what struck Trip most is how they are able to stay so hopeful. They do it by focusing on creating a small corner of beauty and light, wholeness and love. They aren’t trying to solve all the problems of Haiti. They’re not pretending they can undo all that is wrong. But step by small step, relationship by relationship, they are cultivating hope. And it is working. The health of people living in these communities has improved. Life-spans are longer. Literacy is higher. The economy in their communities is higher, in part because Healing Arts Missions provides employment and income for Haitians, lifting up everybody.
It’s not a miracle, not in the blinded-by-lightening sense of that word. But it is a sign of hope. A brilliant, beautiful, small sign of hope. And we can see it. It’s standing there, right before our eyes, bringing the good news of God.
These days, it seems like I see hope everywhere; people writing about it, people talking about it, people living it. I recently came across something Victoria Safford said about hope in an interview on the radio show “On Being”:
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges; nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right,” but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.[iii]
And what I see these days – what I am practicing seeing – is hope.
In God’s light, I see light. The light of souls, throwing sparks.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
[i] Clarissa Pinkola Estes, undated, http://www.grahameb.com/pinkola_estes.htm
[ii] Healing Arts Mission,https://healingartmissions.org/what-we-do/
[iii] Victoria Safford, cited in a blogpost by Parker Palmer, https://onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-hope-is-the-place-where-joy-meets-the-struggle/