I was thinking about this matter of light and darkness one morning as I got up, and groggily shut off the alarm clock, which was grinning a big red "6:09" at me, and gloating because I had to get up and it didn’t … and I felt my way across the room, being careful not to trip over the dog, or catch my toe on the bed frame, or stumble over something and I flipped on the light switch, and wow! Suddenly, everything was revealed. All those hidden hazards were dangers no longer. I could see exactly where I was, and where I needed to go.
Now, that’s a perfectly piddling example of what Isaiah is talking about … Just one person walking in darkness, and hardly a great light at all, just a few bulbs at that. But if a little bit of light like that can mean the difference between stumbling over dangers, and avoiding them, and can illumine for you the way you need to go … How much more will the light that God brings into the world do! "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness –on them has light shined."
That’s us! Yes, I know Isaiah was talking to our ancestors in the faith … but now, we are here, we are part of that faith community, and we are included in his words. And now we have a choice to make like they had to make in days long ago. Will we welcome that light, and what it reveals; or will we hide in fear, and continue to walk in the darkness?
That might seem like a strange question at first. Why would any of us want to walk in darkness, and risk tripping over the dog, or falling into a pit, or losing our way entirely? No one wants to do those things. But what is so seductive about darkness is that is also hides things we want to keep hidden … from other people and from ourselves. Light reveals all kinds of things: our past … our fears … our pain … our prejudices … our shortcomings. The thought of God’s light being shined into our lives may at first seem more than we can endure. And yet the alternative, to remain bumbling around in the darkness, isn’t exactly attractive, either.
And so, many of us live as close to the boundary as we can. We seek out the light for its guidance and assistance … But if it starts to reveal too much, we quickly bolt and run back to the safety of the darkness.
And it’s not just that the light reveals things about us, personally, though that often feels scary enough … It also shows us the truth about our world, and asks the implicit question, what are we going to do about it? Here, says the light, let me highlight some things for you. Here are people starving in the Sudan. Here is a homeless woman, sleeping in the cold. Here is a child who has been abused. Here is a prisoner who did not receive a fair trial. What will we do to bring light to these people? And the very tempting answer is, I think I’ll turn out the light and go back to sleep.
Oh yes, darkness can be sheltering. And if enough of us choose the darkness, we can cozy up together and not even notice that without the light, it’s a wee bit chilly.
And yet we know, and Isaiah reminds us in case we forgot, that the light is where God is. That’s not to say that God doesn’t reach us in the darkness … God is always reaching for us. But it is to say that if we choose to remain in the darkness, we have chosen against God. God is in the light; God is the light. And God calls us into the light, whatever it reveals.
One thing for us to keep in mind, however, as we wrestle with making the choice … is that our Christian faith assures us that, in the end, light overcomes darkness. Ultimately, all will be enlightened; all will be revealed. Now, that might seem like stacking the deck on God’s part … exercising undue influence over our choice. Who wants to pick a loser? If we know God is ultimately going to prevail, how can we choose darkness, no matter how comfortable or comforting it is?
We have the assurance that, no matter what the destruction and darkness and evil we may see around us, the light of God will prevail. And we can choose. We can choose whether we will be participants in receiving the light, walking in the light, spreading the light … or whether we will hide from it, and ourselves be an obstacle in its way.
An old rabbi once asked his students: "How is it that you know when the night has ended and the day has begun?" And one student said, "Is it when you can tell a dog from a goat at a distance of 20 paces?" "No," says the rabbi. "Sir," says another student, "is it when you can tell an elm tree from a birch at 50 paces?" "No," says the rabbi. "Well then, tell us, please," they said. "Ah," says the rabbi. "It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman, and see that it is your sister or brother. If you cannot see this, it is still night."
We start with one another. We are each other’s brothers and sisters; that’s not too hard to see. But it’s also only the beginning. The prisoners in the cells at the county jail are my brothers and sisters. The homeless men who are mentally ill are my brothers. The suffering men, women and children wherever I encounter them are my sisters and brothers … And so are the people causing their suffering, that’s one of the most difficult parts of the light.
And yet, if we don’t do all that we can to keep ourselves in the light, we can never hope to bring that light to anyone else, or to bring them into the light with us. We can’t fish others out of the darkness if we are still there ourselves.
We have seen a great light in Jesus. Though we have all spent time in darkness, the light has shined on us. May we walk in that light … may we bring it to others. So that, some day, we shall all celebrate when God’s light eradicates the darkness once and for all.