Reflecting the Light: HOPE

Sunday, December 6, 2020 Isaiah 40:1-11  

I will light candles of hope where despair keeps watch.  I don’t even have to list the contributors to despair for us this morning, do I?  Each of us keeps our own running list of ways despair seems to be keeping watch over us, our community, our nation, and our world.  How to light a candle of hope with despair keeping watch?

Howard Thurman, the author of the poem we are using as a guide this Advent, was a prolific writer and speaker.  In the dark days of World War II, Thurman spoke at the 1943 graduation of Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, IL, offering a candle of hope to the graduates and to all of us.  He starts off with: “Curious indeed is the fact that at a time of crisis men (and women) must be constantly reminded that the crisis does not mark the end of all things.” We humans tend to be very near sighted when it comes to a time of crisis, whether it is a personal crisis or a national crisis or even a global crisis.  It seems all we can see, all we can focus on is the crisis, forgetting that our current situation is not the ultimate destiny for any of us.  Thurman believes that we must be bearers of witness to the truth that the ultimate destiny of humans is good, not evil, peace, not trouble.  In his words: “it is particularly important at such a moment as our own, now that the whole round world is rolling in darkness.”  Sounds like he is writing directly to us in this moment. 

The prophet Isaiah’s message which we heard this morning is the very beginning of what we call Second Isaiah, a section of this prophetic book which was written to the exiles who were hoping to return to Jerusalem.  The entire first 39 chapters of Isaiah are written to lambast the sinful people of Judah, providing ample evidence as to why God will use Babylon to carry them off into exile.  It is full of dire warnings of future doom for Judah.  This is a shift.  And this is written later, perhaps by a pupil of Isaiah.  Here we find words of comfort to a people who have already endured.  Words of comfort that they have paid their penalty, they have served their prison term in Babylon.  The backdrop here is this:  King Cyrus of Persia has extended his realm to include Babylon, among other surrounding nations, and although he maintained rule over all the areas he conquered, Cyrus was willing to allow exiles to return to their homelands.  Isaiah clearly understands Cyrus as being used by God to enable the long-held hopes of the people of Judah to be fulfilled.

What is the message of comfort?  Making a highway in the wilderness, making a way out of no way, making a place where God’s glory will be visible.  No longer will they be prisoners in a foreign land, but are being transformed into prisoners of hope, a phrase found in the prophet Zechariah and used by Thurman in some of his writings.  Prisoners of hope—are so entangled in hope that we can not be separated from it.  Prisoners of hope are so surrounded by hope that we carry it even in the midst of a crisis.  Prisoners of hope are so filled with hope that we can see beyond the current troubles. 

It is in this return to Jerusalem that the glory of the Lord is made visible.  Surely this is the light, the darkness-overcoming light, the exile-ending light, the hope-producing light that is God.  When we are freed from the prison of fear, of loneliness, of illness, of self-deprecation, of negativity, we become reflectors of that light, the glory of God.

I see Thurman and the prophet Isaiah giving a similar message:  look at the big picture, the long view.  Isaiah says we are temporary, like grass that withers, like the flowers placed on a grave which fade, losing their color and shape.  The big picture shows there is much more to life than fragile, limited human beings.  It is God’s word which stands forever.   

  The people themselves are to become the heralds of good news, the ones who announce it to the world, who shout with full voice—“here is your God!”.  That is our good news, our proclamation to the world as well.  Where are you able to say, “here is our God!”?  We can say, “here is your God!” when we sit with a friend who is in grief, not trying to fix it, but simply to be present.  We can say, “here is your God!” when we notice the beauty of a flower growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk, reaching for the sky.  We can say, “here is your God!”  when a loved one is crying out for forgiveness.  We can say, “here is your God!” when we hear the angels announce the birth to the shepherds in the fields.  We can say, “here is your God!”  when we light a candle of hope where despair keeps watch.  We can say, “here is your God!” when we remember that God is bigger than any crisis that might come our way, when we recognize that we are prisoners of hope, hope in Christ, our Savior, God with us, Emmanuel.

Who is this God?  Isaiah tells us that this is a God who comes with strength, with arms stretched out in victory.  Not like a soldier or a warrior, but like a shepherd who cares and protects, who gathers and draws together once again a people who have been scattered, deflated, disillusioned, full of despair.  This God comes to an exiled people who had been wondering if God really was powerful, wondering if God really loved them.  This God comes with power and with love.  This God brings hope for new life, hope for life beyond the current situation.

Victoria is in third grade.  She has written and recorded several songs about her hope for the day when she and the rest of us will be free from the restrictions of the coronavirus which keeps her from her friends, her grandparents, her activities, her school building. She is my cousin’s daughter, and since he is a music teacher and musician, he has added various instruments to the recording of her voice, and they are creating a beautiful expression of hope.

I asked Victoria’s permission to share some of her lyrics with you today.  One of her songs is called “House Fever”, another is “I Can’t take it anymore”, and she repeats that as a refrain multiple times … but even there, she offers hope… the last verse is:   Rain clouds getting dark inside of me So many things I want to see Lightning flashes, thunder booms Just wanting to get out of these rooms All the happiness is fading away I know that this will end some day 

We can relate, can’t we?  We may be feeling like rain clouds are getting dark inside of us, as we watch the whole round world rolling in darkness.  We are looking for a candle of hope where despair keeps watch. I find hope in Victoria’s song, “Cartwheels in my mind”.  It goes like this:

Sometimes when it gets crowded in my head

And suddenly I am seeing red

take a step back,

Take a breath

Reload your mind,

Focus on the world at rest.

Cartwheels in my mind,

Gonna dance and unwind,

Cartwheels in my mind

Just gonna let it shine.

When you’re mad you don’t see things right

 You pout and scream,

And maybe even fight

Take a breath, take a step

Take one more to get back in your head.

Cartwheels in my mind,

Gonna dance and unwind,

Cartwheels in my mind

Just gonna let it shine.

It is the light shining in the darkness, shining through a crowded head or an angry face.  It is a candle of hope where despair keeps watch.

 I wanted to learn more about Howard Thurman, so I purchased two of his books.  This week I have been inspired by Meditations of the Heart.  It is a collection of short reflections offering guidance, encouragement, and strength.  One is a prayer to God…I invite you to join me for the last part of his prayer:  “Kindle thy light within me, O God, that Thy glow may be spread over all of my life; yea indeed, that Thy glow may be spread over all of my life.  More and more, may Thy light give radiance to my flickering candle, fresh vigor to my struggling intent, and renewal to my flagging spirit.  Without Thy light within me, I must spend my years fumbling in my darkness.” Amen.

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