Walking in the Light
On this frosty morning we, along with sisters and brothers in Christ around the world who follow the western calendar, enter the blessed season of Advent. And for those of us who follow the Common Lectionary, our biblical texts implore us to wake from sleep. “Hey you!” they say. “Stop sleepwalking! Snap out of your rut; pull off your blinders – you’re not a horse! Come off of cruise control – do it now! Really live – start living now – so you can be ready for the most important thing in the universe – the birth of the Messiah in your very midst. Don’t miss this! You can miss it, you know – shopping, fretting, dozing, drinking, glued to a screen, irresponsible, hyper-responsible, a slave to tasks, in how many ways can you let yourself be distracted from what really matters?”
And some of us respond to these biblical calls for wakefulness: “Not me! I am so wide-awake as to set records at the task! Every moment of my day is spent intentionally – I have scheduled everything down to the millisecond for maximum efficiency!” And to us the biblical writers say, “Wake up – you. Wake up! Wake up to the unscheduled wonder and mystery that is Advent. Leave off your servanthood to responsibility, obligation, and your own idea of righteousness. You are missing a lot as you tick things off of your to-do list. The Messiah won’t be born in your heart because you get everything done, but because you make room in your heart to be attentive to his arrival.”
Meanwhile, others of us hear Paul’s admonition to the Romans, “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” and we say, “Thanks, but no. Now isn’t the moment. I’ll think about it, though, for sometime next year. Maybe that’s how I’ll celebrate next Advent. Things could only be better then. Sleepwalking isn’t always a bad option – it depends on what’s going on in your life. Sleepwalking can be a good thing – it can keep the pain at bay, it can be a great way to cope, let’s just call it a blessing. Waking up to real life is always an option – one that I think I need to exercise…later. The Messiah was born two thousand years ago, and he can be born again in my heart whenever I’m ready. What is the rush for this month?”
There are the things we do in “the dark” – in the furtive, secret ways and places that we think and hope no one notices. The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde draws on this – on the ways in which we are virtuous in the light but let out another nefarious side of ourselves in the dark. We sleepwalk in the dark – in those times when all is still and black and we assume that no one can see us. This is when we do the things we don’t wish others to know of us. Isaiah invites us to “walk in the light of God” – to walk in the bright light of day that is not just abundant sunshine but the very Light of God. Live there, says Isaiah. Paul tells the Romans, “Name off the ways that you live when you think no one is looking,” and “put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day… put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And so we hear the invitation at the beginning of Advent, as we may not at any other time, to live honorably, rightly, lovingly, mercifully. The light of God is always shining upon us, whether our lives feel light-full or whether they do not. This Advent is our newest invitation to pare down our double life to a single life – to end the things we do in private or in secret (the things we do “at night”) – and to live only out of those things we do, and are, in the bright light of day. It is time to live honorably, whatever that means for you. It is time to speak the truth you know, to love as fully as you can, to inhabit for other people the love of God made flesh in our very midst. It is time to embody the very love of God, in all its fullness. It is time to walk in the light of God, with every step that we take.
Siyahamba koo ko n’yen kwen kos, says the South African freedom song: “We are marching in the light of God.” Yes, they were and are – marching for human equality, and for justice for all people in South Africa. “We are singing in the light of God,” “We are dancing in the light of God” – so went the following verses. All in the light of God! Moving and pushing with their own might towards a society in which every person would equally be a citizen. ALL – in the light of God!
The Quakers in this community of faith – and everywhere – speak of “holding people in the light” – of lifting up those people who need help in the moment of any kind – of sharing in the spiritual and physical burden of “holding them in the light” – of lifting them up – of bringing them to God’s attention through their own love and care – of shouldering their burdens and everything else in order to hoist them into a space of blessed recognition and love and mercy. What holy work! What blessed effort, what neighborly care! We hear the admonition in Advent here to “walk in the light of God,” not just for ourselves, but to usher others into “the light of God.”
Our instruction from the Prophet Isaiah is just that: to invite all peoples to walk in the light. Isaiah’s prophecy is globally inclusive and lacking in condemnation – God will arbitrate with justice between all the nations, and so every one of us will turn our weapons of mass destruction into instruments for harvesting food. Nuclear warheads will become combines, AK-47s will become tillers, land mines will become hoes. From large-scale weapons to the small, from large-scale agricultural machinery to the hand-held, every tool of destruction will become a tool of human uplift, of nourishment, of healthy and sustainable life.
And so this, in the end, is what it means to live a wakeful life, a ready life – it is not simply to notice what is going on around us – to avoid somnambulance, sleepwalking. It is also to change what is going on around us. When we encounter tools of human undoing, such as weapons, drugs, quarreling, and jealousy, we re-work them into tools of human flourishing – harvest, health, concord, mutual support. God Almighty, we hear from the Prophet Isaiah, is ready to work these things in all people, and not simply those we like, or those we think believe as we do. Everyone. All we need to do – “all” we need to do – is partner with them. That part is up to us.
“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of God!” What yearning, what imploring come out of Isaiah’s words! God needs us to walk in the light in order that others may be invited to do the same. God needs us in order to redeem. “Wake up!” implore all the biblical writers. “Get your act together!” The healing of all the nations begins when you stop sleepwalking. The Messiah is coming. Put yourselves and all the world on notice. Salvation is at hand. Don’t be distracted. Don’t be busy – busy with what? Shift all your important responsibilities to their rightful place, their appropriate quadrant in your life.
“O…come, let us walk in the light of God!” Let us make an example of the large and small issues of our days – the large and small steps we take as we walk – so that we point to the love and mercy of God with every movement of our feet, legs, hands, arms, faces. Let everything we do testify to God’s work of salvation – and to our savior, so soon to be born among us again. Our days are numbered and always have been – why walk to any other tune? Why walk in any other path? Why walk in darkness or false light when we could walk in the light of God? The choice is always – and always has been – ours to make. When we say that forces larger than ourselves control us, we are admitting to our experience of all that is not of our choosing, but also we are excusing ourselves from our own agency. We can choose to walk in the light of God through the most difficult terrain, or the deepest valley. God’s light reaches everywhere. The question is, does our faith reach God from anywhere?
Life is hard. The first hearers of Isaiah’s prophecy knew it; they’d been to hell and back. Yet to them and us, he says, “Let us walk in the light of God!” Let us take every step in the path of God’s healing, restoration, salvation. Let us not doze off (oblivion feels great and some dreams are fun) – but let’s not do it. Let’s stay wide-awake, alert, ready for the Savior when he comes, and pointing all people to him.
Barbara Lundblad, who preached here in October, has written a new verse for our most familiar Advent hymn to testify to Isaiah’s prophecy:
O come, O come, Immanuel
And bless each place your people dwell.
Melt ev’ry weapon crafted for war,
Bring peace upon the earth forevermore.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear
God’s Chosen One, Immanuel, draws near.