Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Friends, I need to tell you that I do not find it easy to preach these days. When we Christian preacher types preach we think we’re supposed to offer the people joy, peace, and hope. Challenge too, and maybe some other things, but mostly joy, peace, and hope. I know that’s what I’m supposed to do up here, and these days I find it almost impossible to do it. I mean, the state of our nation and of God’s world certainly isn’t bringing me peace, or hope today. Even less is it bringing me joy. It’s hard if not impossible for people like me who don’t want to deceive you to bring you things that I’m not feeling myself. So when Louise asked me if I’d preach here today I said yes, but I knew when I said it that finding something worth saying to you that would feel authentic to me would not be easy. Here’s the best I’ve come up with.
I’m sure I don’t need to chronicle for you the sorry state of our nation and of God’s world these days. You already know as much about it as I do. We all know the world’s a mess. I’ll just mention a few of the lowlights. War and violence rage across the globe from Syria to America’s inner cities. We’re hellbent on destroying the environment of the only planet we’ve got. Fascist nationalism, exclusionism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry are on the rise in many places, including the good old USA, and are becoming more socially acceptable than they’ve been in decades. The world went mad with most of these things in the first half of the last century at a cost of tens upon tens of millions of lives, or more; and today it looks like the world has learned little or nothing from those decades of hell on earth. So yes, I know what I’m supposed to preach; and yes, I find doing that very difficult to do these days. And if I find preaching joy and hope and peace difficult, perhaps you find those things as hard to find these days as I do.
So what are we to do? The only thing I can think to do is to keep returning to the foundations of our Christian faith. Of course the Bible is not the only foundation of our Christian faith, but it is certainly one of the most important of them, a truth that coincides very nicely with the fact that we Christian preacher types, if we’re doing our jobs right, mostly preach from that very same Bible. For this week the readings in the lectionary turned out to be very helpful to me, and I think perhaps two of the readings I found there may be helpful to you too. We just heard them. Here’s some of what I take from them that I think speaks to the despair that I find it so hard to avoid these days.
First, a few verses from Psalm 27. They begin with a startling declaration: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” The word Lord here is actually Yahweh in the Hebrew original. We can take it to mean God, though it doesn’t mean Jesus. This wonderful psalm has other striking verses in it too. It says that God “will hide me in [God’s] shelter in the day of trouble.” These verses speak powerfully to me in these difficult days. I certainly experience our days as days of trouble. I sometimes find fear hard to avoid in the face of an overheating planet and right-wing hatred that seems to rise all around us. I certainly experience our times as a time of metaphorical darkness, and the world sure seems to need a lot of salvation. The psalmist of Psalm 27 powerfully expresses the response of faith to difficult times like these. God is light in the world’s darkness. We need not be afraid. God protects us in our time of troubles. Salvation is available to us and to the world, and that salvation comes only from God. The ancient unknown author of these words spoke profound truth indeed.
Then we have our passage from Isaiah. We read: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” And: “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken….” These verses probably originally referred to events in the ancient history of Israel, so we need to ask: Do they mean anything to us? I mean, it’s not like everyone in our present darkness has seen a great light. It’s not like the yoke of the burden of our current context has been broken. These verses say God has done that, but it sure doesn’t look to me like God has done that for our country today. So do these verses mean anything to us at all? I think they do, and here’s how I think they do.
God is light in our darkness, and I think it is precisely as light in our darkness that God lifts the yoke from our shoulders. Scripture tells us that our present darkness, the burden we’re all feeling these days, is not God’s will for us. When Isaiah says God have lifted our burden I hear the text saying that while darkness and burdens persist they are not God’s will. They are not what God wants for God’s creation. When we combine that notion with the profound truth that God is light in our darkness we learn that God is present in that darkness shining the light of God’s truth into the world and calling us always toward God’s light and away from the world’s darkness. And because God is present in that darkness we can have hope. We can have faith that God isn’t going to give up on God’s world or on us. Thanks be to God!
So OK. That’s all well and good in theory I suppose, but what good does it do us in our daily lives? Every day we get bombarded with the bad news. Our president’s claim that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and his supporters would still vote for him seems to be borne out by the continued support they show him in the polls. We hear of environmental regulations being repealed nearly every day. Thousands upon thousands of children remain separated from their parents at out southern border. The rich get richer and millions of others struggle with little hope of improving their lot in life. I won’t go on. You all know these things as well as I do.
Is that message of God’s presence with us under our burdens and God’s light in our darkness really any help in the face of all that bad news? I don’t know about you, but I hear the world’s bad news a lot more than I hear God’s good news. The bad news is all over the TV. I’m aware of no good theology on TV. If I’m lucky I hear good preaching once a week, not more.
So here’s what I think we need to do. Pay more attention to God’s presence and light in our darkness than I at least usually do. Connect ourselves to God more frequently and intentionally than I suspect most of us usually do. Give God’s good news as much airtime in our lives as we give the world’s bad news. How? Pray. Pray hard and often. Study scripture. Practice spiritual disciplines like meditation and observing sabbath time. And please realize: I’m talking to myself here as much as I’m talking to you. I need to hear these words as much or probably more than you do. None of that is going to make the world’s bad news go away. It can however make God’s good news more present to us. It can give us something to hold onto when we feel ourselves falling. It can lift us up when we’re feeling crushed. It can light our path when we feel lost. It can give us hope when all we feel is despair. It can get us off the couch and out doing something good in the world when we feel immobilized by hopelessness. Frankly, people of good will and good intent doing that is the only way the hope God offers us becomes real in the world.
So yes. We can find the light in our darkness of which Psalm 27 speaks. We can experience God lifting some of the yoke from our shoulders as Isaiah says God does. But we won’t find the light, we won’t experience the lifting of the yoke, if we just sit and wait for it to happen. Seeing the light requires work—from us. Feeling relief from the burdens of the day requires work—from us. So let’s get on with it shall we? I hope I will. I hope you will too. Amen.