During this church year in which we are emphasizing living in the light, it is essential to recognize that every one of us still has tunnels to pass through in this life. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, but some of the tunnels are long and difficult to make it through. And while we journey together as a congregation, we are each of us at different points on the journey. You might be at a point of rejoicing and abundant light in your life and be sitting next to some one who is trying to make it through a tunnel.
What are some of those tunnels? Grief is one of the most obvious. The death of someone very close to you immediately plunges much of life into darkness and you have to make your way through that darkness one step at a time until a new dawn finally begins to break. A divorce is another dark tunnel to pass through. A battle with cancer or a chronic disease or injuries from a major accident or battling an addiction. These are very dark tunnels and it is hard to hold on to hope when you are in one of them.
Watching the news Monday night as the grand jury’s decision was announced in Ferguson, MO, and as events began to play out on the streets, felt like entering a tunnel to me – a tunnel I had been in before, having gone to school in Alabama in the 1960s during desegregation. The Kerygma Bible study classes I have been leading this fall have just completed the fifteen sessions on the Old Testament, and one of the frequent observations has been that people just kept making the same mistakes time after time after time and never learned from them. That thought ran through my mind as I watched the coverage and listened to the speeches. I had a real concern that violence could set a fire which could spread into communities throughout America. Fortunately this has not been the case, at least so far. We have plenty of serious problems that need addressing that we have swept under the carpet for far too long, but the vast majority seem willing to attempt that in a peaceful manner. It may be, in fact, that much good will come of this dark tunnel that no one would have chosen to enter.
The reading from Isaiah has some similarities for us. The Israelites who had spent 50 years in exile in Babylon have been allowed to return to Jerusalem. They came with high and glorious expectations of what it was going to be like to be home after that long, dark walk through the tunnel of exile. But they arrived to find everything in ruins, fields and vineyards overgrown with weeds, and foreigners living in their city. They entered a new tunnel, caused by grief at what they found and discouragement over how difficult it would be to turn it around. Everything they tried to do was opposed by the new residents of Jerusalem, and their relations with them became more and more strained until it became outright animosity. They prayed to God to come down and rid them of their enemies as he had in the Exodus. They tried to wall themselves off from people who were not like them.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus told his disciples there would be lots of tunnels still to come for people of faith. Earthquakes, wars, famines; times when the sun and moon give no light and the powers will be shaken. When Mark was writing down his Gospel, Roman troops were bearing down on Jerusalem to stamp out the Jewish revolt. Soon the Temple would be destroyed, many Jews massacred or exiled, even the name of the country changed from Israel to Palestine. It was a dark tunnel of a time for Jews and Jewish Christians in Israel and throughout the Mediterranean region. The temptation had to be great in that tunnel to abandon faith, to deny faith, to just give up. It is that dark in the tunnel.
But into this kind of darkness, good news breaks in totally unexpected. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, upon them has light shined.” You know the old saying that it is always darkest right before the dawn.
Today we have lit the candle of Hope on the Advent wreath. Hope is all that can keep us moving when we are experiencing the darkness of a tunnel. Hope that there is an end to the tunnel, and that there will be a light awaiting us. Hope that we will be kept safe.
As we pass through tunnels during this Advent season – personal tunnels of grief, of illness, of separation; and corporate tunnels of concern over ISIS and the Middle East tinderbox, fear over Ebola outbreaks, concern about deepening gulfs between races and classes in America; we have to have hope which is based on something far more powerful than the wish that people would do the right thing. Our hope is built on nothing less than the Jesus Christ who has come and who is coming again. He is the light at the end of the tunnel, and he does not just wait there at the end until we arrive. He comes to meet us in the darkness.
And since Jesus invites us to be the light of the world and bear his light into the world, we have the privilege of being beacons of hope to others as well. It might be your light that helps someone get to the end of their tunnel. After my father died a few years ago one of my brothers went to see my mother after Thanksgiving and prepared to get the Christmas decorations out for her as he always did. She said no, I don’t think I want to do that this year. He told her he thought it was important to put them up, and she allowed him to do so. At a time when her hope was flickering, he was willing to light the lights for her, indeed to be the light for her, until she was able to embrace the light for herself again. Maybe there is somebody you can play that role for.
So in hope we continue, year after year, to prepare his house, to set up the signs of his coming, so that we will remember and give thanks for his coming and we will look forward and prepare for his return. So let’s get to work, and let every heart prepare him room!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 30, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church