A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Text: Isaiah 2:1-5
“Isaiah is clear that we are not the ones who usher in a new era; it is God who brings it forth. Some would therefore say that Isaiah’s call is not to action but to hope; but hope, in the end is action, with the power to overturn old assumptions and sad cynicism, to give new eyes, and to heal our warring hearts.”
Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastor, First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, MI
In the spring of my freshman year of college the Glee Club went on tour. I had never experienced anything quite like it. We traveled by bus to Washington, DC, for our first concert. The rest of the tour was by train – to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Memphis, and on to Little Rock, our western terminus. While in Little Rock, we sang a concert at the Arkansas School for the Blind. Our conductor, J. Bailey Harvey, affectionately known as “Oats” for reasons I can’t remember, was a “hail fellow well met.” He was a big man with a booming baritone, an English professor at City College by occupation and an amateur conductor driven by his love of the male chorus tradition and memories of his own bight college days. He always insisted we sing like men, not boys and we did our best to comply with eager desire to fulfill his hopes for us and sound grown up.
But “Oats” was sometimes impulsive and not always to the best end. At the end of our concert at the blind school, he was suddenly struck with the inspiration to add a song that at least half the choir didn’t know and had never heard before. The song was an old spiritual, “Walking in the Light.” I don’t know what inspired him to add that song to a concert for blind children and youth. It seemed awkward and not just because of its unfamiliarity. When he saw the alarm on some of our faces, he probably whispered one of his favorite choral instructions, “Just make up some nice words and music and sing along.” And so we began to file out of the auditorium to the strains of ”Walking in the Light,” following the lead of the singers who did know it. It didn’t take long to pick up the simple tune and words – “We are walking in the light. We are walking in the light, children. We are walking in the light of God.”
To our surprise, the whole gathering broke into clapping and smiling and singing along. It was a stroke of programming genius; more than a few tears were shed before we made it to the doors in the back of the auditorium. This was surely one time when we needed to trust that the man in charge knew what he was doing.
Reflecting on that experience from nearly fifty years ago, I wondered what it might mean for a blind child to sing about “walking in the light.” I don’t want to sentimentalize this experience, but, clearly, on that day that simple spiritual spoke to them, singing its truth somewhere deep within. There was definitely something enlightening for those of us who shared the warmth of their smiles, the rhythm of their clapping, and the joy in their voices.
“We are walking in the light of God.” What did that mean for them and what does it mean for us today? Those children were not suddenly sighted just because we sang that song and affirmed that truth. There were still dark clouds and rainfall yesterday. The political prospects for our country seem dim and not very hopeful, at least in the near future. People are ill and dying. Bombs fall, triggers are pulled, blood flows in the streets. Homes, schools, hospitals, whole villages are destroyed. Folk flee for their survival, ending up in overcrowded, underserved camps or hiding from the terror wherever they can. Native peoples are sprayed with hoses in freezing weather because they want to protect land that is sacred to them. Fierce winds blow, the earth shakes, creation groans in labor “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19). There is a lot of darkness that is neither beautiful or embraceable on the face of earth.
And Isaiah has the audacity to say to us, from the midst all that threatens and troubles, “O people of God, come, let us walk in the light of the Holy One!” A few chapters later, he proclaims, “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” (Isaiah 9:2). And the writer of John’s gospel tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:5, 9). What can all this talk of light mean to a blind child, a frightened youth, a terrified parent, a refugee family, a soldier, a leader, you and me, living here with our own challenges and worries. “Walk in the light, children. Walk in the light of God!” That’s easy for you to say, but, to quote another, spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I see.”
On this first Sunday in Advent, when tradition invites us to focus on hope, I am wondering if there is a way we can look at the light shining in the darkness without denying the reality of darkness or overvaluing the virtues of light. That is, I believe there is a kind of light that burns within us, a kind of heart light, lit there by the “Light of the World.” The darkness does not overcome it but it also does not do away with the darkness. Remember last year during Advent we considered, with wonder, the mystery and the beauty of darkness? Last year, Barbara Brown Taylor invited us to walk in the darkness. This year, Isaiah invites us to walk in the light. Today, I am wondering if these walks are really so different, especially if this light of God illuminates the way, whether we walk in sunshine or shadow.
A blind child may never literally see the light of day but she can know the light of God. That’s what I took from those children who sang with us that day. They didn’t have to be sighted to walk in the light of God. We don’t have to be free of all our troubles to walk in the light of God. When Isaiah says, “O people of God, come, let us walk in the light of the Holy One!” he’s not talking about crossing to the sunny side of the street. He’s talking about a heart discipline that serves in sunlight and in shadow, something that’s learned with time and experience and the desire know.
A heart discipline or spiritual practice is a tool, a resource we cultivate for the journey, wherever it may take us. Walking in the light of God is something deeper and more challenging than a stroll in the sunshine. It is really taking God into the center of our being, or rather letting God’s presence grow from our core outward, warming, enlightening, inspiring our whole being – heart, mind, body, and soul. Walking in the light of God is recognizing that you are child of God. It is seeing with the eyes of your soul that, no matter what, God loves and desires only good for us. And when the road gets rough, God goes with us all the way.
Again we encounter the audacity of hope. It seems to come around with increasing frequency these days. As we struggle to make sense of the recent results of the election in our country and we look at so much difficulty, distress, and destruction in the world, it may be hard to hold hope. I get that. This is where cultivating that heart discipline of walking in God’s light may actually be life-saving, if not the very hope of the world. In today’s Words of Preparation, Stacey Simpson Duke, helps us see how important it is to be linked to God in order to walk with God and work with God. She writes of today’s ancient word, “Isaiah is clear that we are not the ones who usher in a new era; it is God who brings it forth. Some would therefore say that Isaiah’s call is not to action but to hope; but,” she argues, “hope, in the end is action, with the power to overturn old assumptions and sad cynicism, to give new eyes, and to heal our warring hearts.” To see with new eyes and to heal old wounds, this is a benefit of walking in the light of God. Stacey, by the way, recently took her hope to North Dakota where she was arrested trying to overturn some old assumptions and sad cynicism. Walking in the light is more than a lovely idea.
Imagine a world in which swords are beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks; a world in which nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. We seem so far from that degree of enlightenment. Yet here is Isaiah in the middle of his harsh, judgmental prophecy against his people stopping for a moment to hold a little hope, to light a candle for what could be, to be sure that his listeners know that whatever troubles lay ahead there is always light at the end of the tunnel, God’s light. It is the stubborn audacity of hope to insist on its place even in the most difficult times and challenging situations. Again and again, Advent teaches us that a better day is coming, that God’s Light is breaking into the world, that what seems so impossible may yet spring forth as God’s new thing. Holding that hope that leads to action, to making the glorious vision a reality on earth as in heaven, now and in the future, “O people of God, come, let us walk in the light of the Holy One!” Amen.