Quenching the Darkness
Sermon #259 St. Martin’s #17 (Riverway) 3/13/22
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Dreams for the Future
If someone came up to you and asked what your dreams for the future were, what would you say?
Better yet, how would you have answered that question 10 years ago?
Has your life panned out the way you thought it would? For some it may be better than you expected, for others there might’ve been a few bumps in the road but overall things are good. While for others it hasn’t gone nearly as expected, for better or for worse.
I don’t know about you, but I spend way too much time thinking about the past and obsessing over the future. A lot of those early mornings with my daughter, as I’m attempting to rock her back to sleep, my mind wanders to my past or dreaming about my future (and now, her future as well).
But rarely do I take time to reflect on what has gotten me to where I am today—I concentrate too much on particular events or memories or future hopes that I don’t take a step back and look at my life from a ten thousand foot view.
I had a wise professor in seminary, who had been a parish priest his whole life, and he said to our class that it’s a fallacy to think that we automatically learn from our past. He said it’s only if we take the time to reflect on our past—to do the hard and time-consuming work of reflecting on what we did, and why we did it, that we can ever think that we’ll learn from those events.
We all know people who make the same mistake over and over again and don’t learn from it—even on the fourth or fifth attempt—and we normally see that person on a daily basis whenever we look in the mirror.
We can’t help but get lost in the details of life—the daily list that needs to be checked off at work and at home, the errands that must be run, the emails that must be sent, and before you know it, 10 years have passed us by and the path of our life we were so diligently walking at the beginning fades into the forest, and we are left wondering how we got there, among the trees.
I am the Light
And to that feeling of being lost in the woods Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Another translation says, “the light of real life.”
“Do you want to know where to go?” Jesus asks us in this passage. He says that he not only has the light, but he tells us that he is the light that illumines our path. The ruts we can’t get out of, the forest that we are lost in, the darkness that overwhelms us will not have the final say over us.
Throughout this sermon series we are looking at the “I am” statements that Jesus says throughout the Gospel of John. And each time Jesus says “I am the bread of life, the light of the world…” He is saying that because he knows we need the bread that endures, the light that will illumine our path.
And each of time Jesus says one of these seven “I am” statements he is hearkening back to the Hebrew Scriptures. They are clues and hints to his original Jewish audience of who he is claiming to be. And he knew that his original audience was attuned to certain phrases and images that the prophets of old used when talking about the day God would save his people.
A classic one that you may remember is from Isaiah which says, “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.”
When Isaiah talks about God’s light, and when Jesus says he is this “promised light,” there is this sense of hope because both Isaiah and Jesus presume that without this light—the world is in darkness.
Isaiah tells those exiled in Babylon that God’s light will shine on them (one day in the future), and that through them they will reflect God’s light on all the other nations of the world. The prophet even says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Israel would be God’s light-bearers to the world.
When Jesus then picks up this image from Isaiah many years later, he does so with a particular purpose. He is telling the crowd, the day that Isaiah foretold has finally arrived. But he says that I’m not only the bearer of the light, but I am the light itself.
For the Prophet Isaiah, for the gospel writer John, and even Jesus himself, they share a common understanding that world desperately needs the light of God because the world is shrouded in darkness.
We know all too well that our world, at this very moment, is shrouded in the darkness of violence and fear and misused power. The darkness is all too real—and so many people in this world are living in its dreadful grip right now.
Hopes for the future? Our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, and refugees around the world who have been displaced because of war and corruption, aren’t thinking about what their life will look like in the next 10 years, but rather where they will put their head down this very night! Hope for them is much more connected to the here and now, than any far-off dreams.
They are not much different from the exiles that Isaiah prophesied to in Babylon, “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”
Quenching the Darkness
I was thinking a lot about these themes this past Thursday. A friend of mine and I decided to go to St. George Greek Orthodox Church here in Houston for their Great Compline service.
This past week was the first week of Lent in the Orthodox Church, and they do this special evening service each night of this week to mark the beginning of this holy season.
We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We walked in the front door and there were barely any lights on. The hallways were empty, no greeters, no bulletins—probably because this was the last thing they expected visitors to come to.
We then walked into the nave (sanctuary) and it was dark too, just a few lights on for the cantors and readers up front, and there were candles lit near the altar.
Almost the whole service was sung in this dim but holy space. The cantors sang different portions of the psalms and hymns found in the Bible, and they prayed different canticles of the church. We stood there in the dark and listened to these long portions of Scripture being sung while gazing at these beautiful icons painted on the walls.
More and more people trickled in 10 or 15 minutes after it began. It ended up being an hour and a half long service, standing the entire time, incense sifting through the air…and it was beautiful.
The stark divergence between light and darkness was evident just within that sacred space—but I was struck, in particular, by one of the lines the cantor sang which said, “Who will quench the darkness?”
It is a question we have all asked in the face of suffering, or in moments where we have felt utterly lost. “Who, O Lord, will quench the darkness?”
I believe there is something deep in our soul that longs for the light—for the fire of God’s illumination that is for us (and ultimately for the entire world).
We have all experienced in one form or another the darkness: spiritually lost in a dark forest, cold and alone, only to see a small fire in the distance—a glimmer of hope. We are led to the light, and once we have been warmed by that divine fire, we are then led by it. It is our guide and it enlightens our next steps on the journey before us.
No one put wrote about this idea more eloquently than John Henry Newman who lived in the 19th century. He was an Anglican priest in England and later in life a became a Roman Catholic, and ultimately became a cardinal. He was also recently canonized as a saint. He was a prolific writer and preacher, and he was also a gifted poet.
At a low moment in my life, when I wasn’t sure what was next for me, a dear friend handed one of his poems that specifically talks about God’s light amid the darkness, leading those who are wearied and lost. It goes like this:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on; The night is dark, and I am far from home, Lead Thou me on. Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on; I loved to choose and see my path; but now Lead Thou me on. I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, pride ruled my will; remember not past years. So long Thy power hath blessed me, sure it still Will lead me on. O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till The night is gone; And with the morn those angel faces smile, Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Friends, may this Divine Light, this “Kindly Light” who is the Risen and Reigning Jesus be your light in the darkness. May we run after him, seek the fire of his love, and not only be warmed by it, but may we reflect his light into this dark and broken world.
And if that is too much to ask of you in this moment, if you feel too much in a rut, too lost in a spiritual forest seeking a path out, then maybe you can simply pray: “Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on.”