Monday, December 12, 2011


“Testify to the Light”
John 1:6-8, 19-28
December 11, 2011/Third Sunday of Advent

            I know what it means to be afraid of the dark.  I was afraid of it when I was a little girl.  I don’t remember being too worried about the possibility of monsters under my bed, but I was terrified of the horrible creatures that might lurk in my closet.  Keeping at least one light on kept the monsters away.  I don’t remember when I finally made the transition from nightlight to no light, but it did occur.
            I got a vivid reminder of what it means to be afraid of the dark when our family spent the summer of 2006 living and working at a camp in rural Michigan.  Matt was on a sabbatical and the camp we retreated to was a Presbyterian camp directed by my friend, Chris Gannon.  I served as the program director and Matt was the camp chaplain.  The mission of the camp was to provide a positive camping experience for people, children and adults, with special needs and children from disadvantaged homes and neighborhoods.  In our orientation with the other staff members, Chris reminded us that many of the kids who attended that camp came from inner city Detroit.  If you want to know what inner city looks like, go to Detroit.  Coming from the inner city meant that many of them would not know what full blown dark was like.  In their urban environment, there was never an absence of light.  And night at the camp was a dark experience. 
            Part of my duties as program director was to make rounds at night, checking in with the counselors at each cabin.  I relied on my flashlight to walk from cabin to cabin, partly because I didn’t want to stumble over something and also because of my enduring fear of snakes.  I definitely didn’t want to stumble over one of them.  But by the end of our time there, I could walk to the cabins and back to the lodge using only the light of the night sky to guide me. 
            I realized that if I was patient and allowed my eyes to adjust, the light from the heavens was more than enough. 
            Most adults would describe being afraid of the dark as something that only afflicts children, but many of us live as though the darkness is exactly what we’re afraid of.  I still make use of nightlights.  We have one in our hallway in case someone has to get up in the night.  Usually that’s me.  I keep a little light on in the kitchen every night, again in case someone – usually me – is up during the darkest hours. 
            But even if I didn’t employ nightlights, I think there would be plenty of light coming from outside our house to see by.  And I’m not talking about the moon and the stars.  There are streetlights.  There is a tall light in our backyard that goes on automatically at night.  There are the lights that come from the city of Shawnee itself.  I realize that Shawnee is not the same as major metropolitan areas like New York or Los Angeles, but there is still a significant amount of artificial light happening during the night around here that seeing is not a problem.
            But what does all of this light do to us?  There is a growing body of scientific evidence that considers the large amount of artificial light we produce to be light pollution.  And just as the name pollution implies, light pollution has negative consequences on the natural world.
            One creature that is affected by light pollution is the sea turtle.  Who knew?  But yes the sea turtle, already a creature that has many odds stacked against it, is struggling because of light pollution.  Female sea turtles return to the same beaches year after year to lay their eggs.  Human development on those beaches is one problem that they face.  We humans just keep encroaching on their habitat.  But it turns out that the light from the human development on those beaches disorients them.  As they’re swimming in from the sea, they use the dark shape of the beach to guide them.  The lights confuse them and they have a hard time going from the sea to land to lay their eggs.  I know in our minds this seems counter-intuitive.  Shouldn’t the lights help them find their way?  But it doesn’t work like that. 
            It’s also affecting the baby sea turtles trying to swim back out to sea.  Again, the artificial light is disorienting.  In other words, all the lights that we have are messing with the sea turtles. 
            Maybe that seems like a relatively small blip in the greater scheme of things, and I’m sure that many of you are wondering at this crunchy-granola type pastor that you called, but the reality is that light pollution is affecting a wide variety of creatures, and that includes us.
            An earthquake struck the Los Angeles area in the mid 1990’s, knocking out the power grid that keeps greater LA bathed in light.  Once the darkness had settled, people began calling emergency services, afraid, because of a strange glow in the night sky. 
            It was the Milky Way. 
            Many people had never witnessed that before because the artificial lights of Los Angeles or any city kept the heavens from being viewed.  And what’s more, scientists believe that 80 to 90 percent of people in major cities have actually lost their ability to see the Milky Way.  It’s not just that our lights block it from us.  We can no longer see it.
            We have surrounded ourselves with light, but we can no longer see.
            “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
            Into the darkness came John.  He was not the Light, but he testified to the Light.  He pointed to the Light.  He knew that the Light of the world was upon them.  But could they see it?
            Karoline Lewis, preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes that this is not the John we saw last week.  Last week we got a glimpse of John the Baptizer.  John, with the camel hair clothing and that wacky diet of honey and locusts, who came preaching a baptism of repentance.    Last week it was prepare the way.  Get ready.  Prepare.
            This week we see John the Witness.  This week we see the John who testified to the Light.  The Light is here, it is shining on us.  Do we see it?  As Lewis put it, this is a cosmic event.  God is reordering the world and all creation.  But we need a human to point that way.  That human is John. 
            John, in his testimony, very succinctly tells his questioners who he is not.  He is not the Messiah.  He is not Elijah. He is not the prophet.  He is not the one who brings the Light.  He testifies to it.  He is the voice crying out in the wilderness.  He testifies to the Light. 
            He testifies to the Light because we know the people walk in darkness. 
            What does it mean to walk in darkness?
            Obviously the people who lived at the time of Jesus lived in more literal darkness.  I’m sure they had no problem seeing the Milky Way, because there was no abundance of artificial light to block it.  They would have had the light of fire and oil lamps.  But they would not have had the great lights that project into our own night sky.
            But the literal meaning of darkness only sits on the surface.  Their darkness went to their very soul.  Their world was ordered by the Law, but it was a dark world because they could not see how God was working in their midst.  Oh sure, they had the words of the prophets, warnings, predictions.  They waited for a Messiah.  They prayed and sacrificed and did what they thought God wanted them to do.  Yet the darkness was pervasive. 
            The people who walk in darkness have seen a great Light. 
            John came to testify to the Light.
            We have so much light, perhaps too much light that it is challenging to recognize how these words might speak to us. 
            With so much light all around us, how can we possibly walk in darkness? 
            Yet the darkness is pervasive. 
            So what darkness do we walk in?  Is the darkness our fears?  Is it our lostness?  Is it our brokenness?  Is it our loneliness?  Is it our ability to forget that just by being human we have inextricable bonds with every other human being?  Is it our willingness to put ourselves above God?  Is it our knack for thinking we need no one but ourselves?  Is it that we try to replace the Light with a capital L with all the other small lowercase lights out there? 
The darkness is pervasive, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus is the Light of the World.  Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, Jesus, the Son of God, Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is the Light of the World.  And that is a Light that does not pollute or skew our vision.  The Light of the World cannot be extinguished.  The Light of the World is not overcome by the darkness of the world, no matter how powerful that darkness seems to be.  The Light of the World is in our midst.  John testified to it.  And so must we.  We are a people who spend our days and our nights walking in great darkness.  But we have seen a great light. 
Alleluia!  Amen.

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