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November 30, 2008
The First Sunday of Advent
Pastor Caroline Satre
Isaiah 9:2-7; John 1:6-9
Pushing Back the Darkness
Grace and peace to you.
Those of you who have been at an Extreme Makeover workday with me (or on a Habitat project) know I’m not very mechanically inclined. I try never to operate power tools or assemble anything. On the few times when I have attempted putting something together, the words alone haven’t made that much sense. “Put peg A into the base at B.” At that point I’m grateful for an illustration… a graphic showing me exactly what I’m looking for. You’ve heard the proverb “a picture is worth a thousand words?” Sometimes that’s true.
On the other hand, I like words a lot. If a story is engaging, I’ve been known to read a book in a few days. Good stories not only entertain, but they also teach us something. Really good stories teach us not only about something or someone else, but about ourselves, too. That’s partly why, when Jesus taught, he spoke in parables; that is, he told stories.
The stories at this time of year are some of the best. Because I had minor surgery about this time last year, I got to watch a lot of holiday classics I hadn’t seen in quite awhile. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. It’s a Wonderful Life. Why is it that these stories never get old?
I feel the same way about the biblical stories at this time of the year. Those of us who frequent a church hear these same stories year after year; yet, we keep coming back for more. Like all good stories, they are entertaining, but they also teach us something at the same time. Like all really good stories, they teach us something about ourselves.
Artists throughout the centuries have painted snapshots of these stories. Sometimes these images teach us how the story worked on the artist. Sometimes, like a good text, the image actually works on us and allows us to see something… and therefore hear something… in a new way. Words and images can be powerful companions.
This Advent and Christmas, then, we are telling the old, old story using both words and images. Along with the familiar biblical stories, we’ve chosen a work of one of the great masters as a companion. As we hear again the timeless tales of Isaiah, John the Baptist, Joseph, and Mary and Elizabeth, we’ll also see how these stories came alive in the imagination of Fra Angelico, Chagall, Watanabi, El Greco and others.
We begin this series today with a metaphor used in both the biblical word and the images of the great masters; we begin with the metaphor of light and darkness. As we enter the darkest part of the year, we hear again the prophecy of Isaiah,“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… ” and the promise of John,“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Those are the WORDS we hear today.
The image that we’ve chosen to accompany these words is by a 17th Century French artist names Georges de la Tour. The main reason we’ve chosen this artist is that he is known for his dramatic use of light and darkness. In the world of art, there is a technical term for this. The term is chiaroscuro, formed from the Italian words chiaro meaning light and scuro meaning dark.
If you look at the front of your worship booklet, you’ll see the particular painting… or image… we’ve chosen to accompany the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist. As with many of de la Tour’s paintings, this is a snapshot of a biblical story; although, the artist never told us definitively which one. Some say this painting is The Dream of St. Joseph (the earthly father of Jesus whose story we’ll hear later in the season); some say this is Samuel waking Eli (a story in the Old Testament). Nevertheless, for our purposes today it is enough to know that this is an image of one of the Bible’s great stories, it takes place at night (which is why there is so much darkness), and, as in many of de la Tour’s works, the light source is visible within the painting. Behind the speaker’s outstretched arm, you can see a candlestick and the flame of one single candle.
While some images reveal more about its subjects or characters than anything else, it seems that de la Tour’s greatest interest is in the effect that one lone candle has on what would otherwise be complete darkness.
This painting, then, is a great complement to the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist. As we hear both Isaiah and John the Baptist promise a light… a light that will make all the difference in the world and in people’s lives… we see de la Tour’s dramatic use of one lone candle to dispel the darkness.
If you’re like me, the darkness works on you at this time of year. Oh, I know we have plenty of neon to light our way, but there is something about the later mornings and the early evenings that makes the prophets’ words and the artist’s image make a lot of sense. In this part of the world… at this time of the year… the metaphor of light and darkness is a powerful one.
Some age-old metaphors need to be explained because time, circumstance, and culture have changed so much since something was written or painted. Not this one. It doesn’t take much imagination for us to realize that darkness symbolizes the struggle, heartache, and hopelessness with which we are entirely too familiar. It also is not much of a leap to recognize that the biblical writers and painters of religious art have used light to symbolize Jesus the Christ. As the December nights grow longer and darkness surrounds us, we are reminded that the one who is light… the one who pushes back our darkness… is on his way.
Of course, there are parts of the world in which people don’t have the benefit of living this metaphor right now. But there are always ways to experience today’s word and image. In a book called Love’s Pure Light, author Mark Radecke tells about his experience with light and darkness. This is what he says:
“Some years ago, two of my children and I went caving. Three rooms and several hundred yards into the cave, the leaders had the group stop, sit down, be as quiet as we could be, and turn off our headlamps. One by one the lights clicked out until we were enveloped by an utter and impenetrable blackness. It was the most profound darkness I have ever experienced. It made no difference whatsoever whether your eyes were open or closed; it was all the same. You literally could not see your hand in front of your face. After a while, the leader turned on his headlamp. It cast enough light to push back the darkness and enable us to see one another, the room we were in, and the pathway out.
While the lights were still out, the leader had asked us how hard we thought it would be to find our way out of the cave without any light. We all said it would be impossible, and any attempt would be not only futile, but also dangerous, since we could not see the hazards, the slippery places, or tell the difference between a five-foot and a fifty-foot drop. The leader agreed and then said,“This particular place is pretty popular. People come here at least every week, and sometimes several times a week. Were you to get stuck in this cave without a light, your best bet would be to wait for someone else to enter the cave and find you.”
There it is. That is exactly what we celebrate at this time of year. When we’ve had about all the darkness we can take, the darkness is pushed back. The days grow longer; there is light. Likewise, in our darkest days… when we’ve had all the struggle and heartache we can withstand… we hear the prophets promise that the one who is the light of the world will enter our darkness, find us, and bring us out. Our darkness is pushed back as we once again hear the good news that “the true light, which enlightens everyone, [is] coming into the world.”
Let us pray.