This was my first sermon in the season of Advent for the Deer Creek Charge. We welcomed everyone into worship with party hats and sparkling cider, mimicing our New Year's Eve traditions to emphasize how Advent is the beginning of our Christian new year!
Scripture: Luke 1:68-79 (NRSV)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Sermon: Give us light, guide our feet
Will you pray with me:
Tender God, merciful God, you are always ever redeeming us, raising us up.
Raise us up today in this place. Speak to us through these words, through our thoughts, or just in spite of us. Give us light, God. Guide our feet. Amen.
Have you ever been caving? Now, I have never been hard core splunking or anything, but I love visiting caves and caverns. The damp coolness of the stone enveloping you is oddly comforting in hot summer months, at least at first, though it would not be so now. As a child, I was a science fiction and fantasy nut (some would say I still am), and so being in caves would open up my imagination even bigger than it already was. The stalactites and stalagmites would glitter, sometimes faintly, and the texture of the rock walls was fascinating to me. Of course, we could only see that glitter and texture because we brought our own light into the caves. See, I was told once that there are two places on earth where you can experience total darkness--- not darkness like what we have up here in the country at night, even when clouds block the moonlight. There is still something there your eyes can get used to. No, total darkness can make you go blind because your eyes are searching crazily for the light. One of these two dark places is the depths of the ocean, but the other is a cave. So caves have always been places in my imagination of intense beauty at the same time they are fearful places.
Veteran caver Chris Nicola says, “When you first go into a cave, you feel like you are in the smallest area you have ever been in your life. Your heart pounds, and you sweat. You have this horrible feeling of confinement. It is very important that you get acclimated or you will get tunnel vision, which prevents you from focusing on the important things such as hydration, staying warm, and not getting lost.”1 Can you imagine living in this darkness, living in this fear for almost a year, constantly struggling for survival and then one day emerging, jaundiced, weak, muddy, into the sunlight? This is what 38 people from five different families did in the spring on 1944 in Ukraine. They pushed and pulled their way up a hole, a twenty-five foot hole like a chimney, to breathe in the fresh, sweet air after having lived below ground for so long that one of the youngest, a little girl of about five named Pepkale, implored her mother to turn off the candle when they emerged from the cave. She was so used to the sensory deprivation of the cave that she could not see. And, it appears she had forgotten that there was a sun.2
These 38 people had been living in and out of caves in what is now the Ukrainian countryside since first escaping their town in 1942. They were Jews living during World War II, and Esther Stermer, the matriarch, said that she would not go to be killed in the slaughterhouses that were called concentration camps. So they hid. First they hid in a cave until they were found by Nazis. They were able to escape, barely, and hid out in the wilderness for six weeks until they found another cave, a better one with a supply of fresh water, better ventilation, and more room. It turned out to be one of the longest caves in the world. A few of the men would go out at night every few weeks to get food and other supplies until they heard of the end of the war.
The caves, for them, became a sort of salvation, a way for them to hide from all those seeking to kill them. But they were just surviving, not living, and so when they were able to come back to the surface, back into the sunlight, they were overjoyed. Shlomo Stermer commented, “Can you imagine, to pull out from that hole--- there was a woman over seventy in there and some kids. It took us a few hours, finally we all are out and we looked at each other--- we were like a piece of mud everybody. But it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining.”3
“Modern cavers require special clothing to ward off hypothermia, advanced technology for lighting and travel, and intensive instruction in ropes and navigation to survive underground for just a few days. How did 38 untrained, ill-equipped people survive for so long in such a hostile environment during history’s darkest era?”4 The record before this story was discovered of a person living inside a cave was 205 days. The women and children in these families lived underground for 344 days--- almost a year.
Light was given to them who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. But the light in this case was not just the sunlight on their faces after almost a year in the darkness of the cave, but rather was the light of their love for one another. One time, in the first cave, the Nazis discovered the family, and Esther, the matriarch, talked to them, distracting them while much of the family got away. At another point, members of the family were captured and those who were free risked their lives to go into town and barter for the lives of their family members. And every day, each person had a job to do within the caves, so that all could survive the harsh conditions. Shulim Stermer pronounced: “By ourselves, one by one, we would have been killed, but because we stuck together, we had a chance.”5
This incredible story of survival is one that speaks to our season of Advent. It speaks to how, though we continue to wait and prepare in Advent, it can be like that moment when we emerge from the heavy darkness of the year to hope and make a new way for ourselves--- together. It is a time when we can help lift each other up. Though our celebrations of January 1st are slightly different from our celebrations of Advent, like our secular new year, Advent gives us the space to start over when we need it--- and it gives us the space to start over not after the gluttony and commercialism of the holiday season, but during. It helps us to make space to focus on hope and preparation for Jesus' coming that looks more like celebration than too often the mania of our Christmas preparations become.
Our scripture reading this morning comes from Zechariah's proclamation at the birth of his son John the Baptist. Luke's gospel's preparation for the birth of Christ really centers around the prophet John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth were relatives of Mary's, and Elizabeth conceived in her old age and gave birth to the child who would be John the Baptist. Zechariah's words are beautiful, and speak of preparing the way of the Lord. But it is the end of his proclamation that captures me: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This is what Advent is about, allowing the dawn from on high to break upon us, to give us light. It isn't about frenzied preparation. It is about joy and peace. Advent is a season of light out of darkness. It is the season where the dawn can break upon us, where we pray for and act to bring light to touch those who sit in the darkness of the cave, even if we are feeling that darkness too. This morning we have celebrated this new year, celebrated the possibilities of new life that it brings together. Because Advent is also this: to grow together as a community, to take care of one another, to reach out and bring a little light into someone else's darkness.
Give us light, God. Guide our feet. Amen.
1Chris Niccola interview with Carey Ostergard, “The Darkest Days,” National Geographic's Adventure Magazine, June/July 2004, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0406/q_n_a.html.
2Pepkale Blitzer in “Family escaped Holocaust by living in caves,” NBC Today Show, 2004, http://video.today.msnbc.msn.com/today/5324069.
3Shlomo Stermer in Scott Simon, “Caves of Salvation: Ukrainian Jews Survived Holocaust in Underground Grottos,” National Public Radio, 4 June 2004, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1924568.
4Peter Lane Taylor, “Off the Face of the Earth,” National Geographic's Adventure MagazineJune/July 2004, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0406/excerpt4.html.
5Shulim Stermer in “Family escaped Holocaust by living in caves,” NBC Today Show, 2004, http://video.today.msnbc.msn.com/today/5324069.