Sunday, May 5, 2013

God Is Our Light

This is the sermon I preached on the Sunday I baptized two children at Deer Creek United Methodist Church. It was difficult because Revelation is not my favorite book of the bible. And, of course, right after I preached, I heard an awesome talk by Barbara Brown Taylor about how we ought to embrace darkness. Oh well. I still liked exploring sacramentality using Revelation. Heck, writing this sermon made me even more open to infant baptism! It also made me feel a bit more positive towards the book, especially because I came out of my class on Revelation feeling much differently (see here).

Scripture: Revelation 21:10,22-22:5
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God...

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

Sermon: God is Our Light
Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, we give thanks for this beautiful morning.
We give you thanks for the poetry of your Word,
but you know how difficult it can be to understand.
We ask for your wisdom this morning,
that it may illuminate your teaching so our eyes may be open
to your guiding presence all around us. Amen.

I am very intrigued by metaphors linking God and light. I have written a few sermons talking about caving and Christ, fascinated by the hope that is a pinprick of light in the overwhelming darkness of closed off caves. When I read John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, describing his vision of a heavenly city as full of light, I read that as full of hope. And I am also intrigued by metaphors linking God and water, particularly when Aaron and I are flying over the Bay, watching the light glitter off the water. When I read Revelation chapter 22 verse 1, I can see that river of the water of life, bright as crystal because I've seen the Bay lit up at sunset.

Such interest in these metaphors, though, is less an interest in the poetry and beauty of these images and more a function of my own hopes and fears. Since I was a child, I have been afraid of the the dark, and to a lesser extent, afraid of water. Both are very primal fears tied to my fear of being alone (I am not afraid of the dark if I am with another person), fear of the unknown (what could be lurking in the water just below the surface?), and a fear of a lack of control. Basic fears, really, but fears that paralyze so many of us. And yet, in the New Jerusalem, in John's vision of the heavenly city, those basic fears are gone. John tells us twice that God is the light of the city. We need no lamp, not even the sun or moon: God is our light. And the water that flows through the city is the water of life, flowing directly from God. We have nothing to fear.

Fear is a very powerful motivator in our world. Wars, terror, and just meanness come out of fear. We don't know much about the exact date when Revelation was written, but we do know that John of Patmos and other early Christians had much to fear, as many were martyred, their deaths made into entertainment, and many more ostracized from their families and communities for finding truth in the story of Jesus. But we don't need to study history to understand fear. We see it in our own time. We fear potential attacks, so we attack first, only to find out later that our intelligence wasn't so good. Too many Congressmembers fear losing lobbying money or losing the next election that they will not stand up for what is right. People stop homeless shelters and soup kitchens from being built because they fear they will be built in their backyards. Some of us fear plan crashes, so we refuse to get on airplanes and won't visit loved ones living far away. Some of us fear losing our jobs so much that we work until we make ourselves sick. So many things to fear, to keep us from living fully, rightly.

John knew fear. He knew the way it paralyzes us from living in freedom and love. Looking toward John's vision of the Heavenly City, we see that God does not want us to live this way. God wants us to live fully in the light of love, God wants love to flow over us, bright as crystal.

Now, sometimes when we read Revelation, we talk about how God can make us new here and now. I am talking about how God shows us that we need to let love reign in our lives here and now. But John was not talking about here and now. He was talking about end times, about an entirely new creation. In our individualistic ways of worship we sometimes miss that. John is not talking about “on Earth as it is in Heaven” that Jesus talked about. Jesus tried to help us bring a bit of heaven to earth, teaching us to love and care for one another. John's vision does not counter Jesus' teachings, but it is focused on a future event. It is to give us hope for the future, not to be an instruction on how to create heaven here on earth.

Yet I think that we can still read Revelation's images alongside Jesus' teachings and piece together how we can live today, to read Revelation and catch the vision of the New Jerusalem. Often, we read pieces of Revelation as a congregation during the Easter season as a continuation of our story of hope and victory. So though John is not writing about the water of life I will use today to baptize Zachary and Caleb, the river flowing bright as crystal in the New Jerusalem is connected to the water shimmering in our baptismal font. The candles Jeffrey lights before the service to symbolize Christ's presence in this place are connected to the light in the heavenly city that streams from the Lamb of God.

For today in baptism, in communion, in the simple act of lighting a candle, we are pointing to a fullness of life that we might not always be able to see in the midst of our fear, in the midst of our grief. We are pointing to a fullness of life, a life free from fear and sin, a life free to love. 
I read this story this week from a book by Bernard Martin.1 He writes that one day a pastor was called from a children's party at the Sunday school to visit a young woman. This woman had collapsed into an acute depression following the death of her husband in an auto accident. She had withdrawn from everyone and shut herself in her bedroom with the blinds pulled. She wouldn't speak to her children because she said they reminded her of her dead husband. As the pastor put on his coat to leave the party, the children, unaware of the sadness he was about to enter into, showered him with confetti. He smiled at them but shook off the confetti as he walked out the door.

When he arrived at the woman's house, he entered her darkened room and told her who he was, but there was no response. He could faintly see her pitiful form lying motionless on the bed. He tried to carry on a conversation with her, but she was unresponsive. He reached out to touch her hand, but it lay lifeless in his. So he just sat with her in the dark silence for a time.

Sometimes we just need someone to sit and hold our hand in the darkness of fear and grief. But sometimes, we need to break out of it, to be reminded that God is our light. The pastor, before leaving, decided he would read scripture and pray with the woman briefly. He knew she needed prayer. So he fumbled for the bedside lamp. The woman blinked and stared at him blankly in the yellow glow of the lamp and did not respond. So the pastor took out his bible from his jacket pocket and opened it, only to have confetti fall from it all over the bed.

Here was a woman in grief, a woman who shut herself in darkness because she could not imagine joy or peace or light without her husband. The pastor knew this and was mortified that now confetti was sprinkled on the side of her bed, but he couldn't help himself. He began to laugh. The absurdity of the situation, the contrast, his nervousness gave way to laughter.

And that did it. First a smile appeared on the woman's face, and then she broke into quiet laughter. They prayed together and she left the darkness of fear and grief to return to the light.

Scholar Frederick Buechner reminds us:
We can't see light itself. We can see only what light lights up, like the little circle of night where the candle flickers--a sheen of mahogany, a wineglass, a face leaning toward us out of the shadows, [the shimmer of confetti sprinkled over a bed in a dark room].
When Jesus says that he is the Light of the World (John 8:12), maybe something like that is part of what he is saying. He himself is beyond our seeing, but in the darkness where we stand, we see, thanks to him...2

So when we read John's vision of a New Jerusalem, we are reminded that as Jesus will be our light in this eternal city, so he is our light today as well. He is beside us, should we choose to open our eyes and turn from the darkness in our lives to focus on the light. 
1See Bernard Martin, If God Does Not Die,

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