"Darkness Is A State Of Mind"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 14, 2008
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-2
This morning we are going to be considering Joy, a response that tends to remain among the most fleeting of all our emotions. For example, as many of you recall, a couple of weeks ago Bowie High School won the State Championship in Soccer. That night many parents in the stands had very little voice left because of their cheering and yelling words of encouragement to their boys on the field. The excitement and joy from that sweet-taste of victory, however, soon fades into the day to day, routine responses that come as early as the next day's events. We cannot hold the joy once the experience that caused it becomes a part of history.
One of the many reasons why church attendance is so important to our lives is that worship reminds us at least once a week about the joy that is permanent. Without the reminders once a week, the world has a way of influencing us with its abundance of scattered images. Worship helps us to remember that joy is a healthy, emotional response, but joy can also become a state-of-mind preventing darker thoughts from penetrating and controlling our attitudes.
I recall a time when Lois and I needed more Christmas stamps. I entered the Post Office and found myself at the end of a lengthy line. While long lines are not uncommon during the Advent season, what was taking place was unnerving to most of us. One window was open and we could see plenty of employees in the back that could have easily opened up several more windows. The main sticking point for the line, however, was a dear older woman who was sending cards over seas.
She had a coin purse. The postal worker had to look up each country in a book. When he gave the woman the amount of money it would cost for the stamps, she opened her purse and began to count out the proper change. Those of us in line watched this same process unfold with each card. Some people left the Post Office. Another patron became more vocal and asked if another window could be opened. There was no response from the clerk. The frail woman appeared embarrassed that she was taking so long.
Just as everyone was engaged in some level of an emotional meltdown, into the Post Office came a mother with her three children. This mother was one of these high spirited personalities that pointed out everything in the Post Office that, in our haste, we had missed.
She exclaimed, "Children, look at the big picture of baby Jesus and his mommy. That's one of our country's Christmas stamps this year. And look at the big wreath on the other Christmas Stamp. Look at the Christmas tree in the corner. The Post Office is more ready for Christmas than we are. You'll have to help Mommy when we get home."
Somehow, the mother's enthusiasm reminded all of us of what we had momentarily forgotten—it was Christmas. All of us were having the same experience, but only the mother and her children allowed the beautiful symbols of Christmas to make their spirits bright.
When we experience some of our darker moments, almost always it is the result of our state of mind. The moment we make hurt, angry, or frustrated judgments about any circumstance, darkness enters our mind and such thought patterns can capture and hold our spirits prisoner for a long time. People brood, mourn and remain devastated by some experience for years. Why do we do this to ourselves when we cannot correct or undo anything that has happened?
Our Gospel lesson this morning describes how John defined his ministry. The people in John's day felt that they were captives of the Roman Empire. They had been taught since birth to look forward to another day when Israel would be restored as a sovereign nation that held the respect of other nations. The Jews were hopeful that a new king would lead them.
John was inspiring such large crowds that anxious Pharisees sent messengers to check out this up-start, unknown who was preaching along the Jordan River. They asked, "Who are you?" They wanted to know if he was the Messiah, Elijah or a prophet. Each time he said, "No." Exasperated, they said, "Well then, who are you? And why are you baptizing people? We need an answer for those who sent us. Tell us something — anything — about yourself."
Peterson translates verse 8, "John came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not the Light himself; he was there to show the way to the light." The word light literally translated means, Understanding. When we have understanding, there is no other spiritual gift necessary in order for us to interpret life with clarity.
What Jesus came to give us was an orientation toward life. That orientation helps us to recognize that everything in the external world is constantly changing. Nothing is permanent. Our joy cannot remain a consistent, stabilizing force in our lives when we have it attached to what cannot be counted on to stay the same. Think of all the things that influence how we feel about life, about God and about our purpose for living. To what is our hope and joy attached?
For example, in tough economic times, many more people are attracted to a life of crime as a way of managing their financial needs. Citizens of Bowie have been alerted by our local newspapers on the tactics criminals are using in our town. Friends and members of our family can return home to find that their homes have been ransacked. We can be held up at gunpoint as we are backing our cars out of our driveways.
A freak tornado can touch down and sweep away everything that we have in the world. Carol and Denny Hulen recently returned from a working vacation in Iowa. They reported seeing the devastation from the spring and summer floods where entire communities are gone. We can read or hear how over one thousand homes were lost recently in the California fires. We can receive unsettling news from our recent medical tests.
When we pin our hopes and dreams on what is always changing in the world, Jesus said it is like building your house of cards on quicksand. We are the ones who feel the pain and frustration. We are the ones who can easily blame God. We are the ones who recognize that we are among the good people who certainly did not deserve what has just happened to us.
All these feelings of frustration and sadness come from anchoring our sense of well-being in a world that can never give it. Even though this same message has been preached for centuries, it is seldom listened to and certainly it has not been understood, adopted or remembered.
John's role was to announce the coming of one who would bring a new understanding about God and a new way we can choose to order our lives. Here is how Peterson translates this: "What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness could not put it out." What a metaphor! What an image!
It is this understanding that gives us joy, that orientation of continued happiness that helps us to remain compassionate toward others who have no understanding and at the same time helps prevent us from being devastated or destroyed by the changes that will continue to come at us for the rest of our lives.
A number of years ago, I went fishing with a group of guys in a place in Canada called Perry Sound nicknamed, "The Home of One Thousand Islands." Bass and Great Northern Pike were everywhere. We caught fish everyday and as many as we wanted. Then we went ashore on one of the islands and watched our guide as he prepared a feast. What an amazing experience!
What was fascinating to me was the way our guide handled his boat. There were times when the motor was wide open and he took us at high speeds through shallow areas where surface rocks were visible a short distance away from either side of the boat. I asked him if he had X-ray eyes in order to see what was beneath the surface. He said, "I have navigated these waters since I was a little boy and I know with absolute certainty the location of every channel and rock outcropping in all the interconnected lakes we will visit during our trips this week."
What Jesus brought was such an orientation to life. We learn to look at everything in the material world from a vantage point that we are safe, secure and known intimately by God. It is our judgments that make things good or bad. It is our perception that makes some experience a defining end to our journey or just a bend in the road. Darkness is merely a state-of-mind where we have forgotten that we are here to enjoy the adventure of living, not define ourselves by the chapters that challenge our skills of spirit.
The truth is we simply do not know where any painful episode in life will lead us. What we can do is trust the Guide while we are on our way to that unknown destiny. It was to this source of joy that Jesus pointed to with his life and teachings. Even when life is not working out the way we want it to, we are always fine.
God has a way of turning something seemingly insignificant into a masterpiece. Remember what happened to a baby that was born in an obscure part of the world. Who could have known at the time what was happening? No one! Absolutely no one!
I want you to imagine that you are a group of historians that has access to computer software that will give you definitive information of what happened in the year 1809. Further, I want you to tell me what events took place during that year that changed the world. After careful research, most of you would tell me that 1809 was just another ordinary year.
To some extent you would be right. However, that was the year when William Gladstone was born, the brilliant Prime Minister of England. That was the year that Alfred Lord Tennyson was born in Sumersby Rectory, one of the world's leading poets. That was the year Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, one of the world's remarkable composers. That was the year Charles Darwin was born. That was the year the outstanding jurist, Oliver Wendell Homes, came into our world. That was the year Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin somewhere in the wilds of Kentucky.
We do not know where our lives will lead unless we remain committed to being and remaining like a ping-pong ball that is being slapped back and forth between the paddles of life's constantly changing experiences. How easy it is to assume that we are just another victim of the world's uncaring acts that often influence the quality of our thoughts.
Jesus offered us another way to look at those same circumstances. They can be come stepping stones across the swift currents of life's challenging streams. We can give those challenges purpose by allowing them to help us form skills of spirit that would have come in no other way. When we learn to view all of life's circumstances from a position of total confidence, we are always safe, secure and known intimately by our creator. We are not alone in our task of bringing joy to the world.
One day a repairman came to work on our office copier. When he finished his repairs he brought me the work order to sign. As I was signing it, I noticed that above the technician's name he had drawn the sign of the fish. I said, "Ah, the fish! You can work on our copier anytime. If you are willing to put that sign above your name, I know that you gave St. Matthew's your best effort." He smiled and said, "I've been using the sign of the fish for a long time. It helps others who recognize that symbol to live their hope by knowing that there are others of us out there making a difference."
Keep your joy inside of yourself. There is a lot of heartache in the world. I do not want to minimize that reality. That is part of the reason why we have come to the earth. Our joy for life teaches others how and where to find theirs. We are not alone. We have a glorious church family who teaches us how to give ourselves away. This morning and for the rest of your lives, think about the light that understanding brings to us, a light that darkness cannot ever put out.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
As we continue to prepare our minds for worship through our focus on Joy, we are aware of the countless life-events that have the potential to create sadness. We remember what happens to us when we neglect being hopeful while viewing world events. We remember what happens to us the moment we perceive others without love. There are many aspects of life over which we have no control. We become frustrated when our raindrop of hope and love appears to become lost in an ocean of uncertainty. Yet, there is joy that comes when we remind ourselves that you are the creator who will fashion our future through what we evolving angels are becoming. Spare us from allowing the tyranny of little things to control our mind, emotions and spirit with thoughts and feelings that cannot reveal your presence. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Our lives are always full of things to do and places to go and yet, O God, we do not always remember what you taught us when you gave us the gift of life and all the signposts along the way that help us to live that life creatively. Sometimes we fail to remember that we may be the only Body of Christ the people of this world will ever see.
During these Advent days, help us to surround others with the gift of our spirit. Enable our smiles to speak volumes about our peace in spite of the burdens we carry. Enable our words to be those that encourage and support. Inspire gratitude and gracious acceptance of life as it makes visible that Christ's spirit is alive within us. Help us to rise above any pettiness we have embraced. Help us to become a step-ladder for those who consider themselves victims of life-circumstances so that they, too, may learn what it is like to stand on higher ground.
Above all else, help us to remember that not everyone understands life and why painful changes occur as they do. They may be hospitalized while others are shopping. They may be suffering a loss while joyous carols are being heard on their radios. They may fear that no one understands their loneliness as they watch families celebrate the joy of being with each other. Help us always to be sensitive to those around us. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .