Learning to Walk in the Dark: a Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
This sermon on Isaiah 9:1-7 for the first Sunday of Advent was inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. It gives practical advice on how to get through difficult times and dark moods. From Darkness to Light
From Darkness to Light
Our Advent theme this year is moving from darkness to light. Long ago the church decided to celebrate Christmas at the time of year with the least daylight to give us hope that when we experience dark times in our lives, we can trust that the darkness will not endure forever but that the daylight comes. The prologue to John’s gospel asserts that Christ is the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome. So, part of what we do every year is rekindling our hope for better days with this truth.
The night I landed on our Advent theme before I went to bed, I prayed for some inspiration on what sermons to preach. I switched off the lights, the curtains were drawn, it was pitch black and I made my way toward the bedroom when–wham! I clobbered my shin on an end table. Honestly, it’s always a shin–why didn’t God put some of that padding that goes on our bellies to protect our shins? Bone into wood is never good.
The next morning, my leg still sore and bruised, I shot the evil eye at the end table–because, that’s what one does–blame the table. On the table was a book my wife was reading by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Are you kidding me? Should have read it before I walked into the table. But then I thought that was God’s funny way of answering my prayer about what to preach on in Advent. Learning to Walk in the Dark.
We get to the light, but to get there we have to go through the dark. Walking in the dark is a frequent theme of the prophets like we found in our lesson from Isaiah today. He says the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. He was a little Springsteenesque, encouraging his people saying, “Someday folks, I don’t know when we’re going to get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.” God’s promise is that whatever darkness you are going through or whatever darkness is within you, it won’t stay that way forever.
What is the Darkness?
What are we talking about when we are talking about the dark? It can be a dark mood or grief, or hard times or illness or a season of doubt or failure or rejection. Anything that throws you for a loop. Fear, uncertainty, loss of a job or worry about a wayward kid. We all go through dark times and we all have those dark impulses within us toward fear and selfishness and holding onto grudges or shame. It’s part of the human condition.
But it is often in the dark times, the dark night of the soul as that mystics call it that we learn and grow. Like a seed planted in the dark soil that springs to life. Like the darkness of a womb giving new birth. The darkness is not all bad. It can be the source of new life and inspiration and growth for you. You are going through a dark time? The good news is it won’t last forever and you may experience a season of growth.
Artificial Light prevents growth
In her book, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about how uncomfortable we are with going through dark times. Even to be a little depressed. The temptation is often to blast the darkness with what she calls “artificial light.” Plaster on a smiley face. Sometimes the artificial light are the things we do to distract ourselves–alcohol, busy-work, zone out in front of a screen. But these artificial lights don’t produce much growth–they stunt it.
Listen to what dark times may teach. Leading-edge in yoga. Instead of sacred wounds that turn into scars, they become open wounds where scab keeps tearing off.
I like the way Catholic sister, Joyce Rupp, says darkness is like a visitor who stays with you for a while. You can learn from this visitor but you need to set limits and boundaries. It doesn’t get to dictate your life and it doesn’t get to stay forever.
How to walk in the dark.
1. Wait. When the lights first go off everything looks totally black. But if you take some time, your eyes will adjust and you’ll be able to see more than you thought you could see. Joyce Rupp, wrote about being in one of those exercises where someone tried to make a room totally dark by taping plastic around the windows but some light still leaked in. There will always be some sources of light in your life. Some good things. If you find yourself in some sudden bad situation, just breathe, take time. Let your eyes and attitude adjust. There are sources of light. Remember John 1. The light has come into the world that the darkness cannot overcome. That light is in you, and around you always. There are good people–good things happening. People who love and care about you. Maybe right now you are in a dark place. Let your eyes adjust.
2. Walk slowly in faith. When you walk when you can’t see, you walk slowly. You are intentional about each step–or more likely shuffle of the feet. You’ve heard of the Cupid Shuffle and the Harlem Shuffle, learn the Advent shuffle. I know you like to zip through life. But when you are going through the darkness, slow down. Pay attention. Be focused not on what is behind you or way out in front of you, but just on the next step. Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind in Matthew 6 when he talked about not worrying.
Walk in faith. One of my favorite folk singers, Carrie Newcomer, has this song about walking through the woods with a flashlight that was so dim she could only see a couple of steps in front of her. That’s what the life of faith is like. Just a couple of steps. Be faithful. Intentional about the step you are on. So, what if you can’t see far down the path or the destination. Can you see enough to take the next step? Yes. Then keep going. You’ll get there. The Bible says we walk by faith, not by sight.
3. Use your Bumper Arms. A favorite youth group game is called Sardines–kind of like hide and go seek in the dark. Youth leaders always have to remind the kids to use their bumper arms so they won’t go plowing into a door or church pew. Bumper arms are when you put your arms out and feel your way. When you are going through the darkness sometimes you have to feel your way through. There’s no clear path. Someone else may have gotten through in a way that isn’t really yours. Trust those feelings, your gut. Bumper arms protect you, like those lessons you’ve been learning all along. Have faith. Be kind–especially when you least feel like being kind.
4. Be quiet. When you can’t see, let your other senses take over. Listen more, talk less. Cut out distractions. I noticed that my car automatically decreases the stereo volume whenever I go in reverse. It’s a way of saying, pay attention! In the same way, when we are in a dark time, cut out distractions, focus. Speak less and listen more but don’t listen to the voices that put you down and make you feel small. Listen to the voices that encourage you, build you up. Sometimes the voices you need to drown out are the voices inside your own head that tell you you’re no good, you’re a fake, a hypocrite. Shh. Listen for the voices that can help you get through the darkness not suffocate you there.
5. Remember that you do not walk alone. Psalm 23 reminds us that even when we walk through the darkest valleys, even the valley of the shadow of death, we have no reason to fear because Thou art with me. There is the spiritual presence that sustains. There are others who’ve walked lonesome valleys, too.
6. Trust that darkness does not last forever. God is working in the darkness. Remember Easter when the women went to the tomb while it was still dark. When they got there Jesus had already risen. God is working in the darkness. It does not last forever. Remember my paraphrase of Isaiah? Someday, folks, I don’t know when you are going to get to that place you really want to go and you’ll walk in the sun. But till then, folks like you are born to walk in faith.