Advent 3B Sermon (2002)

3rd Sunday in Advent
Texts: John 1:6-8, 19-28;
1 Thess. 5:16-24; Isa. 61:1-4, 8-11


One of the phenomenon of the Internet is that inspirational pieces are quickly shared with family and friends across the miles. One of those nuggets found its way into my email inbox early this morning. It’s theme of light and darkness rings true with the theme of light and darkness in our Gospel Lesson from John 1, a theme that I wanted to echo in our hymn of the day, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” These words I found early this morning are so much to the point that I risked scrapping what I was doing for today’s sermon and starting over with it. Here it is, then, an excerpt from South African president Nelson Mandela’s Inaugural Speech of 1994:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are born to make manifest the Glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own Light shine
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear
Our presence automatically liberates others.

Mandela is speaking the truth to an oppressed people. He is speaking the kind of truth spoken by the prophet Isaiah in the First Lesson assigned for this day:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; [to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God]; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. (Isa. 61:1-3)

The truth of Mandela’s speech rings out to his fellow black African citizens who had been oppressed for centuries. After years of being beaten down and told that they are inferior, Mandela is giving them the “oil of gladness” and the “mantle of praise” that they need to be the “oaks of righteousness” that God has planted them to be in this world.

But I find the amazing thing to be that Mandela is also speaking at the same time to his fellow white citizens, who were formerly his oppressors. Does this speech ring out with the same truth to them? Should they not fear the darkness of their former oppression? Does Mandela need to boost the self-esteem of those white people whose government over them had assumed that whites were superior to blacks?

I believe that the light and darkness of John’s Gospel helps us to make Mandela’s words more precise. The darkness is a formidable darkness, one to fear; but the light of Christ comes to shine in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. The Good News of Christmas for which we prepare is that the light of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ entered out world of darkness and could not be extinguished — despite our best efforts at it, executing him on the cross. The light of Easter morning shines in all who believe in that victory of light and life over darkness and death.

The language of Mandela’s speech which I would like to make a bit more precise is when he says, “We are born to make manifest the Glory of God that is within us.” It’s the within us that we might hear incorrectly. It is similarly true when he talks about “our own light.” It is not that Mandela is wrong. It is that we might hear him incorrectly because of the language of modern individualism from which we all suffer. The language of individualism might cause us to hear that each of us has our own light of glory within. I believe, however, that we need to hear the our own and the within collectively. In other words, the light of God shines in all of us together, not so much in each of us individually.

In fact, the language of individualism gets in the way of hearing how even with God it’s not a matter of God’s own light — not just a light from within God. No, the Christian faith teaches us to talk about God as not just an individual, but as a community of persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the language of the Gospel stories and of the New Testament is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not pointing to their own light and glory but to the light and glory of each other. John the Baptist came to point to Jesus, and Jesus came to point to his heavenly Father. And the Father, at the baptism of Jesus, points to the Son: “This is my son in whom I’m well pleased.” The great mystery of the Trinity is the light of God shining through a community of persons whose mutual love is creating and sustaining this world within it. The Spirit of God moves out over the stuff of a seeming nothingness and lovingly brings forth creation. And the Son, sent from the Father to the Father’s love in this world, shows us that we, as God’s children are made to shine that same light. In each of our baptisms, God claims us as sons and daughters of the light. God says to you and me, You are my daughter, you are my son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The flip side of the coin of this Good News is that neither is the darkness purely a matter of dwelling within you and me as individuals. It is a darkness that emanates from our life together. Think quickly of those amazing stories from the early chapters of Genesis again. The desire for the fruit which gets the first man and woman in trouble does not emanate simply from inside them as individuals. No, the woman catches that desire from the serpent, and the man catches it from the woman. It’s not an inborn desire that they are born with. It’s a desire that they catch when they look to one another. When we catch our desires from each other only, then it brings us into rivalry, not only with each other, but with God, too.

The almost immediate upshot of this, the darkness of our rivalries with other, is that we not only begin to desire the same things as each other, but we begin to desire the very being of the other. In other words, we are no longer just satisfied with being the person God made us to be — each of us “brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous” in our own ways. No, we think the others are somehow better than us and we come to desire being them, or squashing them, so that we don’t have such rivals. In short, it is the scene that follows so quickly after the first sin: the first Son, Cain, kills the second son, Abel. The darkness of who we are together takes on the form of violence, all the ways we hurt one another and fail to desire and be the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living together in peace. The darkness is not something born within each of us; it is born out of the way in which we live together, desiring according to each other’s desires, instead of desiring according to the love out of which God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit made this world.

So when Mandela speaks of fearing the light more than fearing the darkness, I think he is speaking a profound truth. Living in the darkness of our violent means of living together for so long, we fear changing that way into really living by the power of God’s love, don’t we? For example, when the darkness of September 11, 2001 descended upon us as a nation, have we truly trusted in the power of God’s love to ultimately win the day? Or have we right away gone back to the dark ways of our violence to try to win the day?

It is difficult to unpack this entire dynamic this morning, but let me point again to one thing: John’s Gospel proclaims that God’s light in Jesus Christ came into the darkness of this world and the darkness could not overcome it. In the story that follows, however, it appears to the eyes of the world as the opposite: Jesus life ends with him being crucified. He apparently succumbs precisely to the darkness of our violence. It is only Easter morning that turns this around with the assurance that God’s powerful love that brings forth life does win the day. He is Risen!

After two thousand years of that light of love in the world, here’s some further Good News. I believe that the truth of Nelson Mandela’s words on the occasion of his inauguration as the first black president of South Africa, bears witness to the glory of that powerful love working in us — us together, not just us as individuals. Because how was that victory over the dark powers of oppression finally won? By the darkness of a counter violence? No, South Africans finally won a victory of peace when the black South Africans who were oppressed realized that they could never have the military power to overthrow the darkness with force. They courageously continued to be victims of the darkness against them until all of them together could begin to realize the true glory of God’s love living in us. We are all children of God, made to reflect God’s glory by learning to live that love together. Their victory was not the kind of victory we are currently trying to win in Afghanistan, or posturing to win in Iraq. Their victory was the kind when we cease to be more afraid of the answer of the light, the answer of God’s love, than in our confidence in the darkness of our ability to use superior firepower.

This Christmas season we again give thanks for the advent of another kind of power into the world, the power of God’s love, out of which we are created in the first place. It is the light which our Lord comes to share with us again this morning, so that, together, we might be a Holy Communion of God’s love working in this world. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, December 15 & 18, 2002

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