Advent III – December 14, 2014
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
There is a light bulb that has been shining… almost continuously… in a firehouse in Livermore, California, since it was first screwed into its socket in the year 1901… at a time when horse drawn pump wagons were still being used by volunteer firemen. It is called the Centennial Light Bulb and it has been moved four times as the firehouse was renovated or moved. It has made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, it has been noted by Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and it has its own website and live webcam (http://www.centennialbulb.org/photos.htm#anchor1235) so that the whole world can gaze upon its unwavering glow. The Centennial Light Bulb has been studied by scientists in order to figure out how it has lasted so long. The short story is that it was originally designed to last using a thick carbon filament that does not fail as do those of later design. It is believed that when early light bulb manufacturers realized that such an enduring bulb was not good for business they made a pact to redesign the bulb so that it would burn out after a reasonably short time, thus requiring customers to buy new ones. The term is “planned obsolescence.” ….but that is a subject for another time…
The advent of artificial light has changed the rhythm of human activity. Before artificial light, which today even lessens our view of the starry night sky here in Port Townsend, candles and oil or kerosene lamps allowed for some activity once the day turned into night. The simple flip of a switch is now all that is needed in order to work, read, play, shop, create, or misbehave… with full illumination, at any hour of the day or night. There is talk of light pollution that is disrupting our natural rhythms, inborn rhythms that are synched with movements of the sun and moon. The invitation of this Advent season of waning daylight, and increasing darkness… is to explore the dark and, as Barbara Brown Taylor has said, to “learn to walk in the dark” (the title of her latest book)… because we have come to associate darkness with fear, dread and the unknown. The invitation is to explore the dark in order to be nourished in ways that we have forgotten about in our time of over lit modern convenience. Some of the mystics say that it is only in the true darkness of prayer and contemplation that the light of God may be seen.
There is much to be learned from the darkness… and there are healthy and life giving ways to go into places we shy away from…. …and there are kinds of darkness that encroach upon and dim the human spirit. For such spirit quenching darkness divine light is a holy gift of hope. This coming Tuesday our Jewish brothers and sisters will begin the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah that will end, this year, on our Christmas Eve. Menorahs, the candelabras that are used in the celebration of Hanukkah have eight candles to commemorate a miracle that happened two hundred years before Christ. It is the story of the Jewish people known as the Maccabees who rebelled against their Syrian oppressors… oppressors who were trying to force them to worship a multitude of Greek gods instead of their one God. The struggles of the Maccabees can be found the Apocrypha, which is a section of the Bible containing 14 books, a section that some versions of the Bible contain, and others do not. The Apocrypha contains four books about the Maccabees and their revolt, as well as titles such as Baruch, Tobit, Susanna, and my favorite, Bel and the Dragon. This coming January one of the Mezzanine groups will begin focusing on learning more about our Bible.
The story of Chanukah is about the miracle of light that helped the Maccabees celebrate their victory and recapture of the holy Temple, after a three-year battle. They were able to hold their ground against the soldiers of Antiochus and Alexander the Great. When it was time to rededicate the temple the Maccabees were only able to find one flask of oil to light the temple lamp. One flask was enough to keep the lamp burning for only one day. The miracle is that the oil lasted not just one day, but eight days, enough time to prepare a new batch of kosher oil that would allow the temple light to shine day and night… until the Temple was destroyed by the Romans a couple of centuries later, about 40 years after Jesus died. Today all that is left of the temple is the Western Wall, also known as the “Wailing Wall.” Through the centuries the tradition of Hanukkah helps the Jewish people remember their home in God, even as their holy Temple no longer exists, and even as they continue the rituals of their faith in far flung corners of the world. The menorah gives light representing holy wisdom and Divine inspiration… God’s hope and dream for the world.
The menorah… for the celebration Hanukkah has nine candles… eight for each day of the miracle of light, and a ninth, called the “shamash” that is used to light the others. This Tuesday the shamash candle will be lit first. It will then light the first candle. On the second night of Hanukkah two candles will be lit and so forth through the eighth day. In our Christian tradition we light a progression of candles in the weeks of Advent. Light progresses through our season of waiting and preparation until the true light of God is born to us in the Christ child. I want to point out, also, that we have a candle in our holy place of worship that is called a “sanctuary candle.” It shines its light, day and night, to indicate that Christ is present here, in the elements consecrated bread and wine, that are kept in a special cabinet called the “ambry.” The bread and wine, once consecrated in the liturgy of Holy Eucharist, are sacramental elements, ordinary bread and wine, that become Christ’s living presence with us that we share in the Holy Feast. We keep consecrated bread and wine in the ambry for times when it is needed to take out to those who cannot come to church though, if possible, we prefer to send the meal out directly from our worship. The sanctuary light shines to show us and remind us of God’s presence with us in consecrated bread and wine.
There are forces in our world that continue seeking out the light in order to extinguish it, in order to extinguish hope. There is a story from the holocaust about a little boy named Hugo who grew up to become a rabbi. When he was a boy Hugo and his family were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The horror of starvation and death were all round. Many of the Jewish prisoners held onto whatever shreds of their religious tradition they could without provoking the anger of the Nazi guards. This is the story of how Hugo’s family, who were at the point of starvation, celebrated Hanukkah in the darkness of winter and in the darkness of their lives:
One cold winter’s evening Hugo’s father gathered the family in the barracks. It was the first night of Chanukah. Young Hugo watched in horror as his father took the family’s last pad of butter and made a makeshift candle using a string from his ragged clothes. He then took a match and lit the candle. “Father, no!” Hugo cried. “That butter is our last bit of food! How will we survive!” His father said, “We can live for many days without food… but we cannot live for a single minute without hope. This is the fire of hope. Never let it go out. Not here. Not anywhere.”
This morning we heard words of hope from the prophet Isaiah who wrote them upon the Jewish people’s return from 40 years of exile in Babylon. Their home was not like it was when they left. It was different. The city looked and felt strange. Those who had continued to live in Jerusalem during the exile were changed too. How could they not be? Isaiah wrote:
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 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.
These are the same words from an ancient and holy tradition that Jesus, when he was in the temple, uttered once again, over six hundred years later. Jesus was alive with God’s ancient and eternal dream of justice and healing and hope for all people, everywhere. In our Gospel lesson today we hear of the priests and Levites questioning John the Baptist asking “who are you?” They wanted to know what he was up to. John told them that he was a witness to the light, that he came to testify to the light that was Jesus, who was at that time a grown man, was walking among them. God’s light, God’s dream had become flesh and was now in their midst.
From the beginning the light of God’s reconciling love has been seeking to illumine every corner, crack and crevice of our broken world that has known the darkness of despair for too long. The light of God’s reconciling and healing love is seeking to light up our world, our homes, our prisons, our slums and favelas, our mansions, our houses of government, lonely freighters, barren farms, every place that is hungry for rekindled hope, hope for possibilities and new life that are beyond our imagining.
May the message be cast far and wide… to those who are huddled, and scared, and hungry… to the orphans of Ebola… to those living in the wake of typhoons and hurricanes and rising water, to those who are enslaved by human trafficking, and those who struggle in poverty, to all of us who struggle with racism, to those who feel destitute and the know loneliness of despair, to those who grieve, to each of us who knows a broken heart… for it is broken hearts that can truly know the light of God’s love.
The light of hope, the light of love is soon to be fully born to us… to each and every one. Welcome the holy light that is forever, and once again, seeking to shine in our hearts and in our world…
by Phadra Loftis
Lightbulb always on
A calm beacon to many
Shining so brightly
 Story by Tom Long from a sermon by William H. Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Oct-Dec 2005, pg. 55.