In my absence on January 8th, Elder Summer Sattora, a member of South Presbyterian Church and a senior at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School filled the pulpit. Here is her sermon.
Preached at New Life and South Presbyterian Churches
January 8, 2017
Have you ever been in total and complete darkness? I mean, pitch black, no light, can’t see your hand in front of your face no matter how wide you open your eyes darkness? (pause, encourage raised hands) What was that like? How did you feel? (encourage responses) Two summers ago I was on a Middle School Mission Trip to the Adirondacks and on our last day the youth minister decided it would be fun to take the youth caving. If you don’t know what that is, it’s pretty self-explanatory: you travel underground through a series of caves and tunnels, some filled with water, and emerge on the other side hopefully unscathed. Yes, people do this for fun. Oh, sure, you get a map and you have a flashlight or headlamp with you, but still…. Fun? Okay, truthfully, it was fun enough that I enjoyed doing it once but not so fun that I’m anxious to do it again. At one point in the trip Mike, our fearless leader, had the youth and adults sit in a large room (for lack of a better word) and turn out all our lights. We sat in silence and experienced total darkness. We couldn’t see lights from any of the groups in front of or behind us, and being underground there was no ambient light creeping in from a crack somewhere. Total darkness. One by one Mike had us turn our lights on, showing that one light in the darkness can be brighter than you think. When we all had our lights on we were able to see how the power of God’s light could penetrate even the darkest corner of our world, shining brighter than one would think our small lights could. But I will admit it was pretty great to get back to the world of God’s created light and the blessed blessed sun (that’s sun with a “u” not an “o” by the way). Think for a moment, whether through memory of your time in the dark or through something you’ve heard today, about what it must be like to be in that world of darkness. To have everything familiar disappear. What it’s like to experience the world around you a different way. How scared and lost that makes you feel.
Our text today comes from Isaiah. The way scholars divide up this book chapter 40 kicks off the start of what is called Second Isaiah. It is believed that Second Isaiah was written during the exile with a hopeful message of being able to finally return home, compared with First Isaiah which was written before the exile and had a much more gloom and doom message. It is in this second half that our Bible passage is found. These are a people who are experiencing a spiritual, emotional, and cultural darkness. They have been kicked out of their homeland, away from everything they knew and loved. The world around them is not a familiar one, or it’s just familiar enough to make the differences stand out even more. There is great fear and tension. The future is uncertain. Will they ever return to their old life? Will they have to give it up and create a new one? Or if they do return to their homeland, will it feel the same? They must have felt very alone and the world must have seemed very dark indeed.
Then comes a prophet, called Isaiah, although the book is written by several different prophets whose works were compiled later and it is not known exactly who wrote this second portion of the book. But for our purposes, Isaiah. Isaiah comes along to give them a light in that darkness. Like that one flashlight in the cave, Isaiah turns on a small light of hope. They still have the one constant in their lives: God. Not only that, but God has sent a servant. There is someone who is here to bring them justice. “a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” All it takes is one dim light and God is there. The light can grow. A burning wick can become a flame and that flame can be used to light more wicks until there is no more darkness. This is great news!!! No more fumbling about, lost in the dark! Great! So, Isaiah, tell us, who is this servant? Well, that does seem to be the question, doesn’t it? Scholars aren’t really sure. Matthew uses some of the verses to say that it’s Jesus, but there’s no sure way of knowing if it’s an individual or a group of people, such as the nation of Israel. What can be even more confusing is that verses 1-4 seem to be speaking about someone while verses 5-9 seem to be speaking to someone. And it seems possible that the same person is being both spoken about and to. It almost appears as if Isaiah is saying, “God is talking about this awesome servant, and if God is praising this servant, it must be you God is talking about.” I think this must’ve been pretty empowering for the exiled people, and it can be pretty empowering for us today.
If we step back from the historical context for a moment, we can try to see what God is telling us today. While we may not be a people in exile, I think it’s safe to say that we can still feel in the dark. Lost. Confused. Scared. We can look around at our world or our country or our city and feel like we don’t recognize it anymore. Some of us may feel hopeless about the future or even the present. We feel blind, stuck in total darkness, straining to see a small dimly burning wick. We read and hear today’s reading and suddenly… a flashlight in the cave. God has someone for us. There is a servant who has been chosen by God to persevere, to move forward, to bring the light. But the best part? We are that servant. We don’t need to wait for someone to follow or to tell us what to do and where to do it and when to do it. We get to decide. God has chosen us. We are the light. We each have our own flashlight or headlamp to turn on and add to everyone else’s. And we don’t have to do it alone.
Let’s think back to that total darkness mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. If you were to suddenly find yourself in a dark room with no light, what might your first reaction be? You would put out your hands. You would be feeling for something familiar, for the boundaries of the room or a piece of furniture to avoid. And if you were in a room with other people? You might reach out for them. Being in darkness is isolating. It can be scary, throw you for a loop, keep you off balance and on edge. You can either curl in on yourself and stay in one place, or try to find someone else to cling to, to hold on to, to be an anchor or even a guide. There is comfort and reassurance in the feel of another’s hand in yours. A gentle squeeze can say “I’ve got you, I’m here for you.” It lets you know that you are not alone.
There will be times in our lives when we are the outstretched hand, and times when we need the hand to reach for us. Maybe that’s why God is speaking about a servant and to a servant: because we are both the one who has been sent and the one who needs someone to be sent to. There will be times when we notice someone seems to be walking in darkness. They are feeling alone, lost, sad, oppressed, overwhelmed. It is at those times that we can reach a hand out to them and let them know we’re here for them. There will be other times when we are in the darkness. We’re too scared to move, we don’t know where we’re going, we can’t see a way out. It is at those times that we need someone to reach a hand out and let us know they are here for us. And in both of those times, whether we’re reaching or being reached for, there is one who is always reaching out, one who is always here to guide us through the dark and to help us guide others through the dark. God. Whether we are looking for the hand or not, whether we are reaching out a hand or not, God is meeting us more than halfway. And if Isaiah was prophesying today, he might tweak the words of John and Paul to say: “I’ll tell you something. I think you’ll understand when I’ll say that something: I want to hold your hand. Oh please, say to me you’ll let me be your God. And please, say to me you’ll let me hold your hand. I want to hold your hand.”
Reaching out, whether to give or receive hope, is not easy. So let’s practice. Reach out to someone next to you. Take their hand. Let them take yours. Listen to these words and remember them the next time the darkness is too close: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.”