Saturday, February 4, 2012

Light in Our Darkness

Feast of the Presentation
5 February 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Malachi 3.1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.11-14; Luke 2.22-40

            On the 20th of July 1969 the eyes of most of humanity were directed towards the moon.  Apollo 11 had dispatched the lunar excursion module to the surface of the moon and we all waited to learn whether Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would be the first human beings to set foot on another celestial body.  Many of us will remember exactly where we were on that day or night.  We may well remember Armstrong’s words when he stepped on the surface:  “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

            I was sixteen that year and the landing occurred at around 8.00 p.m. Mountain Time.  I remember thinking that my grandparents had all been born before the Wright brothers made their historic flight on the beach in North Carolina.  In their lifetime humanity had moved from the age of steam into the age of space as well as experienced the trauma of two world wars and the Holocaust.  I do not remember whether I ever spoke of this to them.

            Now I am fairly sure that most of us who remember the first landing on the moon probably remember where we were on that day or night.  I am absolutely sure that few if any of us here today remember a perhaps more miraculous occurrence that happened the same day that Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface.

            On the 20th of July 1969 Gaylord Perry, future Hall of Fame pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, hit the first home run of his then ten-year-long career.  Perry, like most baseball pitchers, was not known for his hitting ability.  In fact Alvin Dark, Perry’s manager in 1963, said, ‘They’ll put a man on the moon before Gaylord will hit a home run.’  While there is some uncertainty as to the timing, whether the home run came first or the lunar landing, the fact remains that the same day witnessed these two events:  a historic landing that had been long planned and carefully executed, a home run that had never been hoped-for but unexpected.

            Have you ever waited and waited for something to happen?  Have you ever hoped in the depths of your heart that you would witness an event that you knew would change the world as you know it?  Have you ever begun to lose that hope when the years pass and nothing has happened?  I have waited and hoped.  I have also experienced the twilight of those hopes and the creeping despair that replaces the expectation.

            Think of the prophet whom we know as Malachi.  He and the people of Judah had returned to the land of their ancestors and begun to rebuild after the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile.  True, they were vassals of the Persian empire, but they enjoyed a certain autonomy.  The Temple had been rebuilt, but the hoped-for restoration of God’s reign of justice and peace had not occurred.  Injustice and economic oppression were widespread.  Many among the people had begun to wonder if their hopes were in vain and God’s promises were empty.  To them Malachi directed words of assurance; the day will come, Malachi says, when God’s reign will come among us.  Wait.

            So the people did wait.  They waited for centuries.  They endured dynastic wars and foreign invasions.  They witnessed the restoration of an independent Judean state under the Maccabees and lived through its decline and incorporation into the Roman empire.  But still they waited.  From time to time there would be glimpses of God’s reign, like the beacon of light that occurs at night when a window curtain is opened for a brief moment and light shines into the darkness.  But then darkness is restored.

            Among those who waited were Simeon and Anna.  Given their ages as described in Luke, these two elders had lived through the collapse of the Maccabean state and the ascendancy of Rome.  As they worshipped in the Temple, they need only glance to the north to see the towers of the Antonia, the fortress from which the Romans kept a weather eye on the Temple precincts and its worshippers.  As they went about their daily business, they surely ran into the soldiers of the Tenth Legion whose regimental insignia was a boar, a wild pig, an affront to the sensibilities of the Jewish people.  I am certain that there were moments when either or both of them prayed, “How long, O Lord, how long before you restore the fortunes of Zion?”

            Then that day came, a day that they hoped to see, but perhaps had begun to doubt would ever occur.  A young couple whose clothes identified them as poor and from the Galilee came into the Temple bearing an infant.  And Simeon and Anna knew in an instant what they were seeing:  the fulfillment of their hopes, the embodiment of God’s promises to Israel.  Their joy was tempered by reality; Simeon’s words remind us that God’s good news to all of humanity is always bad news to those who seek power and personal gain.  But it is good news.

            So, a light has come to reveal God to the Gentiles and for the glory of God’s people, Israel.  But it sometimes feels as if that light is fleeting and the darkness has overcome it.  The twenty-first century has dawned and, to be frank, does not seem to be any more enlightened than the centuries that have come before it.  Technology advances, but the poor do not.  People overturn dictatorships only to have new forms of oppression replace the old ones.  Stewardship of God’s creation is lauded, but consumerism abounds.  In place of religious faith we see fundamentalisms of the left and the right.  “How long, O Lord, how long before you restore the fortunes of Zion?”

            I remember the bishop who ordained me, Bishop Bill Frey of Colorado, once attended a meeting of the committee planning the diocesan renewal conference.  The members of the planning committee were committed to allowing the Holy Spirit to guide them and Bill discovered, to his dismay, that there were a number of important aspects of the conference that had not been planned.  Bill asked about these details only to have the chair respond, “We’re depending upon the spontaneity of the Spirit.”  “Well,” Bill responded, “it’s been my experience that the spontaneity of the Spirit requires considerable preparation.”

            We do not know when our hopes will be realized and God’s promises revealed.  Despite all contemporary efforts to foretell when things will happen, it is my observation that God is extraordinarily spontaneous.  What is necessary to maintain hope and to live expectantly for the realization of God’s purpose is the discipline of waiting, an act of preparation for what is to come.

            And how shall we wait?  Malachi, Simeon and Anna show us how to wait, even in the darkest times.

  • We wait by participating in the life of the community of faith as it cares for one another, celebrates the sacraments and deepens its understanding of the mystery of God.
  • We wait by being people of reconciliation who seek to break down the sin which burdens ourselves and others.
  • We wait by sharing with others the good news that God has given to each one of us.
  • We wait by seeking out those who are in any need or trouble and by working to overcome those obstacles which hinder the glorious liberty promised to every human being.
  • We wait by working for justice and peace at home and abroad.

But we wait.  From time to time, just like a hoped-for but unexpected home runs, God’s promises come to pass in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love and for whom we care.  From time to time, just like the arrival of a hope-for but unexpected child, we realize that God is indeed at work in our world and the darkness is not really darkness but fertile ground awaiting the sprouting of seeds long planted.  And then, we may join Malachi, Simeon and Anna in their prayer of thanksgiving:

"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."  (Luke 2.29-32)


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