What a light

A Guinness World Records official confirmed Monday that the Richards family of Canberra, Australia set the record for Christmas lights on a residential property with 502,165 twinkling bulbs strung on 31 miles of wire. The family first entered the famous record book in 2001 with 331,038 multi-colored lights. But they were trumped last year by a family in New York who illuminated their home with 346,283 lights.[1]

This year the Richards are back with 31 miles of wire and 502,165 twinkling bulbs. And we light one candle. Obviously, ours is a different story.

The first word for the church in Advent is the magnificent portrait of peace Isaiah has put before us: a vision of nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord’s house, uncoerced and eager to know the word of the Lord; a vision of the Lord judging between peoples, mediating between them; and of the nations finally being free to beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks – in days to come.

Why do we begin with Isaiah’s second chapter, and not the first? Perhaps because the first chapter is a vision of gloom we know like the back of our hand. Rebellion, sinful, iniquity, evil, corrupt, estranged – these are key words from just the first four verses, and it doesn’t stop there, twenty-seven more relentless verses follow. The country lies desolate. The religious festivals have become a burden the Lord is weary of bearing, because the city where righteousness is meant to lodge, is marked by injustice. Your silver has become dross, your wine is diluted with water, your princes are companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them. Line after line written with tears of fury and the fire of wrath. “The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them.” Thirty-one relentless verses, and then Isaiah abruptly stops.

It’s like he wants to start over, and quite unexpectedly, the scene changes dramatically. In the doom and gloom of human faithlessness and injustice, light shines, divine light. It’s not Isaiah who wants to start over; the vision is God’s who calls Israel and the nations to a future of peace. “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” the prophet cries, and we hear the children sing in response, “Siyahamba! We are walking in the light of God!” We aren’t stumbling in the dark, groping around for the light switch, we are walking in the light of God’s promise and word, with our eyes lifted up and our faces turned toward the mountain of the Lord’s house.

A colleague in Memphis was on vacation in Maine. One morning he took the ferry to one of the islands. The sea was smooth as glass, mirroring the clear, blue sky. It made for a most pleasant crossing. The trip back later that day, though, was a different story. A front had moved in and where earlier there had been only a gentle breeze, there were now stiff gusts of wind.

“Still planning to go back?” he asked the man at the helm somewhat apprehensively.

“Oh yes, this is nothing,” he said with a smile. 

Before long, the sea became quite choppy and the intrepid adventurer from Memphis was starting to feel a storm brewing in the pit of his stomach. The captain took one look at him, noticed the slight hint of green in his complexion, and gave him a good word.

“Sit down, find a point on the shoreline and focus on it.” That’s exactly what he did. He sat down near the rail. Then he picked a spot, far away on the rocky shore, a sharp peak with a lighthouse on it, and he kept his eyes on it. The boat kept rocking and rolling, but he kept his eyes fixed on that point. Soon his stomach became calmer, his head cleared, and he began to breathe deeply.

“I’m going to make it,” he said to himself.

The word that Isaiah saw is a point on the horizon of time in turbulent days of injustice, fear, and war. We begin Advent, we begin the year, we begin again and again with our eyes fixed on God’s promise, not only to calm our storm-tossed souls, but to keep the goal in mind in everything we do. God’s future casts its gleam into this and every moment, and we move toward it by making our choices in its bright glow.And along the way, we light candles of hope and peace, one at a time.

The mountain of the house of the Lord, the spot on which we keep our eyes fixed, is a place of reconciliation. It has traditionally been a place of reconciliation between God and God’s people, but in this vision it becomes a place of reconciliation for all nations with God as judge. In this vision the judgment of God is no longer one of divine wrath poured out on a corrupt city. The divine judge is a mediator who builds bridges across divisions and helps the nations address conflict without creating more victims. How do we direct our footsteps toward this future of reconciliation and where do we find the courage to summon each other to go there?

Some of you will recognize her name, Ruby Bridges. She was one of four children to integrate New Orleans public schools in 1960 and the only black child to enter the William Frantz Elementary School that year. For days that turned into weeks and weeks that turned into months, this child had to brave murderously heckling mobs, there in the morning and there in the evening, hurling threats and slurs and hysterical denunciations and accusations. Federal marshals took her to school and brought her home. She attended school all by herself for a good part of a school year, owing to a total boycott by white families. Robert Coles, a young psychiatrist working in New Orleans, one day happened to drive by the school and he saw this crowd of adults heckling a little child. He was stunned by the evident dignity with which she comported herself, and he began to talk to teachers, to her family, and to Ruby herself. One of her teachers told him,

“I was standing in the classroom, looking out the window, and I saw Ruby coming down the street, with the federal marshals on both sides of her. The crowd was there, shouting, as usual. A woman spat at Ruby but missed; Ruby smiled at her. A man shook his fist at her. Ruby smiled. And then she walked up the steps, and she stopped and turned around and smiled one more time. You know what she told one of those marshals? She told him she prays for those people, the ones in that mob. She prays for them every night before going to sleep.”

When Coles spoke with Ruby she told him, “Yes, I do pray for them.”

“Why?” he asked her.

“Because.” He waited for more, but to no effect. He told her he was curious about why she would want to pray for people who were being so nasty to her.

“I go to church,” she told him, “every Sunday, and we’re told to pray for everyone, even the bad peeple, and so I do.”

She had no more to say on that score. But when the subject came up again she said, “They keep coming and saying the bad words. But my momma says they’ll get tired after a while and then they’ll stop coming. They’ll stay home. The minister came to our house and he said the same thing, and not to worry, and I don’t. The minister said God is watching and He won’t forget, because He never does. The minister says if I forgive the people, and smile at them and pray for them, God will keep a good eye on everything and He’ll be our protection.”

Coles asked her if she believed the minister was on the right track.

“Oh, yes,” she said; “I’m sure God knows what’s happening. He’s got a lot to worry about; but there is bad trouble here, and He can’t help but notice. He may not rush to do anything, not right away. But there will come a day, like you hear in church.”

There is bad trouble here, and God can’t help but notice. There will come a day. And Ruby lit a candle, and what a candle it was.

Robert Coles, looking back on this and many other conversations, later wrote, “If I had to offer an explanation, I think it would start with the religious tradition of black people (…) In home after home I’ve seen Christ’s teachings, Christ’s life, connected to the lives of black children by their parents.” [2] 

The courage we seek, the courage that might enable us to walk with Ruby toward the future of reconciliation is born out of the connection of our lives to Christ’s life. Christ has made us his own. The hill on which he was crucified isn’t much of a mountain in geographical terms and it isn’t the temple mount, but it is the mountain of the house of the Lord where the nations find reconciliation and peace. Jesus died surrounded by swords. A soldier pierced his side with a spear. Our tools of war surrounded and pierced the body of Jesus and they were melted into light, and what a light it is.

We begin Advent, we begin the year, we begin again and again with our eyes fixed on God’s promise of peace, not only to calm our storm-tossed souls, but to keep the goal in mind in everything we do. The future doesn’t belong to the powers of the world but to the maker of heaven and earth. The future is God’s; it casts its gleam into this and every moment, and we move toward it by making our choices in the light of its bright glow. We know how it ends. There will come a day. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!


[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/25/world-record-for-christmas-lights_n_4337137.html

[2] Robert Coles, The Moral Life of Children