I preached this sermon at Saint Andrew's, Longmeadow on December 14. But the topic makes it an appropriate post following our Blue Christmas service last Saturday. The poem at the beginning of the sermon was one of the readings during the service.
Waiting, a poem from the Iona Community
God, so much faith is waiting,
like a pregnant woman waiting in hope,
like a people under siege, holding out till relief comes,
like the soul lost in the darkness,
unable to see even a glimmer of light
yet stumbling through the night because somewhere
out ahead, day will surely break.
God, be with us in our waiting.
The theme of our service this evening is “Waiting for the Light.” It is a good theme for this season of darkness.
I, who grew up in Georgia, am still getting used to the winter darkness of New England. Next Saturday will be the shortest day and the longest night of the entire year. We’ll get about nine hours of daylight. Winter days are short in Georgia, too, but not so short. This week, the sun set more than an hour earlier in Longmeadow than it did in Atlanta. That’s a lot more dark time than I am used to.
And winters here are long. In Georgia, the daffodils normally begin blooming in February, and the winter is about over. Here we’ll have another two months to go.
All that makes me keenly aware of the winter darkness and of how long we will wait before Spring arrives. I am very much in the mode of quite literally waiting for the light.
But our readings invite us to take our theme of waiting for the light less literally than that.
In the poem “Waiting” which we just heard, the poet talks about “the soul lost in darkness, unable to see even a glimmer of light.” That is a different kind of darkness. That is the darkness of sadness and despair.
When we are lost in that kind of darkness, waiting for the light is hard. But there is value in our times of waiting, hard though they may be.
At the most obvious level, times of waiting force us to slow down. Contemporary life continues to get faster and faster, and most of us do our best to keep up. But it becomes too much. I get frenetic at times, just jumping from one thing to the next without a pause. As one pitiful example, I can no longer sit at my desk while my computer is powering up. I’ve learned to turn the computer on and then go do something else. Waiting those few seconds is too much for me.
I gather that kind of impatience is typical of many Americans today. And the pace of life is almost certainly going to get faster, not slower.
The feeling of constant busy-ness, of always having something more to do, makes waiting for anything even harder than it would otherwise be. But it also makes waiting valuable. When we have to wait in line or in traffic, we might as well relax since for the moment there is nothing we can do anyway. My sons taught me that.
Waiting can even become a spiritual practice. Waiting forces us to confront our impatience, to remember that the world does not revolve around us or need our help to keep going.
A second, deeper value of waiting is virtually invisible, but even more important. In a book called Transitions, William Bridges talks about the three stages of any transition, particularly the big transitions. Bridges insists that every transition—positive or negative—includes all three.
In the first stage, we have to let go of the past. In the third stage, we have to embrace the new situation. In between letting go of the past and embracing the new reality is the most frustrating, but also probably the most important stage, the stage of waiting. The old is gone. The new hasn’t yet emerged. And so we wait.
Although those periods of waiting seem unproductive, Bridges argues that they are necessary for any really significant transition that is ultimately successful.
The metaphor Bridges uses for the periods of waiting in the midst of transitions is, appropriately, the winter. Fall is a good time to plant. Plants bloom in the Spring and Summer. In between is the long winter period when everything looks dead. But beneath the surface of that dead-looking period, new life is germinating, new roots are growing and spreading.
The life that we see in the Spring would not be possible, or at least would not be so vigorous, but for the apparently dead time in-between.
Bridges says the transitions in our lives are like that. There is an apparently dead time, when nothing seems to be happening, when new life is not yet visible, when the future seems unattainable. It is a time of darkness.
But Bridges warns us not to rush that time, not to try skipping over it, not to hurry to premature resolutions. In our times of darkness, new life is germinating beneath the surface. In the sometimes agonizing times of waiting, God’s grace is often powerfully at work even if God’s grace is barely visible or not visible at all.
Our task in those times is to wait as patiently as we can for the light, for God’s grace, for the new life that is emerging even when we cannot see it. Our poem says that, too. “God,” it says, “so much faith is waiting.”
The third value of waiting in the darkness is that it clarifies just how important the light is. It clarifies what really matters.
Most of my routine tasks give me pleasure. Often they feel urgent. But the fact is, most don’t matter very much in the grand scheme of things. Even a little real darkness puts them in perspective.
In darkness, what matters is light.
Here’s another light metaphor. On a hiking trip with a friend a decade or so ago, we decided to continue hiking after dark. We wanted to reach a shelter just a few miles up the trail. There wasn’t much moonlight that night, but we had flashlights. Unfortunately, we didn’t have good flashlight batteries.
One light gave out. The second was getting dim. In the most unnerving moment of that night, we heard an unhappy rattlesnake not far off the trail. In the dim light of our flashlights, we couldn’t see it. As best we could tell, I was already past it, but my unfortunate friend was not. In that moment, we were keenly aware of how important our little bit of light was to us. And we would have traded most of what we were carrying for more light. When you are in darkness, light matters.
That is true for spiritual darkness too. And that is why our Gospel reading is such good news. “What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life [of Christ] was the light of all people. [Christ’s] light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Light shines in the darkness, and darkness cannot overcome it.
When the darkness closes in around us, we can barely glimpse the light of Christ. Sometimes we may not see Christ’s light at all. But our Gospel reminds us that Christ’s light continues to shine, just beyond our horizon, all the time. The darkness can never overcome it.
Faith in the unconquerable light of Christ helps us to wait in our times of darkness. We can take comfort in our gospel promise that Christ’s light continues to shine whether or not we see it, that God’s grace is at work in and around us, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. The good news of our passage is that we can rely on the light to come, that the light does not depend on us, that the light comes from God who is fully trustworthy.
And so, during this dark time of year, I give thanks to God for the light of Christ. And I pray that whenever we feel darkness closing in on us, God will strengthen us and enable us to wait patiently for the day when we can see Christ’s light more clearly.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan