As The Dark Yields To Light
It’s the first Sunday after Christmas, and the day came and we celebrated! I love advent - It’s the quiet time of anticipation before the birth of Jesus. It is a meaningful time for me - but this year in particular, as we endure this pandemic winter, I know something more about what it means to wait for the dark to yield to light. The aching desire we all have to just be free of the pandemic - free of the restrictions and isolation, but especially free of the fear - this desire has taught me something new about what it means to wait for God.
This year I’ve thought more than ever about those shepherds by night, standing in the dark, minding their own business, when suddenly the whole world changed and they were “sore afraid.” I love that phrase, “sore afraid,” because it is so descriptive. And this year so familiar. The phrase “Come, Lord Jesus” has taken on additional meaning as a prayer for me this year.
But now, the baby has been born. It is the first Sunday of Christmas. This is the week in which we breathe a sigh of relief, that the worst of the dark is over, that he has come! We know that part of that arrival is the waiting. But sometimes we forget that one of the hard parts is that the waiting in some ways continues.
This week’s lectionary reading highlights two people who wait for Jesus, and their names are Simeon and Anna. In the book of Luke, we learn that on the 40th day after Jesus’s birth, his parents took him to the temple. Story number one, we meet Simeon: As was the custom under the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought the baby Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and to offer the sacrifice required of them, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 1 2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God.
So many unanswered questions! It turns out, we never hear of Simeon of Jerusalem other than this passage - never in the Bible before or ever again! None of the other gospels even mention this small story. The story holds only a few details. Simeon was a man in Jerusalem who was righteous and devout. He was looking forward to “the consolation of Israel.” This phrase, the consolation of Israel” has a very definite expectation of a Messiah or a savior to come to Israel.
Luke says “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit” that he would see the Messiah before he died. Apparently the day baby Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon felt the Holy Spirit prod him.
No details. I want to know more - was he at work? At home eating lunch? Out in the marketplace? Did the inspiration feel like a whisper or a shout? Did he look around himself, shaking his head and wondering if he had just heard someone call his name? Was he sure he was being called to the temple, or did he just have a hunch? In any case, he went. Wherever he had been, he stopped doing what he was doing, stopped going where he was going, and he went to the temple. And there he met the long-awaited Messiah.
Artists over the centuries have taken to painting Simeon as an old man, and while we cannot be certain of his age or how long he waited, we can be certain that he was called on to wait. He waited, knowing some day, somewhere, he would see the Lord’s Messiah. When that moment came, Simeon trusted what he had come to know as the Holy Spirit. He discerned that nudge and acted to go immediately to the temple, and there he met the unlikeliest of Messiahs in the form of a tiny baby and his young peasant parents. But he recognized the moment exactly in the moment. He took the baby in his arms and he praised God. I want to know more about how Simeon nurtured the trust he developed, so that on that day when he was called, he went. But first, he waited.
Story Two: We meet Anna. Again the biographical details are spotty and sometimes a little ambiguous. Anna is either 84 years old - or, according to some Bible translations, she has been a widow for 84 years and is probably closer to 105! Either age is a miraculous age, but that’s okay in a story that is highlighting the miraculous baby.
Luke tells us, 2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 2 2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Anna and Simeon are not tied to each other in any way - it sounds like Anna was already at the temple and not necessarily even expecting the encounter with the Christ Child. What she is doing is waiting on the Lord.
We don’t know anything about her husband, or how he died, or how she had spent all those intervening years.
What we do know is what Anna was up to when she met Jesus. She was worshiping at the temple. Anna’s waiting was an active way to honor God, to trust the life she has been blessed with along with the sorrows her life had carried to her. And that meant that when the Christ Child came to the temple, she was already there. She was ready to meet him, she recognized “at that moment” that this child would be the one to fulfill the “redemption of Jerusalem” She told everyone about it. She told “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” that this child was who they had been waiting for.
Simeon waited with trust. Anna waited in praise. How are we waiting out our own dark time before it yields to new light? How are you letting God love you, right now?
Last Monday was the winter solstice. At 3:02am in Utah, the whole northern hemisphere tilted just as far away from the sun as it ever would for a year, and we had our longest day of darkness. On Dec. 21, we had just 9 hours, 14 minutes, and 55 seconds of daylight. But, in terms of astronomy, we had turned the corner. The darkest night had come and gone. I spent the day telling everyone at work that each day would be a little better, with a little more light, and that was reason to rejoice.
I work as a hospital chaplain in Salt Lake City, and it has been a dark time. It has been a dark 9 months, and the waiting we have been doing has been in a vast unknown. Recent days have been the hardest I have ever experienced as a chaplain. But that is true for all of us right now, regardless of our work or situation. Some of us have suffered more than others, but all of us have suffered losses, and all at the same time. Normally we take turns, we catch a breath between each crisis. This year we have all shared the darkness together.
And so, the metaphor that the darkness was now abating, that the long wait was coming to an end, meant something deep and hopeful to me last Monday.
But there was a catch. Yes, each day to come, for the next six months, will be a little more light filled. But the light comes gradually. It turns out, Tuesday was only 3 seconds more daylight 3 than the long, dark Monday. And Wednesday was longer by just 7 more seconds. (https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/usa/salt-lake-city.) It turns out that even though my head and my heart know the light is coming, it still turns out that I have to trudge through the rest of this long dark winter. I’m thinking a lot about waiting. What are you waiting for? And how are you waiting faithfully and joyfully, even as the future is unknown?
I tried to make a list of what I am waiting for the other day.
● I am waiting until next week to go to the grocery store or else we won’t actually eat up the stuff we already have in the fridge.
● I am waiting for the pandemic to end. I am waiting for in-person church and friends at my house for dinner and long visits with older family members and airline travel. I’m waiting for the chance to see a play and sing in a group and meet strangers with a handshake or a hug without fear of infection.
● I am waiting for the new school term to start in January, with excitement for new classes. But I’m also waiting for seminary to be over.
● I am waiting for an apology from one family member and for forgiveness from another.
● I am waiting for the day when getting motivated to exercise is effortless.
● I am waiting to be emailed a coupon before I get my hair cut again.
● I am waiting for insight about what God is up to these days, because lately events in the world have not made a lot of sense to me.
● I am waiting for darkness to yield and light to rise up.
This past Wednesday, I spent some time in the darkness. It was Christmas Eve, and I attended the service for my church, Wasatch Presbyterian Church. We are still not meeting inside, so on this night, going to church meant putting on the ski pants, grabbing an extra blanket, and carrying the folding canvas chairs from our car trunk to the church parking lot. It was such a beautiful crowd. The kids were running around. People were waving excitedly. I could only tell who about half of the people were, and sometimes I guessed wrong. The masks stayed on and we stayed six feet apart, but in that cold, cold dark, we celebrated the coming light.
At the end as we sang “Silent Night” we didn’t pass the flame down the rows of pews in the normal orderly way. People lit their own candles from home with a 7-11 lighter, or they turned on their phones and flashlights. Some of the kids waved glow sticks. But as I looked out across that freezing dark parking lot at my church family - as I sang with them, the spots of flickering light were bright like they have never been. The darkness was greater in the parking lot than it had ever been when we turned down the lights in the sanctuary. But that made each spot of light matter all the more, shine all the brighter. Six feet apart and together in the darkness, we felt joy.
The lectionary this week includes a psalm that is particularly relevant to those of us now, who are waiting in the dark, knowing that the light is slowly coming. Today in our service we lit the Christ candle to say that we are faithful and joyful at the birth of Christ. And we are faithful and eager for the future of God’s kingdom in Christ, as we all learn to love God and each other as Christ loved.
Psalm 148 is one of the five “Hallelujah Psalms” that all begin and end with “Praise the Lord.” Not one of them says “praise the Lord when you feel like it.” Or only when everyone is warm and it’s sunny out. Or only once the baby Messiah grows up and serves his ministry and overcomes death through his resurrection. Or only once everyone is healthy again and the economy is back in order
We don’t praise God only during convenient moments or when we have nothing better to do. We are called upon to praise God - to worship God and feel love and awe in the presence of our creator - also when it is cold and dark and we are confused and afraid. Even when we are sore afraid, like those shepherds abiding in a field so long ago.
Even when the baby has been born and the longest night has passed and things are on the upswing and things are on the mend - even in the dark moments that still come, we are called upon to praise God.
148:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! 148:2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host! 148:3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! 148:4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! 148:5 Let them praise the name of the LORD . . . 148:11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! 148:12 Young men and women alike, old and young together! 148:13 Let them praise the name of the LORD.
As you wait, may the Lord bless you and fill you with peace and courage. Together, as we wait for the darkness to yield to light, may we join one another and praise God. Amen.