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Light One Candle
Reverend John Leedy
November 27, 2016
A reading from Isaiah…
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
THE WORD OF THE LORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.
“A prophet stands in our midst – his voice ringing in our ears. He begins to sing – of a mountain, of nations streaming to it, of holy instruction resounding from the house of the Lord. The melody of the song picks up as the nations turn from the ways of war and begin building bridges of peace. The song of the prophet ends with a moment of silence, then, faintly, we hear a new sound begin to rise. Softly at first, then the ringing begins to build. This is not the predictable ringing of finely tuned bells, but the harsh, metallic clanging of hammers striking iron. It is the sound of justice and peace – the physical manifestation of reconciliation being made real. The ringing that we hear is that of the blacksmith’s forge, the beating of the weapons of war into the tools of life. Peace on earth, goodwill to all.”
Three years ago, I began my sermon on the first Sunday of Advent with those words. I remember writing them, sitting in my office, envisioning what the new world to come would look like, what it would sound like. I remember a sense of hope. I remember, as if in a dream, that such a world might actually come to pass. And what a world it would be. A world without fear. A world without walls. A world with harmony between reconciled races and genders.
A world where love governed our decisions and relationships. A world where the least among us were lifted up and protected. A world teeming with ploughshares and devoid of swords. So much hope mixed with the ink on that page.
But three years later, that world still seems so far away. Perhaps even further away than it was back then. In that sermon from three years ago, I referenced the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook school shooting, and the raging war in Syria. Are there still acts of terror in world? Are racism, sexism, and homophobia still alive and well in our country? Do innocent children still die from gun violence? Do bombs still rain from the skies?
Have we as a people not woken up from this nightmare yet? Have we not had three years to look at the division and devastation around us and cry out “enough is enough!”? What a foolish people we are. What a foolish people to think that we can gather around this advent wreath and light one tiny candle of hope, expecting it to make a difference. One tiny candle in the midst of all this suffering and pain. One tiny candle meant to light the way to peace.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that Christians have a thing for candles. I know some churches aren’t as fond of them as others are, but I think we as Presbyterians generally love ‘em. After all, we light these Trinity candles every Sunday, hundreds are lit on Christmas Eve, we give them out at baptisms and confirmations, we extinguish them on Good Friday, goodness, we even start a bonfire in the courtyard just so we can light a three foot tall one at the Easter Vigil. I’m pretty sure Krystal goes through around 150 tea lights a month to create the glittering contemplative space for the Taizé service.
And I don’t know if you do this, but I have a tendency to hang on to certain candles that have marked a significant experience in my life. Over the years, this odd assortment of half burned out candles has found its way into my office here at the church.
They are the ones I’ve lit in the church of the nativity in Bethlehem and at the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem.
Ones I’ve lit in the Chartres cathedral as I walked the labyrinth or prayed with in the ancient stone chapel of Iona.
Candles I’ve lit in memory of my grandparents, my daughter’s baptismal candle, the one I received when I graduated from Austin Seminary.
Each one of these candles has a story in its blackened wick, a prayer mixed into its melted wax. Yes, I think it’s safe to safe that we as Christians have a thing for candles. But when we look beyond our own faith tradition, we see that we aren’t the only ones who appreciate candlelight.
We see the twinkling lights of the menorah, the colored glow of the Ramadan lantern, the dancing of the Diwali lamp. Perhaps there is a more universal relationship between humanity and the burning of candles.
After all, there is something about the soft flicker of candle flame that can transform a moment into something other, something set apart from ordinary space and time. We light them to relax, we light them to meditate, we light them on birthday cakes to celebrate, we light them at grave sites to remember, we light them at vigils to stand in solidarity, we light them in storms for comfort.
There is something so simple, so transcendent in the beauty of candlelight. Something that reaches deep down within our longing selves and captivates us, speaking hope and holiness into our dark, ordinary places. Candlelight is empowering, giving unspoken voice to our prayers when words fail us.
Even one tiny candle in a room filled with darkness, perhaps in a world filled with darkness, can be enough to make a difference.
Of all the candles we light here at UPC, our Trinity candles, our advent candles, and so on, it is around one great candle that we gather. The Christ candle.
It is the flame that reminds us of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; bringing unending light to the darkest reaches of our world.
We light this candle on Christmas Eve as we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, God with us.
We extinguish this candle on Good Friday – its light snuffed out as the seven last words of Christ on the cross are read.
The candle roars to back to life on Holy Saturday, lighting our way into the bright dawn of Easter morning. It is the light that stands witness at our funerals, illuminates our baptisms, and remembers our saints.
When this candle is lit on the Saturday before Easter, a special prayer called the Paschal Exultet is sung. One of my favorite verses of prayer is a part of this great proclamation:
“Therefore, heavenly Father, in the joy of this night, receive our evening sacrifice of praise, your Church’s solemn offering. Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God. For it is fed by the melting wax, which the mother bee brought forth to make this precious candle. Let it mingle with the lights of heaven and continue bravely burning to dispel the darkness of this night!”
What difference can lighting one tiny candle make in a world shrouded in darkness? How can this single candle of hope bring forth a world of peace and reconciliation? As is done with the great candle of Easter, we, the people of God, bring our own unlit candles to its light. We hold the fresh wick above the flame until it glows hot and bright.
A flame divided yet undimmed. We do not shelter our lights, but bear them out into the world. The light spreads slowly at first, among friends and family‒sharing hope through acts of kindness, humor, listening. Eventually the light spreads to candles that have long since burned out. We share the light with people who come to this place seeking food, shelter, or support.
We see the Social Witness committee sharing the light of hope with immigrants and refugees.
We see the Service committee sharing light with homeless youth in the dark streets of West Campus.
We see the Faith and Greif ministry sharing the light of hope with those who have lost the light of their lives and grieve in its absence.
We even see our Building and Grounds and Finance committees keeping the lights on in this place so the light of hope may be kindled in the hearts of all people who come through these doors.
From this place, the light of hope continues to spread, illuminating our schools and neighborhoods, bringing light to the dark places where people are abused or neglected. And when the light of hope grows bright enough, strong enough, hot enough, it ignites the forge of justice, the strong foundry where the sound of swords being beaten into ploughshares drowns out the sabre rattling in the halls of power. The light is passed indiscriminately because the light of hope respects no marker of human division.
How can one tiny candle make such a difference in our world? When we make the choice share its light with others.
A prophet stands in our midst, his voice ringing in our ears, beckoning us to follow. In his hands he holds a candle, his face aglow in the light of hope. “Come,” he says. “Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”