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Witness to the Light

The Reverend Karen Greif

January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9 1-7

A Reading from the Book of Isaiah

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

In rush hour traffic heading east on 45th, I reached Lamar as the light turned red.

 Brakes slammed.  Horns blared.  A lady with a white cane was crossing Lamar in the middle of northbound traffic. I watched a driver bolt from his car, grab her arm,  jerk her from the street to the sidewalk, jump back in his car, and speed away.

I pulled off the road and ran down the sidewalk. Her body was shaking. “Hello.” She turned toward my voice. “My name is Karen. Can I offer you a ride?”  She hesitated.  “I don’t know. I don’t know who you are.  So, I played my professional calling  card.  “I’m a pastor. I promise you can trust me.”  She seemed relieved. “I live at the School for the Blind. I’d be most grateful if you’d take me back.”

I did.  But found it hard to shake the feeling of how frightened I would be in a world of total darkness.  Respondents to a John Hopkins survey, let me know I’m not alone.  Asked to name  the “worst ailment that could possibly happen,” they  ranked loss of eyesight #1.  (1)  In darkness we are vulnerable. Our fear, visceral.

Scripture begins in darkness. The earth is without form, darkness is on the face of the deep.

Until God speaks. “Let there be light.  And there was. Scripture ends in the presence of the light of Christ. “I, Jesus, sent my angel with this testimony. I am the root of Jesse., descendant of David, and the bright and morning star.”

Today’s passage begins and ends the same way. The darkness is the destruction of Zebulun and Naphtali,  the northernmost regions of Israel that border on the Sea of Galilee. Conquered by a ruthless Assyrian army, its inhabitants have been killed or led into captivity. The king of “what’s left of Israel” mounts a military campaign against the Assyrians. He insists that Ahaz, the king of Judah, join in Israel’s defense. Ahaz, however, prefers an alliance with Assyria. In return for sparing Judah from attack, Ahaz will surrender his nation’s sovereignty,  pay tribute to and become a vassal state of the Assyrian King.

God commands Isaiah to deliver a message to King Ahaz: God alone is your salvation. Alliances with nations will not protect you. God’s promise to the descendants of David remains steadfast.  And not only that,  it will be from the ravaged lands of Zebulun and Naphtali that the light of God’s messiah will first break forth and shine.

The gospels quote Isaiah 46 times; the apostle Paul, 30,  more than any book of Hebrew scripture. Scholars have labeled Chapter 9 “The Great Messianic Hymn.” Early Christian theologians referred to Isaiah as “the fifth Gospel,” adding the prophet’s witness to that of  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Today, in worship, we turn to God’s word seeking its witness. Noted preacher and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, places emphasis on the “we.” In her book, The Preaching Life, she writes,

“From the pulpit, you and I are active partners in discovering God’s word… with any luck, where the sermon finally leads both preacher and congregation is into the presence of God, a place that cannot be explained, but only experienced.” (2)

In addition to Scripture and worship, I’ve known other profound witnesses, cloaked in flesh and blood. They are living beings in whose presence, God’s presence is made known.  As I bear witness to those who witnessed to me, I invite you to recall those who have borne that witness to you.

My first witnesses were my father’s parents.  When I was a child, we lived next door. My grandmother read to me from her King James Bible. Isaiah 9 was a favorite passage. My grandparents were a ministry team in the Pentecostal faith tradition. They were among 300 founding mothers and fathers who gathered in 1914 to establish the Assemblies of God USA.

Together they began  fourteen congregations, in three states, over four decades of service. (2)

Even though my grandmother knew chapter and verse of the entire line of Davidic kings, to me she explained, “the child  born to us”  came to ultimate fulfillment in the birth of Jesus Christ.  John 3:16 was another favorite passage.  “For God so loved the world,” the lesson being “that Jesus Christ freely gave his life for our salvation.” And John 14:2, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” the lesson being our true and eternal home is with God in heaven.

My grandparents witnessed the light before I even knew there was darkness. Immersing me in the Biblical story, they etched these truths upon my heart:  I am created in God’s image.  I am God’s beloved child. Their gift of unconditional love has blessed our family for six generations. But their most powerful witness was their lives of dedication to God, church, family and neighbor. As pastor and poet George MacDonald described,  “in their house, religion was not one thing, and daily life another.”(3) The path of my grandparents’ faith ran straight and true, like a landing strip  marked with runway lights.  Their faith could not be missed.

Another witness had its origin here.  In 1991, I was seminary intern to Juan Trevino,  Associate Pastor of Campus Ministry. We were leading nineteen members of our college program on a trip to Mexico. Our mission: to build a house for a family, next to their current home.

We’d build their new house on a concrete foundation, recently been poured by another mission team.

Stepping out of our van, the first thing we saw was the family’s lean-to shack of scrap metal and corrugated tin. Five barefoot children played in a dirt yard.  Their mother cooked over an open fire. The jaws of nineteen college students dropped at the sight of such meager living conditions.

But the family was so glad to see us.  The children led us to the new foundation and we began framing walls.

At dinner that night, the college kids were on still on stun. How can a whole community live in such inadequate shelter? Cook on open fires? Own nothing more than a change of clothes?  Have only cans and sticks for toys?

But day by day, our eyes, blinded by affluence we’d always known, began to open. We witnessed the close, loving bonds of “our family,” and how the community cared for one another. Undaunted by their own poverty, they shared what they had. We experienced the warmness of their welcome. Those who drove by, honked, waved and smiled at us. Others would walk up to us,  shake our hands, and say, “Gracias” and “Bless you” and “God be with you.”

At noon on the fifth day, we finished our task. We helped move the meager belongings of a family of seven into the 18 x 24 foot house we had constructed. I’d be surprised if any family ever moved into any house with more anticipation.  As we dedicated the house in the name of Christ and presented a Bible to the family, the mother’s tears spilled onto the concrete floor.

There weren’t many dry eyes among us either.  I’ll never forget the feeling of joy that we shared.

On our ride home, we reflected on our experience. One of the students summed it up this way.  “When we signed up for this mission trip to Mexico, I thought we’d be the ones witnessing Christ to them. What’s clear to me now is, they witnessed Christ to us.”

Another “light year” for me was 2000, my 7th year as associate pastor at Hope Presbyterian, here in Austin. That March, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  The darkness of the unknown engulfed me. My fear was visceral. I longed for the runway lights of my grandparents’ faith, to trust that no matter where this journey led, God would safely carry me there. Still, I deeply longed to see my children graduate. Marry. Have children of their own.

The day after my diagnosis, the 89-year-old-mother of a Hope parishioner called from her Iowa home.

“Betty told me you have breast cancer.”

”Yes, Mam.”

“I called to tell you I’m a survivor.

“Thank you.”

“And I have been since 1948.”

“That was before I was born.”

“I want you to know you can be a survivor, too.”

During that three-minute call, a ray of hope pierced my darkness made brighter by a chorus of other survivors. By virtue of having walked in that same valley of the shadow, they knew how devastating it was to hear the words, “You have cancer.” They were familiar with the waves of shock and disbelief. They helped me grasp what to expect from surgery and chemotherapy. They shared how they managed to live through the loss of body parts and hair. They witnessed  a future that was possible when my hope in any future was being deeply questioned.

Other lights were my family, friends, and congregation. They cared for me. Prayed for me.  Visited me.  Accustomed to my role as care giver, I learned the grace and humility required to be a care receiver. Through this experience, God opened my eyes in countless ways. I now understood, firsthand, the importance of little acts of kindness in times of need. Letters of encouragement, flowers from a garden, prayers for healing, a bowl of homemade soup, these acts of kindness that were healing balms for my ravaged body.

I learned the importance of the timing of these acts. When someone IS beset by darkness, her need for love and support is now, not later. It is for human touch, rather than explanations. It is for simple words of assurance, not for eloquent speech.

I learned the importance of love in healing.  I was surrounded, supported and uplifted by words and acts of love. I gave up trying to distinguish whether the love I received was divine love taking human form  or  human love taking the form of the divine. In the end, I decided it didn’t matter, or that perhaps they were one and the same.

I learned that “the fear of not knowing what to say” is not nearly as important as the gift of one’s presence. That each card that brought a smile to my face. made me feel better than a whole bottle of pills. That love provides the strength for fighting cancer, the courage to endure the battle, and a reason to live through nights of nausea and days of fatigue. In the year 2000, I experienced so many dazzling witnesses to the light that my heart can barely contain it still.

Returning to the woman crossing Lamar, who responded to my offer of help with the words,   “I don’t know who you are.”  To answer her question, I played my pastor card, a response meant to be reassuring, but one that put my credentials on display and set me apart.

As I’ve thought about my response, I was struck by another realization.  Was it not with a similar mindset that our mission team headed to Mexico?  Even though we certainly did not articulate it, perhaps were even consciously unaware of it, being from the wealthiest nation on earth set up apart. It set us up to believe we were the ones bringing light, when in fact it was their light that opened our blind eyes to the darkness of our own presupposition.

Lastly, I wince to recall my implicit assumption that my experience as a pastor somehow set me apart as “one in the know” regarding cancer and cancer care. The words, “You have cancer,” disproved that assumption in one single heartbeat.

Before I pull out my pastor card again, I pray I will heed the words recorded in Matthew 20:16: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Perhaps a better calling card would read:

As one beloved child of God to another, may we together seek to be witnesses to the light.

May it be so. In the name of one who is the light.  Amen.

  1. 1. AW Scott, MD, NM Bressler, MD, et al, Public Attitudes About Eye and Vision Health, JAMA Ophthalmology. 2016;134(10):1111-1118. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2016.26.
  2.  2. Assemblies of God (USA) Official Web Site | History –
  3. 3. Barbara Brown Taylor, THE PREACHING LIFE, p. 83.

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