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I. Dayspring From On High.
This past Friday, December 21st marked the first day of the winter. We call it the shortest day of the year, but really, it lasted 24 hours, the same as any other day. What we mean of course is that on December 21st the earth is at it’s furthest distance from the sun. It’s the shortest day of daylight and the longest day of darkness of all the days in the year. Here in Waterville, sunrise was at 7:12am. and sunset was at 4:01pm. which means that the there was only 8 hours and 51 minutes of day light and 15 hours and 9 minutes of darkness.
The fact that this Friday, December 21st was also scheduled to be ‘doomsday’ on the Mayan calendar has nothing to do with anything we’re going to talk about this morning, so don’t try to guess where I’m headed with this.
This is hard time of year for us because there is so much darkness and so little light. I have never actually gotten used to the fact that it’s pitch dark out by 4:00pm.
It was just two Friday’s ago, December 14th, that another kind of darkness descended upon Newtown, Ct. And the darkness covered the entire nation. This is the ‘darkness’ that Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos called “deep darkness.”
“Deep darkness” has nothing to do with the distance of the sun from the earth. Throughout the Scriptures, ‘darkness’ is the symbol for ‘evil.’ ‘Evil’ operates in the darkness. And “deep darkness” is that terrible time and place when “evil” predominates over ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘salutary.’ “Deep darkness” is when the night comes early and stays late and it’s dark for a long, long time.
Certainly the parents and families of those children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary school know what “deep darkness” is all about. And so do those ‘first responders,’ policemen, EMT’s, doctors, investigators, counselors, pastors. And so do we.
So who can appreciate the words of the prophet Isaiah more than we can, both for our own sake who live in the shadow of darkness, and for the sake of those who are engulfed in the darkness? “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish… The people who WALKED IN DARKNESS have seen a GREAT LIGHT; those who dwelt in a LAND OF DEEP DARKNESS, on them A LIGHT HAS SHINED.” (Is.9:1-2).
And who knows the joyous relief and the dawning of a hope as much as we do when we hear Jesus declare, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).
This is Jesus Christ, God with us. And He knows something about ‘deep darkness.’ When He was crucified on the cross, He entered into the “deep darkness” of Newtown, and Columbine and Blacksburg and Cleveland and your deep darkness. “Now from the sixth hour THERE WAS DARKNESS OVER ALL THE LAND until the ninth hour.” (Mat.27:45).
But on the 3rd day, the SON rose. The son, S-O-N. And by His rising, He has overcome the evil and shattered the darkness, even the deep darkness. “The true light that enlightens everyone has come into the world.” Emmanuel, God with us. “In Him is life and that life is the light of men.” (John 1:9,4).
Sadly, there are many who will not come into this light because their deeds are evil. They’ve gotten used to life in the darkness and adapted to the evil to the extent that they call it ‘normal,’ or ‘good’ or ‘a matter of personal preference.’
But let that not be the case with us. We come into the light, and let it shine on us, knowing that it exposes even the evil that is within us and knowing also that Christ has overcome even the darkness that is in us, by entering into it through His cross.
And where do we find this ‘light’ that we may come into it that it may overcome the deep darkness that we dwell in? Where do we come into this “light” so that it shines on us and lifts our spirits and refreshes our weary soul?
Not to special stars in the sky as the Magi. And not to the ‘spirit of the season,’ but to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has given us ‘expected places’ where we ‘expect’ to come into the light – His Word. In the Word in the Scriptures, the Word in our baptism, the Word in the Lord’s Supper.
Listen to St. Peter, “We have something more sure, [more sure than stars and feelings], the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a LAMP SHINING IN A DARK PLACE, until THE DAY DAWNS and THE MORNING STAR RISES IN YOUR HEARTS.” (2 Ptr. 1:19).
As to the question of how long the darkness will last before the light shatters it once and for all, St. Paul answers, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Rom.13:12).
A new day is coming. For a little while yet, we live in what C.S. Lewis calls, “the Shadowlands,” those final minutes before the sun rises. The light of Easter Sunday is already appeared on the horizon. That new day that John describes in his Revelation is about to dawn. “And I saw that the city had no need for the sun or the moon to shine on it for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb… AND THERE WILL BE NO NIGHT THERE.” (Rev.21:25).
Sing with me stanza 6 of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high; and cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night; and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice. Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.”
II. Desire of Nations.
My experiences in Thailand and Cambodia with the Lutheran Heritage Foundation forced me to learn more about Buddhism than I really cared to. The fundamental issue that underlies Buddhism is “desire.” Buddha believed that all “desire” is evil and that all the evil in the world stems from human “desire.”
Even though all pagan religions are false, a lot of them have elements of the truth in them. God is the Creator of everything and there are still traces of God’s fingerprints on the whole creation, even if it does deny the Creator. And so, there are places in pagan religions where we see close connections to the Holy Scriptures. And that’s the case here.
What was it that led Adam and Eve to sin and brought evil into God’s perfect world? “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be DESIRED to make one wise…” (Gen. 3:6). Eve’s ‘desire’ led to evil and ultimately death.
At the other end of the Scriptures, James writes this, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed BY HIS OWN DESIRE. Then DESIRE when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14).
Paul writes to Timothy saying, “Those who DESIRE to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful DESIRES that plunge people into ruin, and destruction.” (1 Tim. 6:9).
Even though we can see the fingerprints of the one, true God in some pagan religions, pagan religious are false because they ignore the Word of God. Paul writes to the Romans saying, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom.1:21).
For Buddha, the way to overcome evil and achieve Nirvana is to extinguish all ‘desire,’ even those desires that we would normally call ‘good’ or ‘constructive’ desire, such as the desire to live and the desire to love, the desire for peace and safety, because even these ‘good’ desires can become ‘bad.’ By following Buddha’s ‘eightfold path’ you can rid yourself of all desire and enter Nirvana.
So the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to get to that mental and emotional state of being where you really, absolutely don’t care. When I ask someone what they desire and they reply, “whatever,” I know I’m talking with a budding Buddhist.
Can you see how different, contrary to the Holy Scriptures this is? The Scriptures do not call upon us to extinguish all desire but to conform our desires to the heart and mind of Christ. Jesus has desire. He prays, “Father, I DESIRE that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me…” (John 17:24).
Our problem is rooted in the doctrine of “original sin.” We come into this world with a defective desire. “Selfish desires” are natural. Our ‘first desire’ is for ourselves. There’s good reason that we have to be told, “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not murder. You shall not covet.” The Law exposes our SINFUL DESIRES.
The problem with ‘original sin’ is that you can’t change it. It’s who we are. And we can’t change who we are any more than a duck can change itself into a horse.
But the good news of the gospel is that God can change us. And that is what the doctrine of Holy Baptism is all about. In Baptism, God makes us a whole new person. He changes a sinner into a saint.
By the power of the Spirit working through the Word, in and under the water, we emerge with a NEW PERSON with NEW DESIRES, HOLY DESIRES. We desire to resist what God calls ‘sin’ and embrace what God calls ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘salutary.’ We desire to be like Jesus, and we call upon Him to help us keep our sinful desires under control.
And that’s right when the struggles and the challenges of the life of faith begin. Before baptism and conversion, there was no struggle between sinful and holy desires. But now, born again into the life of Christ, we find ourselves in the middle of a terrible conflict between the desires of the sinful flesh and the holy desires that reflect the image of Christ.
We have THE DESIRE to become less attached to the things of this world and THE DESIRE to become more attached to the things of God. But we are bombarded by clever schemes; slick marketing and merchandising that are carefully designed to create in us THE DESIRE to have more and more of the things of this world that fade and rust and that thieves break into and steal.
We have THE DESIRE to think pure thoughts and speak pure words, but we are bombarded with images and language designed to create sinful desires in us.
And this terrible conflict is one that we fail in far more often that we succeed in. And we daily need to return to our Baptism and begin again with the forgiveness and grace of God.
Paul writes, “I have THE DESIRE to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do THE GOOD I DESIRE, but the evil I DO NOT DESIRE is what I keep on doing…” (Romans 7:18).
So the great desire of the baptized in Christ is that the day would come when our ‘hearts desire’ would be fulfilled and that the struggle with our old sinful desires would be over. We long for the day when ‘our hearts desire’ is perfectly one with the heart of God.
Sing with me the final stanza of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
O come, Desire of Nations, bind, in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to thee O Israel.