Rev. Paula Norbert
“I Believe in the Light: Illuminating Peace”
Synopsis (read at the beginning of worship): The “great light” which we will hear spoken of in the Isaiah reading this morning is echoed in the good news of John’s Gospel: the light that brings peace–that saves the people from all that would extinguish it–has been there from the beginning. The Word is made flesh and dwells among us. This reign is now… will we believe it? Will we continue to put flesh on it, embodying the peace meant for all humanity?
Scripture: Isaiah 9: 2-7, John 1: 1-18
A little boy and girl were singing their favorite Christmas carol in church the Sunday before Christmas. The boy finished singing “Silent Night” with the words, “Sleep in heavenly beans.” “No,” his sister corrected, “not beans, peas!”
Not peas, peace! Peace. That is what we are all searching for in this holy season, the light of holy rest, sacred calm. The shepherds found this, after getting over their terror at seeing the angels, and finding their way to a stable in Bethlehem. Mary found this, after labor and delivery – cuddling her newborn son in his blanket. The wise men found this after journeying for months guided by a star foretold by scripture; they were finally able to lay their treasures down before the newborn child. They didn’t need to journey farther. Each found rest by getting to the wellspring, the root, the source, the essence. So how do we discover this same precious and sacred peace, this inner rest for ourselves? How do we find our way to our own Bethlehem, our own manger of innocence, our own manger of deep joy, and true stillness and calm? How do we welcome the birth of Christ in our hearts? Let us pray, O Holy One, we are asking for your guidance in these days. We seek the light that will point the way to the deep reservoirs of peace and gladness that you offer to our lives. Enlighten our hearts and show us the way to that manger once again. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
On this week of “peace,” we listen once again to the important prophesy from Isaiah that lays out the qualities of a just and righteous ruler. The “authority” that rests upon the shoulders of good rulers is dependent upon the deeper and more substantive peace that they can provide for their people, where the weak are protected from the strong who may perpetrate violence against them and “lord” privilege over them. There has been much debate about what “child” Isaiah is describing (a descendant of David already born or yet to be born? Or are these attributes referring to God?) but the description is in keeping with other passages in Hebrew texts that describe a peace that is not merely a surface kind of peace, one in which some are muzzled in order to “keep the peace,” or limit protest. What they people were seeking at that time is a true and lasting peace, a peace that comes when justice is recognized and all are treated with respect, all are seen as worthy of lives of meaning and dignity.
The Gospel writer, John, did not have any doubt that Jesus is the fulfillment of this “child,” of whom Isaiah spoke, who has come to bring peace. Jesus, the Word, was in the beginning with God and present throughout human history. John’s Gospel is written later than the other three and was meant to inspire people to faith, to see the Jesus’ story as the origin story from the beginning of time. For John, it made sense that Jesus would be described as light–the first act of creation. This light then becomes flesh and makes a home among us, gifting all of humankind with a well-lit room in that spiritual home. Jesus provides a clear vision of the pathways to enlarging the peace–enlarging the houses of God that we create to all people. Like John the Baptist, we are to testify to the light– in word and in action, we are to share the light that is Jesus and in the way that light shines now in others. I invite you to reflect upon where you have witnessed the beautiful “light of peace” in your life and especially in these hard days, these dark days of our world over the past many months? The light is there and continues to be there in the corners and in the shadows where people have persisted in shining God’s light and love and in sharing the deep peace that all are seeking.
Over the weeks of Advent, I have highlighted some inspiring documentaries that have focused upon the inspiring role that music has played in the lives of individuals and communities over time. We know that in the tragic history of slavery in our nation, the spirituals that were shared over the centuries offered hope and consolation to a people in pain. African American spirituals have long been a singing tradition that has sustained this community and which continue to be an important part of the struggle for justice and true peace.
Some of you may be familiar with the beautiful sounds of the musical ensemble, “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” who have brought inspiration and hope through their music over many years. When they perform, they weave into their shows their commentary about music and their passion for justice. Director, Stanley Nelson, produced the documentary Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise your Voice in 2005.
In the film, their founder Bernice Johnson Reagon leads group members in sharing funny, poignant anecdotes about their travels and concerts over three decades. Inspired by her experiences with the SNCC Freedom Singers during the Civil Rights Movement, Reagon organized the ensemble dedicated to music that would expose injustice, relate history, uplift spirits and celebrate love. Any who have had the joy of attending one of their concerts can speak of the inspiration they have received through the music of these women.
Years ago, I recall attending the musical play, Black Nativity, in Boston each Advent. I remember when I attended my first performance. The show began with the theater completely darkened. Barefoot singers clad only in white robes and carrying (electric) candles walked in, singing the classic hymn “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. From very young children to older adults, the singers walked slowly in as they sang together that beautiful hymn. It was deeply moving. The musical was written by Langston Hughes in 1961, at the height of the civil rights movement. It featured an entirely black cast, and it was the first play to incorporate a real gospel choir. Black Nativity was made into a film in 2013. The birth of Jesus was one of the most dramatic aspects of the show. The Three Wise Men were often played by prominent members of the black community in the neighboring area, and had no singing parts. The show closed with the chorus singing a reprise of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” as they walked out in darkness. A final soliloquy by a young child ended the performance.
We are becoming more and more aware of the ways in which the history of slavery and the fight for civil rights and full participation in our country continues to present haunting challenges to our nation. The tragedy of African colonization and North American slavery meant that too many of African descent lost much of their cultural heritage, and yet, they maintained their heritage of group song, including the West African rhythms and vocal stylings. In those centuries of slavery and after, the safest thing for them to sing about was the religious beliefs that gave many hope in the midst of untold suffering.
“Go Tell It On The Mountain” is probably the best-known African American Christmas song and a favorite of many. In the song, the lyrics “seeker” and “watchman” are thought by some to have been code words for those seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad. The song was made popular by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 19th century as this group of college students who were themselves freed slaves traveled the country to raise money and awareness. They were turned away from hotels, railway waiting rooms, and even some churches because of their color. In our closing hymn today, Michelle will share this beautiful hymn with us. I invite us to remember these communities who have fought for freedom; let us honor them, honor all who have suffered from the sins of racism over the centuries and into this day. Let us…
“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”
May this season enkindle within each of us the deep peace we are seeking and may it be a time of inspiration for all to continue to work for the deep and lasting peace that we all still seek. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace.”