The People Walking in Darkness
Resources for Family Worship on the Second Sunday of Advent
Read Aloud: John 8:12
“Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Sing or Listen: O Come, O Come Emmanuel
I have distinct memories of waking up as a kid after a nightmare, terrified of being alone in the dark. As I lay frozen in my bed, heart pounding, I would scrap together all of my waning courage and call out for my parents to come to the rescue. But only a whisper escaped my lips. The darkness was so oppressive it even stole my voice.
Fear of darkness is not relegated only to monsters under the bed. How often we feel the piercing darkness of the world. Headlines in the news and stories on Facebook remind us of the violence, division, greed, and selfish ambition that pervade our communities. And the darkness is not only around us. It is also within us. How often we are pierced by our own agonizing darkness: by heartache, bitterness, loneliness, and grief.
We as a people, and the American church broadly, are like kids after a bad dream, afraid of the dark. And there is good reason for this fear, because darkness can be terrifying when you find yourself engulfed in it. What do we do with darkness? We shouldn’t hide from it. We should acknowledge it. Name it. Confess our participation in it. The Bible has a word for this: lament. Lament is a biblical concept that gives voice to the human experience of sorrow, distress, and tragedy. As Soong-Chan Rah wrote in his book, Prophetic Lament, “lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering. It engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering.”
This Advent, as we explore the motifs of light and darkness in Scripture, we must first recognize the darkness that demands the need for the light. We must first recognize what’s wrong before we can celebrate the fullness of restoration Christ brings. Part of what we do in Advent, which is one of two seasons of penitence in the church calendar, is to tell the truth about the things God sees in us and in this world. We are encouraged to name the things the biblical prophets named: the ways we have become cold, callous, uncaring, blind to the light. We name the injustice perpetrated even by God’s people toward the vulnerable. We name the oppression of those who are most weak and helpless. We name our own hard-heartedness and infidelity toward God.
The pages of Scripture are filled with stories of darkness. In the very beginning, darkness marked the void of the earth before it was given form and called into order by God. Darkness swept in like a brooding cloud when our first parents rebelled against their Maker. The darkness of envy and bitterness soured the hearts of siblings and parents against each other. The darkness of judgment and destruction befell an entire nation; and the darkness of isolation and exile seemed to separate that nation from their God. In God’s True Story of Scripture, humanity’s greatest enemy is the darkness of death.
So let us tell the truth about the darkness. Let us cry out to God that things are not the way they are supposed to be. When we raise our voices in lament, we are shaped into people who can depend upon the Lord in the midst of the most trying hardship. When we lament, we relinquish control of our circumstances to a God who is sovereign over all things. When we lament, we entrust the deepest parts of ourselves to the unfailing mercies of God. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written, “it is a bold act of faith to cry out to God in distress, and to trust God to bring new life out of what seems to be consuming darkness.
Read Aloud: Isaiah 8:21-22
“Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.”
Questions For Discussion or Individual Reflection
Who are the people roaming the land? Why are they distressed? Why will they become enraged at their God? What is the darkness and gloom into which they will be thrust?
Examining The Text
We can glean some answers from the context of Isaiah 8. The people in this passage are the people of Israel – God’s chosen people. But as the reader learns earlier in chapter 8, God’s people have hardened themselves against living as God called them to live. They have rejected their God. Because of their rebellion, God promised to discipline and refine them, and then re-invite them to a way of life and worship that aligned with God’s desires for them. As we see in 8:7, the means by which God would accomplish this discipline was through the conquest of Israel’s Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian empire. So, the deep darkness and gloom described at the end of chapter 8 was likely caused by this mighty enemy nation, Assyria, which destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BC, and terrorized the people of Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom. Verse 22 likely refers to the devastation of the Northern Kingdom’s military defeat, the capture of its citizens, and the destruction that accompanies violence and war: famine, scarcity, poverty, illness, imprisonment, and slavery.
Isaiah for the 21st Century (discussion or individual reflection)
We in Winston Salem do not experience the brutal conditions of imperial conquest that are in view in Isaiah 8. But we may experience darkness, distress and fearful gloom in other ways.
Consider some experiences of darkness in your own life – in relationships, work, your own self-perception, health, or through addiction or abuse. What causes you to feel distressed or full of gloom? Are those things within your power to change, or out of your control? Are there ways God might be speaking to you through the darkness, inviting you to return to Him?
What systemic violence or oppression in our own era might be similar to the violence and oppression perpetrated by the Assyrians toward Israel? Sex trafficking and child slavery are on the forefront of my mind, but the latent, and at other times overt, racism and sexism experienced by millions of people around our own country can be just as dark and harmful.
Or, consider who around you may experience hunger or scarcity of resources – even in ways that cause them to be enraged toward God? Why?
Another, and perhaps harder, question is to place ourselves in the role of the Assyrians. How might we perpetuate darkness toward other people? In what ways do we, perhaps even unknowingly, participate in systems of oppression, violence, or privilege that cause other people to be plunged into darkness?
Prayer of Lament: Naming The Darkness
Listen to all or part of Samuel Barber’s 8 minute piece, Adagio for Strings: Link Here and read Michael Dodd’s meditation, printed below.
As you listen, silently lament to God about the distress and darkness:
– in our world
– in our lives
– in our own souls
Meditation on Barber’s Adagio for Strings
By Michael Dodds
Can a faith with no place for lament truly grasp the depth of our need for redemption, and the price paid to secure it?
From ancient times, music has provided the best way for us to lament, expressing feelings we would find hard to access any other way. Most musical laments imitate human weeping, with a melody that starts high and undulates down until the mourner gasps for air and weeps again. For our modern age, few pieces are so tied to lament as Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Op. 11, a work composed on the eve of WWII and played after the deaths of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and the terror attacks of 9/11. But Barber’s Adagio breaks certain of these rules: instead of a sinking melody, the melody we hear climbs up three notes, falls two, climbs up three, falls two, all supported by a slowly rising bassline—music of aspiration and longing. Proverbs tells us that “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Losing what might have been—hopes dashed, longings unfulfilled, the irrevocable permanence of mortal loss—this may be at the heart of grief. First the violins, then the lower violas, then the cellos lower still, climb upward and sink back, the emotion mounting in waves until the voices reach a keening paroxysm of grief. Spent, they return again to the opening music; but when they reach the end, too exhausted to go on, the B-flat chord that first launched their aspirations is now absent. Most music ends with a feeling of resolution and completion. But Barber stops one chord short of resolution. The piece is designed to cause the hearer to sense home, but not be able to live there. As for the Israelites in exile in Babylon, home is unavailable. The B-flat that launched our aspirations is gone; we are left only with loss.
As you lament, ask God’s help to face what truly has been lost. What has your sin cost you? What has it cost those you love, and who love you? And what have you lost, through no fault of your own? What hopes and expectations have you had, even of God, that remain unfulfilled?
It takes a deep faith to truly reckon such losses, because they threaten to undo us. So do not remain there; bring them to Jesus. Release your losses to God and ask the Holy Spirit for the faith and courage you need.
Lighting the Advent Candles (read aloud)
On this second Sunday of Advent, we acknowledge where the light shines. It shines in the darkness. Unless we recognize the existence of darkness, the hope we proclaim in Christ has a hollow ring. The world is shrouded in the cold of dark shadows: sorrow, pain, confusion, injustice, and death. Without God, we are utterly lost and destitute.
In the darkness, we cry out in honesty, but also in hope. In the incarnation, God has answered our cries.
[Light two candles, one for the first Sunday of Advent – peace – and one for today, celebrating hope.]
God’s Light has come into our darkness. He has moved into the neighborhood, He takes on our diseased humanity. In our place, He descended into the depths of the darkness, into which He shines His hope and love. Jesus, our hope who shines in the darkness, we worship you!
Listen To Simeon’s Song by James Beauregard and Keri Taylor:
Reflect especially on the first verse: “Here I wait, hoping for God to mend the sorrows of every bending and breaking heart. Long or late, if you are God when near, how can that still be clear when you seem far?”
Read Aloud: Isaiah 9:1-2
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan — The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.”
These words of hope in Isaiah 9:1-2 are like a sigh of relief. They are like a parent rushing into a child’s room after a bad dream, switching on the light, and wrapping the child in a warm hug. Even after laying, frozen, in the dark, nevertheless, there is hope. Nevertheless, we read in Isaiah 9, on those living in a land of deep darkness, a light has dawned. For the people of Israel, there was indeed a light that dawned after their long night of terror. But the night they endured was much longer than this passage seems to indicate. The light that dawned was the people’s return home to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon, an event that occurred about two hundred years after the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom. Hope would be hard to cling to, after 200 years of nightmares in the dark. Why the literary immediacy of this hopeful passage, if it actually followed some 200 years after the deathly shadows of Israel’s night? Perhaps it is not only the future hope of the return to Jerusalem that causes the rising of the dawn for Israel. Perhaps the light is not only something in the future, but something that shines in the present. I wonder if this is indicated earlier in the passage by the repeated appearance of the name “Immanuel” – God with us. (see 8:8,10). Perhaps God’s presence with His people, even in the midst of the terror and havoc wreaked upon by them by the greed of their enemies and the darkness of their own sin, brings light.
Isaiah 9:1-2 speak of an end to gloom because of the action of God. God brings light into His people’s darkness. It should come as no surprise that the name Immanuel is closely associated with light in this passage, for throughout Scripture God’s presence is also associated with light. In the darkness, the light of God’s salvation is seen by His people. Immanuel. God is present with them. And later in chapter 9, readers learn that God will be present in another way, in the form of a child who will set all the world to rights and will reign forever, not through the violence of war, but in justice and peace. In spite of the loneliness of the dark, God has not abandoned His people. Immanuel. God is with them. As they are disciplined, as they are devastated, in their ragged brokenness, and even in their death, Immanuel. God is with them.
For us, too, it is because God’s light shines into the darkness that we are given hope to rejoice. We do not need to wait until day has dawned. The voice of one who cries out to God in lament, asking, where is my hope even in the midst of suffering and death? Where are You in the dark? is the same voice that can speak God’s promises even when no light shines to illumine them. This is the voice of honesty and the voice of trust.
So let us not only tell the truth about the darkness; let us tell the truth about the Light that has come. Let us proclaim the joy of God’s salvation even in times of pain and sorrow. Let us enact compassion and love in a context in which hatred and distrust prevail. Let us rejoice in the coming of Christ, even as we wait for His return. And let us cling to the promise that the darkness will never overcome the light. O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Litany of Light and Hope: Naming God’s Promises
[as you say the litany, consider playing Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major as a soundtrack for rejoicing!]
One: God answers the darkness in our souls, our lives, and our world with light and hope. Jesus said,
All: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
One: Of the dark passages in our lives, the Psalmist writes,
All: If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.
Leader: Of the new Jerusalem in God’s restored creation, John writes in Revelation that, ‘I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of the God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.
All: The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no more night there.’
One: In faith, in hope, and in love we look for the coming of the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ!
Sing or Listen: God With Us by All Sons and Daughters
How long, O Lord, must we suffer under evil and darkness? Shine Your light on me and on us this day, that our lives would point to Your coming glory, by which the world will be healed and Your people set free through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Amen.
Written and compiled by Rev. Heather Thomsen Tang and Dr. Michael Dodds
Read the Advent Devotion for Sunday, December 9– Link Here