Light Shines in the Darkness

A Sermon for Sunday, January 16, 2010, Isaiah 58:6-12; John 1:1-5, 14, 16-18

For the first time in my life, I can proudly declare in public that I’m a…comic book super hero geek! Just a mere 25 years ago, I used to be scared to let anyone know I read a comic book or even liked superhero TV shows or movies. I remember being in the fifth grade when my so-called friends made fun of me for having seen and liking Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, where the “man of steel” vows to rid the world of all nuclear arms by flinging the weapons into deep space.

Because of this traumatic childhood experience, I was more discreet during my middle and high school years about conversations with fellow geeks regarding comic books—lest the majority of the school think I was a loser.  Mostly, though, I hid my love for super heroes—an important piece of my identity—along with issues of Superman and Spider-Man in a cardboard box in the dark corner of my bedroom.But now, I don’t have to hide that part of me anymore; I can confidently display comic books and a Spider-Man version of Mr. Potato Head in my office without worrying (or caring) whether or not someone thinks I’m lame. These days, it’s actually popular to be a fan of superheroes, to both read their stories and watch them on the small and big screen! And if you’re a big-name star, acclaimed actor or director, it’s more widely acceptable to be a part of a superhero film. The genre has grossed billions of dollars at the box office and gained critical acclaim for its depth of story and superb acting.

And the release of super hero movies is not expected to stop anytime soon. At least 10 more blockbuster films are expected to hit theaters between spring 2011 and summer 2012 with well known actors, such as Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Robert Downey Jr., and Gwyneth Paltrow, starring in new roles or reprising old ones. Superhero stories are even transitioning to the most sacred place of acting—Broadway! This week, news outlets reported that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, still in previews, knocked off Wicked from its usual perch as the highest-grossing show on Broadway, claiming the top spot with an amazing web-spinning total of $1,558, 514.

The increased popularity and interest in super heroes is the result of not only a strong story and cast, but also a powerful theme that speaks so accurately to the times in which we live. In a video interview posted on the official website for the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, director Julie Taymor says:

“Bono (of U2) brought the title to us. It came from a story Bono heard about a child who would say to his daddy (when he was going to sleep) not ‘turn on the light’ but ‘turn off the dark. The one thing that Spider-Man is about is trying to bring a certain kind of light back into a world that is full of darkness, that is full of drama and terror.”

A light in the darkness is the constant thread running through every super hero film and is at the core of every great adventure-fantasy tale. Consider the following examples:

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)—Gladriel, the royal elf and Lady of the Light, hands a gift to the hobbit Frodo as he sets off on a perilous trek to destroy the evil Ring: “I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star. May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
  • Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkeban (2004)—Professor Albus Dumbledore, addressing the student body of Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

  • Superman Returns (2006)—Kal-El, Superman’s birth name, remembers the last message his father Jor-El gave him regarding his purpose on Earth: “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.”
  • Batman: The Dark Knight (2008)—Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent, during a press conference to speak on the mayhem caused by the Joker, reassures the public that: The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.”
  • Green Lantern (2011)—this summer’s most anticipated super hero blockbuster starring Ryan Reynolds –as a man who is bestowed with fantastic powers, as well as membership into an intergalactic police force, through a mystical green ring—uses the following mantra: “In brightest day…In blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight! Let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power—Green Lantern’s Light!”

A light in the darkness. Familiar words. Reassuring words. Courageous words. Powerful words. Sacred words. Ancient and prophetic words. The Book of Isaiah 58:6-12:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday. 
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

A light in the darkness. Jubilant words. Loving words. Faithful words. Merciful words. Transforming words. Hope-filled and enduring words. The Gospel of John 1:1-5 and 14:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

A light in the darkness. Wondrous and awe-inspiring words that remind us that darkness, evil, death, suffering, brokenness will not consume us nor the world. Words that we—who live in a dark time of violence, hate and fear—need to hear and embrace deep within ourselves…again…and again…and again.

As a hero of the Christian faith, whose birthday we recognize and celebrate on Monday, once said:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. … Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message, preached more than 40 years ago, couldn’t be more relevant as we observe the aftermath of the recent and deadly shooting rampage in Arizona. The venomous statements by politicians and media pundits who are desperately trying to place the blame for this atrocity on others with an opposing political view or ideology dominates the headlines more than the victims who lost their lives, and the one Congresswoman who is heroically struggling to keep her own.

Toxic language governs the socio-political and cultural landscape so much these days that it’s become a major source of our news and entertainment. Pick up a magazine, click on the TV, tune into a radio station or podcast, surf Google news headlines, or spend time on Facebook or Twitter—any day and time—and there will be at least a half dozen stories, statuses, tweets, comments, headlines, videos, and posts where someone is demonizing another person.  Back and forth it goes…ad nauseum. But it’s not just the rich, powerful and famous that spew out so much sludge. Many kind-loving Christians, like you and I, are just as good (if not better at times) at gushing hate from our mouths. I know I’ve been guilty of saying toxic words toward someone else more often than I’d care to admit. And every time it taints or darkens my heart.

If there is any one thing we can learn from the deadly shooting in Arizona and the vitriolic rhetoric that has followed, it’s that life is too precious to waste our time on malicious tirades that darken our hearts as well as others. From what’s been reported in the news, the 6 people who died and some of the 12 who were seriously wounded in that Safeway grocery store in Tucson on Saturday January 8 seemed to understand—in the epicenter of darkness—that the light is more powerful. As comedian and author Jon Stewart so eloquently shared in an off-script message on his parody news program The Daily Show:

“There is light in this situation. I urge everyone to read up about those who were hurt and killed in this shooting. You will be comforted by how much anonymous goodness there really is in the world. Read about these people and you realize that people you don’t even know, people you’ve never met are leading lives of real dignity and goodness…Wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take this opportunity, and the loss of these incredible people and the pain that their love ones are going through right now…to make sure that the world that we are creating now, that will ultimately be shattered again by a moment of lunacy, wouldn’t it be a shame if that world wasn’t better than the one we previously lost.”

Says the prophet Isaiah…

“If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness… you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Light shall rise in the darkness and a new world shall be built where all live in loving and just relationships with another.

Says the gospel writer John…

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

The light shall rise and shine in the darkness. The darkness doesn’t overcome it and God-in-the-flesh dwells among us in the new kingdom of God we are called to help build.

None of us can be super heroes. None of us can be fully human and fully divine like Christ. But we can be heroic. We can do goodness like Spider-Man or Super-Man. We can be followers of Christ. We can trust in God’s loving light to illuminate the way toward the creation of the new world, the new kingdom.

Says the preacher Dr. King…

“When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair,” and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

And all the people say…Amen.


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