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December 22nd, 2014

One candle is to the sun what the sun is to the glory of God.

75th Annual Candlelighting Service

December 21, 2014

Isaiah 60:1-3

This fall at Corinth, we have been reading and pondering the words of the most quotable, framable, singable prophet in the Old Testament: Isaiah.  So many of the songs we sing this afternoon in our Candlelighting service are drawn from his book.  Here are the first three verses of chapter 60.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
    and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
    and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Candlelighting at Sunrise?

I chose that passage from Isaiah for this service for a reason no more profound than the references to “light.”  No worship service at Corinth more dramatically symbolizes the metaphor of light than this one, and we’ve been hosting this service for 75 consecutive years, since the dark days leading up to World War II.

While we love the traditional nature of our traditions, we do have to be open to the need for change as well.  As I studied Isaiah 60, I started wondering if we’ve been getting this all wrong symbolically.  I considered whether we should move this service to 6:30 AM instead of 4:30 PM on the Sunday before Christmas  What do you think?  How many would be in favor?

That’s what I was afraid of.  But if this service is about the symbolism of light, we should pay more attention to the symbol.  We have this service at 4:30 PM so we can begin in the daylight and finish just after sunset, which today is at 5:15 PM.  But if we follow Isaiah’s symbolism, the message is not about sunset, but sunrise!

Arise, shine, for your light has come,” Isaiah writes, “and the glory of the LORD rises up on you” (v. 1, emphasis added).

Jerusalem sunburst

To whom is he writing?  He’s writing to a city.  It’s not Hickory or Raleigh or Washington or New York.  He’s writing to Jerusalem.  If you read the whole chapter, it’s about the security, prosperity, and glory of Jerusalem.  The symbol for this is the sunrise.

I borrowed the title of this meditation from The Message paraphrase of the Bible, which renders verse 3, “God rises on you, his sunrise glory breaks over you.  Nations will come to your light, kings to your sunburst brightness.”

As that image lit up my soul, it dawned on me:  Linda and I were just there – in Jerusalem – about two months ago.  We are suckers for the sunsets and sunrises, snapping pictures as if we had never seen those colors splashed, reflecting and refracting off clouds blanketing the horizon.  I wish I could show you our picture from Jerusalem on the morning of October 23.

Jerusalem is a remarkable city.  The city’s multicultural nature is legendary, in part due to the past and present conflicts over religion.  Since the time of King David 3000 years ago, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, resulting in 44 changes of government. Today it is mostly a peaceful, secure place despite the aberrations you see on the news.

Jerusalem is also a beautiful city.  The modern building code requires all new structures to use white Jerusalem limestone on the exterior, perfect for reflecting a rainbow of colors at sunrise and sunset.

Jerusalem was not a peaceful, secure place when Isaiah lived 2700 years ago.  He wrote during and for a dark era in Jerusalem’s history, when Jews, Assyrians, and Babylonians fought over the city.  Isaiah stood at a point in history not that different than 1940, when the first Candlelighting service was held here at Corinth just prior to America’s entrance into World War II.  Thick clouds covered the heavens as darkness fell with no promise of morning.  Isaiah wrote the words we just read for just such a time.  The service of Candlelighting was created for just such a time.

Darkness to light

You will not connect with this symbolism of light or with the meaning of this service unless you live for just a moment in darkness.  Maybe the darkness you feel is not on the scale of a besieged city or a world war looming.  Certainly we all feel it when we hear news of the Taliban killing innocent Pakistani schoolchildren or Christians being attacked by Hindu radicals in India for Christmas caroling.   Maybe the darkness in your world this Christmas season is like that of people I’ve talked to in the last few days dealing with depression, divorce, death, or disbelief.

In a few minutes when we turn the lights off, symbolizing a world of darkness, some of you will think, “That’s my life” or maybe, “That’s our world.”  It’s healthy, actually, for each of us to remember the darkness of our lives and our world, including our own sins struggles.  Let’s sit in a silent night for a few moments and remember that.

Then we will light one candle, then another, then eight, and soon by the light of a thousand candles we will light up this entire room and symbolize what Isaiah calls “the glory of the LORD.”  The word “glory” is used of God’s uniqueness.  It’s one of those words that we should probably use only for God, but we don’t.  God’s glory is how we describe his nature – that he alone had no beginning, has no limitations or needs, made everything that exists and is the ultimate ruler and judge.  In other words, glory is a word we use to say something we otherwise can’t put into words.

One candle is to the sun what the sun is to the glory of God.  As the earth turns and a city like Jerusalem that has been cloaked in darkness explodes into color and then is flooded with sunburst brightness, it represents what happens to sin and hopelessness when God shows up.  At no time did God ever show up in a more decisive way than when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  He didn’t change everything all at once.  We are still changing the world as we spread his light.

It started that night the shepherds’ field lit up with sunburst brightness and the angels exclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest!”  The same Jesus who was born that night lived for a while among us and in at least one brief moment allowed some of his disciples to catch a glimpse of the glory of God on the Mount of Transfiguration.

Then he took on himself the sins of the whole world – all the darkness of evil and hate and conflict he absorbed in his body and soul.  He suffered for us and then one Sunday morning his sunburst brightness exploded back on the scene in Jerusalem when he rose from the dead.  Every year we have a sunrise service to recall that dawn.  This is why we don’t need a sunrise Candlelighting service.  The baby’s birth in Bethlehem truly is just one little candle flame, a hint of the sunburst brightness of Easter morning.

I hope you not only participate in the symbolism of the candles, but you embrace the message of the songs we sing.  This next song says, “He will bring us goodness and light.”  Isaiah lived in a world of badness and dark.  1940 was a time of badness and dark.  Your world and mine in many ways are mired in badness and dark.  Only Christ displaces badness with goodness when we trust in him, and only he turns dark into sunburst brightness.  Amen.

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