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Worship and Sermons
Nov. 20, 2016

"Lighting the Way" By the Rev. Don Wahlig

THEME: John the Baptist heralds the coming of Jesus, the righteous King who lights the way to peace.  We should follow is example and reach out to others in love instead of fear, and compassion instead of comparison.


        One of the things that Beth and I have always enjoyed doing together is hiking, especially in New England.

        Above all, we like to hike up Mountains.  I proposed to Beth on top of Mount Mansfield in Stowe Vermont.  Some of these treks were more of an adventure than we bargained for.

        About a year after Beth and I were married, we spent a beautiful long summer weekend in New Hampshire.  On Saturday morning we got up and decided we would hike the tallest New England peak of them all:  Mount Washington.    

        At the time, I had no idea that the path we chose – hiking up the back side of the mountain on the trail known as Tuckerman’s Ravine – was one of the 10- most dangerous hikes in America.  I’ve since come to understand why Mt. Washington is often called the most dangerous small mountain in the world.  Over 130 people have died trying to climb it.

        The fact that we got a late start, didn’t tip the odds in our favor.   You’ve probably heard the old advice for climbing mountains “Be on top by noon”?  Well, we didn’t start until noon and we didn’t get to the top until 3:30 in the afternoon.

        As we approached the Summit, we realized that what had begun as a beautiful 75-degree day below, had become something very different up there – windy, bone-chillingly cold.  I suppose we should have been warned by the sign we saw when we broke out of the tree line.  It said, “WARNING:  The area ahead of you has the worst weather in North America.  The highest wind velocity ever recorded at any surface weather station – 231 mph - was logged here on April 12, 1934.”     

        After a quick cup of hot chocolate at the summit lodge, we set off back down the mountain.  It’s amazing how fast the sun sets in the mountains, especially when you’re on the shaded side.  We did our best to get off that mountain as quickly as we could – but no amount of scampering over loose rocks and rocky trails was going to make up for our lack of planning. Pretty soon, it was pitch dark.

        I thought I had packed all the essentials:  two water bottles, two sandwiches and a couple bottles of Long Trail Ale – but no flashlight, no matches.

        For the next few hours, we hiked backwards – like crabs crawling in reverse, feet first, feeling around with our hands and praying we didn't have to get over any rock ledges.  We had no idea if we were even still on the trail but we just kept going.  We were back down below the tree line, and there was absolutely no light – no moon, no nothing.

        That’s about as afraid as I’ve ever been in my life.  I was afraid for Beth as well as myself.  I kept thinking what if one of us falls and gets hurt?  Could we survive an increasingly cold night in the woods with just a thin cotton shirt?  We were disoriented and lost, blind and ignorant in the dark.

        You can imagine our relief when, somewhere around 10:00 we suddenly broke out of the trees onto an old ski slope.  Best of all, down at the bottom of that ski slope, was a light.  Just a single, solitary light – but that light was all we needed. I’ve never been so relieved in all my life.  I wanted to shout for joy!  That light would guide us to safety, because it lighted our path home.

        I have to imagine that huge sense of relief and joy is exactly what Zechariah is feeling in our Gospel passage.  He, his wife Elizabeth and their neighbors are gathered for the circumcision of their 8-day old son, John.

        Zechariah has been mute for more than 9 months, ever since he questioned the Angel’s promise that Elizabeth, barren and well past child-bearing age, would give birth to a son.  Now, Zechariah is finally able to speak.  His first words are words of praise and blessing – words of joy. 

        God has fulfilled his promise!  Not only has he taken away the stigma of childlessness that has been the source of shame for Elizabeth, but, in doing so, God has remembered his Covenant with their ancestors. He’s fulfilled the prophecy we heard in our Jeremiah passage.  

        In Mary’s womb, God has indeed raised up a savior from the House of David.  He’ll save the people from sin and deliver them from their enemies that they might worship God without fear.

        John the Baptist will be the herald of this savior. Jesus will be the dawn from on high, lighting the way for those who live in darkness, in the shadow of death.  He’ll be the light that guides their feet in the way of peace.

        On that night 25 years ago, crawling down Mt. Washington in the dark when we finally saw the light at the bottom, Beth and felt something similar.  As our fear melted away, our relief became an abiding sense of peace as we walked toward the light.  It not only guided our steps, but allowed us to see that all would be well, even if we weren’t all the way to safety yet.

        Have you ever felt that sense of relief, that sense of joy and peace?  It’s powerful and it’s tranquil, all at the same time.  That’s an odd combination.  It’s the promise of delivery from harm, coupled with the banishment of fear.

        That’s the key.  Just as fear and love are mutually exclusive, so fear and peace cannot coexist.  Fear thrives in darkness, in ignorance.  Down there in the dark places, unlit by the light of love, fear feeds on itself and ferments into a poisonous brew of alienation, hatred and violence.

        Fear changes the way we see others.  It leads us to compare ourselves to others. We view them not as fellow children of God, beloved and forgiven just as we are, but as competitors who must be surpassed, defeated and even destroyed.

        Fear keeps us separated from another.  It not only prevents us from forgiving others when they’ve wronged us, but it prevents us from accepting their forgiveness when we’ve wronged them.  It makes reconciliation impossible.

        Love is the only thing that can drive out fear. As Martin Luther King so famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that … Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

        That’s why Zechariah and Elizabeth are jumping with joy.  In Christ, God was coming into the world to light the way out of the darkness for all those trapped in fear and ignorance.  They trusted God’s promise that his love will guide their steps to live in peace.

        Those are the steps that you and I are to follow, too. 

        But that begs a question.  Just exactly what are those steps that lead to peace?  How are we to follow to them?

        The first step is to remove the blinders of fear from our eyes, and recognize that God means for us to see others not as competitors to be beaten, but as siblings to be loved and cared for.  That kind of fundamental change doesn’t happen over night.   It takes time.  It takes effort.  That’s why John F. Kennedy said “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.”

        We know that’s not easy.  Fear is seemingly everywhere, especially in the media.  A friend of mine who’s now on his way to becoming a pastor, was previously an editor for the Newark Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest circulation newspaper.  He confessed to me that newspapers claim they’re just reporting the news, but what they really want is to scare us.  

        Even the ordinary events of our daily lives produce uncertainty that stokes our fears.  When we confront change in our lives, our first inclination is to revert to fear.

        But there is an alternative path. It’s the path that Christ lights up for us like a runway landing strip on a dark night.  When we follow his example and reach out to others with love instead of fear, and compassion instead of comparison, truly amazing, even miraculous things happen.  

        We discover that, whatever surface differences there may be, what we have in common as children of God is so much greater than what separates us.  I think we certainly experienced that with our South African visitors, didn’t we?  If we can make this a habit – a daily practice – the blessing of peace and joy that Christ wants us to share is ours. 

        I’d certainly like to live more like that, wouldn’t you?  Let me ask that in a different way.  Where in your life – in your daily walk – might that kind of new vision be helpful in creating peace? 

        How might that change the way others see you?  Even more important, how might it change the way they see Jesus? 

        That is the path to peace – not just for you and me, but for the whole world.  It’s what Christ wants for for all humanity.  Let it be so.

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:41 AM
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