“O House of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
The Light is coming. That is the clear message in Isaiah’s words and in Matthew’s: “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
The Light is coming, and we are meant to walk in that Light.
The light, of course, is Jesus Christ, whose birth we will celebrate in a few weeks at Christmas. It isn’t hard to visualize Jesus as the Light – he is, after, God come to earth to restore our relationship with our Creator. How could God’s son be anything but a shining light of warmth and transformation?
That part we get. But how do we walk in that light?
There’s a great hymn called “I want to walk as a child of the Light, I want to follow Jesus,” and we might think that it sings our individual walk of faith, trying to be as Jesus would want us to be. But this is not simply an individual activity. It needs to be done in community.
That seems a little counterintuitive, doesn’t it? It’s about our personal relationship with Jesus, right? That may be so, but our individual relationship with Jesus is formed by so many different people with whom we interact, especially those in our faith community.
An old African proverb says “If you want to walk faster, you walk alone. If you want to walk farther, you walk together.”
And it is the long walk, the marathon of faith, not the quick sprint, that we should be aiming for here.
It’s about staying power, because there are lots of moments in our lives that can trip us up in our faith journey. And the good news is that we’ve got lots of examples of folks who had staying power, because they lived their faith journey in community.
Example number one would be the people of Israel wandering around with Moses in the desert, not for 26.2 miles, not for a week-long adventure hike, but for 40 long years. And during the time they did that wandering, they made their share of wrong turns in following Moses and God. Remember all those silly golden idols? It took them a while to get to Canaan, and Moses didn’t even make it all the way, because he made his own mistakes. But they wouldn’t have made it to Canaan if they hadn’t stayed together.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about Noah, he of the ark. He’s mentioned in today’s gospel. God didn’t tell him to make that ark for himself and the animals alone. He was told to bring the family with him. Now Noah didn’t always get it 100% right – why did he save the danged mosquitoes and cockroaches, for example? – but he, with his family, formed a new beginning and a new generation of the faithful. For obvious biological reasons, Noah couldn’t have done it alone, could he? Even the animals had to be saved in pairs!
Isaiah prophesied that we would go up to the holy mountain of the Lord not as individuals, but as “many peoples” and he said that the whole house of Jacob – in that time, all of the people of Israel, and in ours, all who follow the one true God – would walk in the light of the Lord. Not a private journey, a communal walk. The whole house.
We live in a society when individualism is prized, and that trickles down into a sense that all religion is personal. So we hear that people are “spiritual, not religious,” that they believe in God but don’t belong to any organized religion, because, you know, all religions did bad things.
When I hear that, I think of the obstreperous and distractable children of Israel, out there wandering in the wilderness. What happened when one of those Israelites went off from the group in the desert? They died of thirst or lack of food. Even when those wanderers were most unhappy with the journey, most angry with Moses or with God, when they were smart, they stuck together. It is not safe to wander off from the group.
The sociologist of religion Robert Bellah talked about the modern obsession with highly individualized religious experience most pointedly when he described one woman’s unique view. Bellah said:
Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as "Sheilaism." This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. "I believe in God," Sheila says. "I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice." Sheila's faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls "my own Sheilaism," she said: "It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other." Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points.
Now here’s the remarkable thing: when someone like Sheila shares her vision of what her religious experience is, and that vision gets disseminated in a book or on the Web or in a television program, what happens? A bunch of other folks want to follow it. They become adherents of Sheilaism, start calling themselves Sheila-ists, and invite others to join them.
Why? Because even though we treasure individualism, in America perhaps more than anywhere on earth, we need to belong as we shape our understanding of our God. In imagining someone as ineffable, as mysterious, as God, we need a shared experience of understanding and imagining, because God is more than any one of us can wrap our heads around. We need deep thinkers and great poets and the holy patient people who help us understand our God, at least a little bit.
Of course, God, being a loving and understanding God, gets this. God gives us signs to help us understand what is beyond understanding. And because we are slow learners, God gives us the ultimate gift to help us understand: God’s own Son, Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at the end of our Advent waiting.
God gives us a human baby – both human and divine, of course – to rebuild the faltering relationship we have with him. A baby who grows up and teaches and saves.
But will we know he is among us? Unless we have learned of him, in community, we might not. Unless we have been encouraged to understand him and what he stands for, we might not realize the great treasure that he is. Unless we have been prepared for who he is and what he means, we might miss that bright start in the cold night sky. Unless we continue to live and study and sing and rejoice as part of a community of faithful people, we might forget what is the most important thing in our lives.
We are by nature impatient. We want what we want, and we want it now. And so Advent, with its several weeks of waiting for the Big Day, is a challenge to us. And the waiting for those of us who are easily bored is a trial. That’s why we do our waiting in community. We help each other to wait and watch and wonder what this coming Light of the World will mean.
We cannot do it alone. Sheila-ism doesn’t work here. But in community, we can help each other. We can encourage each other to be patient, to learn, to rejoice, to wait for it until the great moment of celebration can begin.
That is why we come to church, in this season and all others. To make the long journey to joy, to walk farther, we walk with others.
In the weeks to come, we will hear beautiful music – members of this community from 7 to 77 and beyond will offer this for the journey, the walk in the light. We will see this sanctuary decorated magnificently for the season, an effort that takes several people quite a while. You will hear sermons, and trust me, they come not from individual effort on my part, but from many, many resources that I draw upon that are as varied as today’s television news and ancient commentaries on Scripture. And in our hearts, we will feel the slow warming, the gentling, that comes of the patient and difficult walk to the baby’s cradle, as we are urged on the way by those who are traveling with us.
We are not running a sprint. We are not running alone. We are walking in the light, patiently, deliberately, with a whole parish, a while church full of those who walk with us. Over the next few weeks, there will be moments when we forget what the endpoint of this season is. Not to worry – the others on the way will help us remember. The Child is there, with the star overhead. The Light of the World is coming. Let us walk in the Light of the Lord!
 Bellah, Robert, Habits of the Heart