Preaching: Pastor Rebecca Henry
Date Presented: Sunday, January 8, 2017
Scripture Reference: Isaiah 60:1-6
Sermon: Spiritual Affective Disorder: Flip the Switch
Most people know that I am not much of a morning person, especially in these winter months when it is darker and colder. It is hard to get up and get going when I am tucked securely under warm blankets, where everything feels relatively quiet and peaceful rather than the awaiting pressures and stresses of a day. For many though, who struggle with depression and anxiety with Seasonal Affective Disorder, with despair and grief, it is more than that. It is a struggle to simply find the energy, even the mere desire to face another day. There is a fear and worry about what might happen in the day ahead, but in bed one is alone and can block out the rest of the world. One can just hope the day will pass away and leave you to be. Only today we come recognizing we all have those moments. It is what we call the “Dark Night of the Soul.” It’s more than physical depression, but something that touches all of us when we feel hopeless and helpless, wondering where is our loving, saving God, for all we can see is darkness and pain.
But today we hear an invitation, “Arise, and shine like the sun. The glory of the Lord is shining on you!” Indeed the sheer act of getting up in the morning, of flipping on the switch to the light is an act of defiance, that this darkness, this despair will not get the better of me; it will not keep me down; it will not defeat me. Each time that we arise from our beds it is an act of hop, an affirmation of faith that there is One far greater, far more powerful than this darkness who gives us victory, who is with us in this new day, who gives us the strength to face a new day. Isaiah proclaims, “Arise, shine like the sun; the glory of the Lord is shining on you! Other nations will be covered by darkness, but on you the light of the Lord will shine; the brightness of his presence will be with you.” In our rising there is hope, to face the darkness with God on our side, for we know there is meaning to this day, a purpose for us.
That is what I find so powerful in our opening song. It was introduced to me at Youth 2015 as an invitation to begin each day with this song, perhaps even as an alarm. When I heard it I couldn’t agree more that this prayer begins to open our spirits to focus our attention to God’s presence in the new day, “I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me. God’s eyes to look before me. God’s wisdom to guide me. God’s way to lie before me. God’s shield to protect me.” It is a prayer that acknowledges the evil and darkness, but invites us to arise knowing God is with us.
There is a lot in this world that can leave us in despair: seeing cycles of poverty that seem so hard to break; seeing children who are sick or are already struggling with fears and anxieties, hearing stories of families displaced by war, those moments when we connect with one another in ways that leave us realizing every family has its struggles and pain. At times we struggle to keep hope, for the darkness and despair seem so much more powerful. Only theologian Craig Koester wrote that the reason the forces of evil and darkness feel so powerful is because they are raging, for they know they have already lost. If it feels like they are powerful it is because they are afraid because they have lost. Indeed our hope is grounded in Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, who rose victorious over death, who can not, shall not, will not be put out.
I can remember a time when I was away at the Board of Ordained Ministry, and many of us were feeling the weight of what was happening in the world and some of the decisions we were making. My alarm went off, and I turned it off and pulled the covers way over my head, telling my roommate, “I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to face this.” We contemplated playing hookie. We even texted someone else there telling him he was in charge, but in time we got up, opened our drapes more fully to the Light, and made our way down to breakfast. There Nick, the camp director, could feel the weight in the room, and he shared this with us. “I am so grateful to work here, because every day as I come to the start of a new day I look out over the lake, and I see the beautiful work of our Creator. I can breathe, seeing the bigger picture, and know it will be okay, even on a hard day.” That day we needed Nick’s words to encourage, to remind us of the truth that God’s light cannot be put out.
That was what the prophet Isaiah was offering the Israelites in today’s reading. They were just returning from exile, back to their homes. Only all their expectations weren’t being realized. Rather it was hard work trying to rebuild the Temple and their homes. They were discouraged and lost in dismay. The prophet Isaiah, however, calls the people to hope, to trust in God, to look for signs of God’s presence shining upon them. He will not let despair overcome God’s people.
This, too, was the experience and witness of Mother Teresa. For years Mother Teresa offered such a powerful witness of God’s light shining upon the poor and sick that it surprised many to learn that for 35 years she herself struggled with despair and darkness. Jesuit Father Albert Huart remembers,
“It was probably at the retreat previous to the General Chapter in 1985. Mother came. . . to speak about the excruciating night in her soul. It was not a passing phase but had gone on for years. What immediately struck me is what she added to the description of this painful and enduring night. . . : “Father, I do realize that when I open my mouth to speak to the sisters and to people about God and God’s work, it brings them light, joy and courage. But I get nothing of it. Inside it is all dark and feeling that I am totally cut off from God.” This sounded to me like pure John of the Cross.
The contrast between her inner night and her ability to community God in word and deed to others enabled me to do my best to reassure her that God was powerfully at work in her, and encourage her to accept the darkness as part of His work. But, in this kind of night, a few words well meant will not relieve the pain, or not much.”
As we have learned, Mother Teresa was a powerful witness to the Light, not only as she cared for others, but because every day she arose to do so despite her own wrestlings with the darkness. She herself needed the help of others to see the Light, to see Jesus.
We all need those reminders. That is why this Table is so important. Here we are reminded of sin, of suffering and death. Here we see bread that is broken like so much in our lives and world. Here we see juice that comes from fruit that has been crushed. But never can this be all that we see and remember. Rather we hear the invitation, “Arise, come, see the glory of the Lord.” Here we see what God has done. We remember with the new covenant that God is always recreating. Here we know that death has been defeated; grace and forgiveness has been poured out. We are made one body. This is the very foundation of our faith and every time we arise and come to the Table we act in hope, deep hope, that Christ has risen victorious over sin and death and through him so do we.
It is an act of faith, a witness, every time we arise in the morning and flip the switch, accepting God’s gift of a new day, confident that God’s glory will outshine our darkness and despair. This week I invite you to allow the simple act of getting up in the morning, of turning on a switch, to be an act of faith. That as you throw back your covers and your feet touch the ground, or whenever you turn on a light you pray in trust, “Lord, let your light shine upon me.” May that prayer and act of faith awaken you to the presence of the Lord shining upon you.