Light Sensor

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Year B – 14 December 2014

John Edward Miller, Rector
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

                                                                                                             – John 1:6-10, 19-28

The Collect

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.


Sixteen years ago, St. Mary’s received a pastoral visit from the 12th Bishop of Virginia, the Right Reverend Peter James Lee. The Bishop came among us to confirm and receive new communicants of the Episcopal Church. But he also came to preach the gospel to a newly widowed rector and a grieving parish family. He delivered his sermon on the 4th Sunday of Advent, which fell that year on December 20, less than a week away from Christmas. Bishop Lee entitled his sermon, “Night Vision,” and I shall never forget the hope he rearticulated for us in this place on that day.

Bishop Lee contrasted the church’s expectancy with that of the culture. For the church Advent is a deliberate, methodical approach to Christmas, but for the culture this season is dramatically fast-paced, and fully lit with dazzling lights, often beginning before Halloween. As the culture’s Christmas winds down, ours is just picking up steam. He said, “The Church lights one Advent candle a week. Tomorrow will be the darkest day of the year. It’s no coincidence that long ago the church took on the culture’s mid-winter [solstice] holiday in the dark to tell the story of the light that the darkness cannot overcome. Consider how we deal with darkness in the church: slowly, one candle at a time. We learn to live in the darkness while we wait for the light.”

Despite culture’s attempts to blind us with its lights, their effect is only temporary. We all live in the dark. The forms darkness takes are multiple, all of which can discourage us, separate us, or even destroy us. But the truth is, the light will come. And the walk of faith asks us to trust that truth. For us who believe in the light living in the darkness means acquiring night vision. It will enable us to perceive just enough light to live and move and have our being in the interim. Bishop Lee concluded his sermon with these words:

The Christian walk that we renew today confronts honestly the reality of the dark and instead of flight from dark, invites us to faith in the dark, where night vision is a gift to those who endure in faith and the light is finally sufficient for the journey.[1]

 Years later I was a member of a mission team that experienced the fulfillment of trust in the coming of light in the total darkness of a Kentucky cave. It was the culmination of a weeklong series of trust exercises that enhanced our team’s unity of purpose. Our guide was a 20-year-old college student. He had us don helmets and check our flashlights as we walked into the mouth of the cavern. As the bright summer daylight waned, and the darkness waxed, I felt the need to check the young man’s credentials for safety’s sake. I asked, “How many times have you explored this cave?” He replied confidently, “Eight times.” I admit that I was alarmed when I heard his answer. Eight trips through the stalactites and stalagmites of a deep cavern didn’t seem to be much of a preparation to lead our team into the darkness. Nevertheless I pushed on for the sake of the mission, trying to keep anxiety at bay.

After about 45 minutes of our journey, our student guide had us be seated on a berm of sand within a vast underground room formed eons ago by glacial waters. All of us complied, and awaited his next instruction. He explained that we would be completely engulfed by darkness if we agreed to turn off our flashlights and lanterns. It would be a profound experience, he promised. So, grudgingly, we all cooperated, and the lights winked out one by one until the inky blackness settled over us. The guide then asked us to sit in silence for the next five minutes. And we did – for the first two minutes. Fear caused little bits of nervous laughter, coughing, and random chatter, each of which was greeted with someone’s shushing. A few of the darkness dwellers couldn’t help clicking on their lights. I guessed that they were checking to see whether they still worked.

The point was that darkness provokes discomfort in most people. It takes a great deal of trust that light will finally return. Our guide had succeeded in making us aware of that existential reality. When the five minutes ended, he simply turned on his helmet lamp and moved on through the cave. Not wanting to be left behind, we lit our little bulbs of light and followed him on our journey through the darkness, finding just enough enlightenment to help us slog through the mud and avoid the pitfalls on our path. At last we were aware of some ambient light ahead. It was the cave’s other entrance, and our exit into broad daylight. To reach the light, though, we had to remain calm, summon up our courage, and to crawl on our belly for what seemed like 50 yards. We had to crawl into the light, because the cave ceiling was about three feet above the floor on that long passageway. It was difficult, but doable, and we all emerged covered with mud, but laughing with happiness at what trust had accomplished.

We take for granted that there will be light to disperse the darkness. Our world is quite skilled at producing light to push back the blackness of night. There is so much human-produced light that it is difficult to observe the stars of the heavens. But that was not the case for our ancestors. To them light was precious and fleeting. That is why ancient peoples gathered to pray for the light’s return at the midwinter solstice. They feared the loss of light, and they regarded light as a divine gift, which indeed it is. Our forbearers’ worship of the source of light naturally developed into sacred treatment of light as a symbol of God’s presence, and God’s expression of truth.

John’s Gospel makes use of light in this manner. Today’s text contains two excerpts from the first chapter of the gospel – one from the poetic prologue and one from the narrative featuring John the Baptizer, who figures prominently in Advent readings. The fourth gospel paints a vivid picture of darkness as the realm of sin, evil, and death. It is the condition that threatens the mortal life, cutting us off from the light that God intends as our eternal habitation. Thus we hear the gospel’s proclamation, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[2] For the gospel writer, God makes the light and life possible to all people; in fact that good news is the Word that becomes flesh and dwells in us if we accept its truth.

The problem is that mortals all too often do not trust what God offers. Believing that light will come is riskier, it seems, than hunkering down and quaking, and letting the darkness prevail. Still, there are enough souls who seek the light to serve us as our guides. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John,” says the gospel’s prologue. “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”[3]

John the Baptizer is usually seen as one of the classic prophets of Israel. He comes across as an apocalyptic firebrand, preaching repentance from sin as a prerequisite of salvation. He represents God’s “wild side,” according to a knowledgeable friend of mine. True enough, his clothing and bizarre behavior characteristically portrays him as a doom crier predicting the end of the world.  Not so, however, in the Gospel of John. In the fourth gospel the baptizer of Bethany was more of a predecessor than a prophet; he is the vanguard, the point man, who precedes the Messiah and professes that the light is nigh. In this important sense, John the Baptizer is the prototype of the Christian, the first among the disciples to come.

When the emissaries of the priests and Levites in Jerusalem quizzed the baptizer, asking his identity, it is clear that they, too, were expecting someone to come. The interrogators implied that he might be the long-awaited Messiah. He dismissed that speculation by stating plainly, “I am not the Messiah.” Regrouping, they asked whether he was Elijah, or the prophet, and he answered, “I am not.” Pressing him for an answer, the delegation asks, “Who are you then?” John the Baptizer declared, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.” Not to be outdone, because they had to report to the Pharisees who sent them, the questioners demanded to know why he was performing baptisms. John replied, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”[4]

The testimony of John the Baptizer points beyond himself. He gestures toward Jesus, whom he regards as the Messiah, the light who was coming into the world. He is the advance man, the one who must decrease as the Messiah increases. And he is a faithful guide for all of us who look at the future with Advent eyes.

When John sees Jesus walking by the next day, he hails him as the one to come. He twice says for the benefit of all within earshot, including his colleagues, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” John’s words accurately reflect his essential ministry; they announce boldly, “Here he is! He is the one!” John has done the work of a faithful, perceptive guide; his own disciples hear his devotion, and follow his lead. We can trust that more than a few joined Jesus, being attracted to the light that John had recognized first.

John was a light sensor, and a radiant witness to the godliness of that light. As we noted earlier, in this he is the prototype of the loyal disciple of Jesus Christ. So John shows us our ministry as well. Believing in the light, sensing the light, and reflecting the light are the roles of all of us who in faith develop night vision. That is our baptismal charge, our mandate for change based on God’s own transforming love, the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it.

When we so live, being drawn to the light of Christ, things happen for the good – things that testify in themselves to the light that enlightens a willing world.  Evidence of light sensing, and light’s reflection is prevalent. It is sufficient to keep us on the path toward God’s eternal light.

One testimony to that wholesome radiance came in the form of hospitality shown by our parish to two men who, without help, would have surely drowned in darkness. In the post-Vietnam War era, people of the former South Vietnam who had been allies of the United States were in severe jeopardy. The first wave of refugees escaped with the help of the U. S. forces, but the ones left behind were marked for punishment or death. So fearful of reprisal at the hands of the Communists were these folk that they risked death as they tried to flee. Many were dubbed, “boat people,” because of their harrowing flight with the use of overcrowded, leaking small sea craft.

This was the case for the two men we mentioned. They were brothers – Hai and Ho Buie, and they barely escaped with the shirt on their back. Shot at as they swam to the boat laboring to leave Vietnam, the brothers miraculously survived, and made it to a refugee camp. From there they were re-settled in the United States, even though other members of their family had to remain in their conquered county.

Hai and Ho Buie came to Richmond with the aid of the Catholic Refugee Resettlement service. St. Mary’s Church agreed to support them on their journey out of the heart of darkness. With God’s help we reflected just enough light to give them hope, and the brothers have never stopped expressing their gratitude. They were amazingly hard workers, and they earned enough money to get other family members out, and to build a life here. Hai married and had a child. He showed his thanksgiving for our parish by naming his son, Holt, in honor of our late Rector Emeritus, Holt Souder. The family prospered and grew, and so did young Holt Buie.

Isabel, Parson Holt’s widow, recently received the Buie’s annual Christmas card. Enclosed in the card were two pictures of his son Holt and his new daughter-in-law, Jennifer. They are depicted at their wedding; their smiles are radiant. Hai explained that both Holt and Jennifer have earned a Ph.D. degree, and that Holt has a big job in Silicone Valley, while his wife is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Hia is proud of his son, and grateful for the ministry of light that was shone on him by our parish. He always concludes, “Without St. Mary’s we would never have had this life.”

I believe that Hai, Ho, Holt, and Jennifer are now shining ambassadors of the true light that enlightens everyone, if we step out of the darkness in faith and into its beam. They certainly have drawn Isabel and me to the goodness and authenticity of their shining lives.

May God grant us night vision this Advent, so that we might see and testify to the light that comes to us, and beckons us forward, and draws us to become light for a world shrouded in way too much darkness. In God’s Name, let it be. Amen.


[1] The Right Reverend Peter James Lee, “Night Vision,” a sermon preached at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, December 20, 1998, and published in the St. Mary’s NEWSLETTER, January 1999 issue.

[2] John 1:5.

[3] John 1:6-8.

[4] John 1:23-28.