First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

A Little Light Goes a Long Way (Isa. 11:6-9; Php. 4:8-9; Jn. 6:1-14) Advent 2: Peace

This is the Sunday we light the second purple candle on the Advent Wreath – the Candle of Peace. Each year as this candle is lit, I think that it’s a good thing that this is the second candle and that it comes after the Candle of Hope because it seems every year that I can remember, that peace is only a hope. Today, we truly live in a world where religious intolerance and hatred is white hot. Indeed, in this country which we say is a country of laws, we suffer violence because it is commonplace to shoot and kill those who differ from us socially, religiously, politically, racially, economically – or their children, or simply those who happen to be there.

Week by week the news washes over us of violence wrought by people with guns, so that we are becoming a nation marked out in the world community as dangerous. We get very upset when people die in far off places at the hands of terrorists – and it is a tragic thing – and yet we seem unable (or worse) to do anything about the fact that so far this year, in this country 30,000 people have been killed by guns that were, for the most part, purchased legally, some of them by people who are well known to law enforcement and who even appear on the State Department’s no-fly order that we won’t let board planes, yet are eligible to buy weapons good only for violence, not for hunting. I am sorry if this sounds political, but good people have to think and talk about this, whether a small minority among us want us to or not.

So, on a day like today, in a time like this, why do we still lit two little candles against such a great darkness? What’s the good of such symbols? Shouldn’t we be thinking about taking revenge?

Isn’t a tiny candle flame pretty worthless? Isn’t it hopelessly utopian to read, as we often do on this Sunday of Advent, about lambs lying down with leopards, and lions eating straw like oxen, and thinking that the peaceable kingdom will ever come to be on this earth? Maybe, it’s nice for dreamers to fancy it when God remakes it all, but not in this world. And yet, when people across the world, and many faiths, are confronted with such a great darkness, and loss of life, they often light candles as a response. Little, flickering points of light. And in a dark place, a little light goes a long way. In pitch blackness, even a tiny light illumines a large area. Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” We must not struggle against darkness with more darkness. A little light goes a long way!

What can we do to light candles of action in our world that will drive out – even slowly – the great darkness in which we are engulfed? What I think Dr. King meant is really what I take Dr. Munn to have meant at the Thanksgiving Service when he said that Gratitude brings healing and health to us, and that Revenge is the motivation or emotion that destroys the health of the body and the spirit. It is not useless to light a little light.

The Gospel Lesson about Jesus and the feeding of the five thousand can help us to think about this. First, I know that this passage is not an Advent lesson. I have done as I sometimes have done before and changed the Lectionary text from Luke 1 that is on the cover of the bulletin. That one’s a good one, from the song that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang when his son was born, by the way. And it sounds good: “Give light to those in darkness.” But it isn’t very specific. How? Perhaps the story of the feeding of those hungry people can answer. All four Gospels tell this miracle story – the only miracle of Jesus included in all four. It must be important. And, yet, the story is a little different in each Gospel. Why choose John? Well, John is the story of light and darkness. In this time of darkness, he has a way of putting things that I find to be helpful to me as I try to focus a little light in a dark world.

For example, it is interesting to me that there is an administrative discussion between Jesus and his disciples, going back and forth about how to negotiate a logistic issue of feeding a whole lot of people. True enough, John’s piety makes him tell us that Jesus had a plan all along, but, at least there’s a discussion with the leaders. We find out that it’s going to take a whole lot of money (six month’s wages) to meet the need (in other words, it costs too much just to pay for it getting done). Another of the disciples has an inspired idea, or is it a desperate one? “There’s a boy here with a little lunch.” John is the only Gospel to include this detail. Well, of course that’s nothing to meet this great need. A child would have been considered a powerless, weak nobody, in Jesus’ day. What help could come from the weak and powerless? Well, you know the story. Jesus took the little lunch that was offered, blessed it, and distributed it. And when it was distributed they all had enough. And they gathered up a lot of left-overs as well.

As I read this story this time I saw a couple of things in it. Jesus works with this “little lunch” to feed lots of hungry people. Compared to some communities of faith in our neighbourhood, we’re like that powerless person with the little lunch. Look at how few we are and what age we (mostly) are. What can we do? Maybe we can offer our little lunch, whatever that is, to Jesus. By offering such, to change the metaphor, we strike a little light that goes a long way into piercing the darkness of someone’s soul and body. At First Baptist we light candles this way all the time. Thursday, we provided a place that was a peaceful space for folks in the midst of grief to sit, remember, and eat together. Just after that several prepared our little lunch to feed Monday’s Meal tomorrow night. Two candles lit. A little light goes a long way. We use our facility to send a little light a long way into our community with partners all through it, from folk in YWCA, the La Crosse Bar Association, New Horizons, Mobile Meals, El Centro Latino, and others. And I know of things that some of you do through the week to model the love of Jesus in this world. When we act as Jesus does, when we love as Jesus does, we pierce that darkness just a little with light, rather than with negativity or worse, hatred and revenge.

It was my privilege to sit in a session in Atlanta recently that honoured the award of the Templeton Prize to Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities throughout the world. This community brings mentally challenged folk into a home with those who aren’t to live the life of family. The Templeton grant has allowed an interdisciplinary experiment that has shown with some empirical data what seems intuitive, that such an accompaniment of one human by another deeply affects both and makes both respond more compassionately, especially the one who is so-called not mentally challenged, or, as we like to say, normal. There is a dignity and power to weakness that shines a light into the dark for good. Such weakness makes it OK to admit the vulnerability that we all have. Luke quoted Jesus as saying to those weak and wounded ones: “Fear not little flock, it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” – which means living together with God by God’s own values. Lighting candles is not useless, if we light them with our love and compassion. Even the light of a little lunch among such a great need goes a long way in the darkness. And you know I’m not just talking about physical food, right?

John’s version of this story is also the one in which the act of feeding the multitude is made to sound like the Lord’s Supper. I have no doubt that the author of the Gospel of John had this feast of the spirit in mind when he told his story. Again, as Jesus took the bread, blessed the bread, and distributed the bread, John wanted to remind us that we can do much with a little lunch from a powerless person, but also, that in this Supper of the Lord, we enact the miracle of feeding the hungry out there, by accepting that we need to be fed, in here, before we can feed others. We need to see in the Supper of the Lord into which we will enter in just minutes, our empowerment, with bread for the task of feeding others a little lunch.

Let me close with a word about the Epistle Lesson, which is just a snippet from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 4. He has just said to make sure that joy, gentleness, prayer and gratitude are their community hallmarks (also pretty good ways to light candles in the dark). He says, if that be the case then God’s wholeness (Shalom) will encircle them. Paul then says:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Here is another remarkable parallel to what Jim Munn said the other night. Paul says concentrate your lives in thinking about, acting on, and promoting, whatever things are wholesome, positive, excellent, praiseworthy. The word “whatever” is repeated six times. Don’t just concentrate on classical, holy stuff, but pay attention to whatever from whomever is positive. And follow what you have learned over the years of sound teaching.

When you and I together light candles against the darkness in the ways we have thought about, in practical, loving ways that honour people, especially weak people, don’t worry about the fact that what we’re doing is simply offering a little lunch. For by being willing to do such, we can help Jesus feed the multitude out there in the world.

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.