Sermon for January 7, 2018: Light and Life in Jesus Christ (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Imagine that. Imagine being in darkness and knowing there is no hope of getting out of it – no light at the end of the tunnel, no breaking dawn. Worse, imagine not knowing what is in that darkness. It’s one thing to be in a place where the lights may be out but you still know where everything is, and it’s quite another to experience true nothingness, without sound, without scent, without air. For anyone -whether you believe in the biblical creation story or are an adherent of the big bang theory- one thing is the same. Everything we know – everything we are – came out of darkness and emptiness.
“Helen Keller’s world fell dark and silent when she was just 19 months old, when an unknown disease left her deaf and blind. She became an unruly child who often lashed out in anger at her inability to communicate and her failure to comprehend the world around her. When Helen tipped over her sister’s crib one day, her parents knew they needed to find help. With the assistance of Alexander Graham Bell, the Kellers were able to engage Anne Sullivan, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, to tutor their daughter at their Alabama plantation.”
In her autobiography, Keller describes sitting outside and feeling warmth on her face but not having a name for it. She wrote, “Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. ‘Light! give me light!’ was the wordless cry of my soul.”
“Sullivan helped Helen gain self-control and then began teaching her using a technique first employed by Perkins tutor Samuel Gridley Howe to teach deaf-blind girl Laura Bridgman to read. Sullivan spelled words into Helen’s hand and tried to help the girl connect letters and words with objects’ names. At first, Helen thought her teacher was just playing a game. Helen memorized words but failed to understand that they did, in fact, have meaning. It wasn't until April 5, 1887, when Anne took Helen to an old pump house, that Helen finally understood that everything has a name. Sullivan put Helen’s hand under the stream and began spelling “w-a-t-e-r” into her palm, first slowly, then more quickly. Keller later wrote in her autobiography, ‘As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!’”
For Keller, it was the difference between being alive and having life. She had lived in darkness – not because she was blind, but because she was oblivious, unaware of the wisdom and joy and comfort and peace that surrounded her, unknowing how to grasp what was right there in front of her because she was trapped in the darkness of her own mind.
As are so many of us. Keller’s darkness was the result of physical disability, but human beings are just as frequently imprisoned by the darkness of mental illness, want, false desire, and hate. This is human darkness that can only be dispelled by the light of Christ. “Light is the basis of life and order, and light itself is judged by God as being good.” For Christians, that light is accessed through Holy Baptism.
This morning we will baptize two of God’s children, already beloved by God but now embracing full membership in God’s community and the opportunity to completely know and embrace the light of heaven. Baptism is a choice, in this case a choice that Amelia and Dennis have made for Ti and Freddie out of love and a desire to raise their boys in a community of faith and love. The role of community is crucial in Holy Baptism. It is why when I ask the congregation if they/you will do everything you can to support these persons in their life in Christ, I expect the roof to shake when they/you say, “We will.”
It is also the reason that Jesus himself chose to be baptized with others. This is part of what the author of the book of Acts is getting at when he argues that there was a difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. “The passage clearly insists that a chief difference between John’s baptism of repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus is that the latter entails the gift of the Spirt. John’s baptism of repentance points almost entirely to a personal turning away from evil and toward good. Baptism in the name of Jesus…empowers and disposes people to witness to God’s deeds of power” as a community – and to imitate them.
Baptism brings with it the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that appeared in the colossal storm described by the psalmist - the Spirit that represents the mighty power of God. “On the Sunday of the Lord’s baptism, this psalm forces the Christian community to acknowledge and integrate God’s power and God’s goodness as well as human experience and Christian revelation…In Christ’s baptism Christians do not find the one who can save them from the threatening power that stands behind the universe.” Instead they find their part in using that power - and with great power, a wise man said, comes great responsibility.
“Through Jesus’s first followers, the Spirit was a powerful wind that blew through the ancient world and transformed it.” It has the power to do the same in our world today –and it is our job to demonstrate it, and share it with others. We need only to reach out and grasp it. Today, as we welcome two new members to the family of Christ and renew our own covenant with God, I encourage you to immerse yourselves in the powerful water of baptism, to experience both the majesty and goodness of God, and to step into the light – the light of Christ. Amen.
Finding Dulcinea Staff (February, 2012), “On this day: Helen Keller comprehends the word ‘water,’” findingDulcinea: the Librarian of the Internet, http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/March-April-08/On-this-Day--Helen-Keller-Comprehends-the-Word--Water-.html.
Helen Keller, (1903), The Story of My Life (Chapter IV),” PDF at http://www.fullbooks.com/Story-of-My-Life1.html.
Finding Dulcinea Staff (February, 2012), “On this day: Helen Keller comprehends the word ‘water,’” findingDulcinea: the Librarian of the Internet, http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/March-April-08/On-this-Day--Helen-Keller-Comprehends-the-Word--Water-.html
Joseph L. Price, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 220.
Douglas F. Ottati, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 234.
Timothy A. Beach-Verhey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 226.
Ruthanna B. Hooke, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 232.