A Light Shines in the Darkness

Text: Ruth 2-3

Shared December 10, 2014 at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN

I’ve read the story of Ruth a few times before, but this is the first time I’ve tried to imagine it as a Disney movie. Roll with me on this. The section we read today is basically a Cinderella story: a young woman’s life is torn apart by the death of her father-in­-law and her husband, and she must toil her days away to take care of her family. Okay, so we’re
missing the evil step­mother – Naomi seems pretty great, actually – but I’m sure we could create another villain. Maybe a big scary Philistine or something. Anyway, Ruth and her awesome mother-­in­-law find themselves a prince charming – Boaz the rich relative – and hatch a plan to marry him to Ruth. Throw in a talking sheep who follows Ruth around the fields, and we’ve got ourselves a heartwarming family movie.

Whither Though Goest, Sandy Freckleton Gagon (oil on canvas)

Whither Though Goest, Sandy Freckleton Gagon (oil on canvas) http://www.sandyfreckletongagon.com

Of course, today’s reading left us in the middle of the story – we’re still waiting for a happily­-ever­-after. And so are Ruth and Naomi: they’re waiting, hoping, striving for a happy ending to their suffering. I can imagine the morning after Ruth and Boaz spend the night on the threshing­ floor: Ruth labors in the fields, sweating in the heat, her little talking sheep in tow, both of them wondering whether Boaz will bring back good news. Both of them dreaming of a wedding and a better life for Ruth and Naomi. A song plays over them as they work the fields:

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er.
Though her voice would be merry, ‘tis sighing all the day,
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

Maybe some of you recognize the tune: it’s an old American song by Stephen Foster (“Hard Times Come Again No More”), the same guy who brought us “Oh Susannah” and “Camptown ladies sing this song, doo dah, doo dah…” I learned it in college with a choir, and it’s stuck with me ever since. But I heard this familiar piece in a new way this week, too. I heard it as an Advent song.

It feels kind of strange to stick “Hard Times Come Again No More” in with the hymns our congregation is singing this Advent: they have titles like “Prepare the Royal Highway” and “All Earth is Hopeful.” It feels even stranger to fit it into the holiday music we’re hearing all over the place. It’s not an easy transition from the last excited strains of “Joy to the World” to the first lines of Foster’s song: “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor…” But let me explain why I’ve added it to my own Advent playlist.

Advent is a time to reflect on an essential part of living as Christians: that we are living in “a time between times.” Jesus has come, but we are waiting for him to come again. Jesus is with us, but not in the way he will be with us. We live in a time when we are still “preparing the way of the Lord.” We live in the “hard times.” Even though we know that “unto us a Savior is born,” we also know that there are many in need of saving: from hunger, from cruelty, from slavery. We know that we all still need to be saved daily from sin. Even though we find joy in gathering together with family to celebrate Christmas, many of us find that the celebrations only bring back our grief over the ones we love who cannot be with us. Like Ruth and Naomi – and Cinderella – we long for a real end to these “hard times,” and Advent is a perfect season to let loose our longing, to express our deep desire for the Messiah to come and bring us a happy ending. And so I sing the old Stephen Foster song as an Advent prayer:

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

But this song is missing the most important part of Advent: hope. Ruth and Naomi have hope: they have seen that Prince Charming – I mean Boaz – is a good man, and he has promised them that he will care for them. And we have an even greater hope than the hope for our own Prince Charming; we have the hope of Emmanuel, “God with us.” We hope for our happy ending when the Messiah returns. But we also have hope for right now. We have hope that even in the hard times, God will grant us peace. God will surround us with love. God will be the embrace that sustains us. Because God is with us.

In a few minutes we will recite a verse from the gospel of John: “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). This is how I see the “Advent” part of the Christian life. “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Baptism brings this verse to life – especially if we can imagine being baptized as an adult, full-immersion style. Imagine walking down five stone steps into deep, chilly water. You renounce the devil and the ways of sin. You profess your faith. The pastor puts one arm behind your back. You cross your arms over your chest, like a body laid in a casket, and the pastor takes hold of your wrist. Suddenly you are underwater. The world is gone. You can’t see. You can’t breathe. You can’t get up on your own. Your heart pounds in your chest, certain that it is having a near­-death experience.

The Baptism, Christina Ramos (Acrylic on Canvas) http://www.christinaramosart.com

And then you are out of the water. You take in a big gulp of air and stand in the sunshine on your own two feet – resurrection. You have died with Christ, and you have been raised with him. With Christ you went into the darkness, and you were not overcome.

A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That light is Christ. That light is in us. Even in the hard times, that light burns in us, warms us, and gives light to the world. And the darkness can never overcome it.

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