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Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2014

In the name of God the Source of who we are, God the Example of how we should love, and God the Presence with us now. Amen.

Every now and then, we come to a set of Sunday lessons that require us to adopt a more grownup attitude. Today’s the day. For these readings, we get no YouTube videos with kittens. These are for adults, or at least for those of us who aspire to be adults someday…I can always hope…

The teaching here is so important that it comes to us in both the Hebrew Scriptures AND the Christian Scriptures. Jesus wants us to know that we’re to pay attention to this image from Isaiah:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness: on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
They rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest… 

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders,
The rod of their oppressor, you have broken...

Now I come to you as a person who understands this image. At times in my life, I have indeed been a person walking in darkness and, while I may not know the precise darkness through which you personally have walked, I have a strong sense that this is a congregation with its full share of deep darkness, yokes, burdens, bars and rods. Maybe more than its full share, who’s to say?

At the worst time of your life, in the deepest of the darkness, were you able to remember to look for the light, to hear Isaiah and Jesus teaching with one voice? Maybe not; it’s easy to forget. That’s why today we’re going to focus on a single three-word phrase to help us remember: THIS IS TEMPORARY. God is permanent; joy is forever; this mess is TEMPORARY.

Whatever the darkness is like, it’s temporary; heartache is temporary; the worst of the grief is temporary; pain can resolve; this too shall pass; it IS temporary. We start there for grownup reasons…because sometimes The Great Deceiver convinces a few who experience dark times that it will always be dark. Those poor misguided souls can choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Make no mistake, my beloved brothers and sisters: despair is not of God. Let’s be clear about the big question: Despair is NOT of God.

God is all about hope; God helps love us into the future; God forgives sins and brings new life. Have we messed up big time? God can redeem anything. The Psalmist sings it: Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Has someone you trusted failed you or left you or had the very poor taste to die on you? Watch for the light…God is at work -- right then, right there – to turn that temporarily dark time into a new day. Joy comes in the morning; THIS IS TEMPORARY. No, really: JOY comes in the morning.

Okay, let’s say that it’s not morning yet. We’ve shelved the idea of despairing over our situation, but what else can we do? Well, often the first glimmers of light are tiny, so we have to pay close attention. Otherwise, we might miss the beginnings of our goodness, or miss the points at which we are meant to take some kind of action.

Perhaps that’s what happened with Peter. Jesus tells him there’s suffering ahead, and he’s not having any part of that. Sure of himself, he totally misses the point: that he is to remain faithful in a dark time. Fails his best friend. Yes, he gets it eventually, but only after he’s had his heart broken. Pay close attention. Listen. Watch for the light of hope, so you don’t miss the beginnings of goodness and the role you’re meant to play in its fulfillment. If ever there were a teaching to come out of the New Testament, it’s Jesus and John the Baptist saying: Stay alert. Pay attention.

Okay, we remind ourselves that THIS IS TEMPORARY; we refuse to give in to despair; we watch for the light and pay close attention to what God may be doing…what else? This is what I love most: We plan the party! And, make no mistake, it’s going to be a surprise party for us. God almost never does what we give directions to do. Thank God, God does what God thinks up! It may be a big ole shock to our little minds, because we could just not have imagined such a result…but God can imagine some really fabulous stuff. So, in a funny kind of twist, we get ready to be surprised. Odd, but true.

When I’m ready to be surprised, I don’t miss the little love letters God is sending…written in my own language, so I’ll know they’re for me. In fact, God may be transmitting those love letters all the time, but I have my receiver turned off. God must be saying: Hello. Hello? Helloooooooo…

Well, some of you have heard this story many times, but I love it so much I just have to tell it again. This is my own story about the Raccoon of the Redemption.

At the worst time of my life, things in my old parish had gone to hell in a handbasket; it was just awful, filthy, painful, I was suffering. Late one night, I had to get some documents to the Merrifield Post Office, where the mail could go out right away. As I drove along in the deep darkness of a winding two-lane road with no streetlamps, I was praying mightly. “Dear God, please redeem the situation that is causing so much heartache…redeem the issues with this person and that person, and so-and-so, and the wife of the other, and the husband of one more, and…in fact, Dear God, please redeem everything in this bad situation.”

At that very moment, a raccoon stepped out of the bushes by the side of the road and waved!!! The Raccoon of the Redemption said, God’s gotcha covered, Pat; light’s on the way!

Do you think I could have made that UP?!? Not in a million years! It was pure prophecy, brought to me in my language by a wild animal, in the middle of a dark night, a dark night of the soul. And it came true: everything was redeemed; light was restored.

Let me tell you, my beloved friends, I’ve been partying with that Raccoon for almost twenty years now, and the joy keeps on coming.

Part of what I’ve learned, after the temporariness of dark times, is that I really can go ahead and plan the party for a time when the light shines through. Then it’s my job, my place, my joy, to celebrate the victory of joy over suffering, of forgiveness over revenge, of good over evil, of light over dark. God has once again lifted the burden, unhooked the yoke, broken the rod…and I am once again free to sing to the Lord in the new light. It will happen, so I can plan for it now.

That is what is meant by “the promissory note of things hoped for, the title deed to things not seen.” It will happen. Light will come. We can rely upon it, so put the three words in your pocket for some dark time when you’ll need them: Joy comes in the morning; light’s on the way; this mess is temporary!

Amen.

     - Prof. Patricia G. Bleicher