In Chicago, in the summer time every year, the city hosts a Blues Festival. Thousands of people turn out for this festival; they gather in Grant Park and listen to some of the all time great blues musicians in the world. People like Coco Taylor, BB King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells....
Now this is a festival for the blues; a festival of sorrows, if you will; because the blues were invented to help people deal with the pain in their lives. In other words, this is not the kind of crowd that stands up and flicks their lighters and holds them aloft during the concert, is what I’m saying.
So about a hundred years ago, or more precisely some time back in the mid-80s, Rose and I were at the Blues Festival and we were sitting behind this young teen-aged boy; he was all alone at the concert; and by the looks of him – all freshly scrubbed and carefully dressed - we knew he was from the suburbs. But it was clear that he had been to a rock concert before, because half way through the performance he got out his BIC lighter and flicked it and held it up in the air.
And this young man did not appear discouraged when no one else flicked their BICs. For the entire remainder of the concert, he kept at it, holding up that lighter and looking over his shoulder with a hopeful look on his face, waiting for that magical moment when the entire crowd of thousands would be waving their lighters and swaying side to side, inspired by his example.
And as the night wore on, the look on his face grew only more and more determined; he didn’t give up – not until the very end, when the final chord was struck. And as the applause died down my heart went out to him, that lonely hero of hope; that brave soldier, shining his light against the darkness, come what may and no matter how silly he seemed to a jaded and cynical world of blues.
Since those days, the world has only grown more full of the blues; it seems to me that the world needs that young man now more than ever.
But some days, if you look hard enough, you can see that little BIC lighter out there. When the nights are darkest, the stars are their most brilliant.
It was in the middle of one of the darkest moments of Israel’s history that the prophet Isaiah caught sight of that light - but it wasn’t a little flickering BIC that he was describing when he said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
The year was 735 BC; the kingdom of Judah was facing annihilation by Assyria – the greatest power in the known world. What hope could they have? The prophet Isaiah saw the look on the king’s face; he saw that the king was without hope and that he was more aware of his weakness than of his strength. And so Isaiah spoke these words to help King Ahaz get things in perspective. Don’t forget, Isaiah was saying, that the Lord your God is a great God; don’t forget the promises that he made to us. Keep your hope alive, Isaiah was saying. Assyria is nothing compared to the kingdom promised to us under the house of David.
But the king didn’t listen to Isaiah, and instead basically gave away his kingdom to the Assyrians.
Isaiah must have felt a little like the young man at the blues festival, looking out over a sea of darkness: am I the only one around here who is willing to hope?
When the nights are darkest, the stars are their most brilliant. I imagine it was a dark night, indeed, in that little town of Bethlehem so many years ago, when the star appeared from the East. The people of Israel were desperately poor, living under a brutal army occupation. Torture and terrorism were commonplace; and hope was in very short supply. And yet, in that darkness, the star appeared.
On the night of September 11, 2001, I was among a few religious leaders invited to address a crowd of over 12,000 students who had come to the center of campus to pray. Somehow, there were enough candles for everyone – the Catholics brought them. Where they got their hands on 12,000 candles I will never know. And while we prayed for peace on that very dark night, the candles were lit – at the front of the crowd, first, and then spreading toward the back until it looked like a vast galaxy of stars.
If you were alive then you might remember the pit in your stomach; the sense of panic just beneath the surface; the fear and the grief and the uncertainty. But as those candles were lit; when we took in the sight of just how much light can be thrown against the night when people decide that it is time to hope – well, it was a sight to see.
But toward the end of the prayer vigil we ran into a slight problem; we hadn’t quite thought through a fitting way to end it; as the last prayer was spoken there was a moment of uncertainty; the crowd started to shift their feet; no one wanted to leave. And that’s when a priest among us on the stage took a step toward the crowd, and in the silence and the confusion, lifted his candle high above his head.
I don’t believe I will ever see anything more beautiful than the sight of all 12,000 of those candles lifted up. It was, to me, as if an angel appeared over a sea of shepherds, and said, “Take heart. Do not be afraid.”
There are days when I read the newspaper and my memory of that voice seems very distant indeed.
Just yesterday there was a crowd of Muslim pilgrims in Iraq, reverently marching to a holy shrine in Karbala. They endured five separate bomb attacks; 47 pilgrims were injured; five were killed.
In November, 88 Iraqi civilians died at the hands of terrorists. The good news is that this is the lowest number of civilians killed since the invasion in 2003.
In Mosul, Christian churches have been bombed six times during the past month. Three people have been killed so far, including a baby.
It’s enough to make you forget the voice of that angel, speaking words of peace.
And so tonight, when I hold my candle against the darkness, I will be praying for the victims of warfare and terrorism, wherever they may be, whatever their creed.
Tonight, when you hold your candle against the darkness, what will you be praying for?
Closer to home, we have our own challenges. Many of us are reminded, every Christmas, of what we have lost. We can’t stop thinking about Christmases past, when times were better: when we were healthier, when our beloved families were still intact; when our loved ones were still counted as among the living.
When I raise my candle tonight, I will be praying with my brother, who on the other side of the earth is praying that this will not be his last Christmas. I will be thinking of my Mom, and all the ways she made Christmas so special; and I will be thinking of our beloved Bernese Mountain Dog, who died last Christmas.
Tonight, when you hold your candle against the darkness, what will you be praying for?
Many of us have lost jobs, some of us have lost our homes; some of us are struggling against addiction or depression. Tonight, when I raise my candle against the darkness, I will pray for my loved ones’ economic relief.
What will you be praying for?
Let your prayers be heard tonight; this of all nights – because Christ comes to a homeless couple living in a barn – to give us hope even in the face of poverty; Christ comes to us in fullness and light, to heal us even in the midst of our illness. Christ comes to us in wartime, to teach us how to find peace even in a world of violence and desperation.
Let your prayers be heard tonight - of all nights.
Sometimes I wonder about that young man, that hero of hope who held his BIC lighter up at the concert. I wonder if he ever found the courage to flick his BIC ever again.
Sometimes, when things haven’t gone our way, we will decide never to hope again. We might think we are alone in a vast sea of cynical people, all of them battling the blues, and we might decide just to join them; give up on hope; not embarrass ourselves again. But maybe what it means is that we’ve been flicking our BICs in the wrong place; maybe instead of a blues festival, we might try flicking our BICs somewhere else – like maybe in a church. Maybe it wouldn’t feel so different if we surrounded by people who have learned to pray rather than to complain.
Maybe that is what brought you here tonight. Led by your own star to this sacred place; surrounded on all sides by other heroes of hope.
Tonight, when you lift your candle, you can trust you are not alone. So let that hope that is within you, that uncreated flame of God that burns inside you, raise you up. Join your voice with angels and archangels; proclaim the goodness of God; and rejoice that here, in this place, Christ our savior is born.
Note: at the end of the worship service, the lights went out and we all lit our candles while singing "Silent Night." At the end of the hymn, I stood at the altar and silently raised my candle. Gradually, everyone else did also. It was a gorgeous thing to see.