January 23, 2020

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Last Sunday's Sermon


“Is There Any Sense to Life?”                                                            Isaiah 49:1-7

Who would ever claim to be from a place called the Great Dismal Swamp? No wonder Virginia puts it on their maps with squiggly marsh grass icons and says nothing else. No wonder North Carolina doesn’t even show the squiggly little symbols. The swamp straddles these two states. It’s located in the Coastal Plain Region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

Back when bubble gum came in penny packages that contained a two-inch square of sugary, minty, tough gum, the gum came wrapped in what was supposed to be a short comic strip. Those comic strips were a brief adventure story for kids but also a short advertisement for a battery manufacturer. The story line was almost always the same: two kids, a boy and a girl, were in some dangerous situation. They faced imminent danger. One thing and only one thing could save them. Of course that depended on whether the old rusty flashlight they found or just happened to have with them would shine bright enough and long enough so that someone can find them.


And so, as you turn over the little gum wrapper to see how it all comes out, little Susie, always tagging along with her big brother Johnny, suggests, “Oh Johnny, what if the flashlight doesn’t work?” And brother Johnny, brave and stouthearted, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and all the rest, would push the switch and behold, the sky would light up and they would be saved. Why? All because the flashlight was packed with Eveready batteries. And so in one particularly gripping episode, Johnny and Susie were lost in the Great Dismal Swamp. There wasn’t room in one little gum wrapper to tell how they got lost out there all by themselves, but the artist did have room to show trees with limbs that reached out and tangled your hair and ‘gators that lurked only inches beneath the surface of the water. The place was the Great Dismal Swamp, but never mind that ‘gators don’t live as far north as Virginia and North Carolina! The picture of danger was indelible. Johnny and Susie were surely goners.

But behold, Susie stumbles over something on the path, and she shrieks. But Johnny, bigger, braver, more trustworthy, loyal, helpful than ever before, picks it up and what could it be? A flashlight, caked with mud and crud and baked-on rust. Surely this is of no value. Surely this cannot help. But Johnny points it up to the sky, pushes the switch—and voila—a strong bright beam of light reaches all the way to the 6th Fleet at Hampton Roads bringing most of the U. S. Navy out to rescue these two kids from the Great Dismal Swamp.

Why? Because the flashlight was equipped with Eveready batteries! The Great Dismal Swamp, terrible, forbidding, and awful that it was, could be conquered by ever-powerful Evereadys! Wherein lies a perfect analogy. The Lord God says, “I will also make you as a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (v. 6). Where do you and I live? Nowhere near Virginia or North Carolina—but yes, in what often seems like a Great Dismal Swamp. In a world of need, a world of ugliness and unrelieved pain for tens of thousands of people, a world of hunger and warfare and despondency and terror. The world in which you and I are called to live, unless somehow you have managed to find a cocoon in which to sleep away your life, is a place of great dismal danger. Lives are destroyed in this dismal world. Souls are lost and drown forever in this terrible swamp. People find nothing but wilderness, nothing but a barren landscape. Ask them when they face their own death and they will say, as often as not, “I wish life could have been different. I wish I had another chance to live. I wish life had made more sense.”

And the trouble is that in the middle of all that dismalness, all that swampiness, a good many of us are whimpering little Susies and little Johnnies who would like to be brave, but we’re not. We don’t appear to know how. We’re intimidated by the Great Dismal Swamp. We only see doom and gloom, we see only the tentacles of disease and the murky waters of future uncertainty. In many communities we see the ’gators disguised as drug dealers and we are afraid of what our children must face as they go out into this world. But the issue is that we have forgotten we have Eveready light. We have forgotten that we are called to be flashlights who, though rusty and wet and bewildered, can still shine. And the light that we have, whether we know it or not, is a Light that cannot be put out and which will drive back the darkness of the night.

The prophet Isaiah saw a world like ours. He knew the harshness of warfare; he experienced the terror of death and disease and poverty. But Isaiah knew that the people of Israel were chosen by God for a special purpose. And Isaiah knew that even when the people said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all” (v. 4), that even when they were so down on themselves, God had a purpose that they should become a light to the nations.

God’s intent is always that we would be a light, powered by Evereadys, you could say. And it does not matter if we are old or rusty; we hold in our heart the light of Christ and we are chosen. May I put it in plain English? We Christians have the Light. We really do. We have something that can penetrate the worst the world can throw at us. And no matter how little you have used it, no matter how poorly you and I have taken care of it, we do have the Light of God’s servant in us and it is sufficient to make a difference.

Somedays I spend time and energy trying to convince folks that they can be somebody and that they can do something for the Kingdom of God. I am not sure how we got to assuming that we have nothing to give or nothing we can do to meet the demands of these days. I don’t know where we got the idea that we are nobody, nothing, useless. I don’t know where it came from! Because the Gospel contains no such disfigured self-image! When Jesus Christ enters our life, he makes a difference, he makes a lasting change, and even though we misuse it, even though we may for a time turn our back on it, we are still filled with more truth and more light and more spiritual power than we can ever use. Susie, pick up that light and turn it on! Johnny, flash that light bravely into the darkness of this world! The Great Dismal Swamp can be conquered by Christian people who take time and effort to share the Light. Is there any sense to life? Of course there is! When we remember the Lord called us before we were born; from our mother’s womb he has spoken our names; the Lord who is faithful has chosen each one of us! (vv. 1&7)

I’m 64 years old and to be totally honest I have no intention of retreating, going in reverse, or losing any ground. I have no reason to turn back now. So let’s grab the flashlight and push back the darkness, Join me! Be brave and let the light shine! Earlier we sang “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine let it shine let it shine let it shine!” Jesus said, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14&16). More than that, let’s shine that light on the far horizon. Turn that flashlight to the skies and beyond. I told you that Johnny and Susie on the gum-wrapper comic turned on that rusty, corroded old flashlight with the Evereadys inside and brought the Sixth Fleet all the way at Hampton Roads! Pretty good for one little flashlight down in the thick underbrush of the Great Dismal Swamp!

But that too is part of the story. The prophet Isaiah saw that the danger for God’s people is that they will use the light they’ve been given for themselves and will not share it far enough or broadly enough. The Lord says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (v. 6). The danger is always getting caught up in doing church work and forgetting to do the work of the church. We get caught up in doing the daily routines of being the church, or being Christians, and we forget what it is to be the body of Christ in the world.

God says that we are called to do much more than save ourselves. We are called to a world of need. We are called to build a worldwide fellowship of the redeemed. And our little lights, feeble though they may seem to us, can, with the power of the Eveready Christ, shine all the way around this world. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Someone published a book a while back that is nothing more than high school senior pictures of famous people. The editor studied the biographies of a lot of well-known people—actors, politicians, and the like—and then dug back and found their high school yearbooks and printed their pictures as they looked when they were high school seniors. And it’s amazing how ordinary, how plain and unassuming, most of the great and near-great looked when they were seventeen years old! I want to tell our youth today, “If you think we adults look funny now, you should have seen what we looked like in high school!”

But what struck the editor of the book was not only the photographs of all these notables but also the captions beneath their pictures. Very few of them were voted “most likely to succeed.” Almost none of them were given the top awards. Hardly any were class presidents or appeared to be leaders in any outstanding way. Just ordinary kids living ordinary lives in ordinary places. But now they are somebodies. What made the difference? For most, it seems it was they dared to dream big dreams. They saw larger possibilities and walked straight toward them. They let their lights shine. Just ordinary people who used what they had and who saw possibilities where others saw only dangers. These are the lights who penetrate the Great Dismal Swamp and who summon the fleet. We are somebodies. We are lights powered by the Eveready Christ who can burn brightest when the night is gloomiest.

Do you know why? Do you know why it’s not craziness to think of us being a light for the nations? Do you know why life makes sense? Because Jesus is the Light. The One whom John called, “The true light that gives light to everyone…” He was hung on a tree whose limbs reached out and took him under the murky waters of death. Yet the grip of death could not hold him.

Life makes sense because “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). God bless this simple witness to his word…