The grotto salamander is a pale, sickly looking thing about 4 to 5 inches long that lives in caves, especially in the vicinity of the Ozark Mountains. In the larvae stage which lasts one to three years, the creatures are brown or purplish gray. They have yellow flecks on the sides. They live outside in brooks and streams. But then they go through a metamorphosis which happens underground. They lose their color and their gills. And their eyelids fuse shut so that they lose their sight. In the blind adult phase, they spend the rest of their lives in caves in the dark. The grotto salamander is the only salamander species to undergo metamorphosis. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotto_salamander and http://amphibiaweb.org/species/4220] Now, what does this have to do with Advent you may be wondering! Well, we’ll see.
In this Advent season, we are thinking about celebrating the birth of Jesus, the light of the world. Many of our hymns, carols, and decorations celebrate light. In these shortest days of the year the importance of light is heightened. Light is significant. It makes a difference. It is visible most noticeably in darkness. A candle doesn’t make much difference in the bright light of day, but in a dark room at night it is transforming. Light truly shines in darkness.
The beautiful vision of peace that we heard from the prophet Isaiah is light shining in the darkness. The people are suffering. They are devastated. Despair has overtaken them. But Isaiah shines a light: A light that reveals a future of peace with all people living together as one. There are no more wars or threats or hostility, but a universal community of mutual respect, dignity, and justice where resources go into sustaining human life not eliminating it. This vision inspires the people to invest in the future with hope. The prophet shines a light in the darkest of times.
It does not take much to make the case that we live in dark times. Yes, it is a time of amazing, unprecedented human potential, especially in terms of technology. But the will and spirit of the times seems to be less promising. There is much going on that is revealing the dark underbelly of the human character. We see people succumbing to fear and abandoning reason, rationality, and compassion. We see people regressing into violence. We see the eruption of alienation and frustration. These trends are in evidence the world over in large ways and in small. Within a week of the election there were over 300 hate crimes committed in the US, and the problems continue. [https://thinkprogress.org/300-hate-incidents-since-election-day-bf9fd91edbd6#.hs9becdqc] People were handing out fake deportation letters on a college campus. An Episcopal church with a Spanish language mass had the sign defaced with the message “Trump Nation Whites Only.” A gay-friendly church like ours was defaced with swastikas and the messages, “Heil Trump” and “Fag Church.” Muslim women have had their hijabs pulled off and been harassed. These are dark times. Bitterness and anger are coming out.
And all the while, people are trying to deal with the day to day. Loosing a job. A baby dying of SIDS. Dealing with health issues. Facing divorce. The death of a loved one. Spiraling addiction which touches every family in some way. All these things keep happening day by day by day. It is easy to be overwhelmed by darkness.
And here’s where the salamander comes in. In our youth, we may be idealistic. We may be led by our hopes and dreams. Eyes wide to the world like that young salamander. But the steady onslaught of life, day to day, and the wider influences in society and in the world can work on us. Change us. To cope, we may learn not to look. We may become hardened. Oblivious. Numbed to the darkness. Like the salamander, we, too, may lose our sight. Close our eyes. Narrow our focus. Block out the feelings, the events, and the horror that seem too unthinkable to incorporate into our reality. So we may find ourselves fabricating our reality. Making it smaller and narrower and blurred. We may choose to blind ourselves to what is going on because we don’t know how to respond; what to do. It’s too ugly.
It’s hard to know how to incorporate the harshness, the violence, the evil of reality into our worldview. I mean, what do we do with the fact that so far in 2016 in the United States, there have been 438 mass shootings involving 4 or more people shot in one episode? [https://www.massshootingtracker.org/about] That’s more than one mass shooting a day. What kind of world is this? So, we may just resort to closing our eyes. Burrowing into our individual silos of information. Blind to what is actually going on around us.
Advent reminds us that Jesus came into the world in dark times. He didn’t come when all was well, and people were all getting along, and everybody was living with dignity and self-determination. No. He was born in very dark times. The Roman Empire was oppressing its subjects. The Jews were living under the thumb of Rome with severe economic restrictions and extreme taxation. People were poor and had little means of empowerment or self-determination. And the religious community had pretty much resigned itself to cooperating so that things didn’t get worse. Times were dark. And that is when the light comes. When it is needed most. In the dark. The gospel of John tells us the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Jesus is light in darkness. It’s no accident that Jesus’ birthday is celebrated in December. It is symbolic of his coming as light into dark times.
So, to truly appreciate Jesus and all that he can mean to us, we need to recognize the darkness in which we live. We need to name that darkness. And our need for the light.
The grotto salamander thrives in the darkness. Blindness is conducive to it’s survival in dark caves. The salamander does not need light to flourish. But it is not so with us. We are made to have our eyes open. To see. To understand. To be aware. We need light. Light which shines in the darkness. So, I invite us to embrace this season of darkness. To open our eyes to the darkness that is around us and within us. May we be willing to look with honesty. Fearless. True. Yes, the light still shines. But it shines in the darkness. And if we can’t see the darkness, we will likely be blind to the light as well. Amen.
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Romans 13:11-14
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.