I am a morning person. When I wake up in the morning there is never any punching the snooze button and going back to sleep or lying around in bed. When I wake up I just pop up and start my routine, because that first hour is the best part of the day. I love almost everything about mornings. I love the peace and quiet so I can think. I like a new start to things, to have thoughts unencumbered by the troubles of the day. It’s my most creative and happy time. I love the first sip of coffee – no cream, no sugar, no mocha, vanilla, cinnamon supreme. I don’t want dessert, just pure black, piping hot elixir. I grew up with farmers, and when I stayed with my grandparents I would wake up to the steady rhythm of a spoon chiming in a cup as my grandparents stirred their coffee. When my grandmother died last year, my uncle asked what I wanted from her house and I immediately said, “Teacups.” He sent me two yellow mugs from the 70s with smiley faces on them. How perfect for my mornings?!
Jeanne is not a morning person. My joy makes no sense to her. I am an alien being to her in the morning, because why would anyone want to leave a nice warm, cozy bed? That is OK, because it is my time. James, when he was little, was definitely a morning person. He would crash land in my bed somewhere between 5 and 6. I woke up one morning nose to nose with him and he announced to me, “Dad, it’s almost sunny out!” The key word is almost. I struggle a bit in these dark, winter months because the only way to have my morning time before the world gets moving is to get up in the dark. I still enjoy mornings, but it is not the same. I have to fumble around in the dark to find things and it doesn’t automatically feel like a new day because it is still night. Darkness does not do it for me.
The best thing about mornings is the new light. I love the feeling of moving from darkness to light. Early morning light is soft and gentle, it is happy and hopeful. I love to sit out on the deck with a cup of coffee, my journal and my thoughts. One morning I was catching a flight and I reached the top of the mountain pass on Route 9 down by West Point right at dawn. Rose colored streaks suddenly crept into the darkness and drove it away. I suddenly remembered reading the Iliad in high school and Homer’s phrase, “the rosy fingered dawn.” I felt a kinship with other early risers stretching over the millennium. Mornings are fresh, new and hopeful. Psalm 30, one of my favorites, proclaims “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Moving from darkness to light is the major theme of this liturgical season of Epiphany and our Gospel text from Matthew this week. The lectionary first pulls us into morning dawn with Isaiah 9, “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.” (Is. 9:2) I wonder what happened to those people of Naphtali and Zebulon that moved them from darkness to light? One commentator I read this week noted that these were lands of battle and conflict, because of their location at the crossroads between Asia and Africa. These tribes always experienced warfare because they controlled the mountain passes and trade routes into northern Israel. In Isaiah’s day, these people were conquered and ruled by Assyria, so Isaiah 9 is referring to breaking the power of foreign domination over these lands. If we look at the map of modern Israel, we can quickly see how little has changed. These lands contain the Golan Heights, Israel’s border with Syria to the east, which was taken by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967. It remains disputed territory between the two countries today and Israel sees this spot as a most critical defense from attack. To the north is Lebanon, where the Druze militias have historically launched rocket attacks on Israeli towns.
In Jesus day, this was called Galilee, heavily Roman lands where retired centurions and other seekers of wealth went to live on the fruits of the trade routes and rich soil. Jews had no control and were at the bottom of the social heap. Many of the people were poor fisherman living off their catch and selling a bit to the wealthy Romans or perhaps they became carpenters and builders of the lavish Roman colonies.
This is where Jesus made his home and where he launched his ministry. He may have only been to the Temple in Jerusalem once on pilgrimage with his parents when he was 12. He began his ministry here among poor Jews and Gentiles that neither the Romans nor the Jerusalem Jews recognized to be of much importance. Matthew tells us that it was much like the times of Isaiah, where a people struggling to live in darkness saw a great light and hope for their trials. He sees Jesus ministry there not as an unfortunate choice of venue, but as a fulfillment of a prophecy centuries old.
You may be surprised to know there are Lutherans in that land. There is a Palestinian Lutheran Church in Bethlehem that ministers under the difficult circumstances of being walled into a small Palestinian enclave of 70,000 people and cut off from the rest of the West Bank territories. A Lutheran organization called Diyar has built a K-12 school for Christians and Muslims, a wellness center, and a medical clinic. Diyar is actually the third largest employer in Bethlehem. This Lutheran Church is successful and shines light even though surrounded by dark clouds of religious and political tensions and poverty.
I have a resolve this year to keep focused on the light rather than on the darkness. It is easy for me to get caught up in all kinds of things that draw me away from the light of Christ. I can be very fearful about the conditions of our world, difficulties at work, family issues, concerns about money and the economy. It is easy to spend a great deal of time in worry. When I worry I don’t act like a person who has seen a great light. Rather than shining Christ’s light on others, I become a source of gloom myself. I find that it is not enough that I saw the light in the past – when I decided to be ordained or times in prayer that I sensed God’s presence- I need to keep seeing it every day. I stand in need of new morning light, the rosy-fingered dawn, every day.
I keep rediscovering this truth. Gratitude is the most powerful I experience God’s presence on a daily basis. When I lose gratitude I start to feel sorry for myself, or resentful or fearful. If I know a reason to be grateful I can face almost anything. If I stop and think about what makes me feel grateful, it changes the way I think. I stop fixating on my worries and start looking for signs of God’s presence. I came home one day last week and said to Jeanne that I felt like I should be in a better mood because several good things happened, but I was bogged down by one great challenge I had during the day. I was filtering out my meaningful accomplishments and things that make me happy and dwelling on the one thing that went wrong. I am more likely to notice a kind word from another person, or a hopeful sign when I take a little time to be grateful. It trains the mind to see grace.
I am not advocating simply looking on the bright side and certainly not that we live in denial. Darkness is real and we ignore it at our peril. My challenge, and often my sin, is to not be overwhelmed or dwell on the darkness. Grace is also real and powerful. Christ is the light the shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. I want to be like the people of Naphtali and Zebulon, and the Lutherans in Bethlehem, and the fishermen who followed Jesus. I want to see the light wherever it shines in the darkness. God’s grace is new every morning. May it be so among us.