Summary: For Christmas Eve, just prior to the lighting of the Christ Candle. When we take our light from the Light of the World, we will be changed and we will leave traces of that change behind us.
One of the world’s great natural wonders is Mammoth Cave, in my home state of Kentucky. In Mammoth Cave there are more than 300 miles of caverns, there are mineral deposits that supplied the American army during the War of 1812, there are fish that have no eyes and need no eyes since they live entirely in darkness; and in Mammoth Cave there are also the unmistakable stains of smoke on the ceilings. Lanterns or lamps of some kind, probably candles, sent up their ash and stained the limestone. Where did it come from? In the mid-Nineteenth Century there was a tuberculosis sanitarium nearby. Those who ran the sanitarium believed that the air in the cave would cure tuberculosis, and so they placed in the cave the worst of their patients, and gave them candles to burn for light and a little heat. The patients, of course, are long gone from Mammoth Cave, and by the way there is no record that that treatment was helpful; and so are their candles gone. But the evidence remains that the candles have been there. Evidence which is unmistakable and indelible.
We have been lighting candles each Sunday during the Advent season. Each Sunday the bulletin cover has proclaimed with confidence, “Light a candle: Jesus is coming.” With mounting anticipation, despite all the negative news in the world outside, we have believed that the ancient miracle would happen again and that God would bring us the brightness of His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten. We have believed; but we would be helped if we could see the evidence as well. We have hoped; but is there any reason to think that God has done and is doing anything fresh among us? We have sung the old familiar carols and we have read the ancient words, but where is the evidence, where the ashes left behind, indelible and clear, that God’s candlelight is making a difference?
Zechariah prophesied what we hope for and long for: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” We, like the tuberculosis patients in Mammoth Cave, sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and long for light. Is God’s candlelight making a difference?
I say yes. I say yes, the candle of God’s light is making a difference, one life at a time. One person at a time. One heart at a time. And if we do not see it, that is either because the darkness is so profound that a few little lights go unnoticed, or it is that we have deliberately shut our eyes to the light. Either way, nonetheless, one life at a time, one light at a time, God is making a difference.
One such candle was lighted in David. I got to know David because his mother-in-law asked me to talk with him. David had been married before, but alcohol had ruined that marriage. His mother-in-law was afraid it was about to happen again. And indeed, before I could go and visit, the daughter too called and begged me to come and see David. When I went the first time, he managed not to be at home. When I went the second time, he put up a very good front, and our conversation seemed to go nowhere. But he did start coming to worship, and he did meet some of the other young adults, friends of his wife. They began to pray for David. When one of us would attempt to speak with him about his spiritual life, he would protest and say something like, “I know, I know, I’m not ready yet.” But his friends prayed on. And one Sunday I gave the invitation, and on the last verse of the invitation hymn, there burst from the back row of the church this very young man, literally running down the aisle to collapse in my arms and tell me that he was trusting Christ as his savior. That church went up! Those who knew his story wept and laughed and applauded and went up! And I am here to tell you that the Lord changed David that day from an arrogant, abusive alcoholic into a responsible, caring, warm-hearted husband and father. A candle was lighted that day. Jesus had come into that one life. And the ashes are still on the ceiling.
Another candle was lighted in Ann. Ann’s name was on our church rolls, and I had asked about her, but no one seemed to know who she was. And, to my shame, I did not pursue her. Just a name, just another inactive church member, of whom there were far too many. But one Sunday Ann showed up, unannounced and unexplained, at worship. It happened to be the day we were having a meeting after worship to organize all our committees, and she said to me, “I haven’t been here in twenty years. But the Lord said to me, ‘You need to do something different with your life.’ And so here I am, and which one of these committees needs somebody. I’d like to do something with children.” I steered her to one of the groups that indeed was a little short of people, and turned her loose. Within one year she had organized an after-school program. Within two years she had organized a single adult ministry. Within three years she had planned and brought off a Thanksgiving dinner and worship that involved everyone from the Mayor to the Chief of Police. And within four years she had initiated a campaign to reduce and finally to eliminate our construction debt. What a candle the Lord lit in Ann! Only one person, but once fired by the spirit of the Lord, what a light she shed! One candle at a time. The ashes are still on the ceiling.