Robert Lewis Stevenson, best known for his adventure story Treasure Island, was in poor health during much of his childhood and youth. One night his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. “Child, come away from there. You’ll catch your death of cold,” she fussed.
But young Robert wouldn’t budge. He sat, mesmerized, as he watched an old lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each street lamp along his route. Pointing, Robert exclaimed, “See; look there; there’s a man poking holes in the darkness.”
There were no street lamps, cobblestone streets, or frosty windows in Isaiah’s day, yet ancient Israel had its own kind of lamplighters who poked holes in the darkness. Isaiah sang:
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it
with their own eyes.
(Isaiah 52:7-8)
Isaiah wasn’t writing about messengers or “lamp-lighters” in general. He was referring specifically to an incident that happened during King David’s time as it was recorded in 2 Samuel 18. Hundreds of years later Isaiah’s retelling of this event so captured the imagination of the apostle Paul that he wrote about it in Acts 10.
Israel was at war, civil war. As King David waited for news from the battlefield, a watchman went up on the roof to look for a sign of the army’s situation. Far off in the mountains he saw a man running alone, and he quickly alerted the king. David said, “If he is alone, he is bringing good news.” As the runner came closer, the watchman could see another man running alone off in the distance. Once again he called a report down to the others at the gate, and David said, “This one also is bringing good news.”
When the watchman could see the runners more clearly he recognized the first one, and said “he runs like Ahimaaz.” “He is a good man,” said King David, “and he is bringing good news.”
When Ahimaaz arrived he greeted the king, saying “All is well, praise the Lord your God who has given you victory over your enemies.”
In those days, news was carried by runners. As the runners approached a city or town they could be seen off in the distance crossing the mountains. They would disappear from view as they ran down into the valleys, and reappear again as they climbed to the mountaintops. When Isaiah sang, “How beautiful upon the mountains …” he was referring to the runner’s approach. In the 2 Samuel story, the watchman knew Ahimaaz by the runner’s gait; David knew him by his goodness. Ahimaaz lived up to his reputation and punched a hole in David’s darkness with his words, “All is well.”
Poking holes in the darkness is what faith and hope are all about.
We poke holes in the darkness of life when we bear good news. Each of us is a herald. Either we broadcast good news, or bad news. Either we poke holes in the darkness, or we become part of the darkness.
News, as we have come to know it, is so often negative. Bearers of good news have become a rare breed. We can be recognized, as Ahimaaz was, for our positive “good news,” or we can intensify the darkness. King David recognized Ahimaaz immediately, he knew him to be a good man who bore good news. Positive people are known for bringing good news.
You might remember the story about the barber who had a perpetually negative attitude. One day a regular customer came in whistling. He was preparing for a vacation to Rome and was looking forward to getting away.
“Don’t go,” the barber started in. “It costs money. You’ll need a vacation just to recuperate from your vacation, especially if you go to Rome. The buildings there are old, the traffic is terrible, and the hotels have poor service and bad food.”
“Well,” said the man, “I like history; I’ve never been to Rome, and I want to see it. Besides, maybe I’l get to see the Pope.”
“You. See the Pope? Even the President of the United States has trouble seeing the Pope. Cancel your plans. Just stay home,” the barber advised.
Several weeks later the customer came back in for another haircut and he was whistling again. The barber observed, “Obviously you didn’t go to Rome.”
“Oh, yes I did,” the man replied. “As a matter of fact, I had a great time. The city was beautiful. The history was fascinating. The people were terrific. The food was marvelous. The hotel was excellent. And I even got to see the Pope.”
“You got to see the Pope?” The barber asked with genuine curiosity.
“Yeah, I saw him. He even knelt down and whispered in my ear,” said the man beguilingly.
The barber stopped cutting, moved back from the chair, and demanded to know “What did he say?”
The avenging customer replied, “Well, he cupped his hand over my ear so no one else could hear, then he said ‘That’s the worst haircut I’ve ever seen in my life’.”
We can become as negative as that barber, or we can be numbered among those who bring good news.
Isaiah penetrated the gloom when he described good news with the words, “how beautiful”
When does good news become beautiful? Good news becomes beautiful when it is shared. It is a wonder it is ever shared at all because so often it carries a dark cloud behind it. That was the case with John Newton and “Amazing Grace.”
“Amazing Grace” is a favorite hymn. People enjoy singing it. Almost everyone knows the first stanza by heart. What some don’t know is that it was written years ago by John Newton who was a slave trader before his conversion to Christianity. Newton’s father had been a slave trader, and John followed in his footsteps. Father and son both viewed people as a commodity to be captured and sold. Then one day Jesus Christ got hold of him and turned young John Newton’s life around.
Newton began reading the Bible. Dissatisfied with the English versions, he learned the Greek language and read ancient manuscripts. Eventually he became a minister. He wrote this epitaph for himself: “John Newton, once an infidel, a libertine, a trader of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved and pardoned and restored.”
Amazing Grace is a “good news” kind of song. It punches holes in the darkness of despair for anyone who thinks his or her life is a hopeless, unredeemable mess. When Bill Moyers hosted an hour-long public broadcasting special on the song he interviewed people all over the country, from different walks and different stations of life. All had their own way of singing the hymn. All were blessed by its good news.
Suppose Newton had never written that song. Suppose he had only rejoiced in the newness of his life but never shared it. Good news becomes beautiful when it is shared.
There is something wonderful and Christ-like about sharing our spiritual experiences.
Our story of deliverance is good news to those in need. What’s amazing is that we never know who is listening or watching when we share our selves, our faith, and our joy.
Hazel never considered herself to be a lamplighter. She loved to sing, but couldn’t carry a tune in a wash bucket. That didn’t bother her; she sang anyway. She sang in the choir until they asked her to please praise God in some other capacity. That didn’t faze her. Out in the congregation she still sang out, often leading the less musical congregants to be either sharp or flat.
Sixty years old and on a fixed income, when Hazel’s rent went up she was forced to move into a run-down apartment house on a rough side of town. She couldn’t afford gasoline so she sold her car and began riding the bus.
From what she saw on her walks to the bus stop, Hazel knew she hadn’t landed in the best of neighborhoods. There was lots of noise at night, and lots of tough, unpredictable looking characters hanging around. One man living in her building scared everybody. He looked big, and mean, and scruffy, and maybe even a little crazy. Hazel was afraid of him, but she refused to let her fears stop her from coming and going as she pleased. Nothing would keep her away from church, and from singing on Wednesday nights.
Then, late one Wednesday night as she was coming into her building, she saw someone waiting in the shadows behind the front door. She was terrified. The silhouette was huge. At first she thought it was the scary man in her building but the figure was different. Immediately she knew that someone had broken into the lobby and was waiting in the shadows.
Hazel had no place to run and no one to call for help. So she stepped forward. She walked right through the front door, and as she did she started singing at the very top of her lungs. She sang “When you walk through a storm, keep your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark.” She forgot most of the words and verses but picked up at the chorus, “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.”
She walked right by the hulking shadow, up the stairs and into her apartment. As she closed the door behind her she was trembling, but she was safe. Much later, she calmed herself enough to fall asleep.
The next morning she found a note that had been slipped under her door during the night. It read:
Dear Lady: I don’t know who you are, but I want to thank you for singing to me last night. I was ready to cash it in — to take my life. Then I heard you singing out there in the hall. It sounded like you didn’t have a care in the world. You got me to thinking about never walking alone. You saved my life. I’m going home to start over. It’s time for me to go back to my parents and let them know I’m okay. I’m leaving today. I just wanted to thank you for your song.
The writing was almost illegible, but the signature was clear. It was written by the big scary man who lived in the building. He hadn’t been in the hallway the night before, but he had been listening. Hazel never suspected that her song would poke a hole in anyone’s darkness.
We are all called to poke holes in the darkness. The Lord has a mysterious way of using our light — our songs, our words, our joy — to penetrate the dark corners of other people’s worlds. May all the people who see us also know us as David recognized Ahimaaz: as good people bearing good news.
This sermon is taken from Peter J. Flamming’s book, Poking Holes in the Darkness, published by Monument Avenue Press, 1992.

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