Darkness at Noon
Today, it's official, "the most wonderful time of the year" has arrived. In the shops and at the mall, Americans have been preparing for the arrival of this season since Halloween. Now Thanksgiving is over and some of the biggest shopping days of the year have come and gone. The papers have reported that this weekend was a great success; in the strong economy everyone is feeling great and in a buying mood, so we know there is more, lots more, shopping to do. And now with the darkness coming so early, it's wonderful to drive home and look at the lights hung on the houses and the beautiful trees already up in the windows. And just look at this place this morning–it's gorgeous! If you really want to feel behind on your own personal Christmas schedule, just check out our glorious sanctuary–it's enough to make me want to cut the sermon short and put up some wreaths!
Yes, it's the most wonderful–and highly pressured time of the year!
If some of us here this morning feel as if we are not ready for the endless cheerfulness our culture foists upon us this time of year–do not despair! We can hear these comforting words of the prophet Isaiah falling on our culture as it becomes even more preoccupied with merriment, consumption and over-indulgence. In our first text in the season of Advent, Isaiah sings a psalm of aching lamentation. Here is a cry for a theophany, God's presence in despair–"Tear open the heavens and come down!" Israel's God is reminded of His absence: "you have hidden your face from us." Like a lover lost and alone, but filled with sorrow, Isaiah longs for the presence of God in the midst of the people … "you have hidden your face from us. Yet, we are the clay, you are the potter; we are the work of your hand."
Today's ancient text reminds us that Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) and Lent (the five weeks before Easter) are two sides of the same coin. In these two consummate liturgical seasons of our faith–birth and death, light and darkness, hope and despair, promise and pain, the last days and the days to come–all exist together in the same breath. At Christmas and Easter, we cannot anticipate birth without recalling death, we cannot celebrate hope for the light without groping in the dark night, nor can we welcome faith without remembering all the experiences that have caused our painful doubts.
For example, we tend to think of this season before Christmas as the season of light. There are lights everywhere: lights on the Christmas tree, candles on the coffee table, flames leaping in the fireplace, lights twinkle on houses and businesses and glow from the rooms of houses on evening walks. We marvel at their radiant beauty and mysterious beckoning. You know that without the profound stillness of the darkness of this time of year, there would not be such an emphasis on light. And that is just the point. It's the time of darkness and the light shines in darkness. I think of Advent as the season of darkness with little pieces of light shining forth. I think of Lent in the same way, a season of shadows with glimpses of the light to come.
For the person on the journey of the Spirit and for those of us who would see ourselves on the Christian journey, every season of faith holds vivid paradoxes. In the season of darkness, we wait for light. As we ponder the birth, we are haunted by the memory of death. As we long for a world of new life, justice and completion, we live in a world of profound injustice–where murder, violence and greed exist. Even as we center ourselves in the beauty and radiance of this season, we can become more conscious of the extreme ugliness of some parts of the world. As we prepare for the coming of a new age, we remember our own participation in a world made sorry and weary by its own greed and obsession.
Advent is the season of rousing. In this time we can be shaken to the very depths so that we can wake up to the truth of ourselves and the world as well. In this time we can let go of our mistaken dreams, our arrogant pretenses about who we are and what we want. We can even let go of our need to deceive others and ourselves as we open up to the darkness which surrounds us, and surrender to it, rather than rushing head strong into the light. It's a powerful time, even a scary time, because we are asked to live in darkness and keep awake.
Advent is renunciation, surrender, and a time to stop and take stock and wonder where God resides in your life. It is not a time to rush quickly to the light–this is the time to wonder and ponder the birth of God in your life. Mark bids that we watch and keep awake–we don't know what we are going to discover in the dark days. God can come to us at midnight or at dawn or morning–we don't know when or how God will come.
A friend of mine has said, "There is nobody so dangerous as those who live only in the light and believe that all others live in darkness." This is the true threat of those who would be fundamentalists. As long as a person clings to only the bright side of the truth, failing to recognize shadows or contend with doubts, the whole truth cannot exist freely and grow with faith and trust in God.
As we have experienced one of the most devastating summers and falls weather wise, we have hear plenty from those who bear fundamental beliefs about the Last Days. Well, the New Testament lesson from Mark is known as the Little Apocalypse because Mark wishes to show that Jesus will fulfill Old Testament prophecies about the end of time. Unmistakable cosmic signs are all about us and the elect will be gathered from the four winds. Watch! Keep awake! This language was designed to instill fear, wonder, doubt in the lives of Jesus' disciples and get them to behave as if the end was coming–so he says to them, straighten up and live right.
How might we read this text at Advent? I believe it’s important to hold the complexity of paradox in our theological discipline. Let us hear this text, not as purely apocalyptic–a sign of the end of time–but as a text dedicated to the task of keeping awake throughout our time.
How easily I fall asleep! I take for granted the gifts and graces of my life! How many times in the midst of a single day do I move to automatic pilot? There are people who I simply assume will be there for me. There are times I stop praying for peace and justice; I am beginning to think it will never come. I am almost tempted to stop believing that racism will go away because the problem is just too enormous. Have you stopped? I wonder, sometimes, if I have given up. Have you given up on a member of the family who is simply too difficult to remember this Christmas? I have to work so hard to stay awake to the power, pain, possibility and promise of my existence!
Even in the sunniest of lives, there must be grappling with darkness. There is darkness even at noon. The gift of Advent for each one of us as individuals is the opportunity we can take in these next four weeks to heed Mark's call to stay awake and keep watch over our lives. The gift of Advent for this community is the gift of time–time to remember who we have been as we pray for and hope in what shall be. God's gift in this Advent time is the hope which we pray will come to the world. Hope, not in a secure and thriving western economy; but, hope in the fragile birth of a newborn in Romania, South Africa, India or Mexico. God's hope will arrive, not in the threat of the end of time, but in the ending of the time of struggle, strife and hatred. The whole creation is, indeed, still groaning in travail.
Our call at Advent is not to buy more, be more, or obtain more. Our call is to keep awake in the holy darkness. Even in the brilliant light of a reasonably sound economy and a nation with prerogatives only dreamed of in other parts of this world, we owe it to ourselves and others to embrace the difficult stories contained in the midst of the surface of success.
In the Heart of the Hunter, Laurens van der Post describes a poignant scene in the midst of the desert. He is camped there with local bushmen and they are sitting around a campfire in the middle of the night. The total absence of any artificial light allows for a world of complete darkness. The stars hang low in the sky, their beauty and their brilliance not only seen, but also heard. Laurens van der Post describes the sound of the stars as this "intense electric murmur in one's ears."
At that moment, he sees the outline of a bush woman holding her young infant up to the stars. She is singing a chant and has her own face lifted to the stars. The others around the fire explained what she was doing…she was asking the stars to take the heart of her child and give the child "something of the heart of the star" in return. The heart of the stars is a hunting heart, a courageous heart, a heart that shines in the darkest night and murmurs with the charge of life.
At Advent, we are not standing in the full light with hearts complete, lives fulfilled, the world and all that is in it, at rest, at ease. At Advent, we are like that small child being offered up to the light of the stars in the midst of holy darkness: Unfinished, full of hope, and vulnerable to the power of God who loves us.