“Watching in the Darkness”
Listen to the sermon here.
Harvard Chaplain Peter Gomes used to say that when we “see the Christmas lights go up and the shoppers start to flock to all the sales, we know Thanksgiving can’t be far away.”
I was in New England last week, I watched as they put up Christmas lights on the Boston yard where I used to hear Gomes preach and I expected them to all the lights up when I returned to D.C. this week. Yet when we arrived at BWI all the power at the airport was out. All the power. I have never been to an airport that was so in the dark. We are so used to our power and lights that we take them for granted. We waited on the tarmac for an hour while they got a manual staircase for us to come in on, so we had to focus to get down the stairs. As I walked through the airport, all the arrival and departure screens were black so people had to communicate with agents to find their gates. No moving walkways so people had to walk more quickly. Manual TSA screening so folks had to be patient in lines. There were no lit signs, so I was forced to watch more intently in the darkness to find my car.
That is what the darkness tends to do. It forces us to focus, to squint, to pay attention, to be more alert to what is in front of us.
That is what we are called to do as we enter the time of year in the church called “Advent.” Advent means “coming” as by tradition the lectionary suggests scripture passages encourage us to look to the coming of Christ. Both the coming of Jesus celebrated at Christmas and the hope for the second coming of Christ promised in scripture.
Matthew wrote about how the disciples asked for a sign for the end of the age and the second coming. Jesus tells them that the sun will be darkened, the moon will stop giving light. Then Jesus will appear in the darkness. As Christians we look to accompany Jesus into and out of the darkness of life. As Noelle suggested, the liturgical year begins the first Sunday of Advent. We walked the labyrinth today to help us recall. We wear dark blue in honor of the Advent Season this year. Dark blue is the color of the early winter night sky at dusk. Dark blue represents the coming of night. Before we celebrate the coming of light at Christmas, we must celebrate what we have to gain from and learn in the darkness.
Christian writer Barbara Brown Taylor observes in a wonderful new book on darkness which has inspired this sermon series,[i] that too often in our society and even in the Bible, darkness becomes shorthand for anything that scares us.
We talk about a really dark movie. Or being in a dark place. Darkness in our culture often associates with night, ghosts, death, devils, dangers, depression or doubt. We grow up being afraid of the dark. Or the monster under the bed or walking outside at night.
Black Friday is supposed to be good thing. Retailers traditionally operated at a financial loss (“in the red”) from January through November, and “Black Friday” indicates the point at which retailers begin to turn a profit, or “in the black”. Yet it’s a stressful day for many. A friend posted on Facebook this weekend concerning Black Friday that “Only in America would people trample each other for sales a day after giving thanks for what they already have.”
If you are like me you watched the trailer for the new Star Wars movie, which debuted on Friday. I have to admit I got goose bumps watching the Millennium Falcon fly again. The problem is that in Star Wars all the bad guys are on the dark side of the force.
Too often our cultural focus on darkness and light causes us to divide the day into two distinct parts. We put all the good stuff in the light. We stuff all the difficult stuff into the dark. The challenge, Taylor suggests, is that if we associate God with the light and we are left to deal with all the darkness on our own.[ii]
What do we say about someone who is sight impaired who cannot see light?
Such a stark division of darkness and light can be particularly troubling in America given our history of racial division. Too often issues of race become metaphors of division where we say we see things as “black and white” depending on one’s perspective, as if there is no middle ground in understanding the position of another. Bridget and I on Monday were glued to our televisions watching divided TV screens as CNN showed the district attorney in Ferguson, Missouri describing the legal process on one screen and the protests and civil disobedience on the second. Ferguson underscores how loaded things can be when we see either darkness or light as wholly threatening. We don’t need division, we need just recognition of the perspective of the other.
The church hasn’t always helped. We read Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet from Matthew 22 about the kingdom of heaven and we might conclude that being in darkness is punishment. 1 John 1: 5 tells us that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.
Taylor writes that the church is often guilty of what she calls “full solar spirituality.”[iii] That is always celebrating what is light and condemning what is dark. Too many churches tell us when things go wrong, that we need to leave the darkness. So when things go wrong in our lives – when we lose a job; or a relationship falls apart, or our dreams doesn’t come true; or justice is not done; or a tragedy strikes, faith communities of full solar spirituality encourage us to come back into the light as if the darkness were our fault. As if if we just had more faith, things wouldn’t be so dark. As if the best the church can offer is that it’s up to us to make our way, at our lowest point of life, when our strength is sapped, back into the light on our own.[iv]
Because of course we would come back on our own we could. When we feel blue we would do anything to get back to the light. Yet we are going to wear blue all Advent, not only on Blue Christmas, because God is with us in the blue as well as the red and white. God is present in the darkness as well as the light.
Matthew reminds us that Jesus will come to us, his disciples, out of the darkness. Much as we read at Christmas that Isaiah prophesized a people who walk in darkness will see a new light.
What happened at the very beginning of the Bible? Genesis tells us that “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” Then the scripture concludes, “There was evening and (then) there was morning, the first day.” The darkness came first, but God is in the process.
In the Hebrew and Greek traditions out of which Christianity emerged, darkness precedes light.[v] You might recall that the Jewish Sabbath begins at nightfall, but not pitch black, rather when 3 stars appear in the sky. The holiness of Sabbath begins in the darkness. Night anticipates morning. Early on in each worship service we have a recognition of our sin and then a celebration of forgiveness. God is in and comes through the darkness.
We begin this Advent recognizing that the world is full of darkness. Whether it’s Bill Cosby, or University of Virginia. Or not being able to afford what we need. Or Ferguson. Or the death of a little one.
We are heirs of the people Isaiah mentioned who walk in darkness. There are sustained periods of loss, grief and pain in each life here and consistently in many places of the world. We begin the New Year, we begin our discipleship, much like birth, as we begin life itself in birth, with something sacred happening in the darkness.
The lectionary offers this morning’s passage to help us realize that we don’t have all the answer and that good will triumph for God’s will will ultimately be done. It makes two points, that we should be alert and that we should watch for the return of God.
The disciples believed that Jesus would return. They asked him when that would be. Jesus said they needed to stay wake and be alert for not even the angels nor the son knows the timing of Jesus’ return. If that is true, it is an indication that there are some things we are not able to understand fully. We can search for answers for why some things happen and yet we aren’t meant to know everything. When we ask how God could have allowed tragedies such as the past week, we are reminded that there are not satisfying answers to all our questions.
Yet Jesus will return. We are not left alone to face the pain.
Jesus will return at day or a time we do not know and cannot figure out. Only God knows. So we are not to take our time for granted. We don’t know the hour when the age will end. It could happen at any moment. We must not put off tomorrow what we know we should do today.
This is “watch Sunday” by tradition. Jesus tells us to keep watch. We must watch for his return. What does that mean? There are some who have read this passage and reacted by giving up their jobs and families and checking out on life and waiting. That is not the point. We are not to give up on life. We should live with confidence that Jesus will return. Whatever mysterious energy came in Jesus Christ 2000 years ago and conquered death.
We are to watch for his coming by watching over the world he comes to save. What does it mean to watch? The Greek word for watching Jesus uses here means to take care and be attentive. As if one was watching over something. Being alert and attentive, not staring blankly into space. We are to care for and watch over the flock when care is needed.
Paul told the Ephesians to “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God.”[vi] That is to watch over the church and flock like a shepherd would.
We recall that something else great came at night. The very thing advent builds towards. Christmas. Jesus born at night. We know that the first people who really interact with Jesus are shepherds who are what? Luke tells us there were famously, “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” By night!
The Psalmist writes of God, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light will become night around me, but even the darkness will not be dark to you, oh God; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”[vii]
The darkness does not intimidate God. God comes out of and goes into the darkness with us. If we watch for Jesus’ return, not by staring at the sky, but by watching over those in darkness, then we can bring a kind of salvation to those who seem afraid.
Disciples of Christ are not to flee the darkness in fear. Yet to enter into it fully confident that God enters with us. To do the acts of kindness and support and love that characterized Christ’ life.
I am proud of the way our congregation has rallied around Delcarla our caregiver in her time of tragedy, at the loss of her infant son. Many of us look at the news of Delcarla loss and ask where is God? God is in the darkness too. In Noelle accompanying a grieving mother to meet with authorities. Jenni and Lizzy holding her hand and helping her organize and plan for something she never thought she’d have to do. Many of you dropping what you are doing to send emails, funds, prayers and plans. At a time she described as her darkest hour, you didn’t watch the sky for someone else to act. You did and still can watch over the space in which you walk. You can enter into the darkness of another. In doing so, you can be a piece of salvation for someone who has lost hope. If Advent is about future, about what is coming, then what better act than to watch over those who have lost part of their future. We watch for his return when we watch over the world he loves.
We enter the darkness of Advent fully because there is much we can learn from the darkness. We can’t watch the sun. The bright lights of the summer sun are impossible look at directly or really see. Try to stare into the sun and you’ll be blinded. The sun pushes us away. But you can look into the dark. The dark draws us in to try and see more clearly. To notice. To watch. To keep our eyes peeled so we don’t miss anything. I know when we are in upstate New York in the summer I love seeing the stars. It is in the night time when we are most able to see the signs of creation and the divine deep within the heavens when we look for them.
Jesus’ disciples dreamt of a day somewhere in the future when Jesus would come, when death would be destroyed, when evil would be gone, when justice would be done, when faith would be rewarded, when they would celebrate that what they watched over would be redeemed.
What Jesus was trying to tell his disciples was to be ready, to watch out, to watch over, for they had a role to yet in the Advent, in the coming work, of God. And so do we. May it be so. Amen.