1 Advent – December 3, 2017
It’s Advent! A new church season. The season before Christmas. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Keep awake is what we hear in our gospel passage this morning, and this passage is not an easy start to the season. These words are not really welcoming us into the season with a graceful sense of hospitality. This lection doesn’t so much beckon us across the threshold as it throws open a door, tosses a cup of cold water in our face, and shoves us through.
But perhaps, as Jan Richardson says…. “instead of a cozy welcome into the season, this is precisely what we need as we enter Advent: a heaping serving of mystery, a vivid reminder that we can’t know everything, can’t see everything, can’t predict everything that will happen in the days to come. With its depiction of sun and moon going dark and stars falling from heaven, this passage challenges us to give up our usual sources of illumination, to let go of our habitual ways of knowing, to question our typical ways of seeing, so that we may receive the God who comes to us in the dark.
Mystery is rarely comfortable. We want to understand what it is we’re doing here, to see more clearly how God is at work, to know how the future will unfold. This gospel passage confounds us, reminds us that God works in the darkness as well as in the daylight. In the book of Isaiah, God says through the prophet,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. (Is. 45.3)”
God comes to us where we are. In the darkness as well as in the daylight. David Lose has us notice that in the parable that concludes this passage – evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn – are identical to the temporal markers of the passion story about to commence. So much, if not all, of what comes before – darkening of the sun, the powers being shaken, etc. – also correspond with key elements of the passion narrative (Mark 15:33, 38, etc.). Mark, in other words, isn’t pointing us to a future apocalypse or “revealing”, but instead a present one, as Christ’s death and resurrection change absolutely everything. Once Jesus suffers all that the world and empire and death have to throw at him…and is raised to new life…then nothing will ever be the same again. Including our present lives and situations.
Advent. Coming. Jesus’ coming. We begin the church year by looking ahead to the promise of Jesus’ “second” coming, but Mark helps us to recognize that Jesus comes into our lives in many and varied ways – “about that day and hour no one knows”. Keep awake.
The wakefulness that Jesus describes is a state—a practice, a way of being. Jesus urges us toward a kind of awareness in which, whatever else we are doing—even in resting and sleeping—some part of us remains open, stays alert, pays attention to what is unfolding and reflects on what it means. Jesus is talking here about cultivating the habit of keeping vigil: the art of waiting. He is describing a kind of awareness and attention in which we learn to not rely solely on what we can see (“the sun will be darkened,” Jesus says, “and the moon will not give its light.”) but turn to the wisdom of the other senses, to discern what they can tell us about what is unfolding in the world around us.
In this text that launches us into Advent, Jesus uses sobering words that are rich with ancient layers of symbolism and meaning. In doing so, he offers his hearers, he offers us, a vision that disrupts our everyday world. Jesus calls upon us to attend to the signs around us, to look beneath the surface of our patterns of relationships and rhythms of life. He urges us to discern for ourselves the activity of God.
Barbara Brown Taylor shares the story of visiting her friend John at Nacoochee Presbyterian church. He showed her through the new fellowship hall that was under construction and then went into the church, where a curious thing sat on the communion table. It was a fat white candle sitting in a deep dish with a spiral of rusted barbed wire climbing the air all around it. “What is that?” she asked him, thinking it had something to do with prison ministry. “it’s a symbol I came across that really spoke to me,” he said, gently touching one of the steel barbs. “See, the light has already come into the world, but there is still work to be done. There is still darkness between us and the light.”
There is not any barbed wire around the candles on our Advent wreath, but in their own way they remind us of the same thing. There are four candles, one for each Sunday before Christmas and the one in the middle for Christmas. The first reminds us that this is the beginning of a new church calendar year. And for us, this is also the time of year when darkness settles in. The days are getting shorter and darker and will continue to do so as we light the Advent candles. By the time the earth rounds the bend on December 21, it is the shortest day of the year, barely nine hours long.
One thing Advent tells us is that people of faith know it will get darker before it gets light. Week by week we will light new candles, but even as we light them the darkness will increase. We know the sun will come back, just like we know that God will be born in a barn in Bethlehem. These are sure facts of our lives, but so is waiting in the dark. Anyone who has ever hungered for morning knows that. It will come, but it will not be rushed. You can prop the clock right by your face on the pillow. You can count to sixty 500 times and it will not change a thing. Night creatures will still rustle in the leaves outside your window. Your heart will still beat like a drum in your ears. Morning will come, but it will not be rushed. Our job is to wait without losing hope.
Amidst the holiday parties and late-night shopping trips, the gospel reminds us to be awake to God in the world. This is a way of being awake that might actually be restful, and give us peace. The one who is coming is not an enemy but a friend. He may come in the light, but he may also come in the evening, or at midnight, or at three in the morning. The darkness does not stop him, and it does not have to stop us either. Our job is not to lie in bed with pillows over our heads or to shove all the heavy furniture in front of the door for fear of the darkness outside. Our job is to light the candle wrapped in barbed wire and set it in the window.
“Keep awake”. Keep awake to those opportune moments in our lives. those crucial; special moments. Christ is present in the world. Amen.