In the Dark
Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15, December 7, 2014
Advent is a season of waiting, a season of preparation. It’s a countdown season. While officially Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas, it could easily be said that Black Friday is the start of the Christmas season, or perhaps Thanksgiving is, because many stores have begun opening their “door-busting” sales that day. The adjustments that stores made to accommodate either shoppers or their workers made a lot of news this year. And I was baffled: is it news that people storm the stores the day after Thanksgiving? Is it news that the Sun rose this morning?
Today I want us to linger a little while in the dark. A lot of our traditions at this time of year revolve around darkness. Originally people brought evergreen trees into their homes and put candles on them as a way to push back against the darkness, around the days when there is the least sunlight in the northern hemisphere. And Yule logs were intended to keep giving light and heat for days and days. The scheduling of Christmas for December 25, which dates to the 4th Century, coincides with pagan festivals at the solstice. One of those festivals was called “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” which means “the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” And that’s pretty convenient, because very early Christians claimed the title “Sun of Righteousness” which is found in the Old Testament’s prophetic book of Malachi. And we’re really fortunate as English-speakers that “Sun” the name of our star and “son” the word for a male child sound the same. Jesus is the son of righteousness in both senses. And the Sun shines in the dark. And we need light to shine in the darkness and we need to fight against darkness at this time of year.
But we also need to embrace darkness. I really, really mean that. Do not rush headlong into the bright lights that we associate with the celebration of Christ’s birth this year. Linger in the dark. Wait. Be patient. And slow down. One reason why pre-Christian Europe had such a rich tradition of winter festivals is that there wasn’t much to do on farms in the winter. There was time for revelry and time for leisure.
Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor published a memoir earlier this year called Learning to Walk in the Darkness, and she shares her insights, but really invites readers into darkness. She writes “Darkness holds more lessons than light and that contrary to what many of us have long believed, it is sometimes in the bleakest void that God is nearest.” [Time, 4/28/14, [p. 38]
Darkness holds mystery, Taylor added, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” [p. 39]
Think about that, and then think of all the times God’s presence was most dramatically revealed at night. God told Abraham to count the stars one night, and promised him descendants as numerous. The Passover and Exodus began with catastrophe for the Egyptians—and the beginning of freedom for the Israelites at night. The sign that brought scholars from a great distance to the new born Jesus was a star.
Earlier this year the Most Reverend Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, that is the head of the Church of England, said that “at times he questioned if God was really there…” [NYT 9/26/14] “He told an audience…that there were moments where he wondered, ‘Is there a God? Where is God?” Then asked specifically if he harbored doubts, he responded, “It is a really good question…The other day I was praying over something as I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something if you’re there?’ Which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.” [Ibid.] Except it is precisely what faith leaders should say!
I learned about Bishop Welby’s remarks in an opinion piece in the New York Times. The writer of that piece, Julia Baird, had some powerful thoughts that I have to share this morning, when I’m praising darkness:
Faith cannot block out darkness, or doubt. When on the cross, Jesus did not
cry out “Here I come!” but “My God, why have you forsaken me?” His
disciples brimmed with doubts and misgivings.
Just as courage is persisting in the face of fear, so faith is persisting in the
presence of doubt. Faith becomes then a commitment, a practice and a pact
that is sustained by belief. But doubt is not just a roiling, or vulnerability;
it can also be a strength. Doubt acknowledges our own limitations and
confirms—or challenges—fundamental beliefs, and is not a detractor of belief
but a crucial part of it. [Ibid.]
20th century Christian mystic, Thomas Merton gave voice to this same idea when he wrote, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see [It is as though he is lost in the dark.] But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you.” Perhaps we could also say that the desire for God’s presence is itself God’s presence.
In this season of waiting, we’re reminded by the Prophet Isaiah that life is impermanent, but God’s love is everlasting. And Peter challenges believers to be patient. Insight, truth, faith, belief do not come on our schedule. A thousand years is like one day for the Lord. We can’t will ourselves, or believe ourselves, into feeling, knowing and trusting the presence of God. But we can wait. And wait patiently in the dark. And we can cultivate the ability to wait with longing, filled with hope and expectation. Christmas will come in 18 days. That’s scheduled. But Christ will be born in each of us on a different time table. We can be ready, eager and open to hail the Sun of Righteousness, and we can use the darkness of this time of year to grow deeper in faith. Patience, darkness, longing are also gifts from the Living God. Amen.