Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
When I was little I was afraid of the dark. The fear could be somewhat allayed by checking under the bed before I got in it, and by leaving the door open so that the reassuring light from the landing could get into my room. When I was a bit older, long before the invention of the Kindle, I staved it off with a torch and a book under the duvet, which allowed me to escape to Mallory Towers or go on adventures with the Famous Five. Now I’m older, I’m not so much afraid of the dark, as of what the darkness brings. The Psalmist declares that whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High shall not be afraid of any terror by night, nor of the pestilence that stalks in darkness. But when the light goes out and I finally stop for the day, I know that fears, stress, and anxiety can sometimes stalk the darkness.
At such points I have little trouble heeding Jesus’ command to keep awake. Sleep, as a form of oblivion from all that stalks the darkness, is an elusive promise that I can’t summon by force of will. Sometimes I try to distract myself from the darkness: a book, a podcast, getting up and doing some work if that’s what’s worrying me.
The better way, which I am slowly learning, is not to be afraid of the dark. We begin Advent as we approach the darkest time of the year. In this season in the northern hemisphere the days draw in. On cloudy days, headlights and domestic lights are needed by mid-afternoon. The darkness extends its reach. Go to the far north and you will find no daylight: the polar night extends from November to January. In those months, the sun doesn’t rise at all.
We begin Advent as the darkness deepens. And in the darkness we light a candle, then another, and another, and another, until we acclaim the truest light of all, Jesus Christ. As Advent begins the darkness is dispelled by one tiny, flickering flame. It’s lit in expectation, in longing, in hope, of the light that is coming into the world.
This is not a light that banishes the darkness safely beyond our reach. We can illuminate our homes and our cities at the flick of a switch and live, if we so choose, in a sort of perpetual day. Like me on a sleepless night, we can try to avoid the darkness. But the Advent light is to help us see in the dark; to see, and not to be afraid. Because even with the lights on, the darkness is still there. The people of Yemen are still starving. Donald Trump is retweeting neo-Nazis. All around us people are being pushed further into debt, poverty, hunger. And that’s before we’ve looked within, at the darkness of our own souls.
The light of Advent is to help us to face the darkness, confident in the true light that is coming into the world. When Jesus speaks to his disciples in today’s reading, those incredibly dramatic, apocalyptic words are meant as encouragement. He’s taken them to the Mount of Olives, the place, in Old Testament prophecy, from which God will bring in his reign over the whole earth. Here, looking across the Kidron valley, they can see Jerusalem and the temple standing in glorious splendour. And Jesus has foretold its destruction: the great stones of the temple will come crashing down as dust rises and shrouds the holy city. And if that’s not bad enough, he goes on to talk about the sun being darkened, and moon giving no light, and stars tumbling from heaven, and something so cataclysmic that the very heavens shake before the Son of Man comes in great power and glory.
It’s a foretelling, in apocalyptic language, of the end of the world. And they want to know when: when is this awful catastrophe going to take place? ‘About that day or hour no one knows’, says Jesus. ‘Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.’
I think if I’d been one of the disciples I’d have been tempted to flee for the hills. But who can outrun the burning up of the sun? And Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples this to terrify them, but to encourage them. If even the end of the world is in God’s hands, then they need not be frightened. When the sun and moon and stars have grown dim, they are to watch for the coming of the Son of Man. They are to stay alert in the darkness.
For the community for whom Mark wrote his Gospel, this was all too real. The temple had been destroyed. Jerusalem lay in ruins – the holy city once again a wilderness, as we sing in the Advent Prose. Confessing Christ as Lord brought with it the risk of death. The darkness seemed overwhelming. There was everything to be afraid of.
And to this community, as to us, Jesus say ‘keep awake’. In the midst of the darkness, even when it seems like the end of the world, he is coming. Nothing is beyond the reach of his light. And so keeping awake is about more than simply not dozing off. Keeping awake is about cultivating a habit, an attitude of watchfulness and expectancy, scanning the horizon for the coming of the master, ready for his return.
And if that is the Advent attitude, then it is about action too: to look for the coming of Jesus is to live in expectation of his kingdom of justice and healing and peace. And that means being awake to all of the ways in which justice is impeded, healing denied, and peace disdained in the world. Keeping awake means we don’t get to look away when people of colour are discriminated against; when women are assaulted; when refugees are demonised. The Advent light that proclaims Christ’s coming is a light handed on to us from the patriarchs who first responded to God’s call; from the prophets who summoned the people back to justice and holiness; from John the Baptist who proclaimed repentance; and from Mary who bore the Christ-child. And beyond them it is handed on through the witness of countless saints down the ages, and given to us to hand on, too, so that where we are, there others will hear and believe the Advent proclamation of the true light that is coming into the world.
It is easier not to stay awake, of course, to pull the duvet over your head and refuse to open your eyes. It’s easier too to turn the lights on and pretend it’s not dark. Today, as the world tilts towards its shortest day – or longest night – we are asked to stay awake in the dark, sustained by the faith of Christ’s coming, with a flame that has lit the way for God’s people through millennia. Sometimes we will discern Christ’s presence through prayer, or scripture or sacrament, and these are powerful ways of living in his light, as we bring our true selves before God, as we seek and receive his healing and forgiveness, as we are nourished by his word. Sometimes someone else will be his presence for us, lighting the way when our darkness seems too dense. And sometimes we will be called to be that person for another, bearers of the light that shines in the darkness, that carries on the Advent proclamation that he is coming, he is near.