I am afraid of the dark. There, I said it. I’ve been afraid of the dark since before I can remember, and I’ve never really shaken it. I used to panic when fumbling for a light switch, or run up a flight of stairs from a dark hallway to a light one, waving my arm behind me to beat away the monster that was chasing me. I still fight off my overactive imagination when entering a dark room, remembering all the scary movies and news clips I’ve seen.
When my dad was in seminary, we went to the Great Vigil very early every Easter Sunday. It was pitch black outside. We’d gather around in the cold morning air and they’d light a blazing fire to symbolize the light of Christ which pierces the darkness…but which to me only put up a thin, weak wall between us and the surrounding darkness.
It seems like that darkness is all around this time of year. It gets dark so early in non-Daylight-Savings-Time. Some of us experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, feeling sad and mopey and unmotivated for no discernible reason. Many of us remember loved ones who have died near the holidays and cannot contain our grief. Last week we wrote out our New Year’s resolutions and stuck them to the boards in the lobby and this week we step into that new year, into Advent, into a season of waiting, of uncertainty. Our new year begins in darkness, like that Easter Vigil. We light one little candle to help us find our way in the dark and… it doesn’t seem like it really helps. Where are the Maglights that will flood the room with light and with which we can smack down the monsters that wait for us?
You don’t believe in monsters any more? I think you do. They’re drunk drivers and communicable disease. They’re poverty and not being able to take care of our kids. They’re rejection and decline. For a lot of people, the decisions the ELCA Assembly made this summer regarding sexuality are monstrous. For others, the monster is our brothers and sisters leaving us because of those decisions. The conversations we have seem sometimes to lead into darkness where we can’t see the way. The monster you fear in the dark could be your own sinfulness—we’re all broken and so often we can see it clearly—hurtful words, disdainful actions, willful ignorance. Maybe the darkness your path enters is doubt—how true is this Christian story? Am I living it the right way?
The holiday cheer this Advent and Christmas can feel like a veneer. We convince ourselves it’s okay to spend more than we can afford or buy meaningless gifts, because it’s Christmas, right? We watch the news and hear about random shootings or piracy or starvation or abuse. We know what goes on out there and sometimes we’re the ones doing it. It doesn’t help to have an apocalypse for our gospel reading this New Year’s Day. Luke’s Jesus talks about confusion and distress and foreboding and fear. He says we can only pray to escape the things that are coming. And what are we supposed to do with that?
Some Christians would say we’re right to live in fear, that at any moment calamity could fall upon us, that God’s judgment is only the blink of an eye away, that a time of darkness and pain and war is coming…And I would say, if you think it’s not here now, you’re not paying attention.
It’s more than evil we fear, it’s uncertainty. Finding our way in the dark fills us with fear because we can’t see the way. Finding our way in the dark is hard because it’s dark. We don’t know which path to choose because we can’t see where they lead. This present darkness, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, is terrifying. The dark is here now…
But you know what else is here now? The Kingdom of God is here now. The joy of resurrection and redemption and peace and belonging is here NOW. And again I say, if you think it’s not, you’re not paying attention.
Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Your redemption is drawing near. These apocalyptic events, the overwhelming moments in your lives, they are a sign that redemption is coming. They do not exist by themselves but inter-mingled with hope.
Those early Easter mornings years ago, we kids would all fall asleep once we were inside the chapel. The adults continued on with the readings from salvation history and at dawn, we awoke to the sunlight streaming in the tall windows. I remember I was overcome with joy and renewal and felt that something very good had pushed away the dark. Recently, spending an hour talking with a homeless woman in Chicago or playing with my 1-year-old daughter, I feel that divine hope renewed and the darkness pushed away again.
When have you felt that hope? When have you been delighted recently? That’s God lighting your path. When have you reached out to someone hurting? When has someone reached out to you when you needed it? That’s God lighting your path. We like to think our world is all darkness, but that’s too easy. It’s easy to complain, to focus on the misery. Seeing hope isn’t easy and it doesn’t negate the fear, but it does offer a way forward.
How do we find our way in the darkness? We reach out, fumble for the hand of the person next to us, hold on to someone else. We strike a match, light a candle, prepare ourselves with works of kindness. We open your eyes—and wait to see the coming of the Christ child. In him, the light is intermingled with the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
Your redemption is drawing near, the light is coming. Jesus keeps speaking—he speaks of a fig tree which, after the winter, after the Seasonal Affective Disorder, the tree puts out new leaves. Anyone who’s paying attention knows that flowers and fruit will follow the new leaves. Anyone who’s paying attention knows that birth follows the labor pains. Anyone who’s paying attention knows that apocalypse is not the end, but a signal of a new beginning. It is all part of the process—relapse is part of recovery.
This Advent, this new year, is about becoming. Becoming a Christian is about leaning towards something—God, Kingdom, love made manifest—it’s about yearning and process. It is not about arrival but finding our way.
God is coming, and God is here.
Alleluia, God is coming, Alleluia, God is here!