(Jeremiah 33:14-16; Ps. 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36)
Beginning last January, once a month Bishop Laura Ahrens has led a book group at Camp Washington. The invitation is open to everyone; it’s during working hours, so I know not everyone can make it, but if you ever can it’s definitely worthwhile. This month we’re looking at a book called Learning to Walk in the Darkby Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who’s a wonderful writer. It’s about our fear of darkness, beginning in childhood. In the introduction she talks about how, when she was little, playing outdoors, at the end of the day her parents would call to her: Come on inside, it’s getting dark. We’re taught early on that darkness is something to be wary of; and, she says, when you look around the world, “…it seems that eliminating darkness is pretty high on the human agenda.”
And usually for good reasons; but there’s a downside to that. Darkness is part of God’s creation. Taylor’s point in writing the book is that there are things about life, and about ourselves, and about God that we can learn only in darkness. She talks about her introduction to the experience of exploring a cave, in an underground complex of caves in West Virginia that goes on for forty miles. She talks about spending a night in a cabin with no light source other than the moon and stars: nightfall, pitch black, daybreak. In darkness we come face to face with the limitations of human capability: with our powerlessness.
Most of the book has to do with darkness in the literal sense, but of course Taylor is well aware of the spiritual and psychological darkness that’s part of life in this world. This darkness lies behind everything she writes about, and the title, Learning to Walk in the Dark, certainly refers to that larger darkness, which we each experience in our own way.
It is in this kind of darkness that we begin the season of Advent. Today is the first day of our church year, and we do not start it off with a picnic. The Christian church decided way back when that we need to begin our Christian journey, every year, in the dark; that, in the life of faith, that is Square One. When I was ordained a priest, right here in this church (it’ll be six years ago next week), those of you who were here will remember that it was the day after the shootings in Sandy Hook, and remember that horrible darkness that had suddenly descended on us all. The Rev. Fleming Rutledge preached the sermon that day, and she began by talking about the season of Advent, which had just begun: “[Advent is] superficially understood as a time to get ready for Christmas, but in truth it’s the season for contemplating the judgment of God. Advent is the season that, when properly understood, does not flinch from the darkness that stalks us all in this world. Advent begins in the dark and moves toward the light—but the season should not move too quickly or too glibly, lest we fail to acknowledge the depth of the darkness. Advent bids us take a fearless inventory of the darkness without and the darkness within.”
The judgment of God. That’s to say, God’s final doing of justice: the judgment that somehow, some day, God being God must inevitably deliver on the gone-wrongness of this world: gone-wrongness which we continually find ourselves enmeshed in, throughout our lives. This judgment of God is something we yearn for, we beg that God to put things right. But at the same time we know that, living in this world, that judgment falls on us. So it’s threatening, and it’s unknowable, in black darkness.
The fear of this day of judgment, this time when God will finally put things right, is of course what Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars”; “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
This kind of apocalyptic language is hard for us to hear, not just because it’s about the obliteration of the only life we’ve ever known, in ways which are impossible to foresee, but also because of the cosmic scale of it all. It’s certainly not the way most of us talk, or think, about life. And when we hear this kind of talk, there are several kinds of mistakes we Christians commonly make.
One is to see it as purely mythological, and therefore to dismiss it. We treat it as a kind of talk from a former time, that may have been necessary for people way back then, but we’ve progressed beyond that, we know more about the world, and we don’t need that kind of thinking any more, it’s bogeyman stuff.
A second mistake is the opposite course: to obsess about the predictions, and what we expect to be their fulfillment in our contemporary world. I led a Bible study at one church at which one of the occasional attenders was a guy named Chuck, who was very devout and knew the Bible well, but who paid an unhealthy amount of attention to the apocalyptic sections of the Bible. Chuck had a very specific idea of the rapture, for example, and he’d come to class with his copy of the Bible in which those sections were well-thumbed, with extensive hand-written notes in the margins. And usually he wouldn’t participate in the discussions except at the end, to deliver pronouncements; and when someone challenged him once he said, “I’ve been studying Biblical prophecies for thirty years”, and I remember thinking brother, there are a lot better ways you could have been spending your time.
But probably the most common mistake among people of faith is to hear this language and simply ignore it: let it go by, not react at all. But to do is to ignore the truth: that we live in a broken world – no one should need convincing about that – and that God is God; and must make all things whole, must do justice, somehow, someday.
So how do we learn to walk in the dark? How do we live, in this particular darkness?
I think there are indications in the other two readings we heard today. The passage from Jeremiah, written in the darkness of the Babylonian exile, proclaims God’s promise to us: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah….I shall cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In these days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” This is the promise that God makes from the beginning: at the creation, when God pronounces it good, and at the promise God makes in the covenant with Abraham; and at the end of the Bible, at the description of the end-times in Revelation: when all that’s over, “I will be their God, and they will be my children.” So, standing in the darkness as we do, we have God’s promise that God’s love for us will never end. If we weren’t in this darkness – utterly ignorant, utterly helpless – it wouldn’t be the promise. We wouldn’t hear it. We wouldn’t know how life-changing it really is. This is the promise of the resurrection. It’s why Martin Luther said the whole Bible points unmistakably to Jesus.
And in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians, we have witness of what that promise creates, in us: in our life in Christ. Paul writes to the church there, “How can we thank God enough, in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you?” “…[M]ay the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” This passage is bursting with the love and joy and hope that is life in Christ. This is how we walk in the dark. Today is the day we choose to face the darkness, because in the darkness we feel God’s promise; and we know God’s promise will be fulfilled. Thanks be to God.