‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I was walking through Winco the other day to pick up groceries, and where the candy corn and pumpkin paraphernalia had been not too long ago, there was all of a sudden gingerbread house making kits in the center aisle. It was a reminder of how our society enters this season, from one profit-making machine to another, no transitions, just an immediate zoom from a Halloween party to a Christmas extravaganza in a fit of season-changing whiplash.
And then I sat down to read this Gospel text for the first Sunday of this season of Advent. Advent is not a word that means “we are here now” or “the time has arrived”, but instead a word that means “coming”, a season of on-the-way, a season of in-between, a season of not-there-yet, a season that is the opposite of whiplash because it slows us down to simply be in process. And interestingly, this transition in our text this morning is marked by darkness. The sun darkens. The moon is not giving off light. Stars are falling from the sky. Indeed, all the times of day in which we are told to keep awake and keep alert are in the dark – in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, at dawn, before the sun has made a full appearance. None of those possible arrival times take place at midday with jingle bells and parades. Instead, the Son of man comes in clouds, our text says, shrouded in darkness.
As a white person, the understanding I had always had in my largely white church communities was that white meant purity and goodness and black meant fallenness and evil. It’s shocking to say that out loud, but my faith formed me to say that light is good and darkness is bad, a world of binary thinking where some are in and some are out, with light and dark as a shorthand for making that division. And I’ve always come into Advent with that light and dark imagery at the forefront. Indeed, it is imagery our Bible gives us, with John, the Gospel writer, telling us that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.
But I’m starting to understand that this light/dark binary needs to be interrogated and challenged. Because one of the things this text gives us is an opportunity to explore the gifts of darkness, as our text ushers us into the darkness of Advent, today being the beginning of a new liturgical year, and also the the physically darkest time of the calendar year. The darkness gives us space to be honest about our grief and our sadness, the pain that is fresh in so many of our hearts these days. The darkness says to us, “You don’t have to dress up for me. You can name all that is broken and come exactly as you are.” The darkness outside gives us space to turn inward and reflect. What new thing is God teaching me? With a world in turmoil in this apocalyptic age, with “apocalypse” being the Greek word for “unveiling”, what is being unveiled before our privileged eyes during this pandemic and reckoning for racial justice? The darkness is a hemmed in space where we can read and listen and learn to deepen our knowledge about all that is being revealed in this time, like a cocoon where the old can be transformed in the dark into something new.
The word for “clouds” in this text, when it says Jesus will come in the clouds, is a hint at the gifts of God in the dark. This “cloud” word is connected to the word used for the pillar of cloud that guided the Hebrew people through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The cloud would lead them forth during the day and at night it would settle all around them like a blanket, to protect them in the desolate space of the wilderness. That covering, that darkness, was the space in which the people of Israel learned to trust God in a dry land where nothing was familiar. That cloud was a sign of God’s presence with God’s people in between, in transition, on the way.
I think of this presence of God in the dark every time I engage in the strangest hobby of mine to come out of this pandemic so far – my eagerness to check on our new compost bin we put in the backyard this fall. That compost bin is a large green container with a black lid and all our veggie table scraps go in there, along with all the old roots and vines and leaves that produced so much food for us from the garden this spring and summer. I didn’t really believe it when my garden-expert friend told me the astounding composting process that would take place inside this simple container – that the darkness of that enclosure would turn our refuse into rich dark soil for next spring. But when I put on my shoes and trudge through the wet grass these days to peek under the lid, I am blown away by what’s happening in there. The darkness has created an environment where old things, things we had to let go of, can decompose and break down and decay, and in that process of letting go of their life, they are transformed into the rich, dark soil from which our vegetables will grow next year. It’s a reminder that the fig tree branch from our passage could never have grown tender with fresh leaves without first letting go of its dead leaves the previous fall. Only dying gives way to new life. New life begins with letting go of what is dead. New life, rich soil for what God will grow next, is nurtured in the dark.
And lest we forget this Advent season, our Jesus grew in the darkness of Mary’s womb for 9 months before being born to us. It is in the darkness that our God was knit into flesh and bone. It is in the darkness that the life of our Savior grew strong. It is in the darkness that Mary held in her body with such tender care and courage that the world began to turn around.
This text is not a call for us to force silver linings on suffering. But this text does offer us an invitation to consider and receive the gifts of the darkness, the gifts of transition, of in between, of on the way, and as we hear in the command repeated 3 times in this passage, we are to keep alert and keep awake, not out of anxiety and fear, but out of eagerness and expectation for all God does in the darkness. Whether it is in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, all moments that are marked by darkness, we are urged to be watchful for the new thing God is doing. That may seem strange to us, to be asked to stay up in the night with expectation, but remember that when we celebrate a new calendar year, we do so at midnight, the darkest time that there is. It is in the dark that the world begins to turn.
The darkness is where we are invited to lay down the habits of our hearts and lives that need to die – our clinging to privilege and ego and wealth and power and old ways of being – so that they can be composted into the dark soil where God’s new work will grow in us. Keep awake, Church, lift the lid of that compost bin every day and be present to the transformation. The darkness is where we can turn our focus inward and ask our God, “What do you want to reveal to me in this apocalypse about how I can join you in new ways of being?” Keep alert so that you can hear God speak to you through voices you may not have been listening to before. The darkness is where our Savior is growing in the womb, God taking on flesh, Emmanuel, God with us in the mess of our world. Keep awake with Mary when she is roused with Jesus stirring in her womb in the middle of the night, wondering how exactly this Savior will bring emperors down from their thrones so that the poor will be filled with good things. When the darkness creeps in at 4 in the afternoon these days, think of it as your call to prayer. Embrace this darkness, and keep your eyes open. For in this cloud, maybe even at midnight, God is present and God is turning the world around. Amen.