“Shadows and Light”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 3, 2017 — First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37


These are not exactly the cheery readings you might expect as we round the corner into December and lean into the lead-up to Christmas in earnest.

No tidings of comfort and joy, no joy to the world, no prince of peace here.  Instead, we get mountains trembling, water boiling, anger and transgression and iniquity.  Instead, we get times of suffering, stars falling from the heavens, the sun and moon going dark.

But it is no accident, I believe, that the season of Advent begins in darkness.

After all, the entire story of creation also begins there.  You remember:  “In the beginning when God created heaven and earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…” (Gen. 1:1-2).

After all, the sprouting of every plant that grows begins there, in the fertile underground darkness of the soil, where the roots grow down and the shoots grow up, stretching toward the light that, by some botanical mystery, that embryonic seedling knows is there.

After all, the beginning of each human life takes place there, in the quiet, watery darkness of the womb, where chromosomes replicate and cells divide and tiny fingers and toes and earlobes and eyelashes take shape.

After all, the first moments of each day occur there, in the deep indigo nighttime darkness that fades slowly, inexorably, to gray and then to pink and then to gold as it is pierced by the dawn.

After all, we in the northern hemisphere are in the midst of the deep, cold, midwinter darkness, when short days and long nights send us huddling around woodstoves and bonfires and candles.


It is no accident, I believe, that the season of Advent—which marks the beginning of a new liturgical year—begins in darkness.  It is no accident that the cycle of the Christian year begins in shadow.

After all, our faith arose in a time and a place beset by shadows:  the shadows of empire, of violence, of oppression, of poverty, of marginalization.  Our ancestors in faith were no strangers to shadow.

When the prophet Isaiah delivered the words we heard this morning, the Israelite people were deep in thick darkness.  A generation earlier, the Babylonian empire had seized control of the land of Canaan.  They burned fields.  They kidnapped men, women, and children.  They sacked the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, the holy of holies, the very heart of worship and devotion.  They carried off many of the survivors into exile in Babylon.  When the Persians defeated the Babylonians and took control of the land, they allowed the exiles to return to Palestine.  And when they did, a whole new round of conflict arose, as those who had been left behind to pick up the pieces and those who had been born in a foreign land sought to figure out how to coexist in some semblance of unity.

When the author of Mark’s gospel wrote the words we heard this morning, the followers of Jesus and their Jewish kin were deep in thick darkness.  The Romans had repeated what the Babylonians had done half a millennium before, destroying the Jerusalem Temple again and leaving the Jewish faithful devastated.  Those people who followed Jesus faced double jeopardy, for they had run afoul of both the political and the religious authorities of the day and faced persecution from all sides.

No, our ancestors in faith were no strangers to shadow.  But then, if we’re honest, neither are we.  Too many of us know first-hand the terrible shadows of grief, of addiction, of abuse, of depression, of pain, of fear.  And then there are the shadows that darken our society and our world:  violence, greed, misogyny, racism, warfare, poverty, and so many others.

It is no accident that the season of Advent begins in darkness, because the Advent season is a time to brave these shadows, to plumb their depths rather than turning away, to stare them down, to look them right in the eye—not with resignation, not with despair, but with our hearts full of a deep longing, a powerful yearning, a profound desire for God’s light to be revealed right there.

And the promise of Advent, the promise of our faith, is that God will show up precisely in the middle of the thickest shadows, the deepest darkness.  God’s light will appear where it is so pitch-dark that you can’t see a blessed thing, where you daren’t take a step for fear of walking face-first into a wall or over a cliff.

When we muster up the courage to face squarely into these shadows, we join our ancestors in faith in longing for God to show up powerfully, dramatically, apocalyptically, to reveal Godself with great force and might, to topple God’s adversaries and send every shadow fleeing away.  With Isaiah, we pray, O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the very mountains would quake at your presence!  With Mark, we long to see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

But the promise of Advent, the promise of the Gospel, the promise of God is not of this kind of arrival.  The promise of Advent is not of earth-shattering, army-defeating, dramatic apocalyptic power.  Rather, the promise of Advent is that God will arrive in the midst of ordinary life, in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby.  And somehow, that is what will change everything.  That is what will transform the world, and us with it.

And so the call of Advent is this:  not only to face into the shadows with a deep longing, a powerful yearning, a profound desire for God’s light to be revealed right there, but also to train our eyes and our hearts to perceive the tiny, vulnerable, everyday ways in which Love and Light are even now breaking into our lives, our hearts, our world.  When we see that flickering candle flame, to cup a hand around it to shelter it from the wind.  When we hear that whispering voice, to amplify it so everyone can hear.  When we meet that brand-new baby, to cradle him close and nurture him well.  For it is these tiny, vulnerable, everyday manifestations of God that will illuminate our present darkness, that will heal our broken hearts, that will mend our tattered world, that will bear salvation to all creation.

May it be so.


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