December 3, 2023
Just prior to this reading after the disciples have gawked at the impressiveness of the Jerusalem temple, Jesus tells them it will be destroyed. He also warns them of false prophets who will try to lead them astray. They ask him when this will be. 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.” *****
The dramatic reading from Mark kicks off the season of waiting, preparation and watchfulness we call Advent. Jesus’ words are cold. They have an apocalyptic feel to them: the darkening of the sun, the dimming of the moon’s light, and the stars falling from heaven means the end of the world as we know it.
In 1973 I was in high school and recall an Advent-like sense to the little world I lived in. The Arab Oil embargo was having a darkening and chilling effect on life in the USA. Arab members of OPEC had imposed an embargo against the United States in retaliation for our government’s decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the Arab Israeli war.
In November of that year gas prices soared by 40 percent. People lined up at the pump worried that if they did not fill up today, then the price might be higher tomorrow. Many stations ran out of fuel. Signs saying “Sorry, No Gas Today” became common.
President Nixon ordered several measures to cut energy consumption. He prohibited sales of gasoline on Sunday and asked states to lower highway speeds to 50 miles an hour for cars and 55 for trucks and buses. He signed an emergency bill making daylight saving time year-round. He asked homeowners and businesses to lower thermostats to 68 degrees. He ordered business to turn off all‐night neon flashers and shop window display lights. There was an incremental feeling of doom and darkness 50 years ago this month.
But the thing I remember most in my pre-adult mind, making Advent seem darkest, was Nixon’s ban on all outdoor Christmas lights. I could imagine today if the President made such a decree, the opposition party would initiate impeachment hearings.
“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” might be overly dramatic to the sense of Advent ’73 — but it did awaken me. “Keep awake” we are told.
Advent and the biblical passages do not offer much light. What we read each Sunday this season begs our patience, giving our eyes time to adjust, so that we will see that we have not been abandoned in the darkness of life’s challenges and changes. Advent invites us to look, and long for the God who knows the dark and painful parts of life in this world.
In her book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me — either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. The problem is this: when despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life, plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, I have not died. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”[i]
If this passage from Mark provides little for you, remember this: Darkness is not our enemy. Falling asleep is our enemy. We fall asleep when hope gives way to despair, when busyness robs us of presence, and when fear masquerades as courage. There is always the danger of falling asleep, of allowing the darkness to deceive us into thinking that there is nothing worth waiting for or worse, allowing the darkness to deceive us into thinking there is No One worth waiting for.
During Advent, we wait for the God who not only offers solutions but promises divine presence. The Divine’s healing. The Divine’s comfort. Grace. Mercy. Love. After another late-year season of Advent’s preparation, at Christmas the Divine comes in the flesh — a light that shines in the darkness. Likewise, Jesus advises, “Stay Awake,” in our life of Advent waiting, preparation and watchfulness, then we “will see the future day when ‘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.” (13:26–27)
My friends, in Advent we are reminded to wait and worship the God who does important work in the darkness. It is there we learn that God is not absent in our troubled world and in our suffering, but instead, God is along with us. God offers sight to the blind, comfort to the mourning, strength to the weak, and in the darkest of times God comes and will lead us into the light.
[i] “Learning to Walk in the Dark” Barbara Brown Taylor, Harper Collins, 2014 p.5