First Lutheran Church
December 17, 2017 + Advent 3B
Luke 1:46-55 (The Magnificat); John 1:6-8, 19-28
When I think of Advent, one of the first things that comes to my mind is the lighting of Advent candles. In particular I remember our family tradition growing up. Mom and Dad would call us to dinner, we’d all take our places seated at the table, and then Mom would turn out the lights. And in that moment we would sit in the dark - anxiously waiting. Mom took her place at the table a few words were spoken, and then she would strike a match, and a small spark would create a flame, and as she lit the first candle, as the\at candle came to life, the shadows around us pushed back, and everyone’s face would take on that glow that only candle light can produce.
On the first Sunday in advent we lit the candle of hope, and though it was only one candle, hope burned bright in our hearts. The candle revealed the excitement in our eyes, the excitement that was welling up deep within us, as we began to anticipate the coming of Christmas. With each passing week another candle was lit, the candle of peace, the candle of joy, and finally the candle of love. Each week the flames grew brighter and brighter and brighter. As I think back, these times were perhaps the holiest times we shared as a family, Advent time, waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ Child.
Light is one of the primary images of Advent, however this morning I want to talk with you about that moment just before the first candle is lit, that moment spent in “darkness.” Because Advent does not really begin with the lighting of the first candle, Advent begins in the dark. As the prophet Isaiah noted, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.”
This past week I had the opportunity to spend some time in “darkness.” As I mentioned earlier in the announcements I underwent Lasik surgery on Wednesday morning. And my doctor, who is an admitted perfectionist (which is not a bad characteristic in an eye surgeon, especially your eye surgeon) he insisted that I spend the first 24 hours after the surgery with my eyes closed. (In the dark) He told me, most doctors just suggest you go home and try to sleep in hopes that you will keep your eyes closed, but I want you to intentionally keep them closed because your eyes will heal better in the darkness.
So some observations regarding living in darkness … It’s uncomfortable, it’s uncomfortable not knowing exactly where you are, where others around you are, who might be watching you, what might be just beyond your reach, and what might be waiting to “trip you up.” Moving around is not easy, especially in places with which you are not familiar.
And all this forces you to trust in someone else, which is not an easy thing to do. As you might guess, I was very hesitant walking from the surgery area back to the waiting area. Not really able to trust someone I had just met with the important ask of guiding me.
In the waiting area I was handed over to my wonderful wife of 35 years. So you think things would get better, but no, while I wanted to trust her, and while I do trust her, in my darkness - alas I did not trust her. I was anxious and timid as we navigated curbs, sidewalks, and the parking lot on the way to our car.
Eventually we arrived at our car, she ushered me into the passengers seat, and shut the door, and I experienced a moment of calmness. But then she started driving! I don’t really like driving with her when my eyes are open, but with my eyes shut, it was even worse. I wanted to trust her, and I do, but I don’t, especially when I can’t see!
Finally we got home, I crawled into bed, and breathed a sigh of relief. And for the next few hours I was good to go, - but then I got bored. But not bored enough to venture around the house, so I took some more pills and went back to sleep. Life without sight, life in the dark, life without a vision, was a life without ambition.
I slept all day until evening arrived, - and then I was wide awake. Wide awake and wrestling with all the big questions in my life. Sitting alone in the dark invites all those existential questions, for better or worse, to run wild and free in your head creating the perfect opportunity for the Holy Spirit to get your attention.
Advent begins in the dark because that’s where we often find ourselves in this life. In the darkness - stumbling around; In the darkness - wondering which direction to go; In the darkness - afraid to venture out; In the darkness startled by strange sounds and suspicious whispers; In the darkness - not sure who to trust; In the darkness - confronted by our own broken-ness; In the darkness - longing for light.
Yet in a strange, ironic and powerful way, this darkness that surrounds us is also critical to “preparing” us for the coming of Christ. Just as spending the first 24 hours after my surgery was the most beneficial way for my eyes to start healing so it is that darkness is a part of our salvation, preparing us for the coming light of Christ
Theologian John Navone writes, “Darkness provides us with a therapeutic limit-experience, illuminating the meagerness of human resources for experiencing, understanding, and communicating the divine. … When darkness induces modesty, humility, faith, and trust, it leads to a communion with God …”
In other words, darkness, the experience of darkness, makes things real, (very real,) revealing our need for God, our need to be able to trust in something more than ourself, our need for a vision to sustain us, our need to be in a relationship with the divine. Only darkness can truly prepare us to receive the true light that comes from heaven to save us.
My 24 hours of darkness ended in the doctor’s office. He removed the protective goggles I had been wearing and invited me to slowly open my eyes. And as I did, as light came back into my world, I was amazed. He then handed me a piece of paper, an eye chart, one that he had shown me just a few days earlier. He pointed to the third line down and asked me to read the note I had written for myself on that line. I had written, “This is very blurry and hard to read,” followed by my signature. I laughed as it was now very clear and very easy to read. Then he invited me to read the smallest print at the bottom of the chart, print I could not begin to ready just a few days ago, and as I easily read those letters aloud, he smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.”
Our first reading this morning was “The Magnificat,” the song that Mary’s sings upon visiting with her relative Elizabeth, a song that comes out of their recognition that God has indeed chosen Mary to bring the Christ child into the world. We perhaps best know these words of Mary from the popular “Holden Evening Prayer Service.” That part of the liturgy, just like the biblical narrative, begins with the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will conceive and bear the holy child of God, which is followed immediately by The Magnificat, “My soul proclaims your greatness O Lord and my spirit rejoices in you …”
However what’s important to recognize, and is something we often overlook, is that these two events, The Annunciation and The Magnificat do not immediately follow each other in Mary’s real life! Time passes between these two events, and in that time Mary is indeed found to be pregnant, and left to explain “the miracle” of her pregnancy to Joseph, and her parents, and to all who are beginning to notice that she is suddenly an unwed mother. And during this time there are no angels, no messengers of light to comfort poor Mary. Suddenly Mary is living in the dark, not sure what to do, where to go, who to trust, and what will become of her life.
Mary begins her advent, her adventure in faith, with these words, “How can this be?” quickly followed by, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word!” She boldly declares, “Let it be,” and then enters into the darkness and prepares for the birth of the Christ Child. I imagine that it was in this darkness that Mary was prepared to give birth in a stable because there was no room in the inn; It was in this darkness that she was prepared for her son’s radical proclamation that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the hungry, the forgotten, the marginalize, the oppressed, and not to those in high and might yplaces; It was in the darkness that she was prepared to watch him suffer unto death on a cross; It was in this darkness that she was prepared to see in death, resurrection and the door to abundant life.
Poets and hymn-writers often refer to Mary as “meek and mild.” I am not so sure those words belong to the real Mary. The more I think about and engage her story the more convinced I am that she was anything but meek and mild, but rather bold and courageous, not afraid of the dark, she truly believed that “nothing is impossible with God.”
There are times in our life when we feel like the darkness around us, like a black hole, has swallowed up all the light. We’ve all been confused and lost in the dark, afraid of the shadows, and frustrated by the inability to see and understand what’s going on. The promise of Advent, the promise that begins while we are yet in the dark, is that light is on the way. And that as this light begins to come our way, the Spirit is at work in us, preparing us to receive it all in all of it fullness.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.”
May the darkness we experience - connect us to the incredible story and faith of Mary; May the darkness we experience - make us humble and open to the healing and transforming presence of God; May the darkness we experience - reveal our broken-ness and awaken us to peace and justice; May the darkness we experience - shape our hope for the kingdom; And finally may the darkness we experience - give way to the light of Christ.
May your Advent journey continue to prepare your heart for the one that comes to us at Christmas, the light that shines in the darkness, the light the darkness will never overcome! Amen.