Sheepscott Community Church November 29, 2009
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
1 Thess. 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36
Come in from the Cold
Jon and I find ourselves eating supper earlier these days––by candlelight––and going to bed earlier. It’s that time of the year, the dark time, before the solstice on the 21st of next month, when the northern hemisphere of planet earth begins to incline toward the sun. Not uncoincidentally, the church begins its liturgical year today, the first Sunday of Advent, and also inclines toward the light, the light of the world whose birth we will hail and celebrate on Christmas.
The Latin word advenire means to come to, not simply to come, which is venire, but to come to. Ad-venire, ad being the preposition “to.” During Advent we look toward Christmas when Christ will again come to us, individually and as a church. It’s not a random coming, but a particular coming to. Prepositions matter. What is coming upon the world is the light of the world, and there is comfort in hoping towards that. The challenge, however, is that here on November 29 and right through December until solstice, we are in the dark, where we prepare and hold on to that hope.
A story I like to touch upon in every Advent season is my experience of what is called absolute darkness. I was in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994, making a pilgrimage of sorts to ancestral homesteads, when I happened upon the Aelwie Cave. At that time the cave had been cleared about a half mile into the earth, and visitors were invited to descend a decidedly rickety footbridge to view, among other things, the illuminated hibernation pit of a prehistoric bear, and an abyss-like cavern within the cave that featured dripping––one drop every five seconds––stalactites and the receptive opposed stalagmites. The relative unsteadiness of the footbridge, which was a mere one-person wide, discouraged any protracted meditation on the natural wonder.
The guide had told us at the beginning of the descent that when we reached the furthest-most accessible point of the cave, she would turn off the jerry-rigged strand of single light bulbs that stretched the length of the walkway. We arrived at the end, and, true to her word, she switched off the lights. Ireland is a country of extremes, viz., just as I thought I knew what the color green was before I saw the green of Ireland, just so had I thought I knew what darkness was before I was plunged into absolute darkness, which is darkness without even a pin prick of light.
The guide had said that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply preconditioned, predisposed by her words; that’s the way it really was. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering the seemingly haphazard nature of the construction. Added to that the aforementioned anxiety, and you have a nervous mix of people poised to turn and return to the entrance to the cave. But we needed the light, the turning on of which was welcomed with audible sighs of relief, small talk and the shifting of purses from one shoulder to the other.
That descent into the Aelwie Cave has always been a metaphor for me for the season of Advent. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown for the coming of the light, and, as we believe, that light being the Light of the World, Jesus, the Christ. No more than we can stand absolute darkness beyond 30 seconds can we stand or bear being without God for a protracted period of time, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what is missing, what is sustaining us moment by moment beyond our knowing. Our hope in these days of early sunsets, early suppers and early bedtimes is that there will be light at the end of Advent with the coming of Christ at Christmas. We let that hope build in us and give us the wherewithal to continue in the multiple responsibilities of our individual preparations, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying. From cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to singing for our own entertainment and others.’
While all of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day holiday season, the most important preparation is of the individual heart. Once we get past our fear of the darkness associated with the season and the wider darkness that it connotes, which is actually what can frighten us, once we get past that we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas as being like the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter, a time of penitential reflection. That is why the altar cloths, the paraments are changed today. They have been green since the first Sunday after Pentecost, but now that the post-Pentecost season is finished, we begin the penitential season of Advent with the change to the color purple.
This time of getting ready is a time to think about what rooms need cleaning up, cleaning out, before the coming of the Lord. Before our only grandson was born, Jon and I traveled down to North Carolina to help prepare the way for the child. Our daughter and her husband at that time didn’t have more than a few coins to rub together, and it was a necessity as well as a joy to help them prepare for the big event. That preparation involved cleaning out in order to make room for the new bassinet and other newborn paraphernalia, which, if you’ve been around babies at all, you know the sheer number of items involved can be staggering. But clean out we did, and set up we did, and the needed preparation was enough to make a way and a place for the baby.
I think the parallel, the analogy is pretty clear. If there’s any cleaning out by way of repentance, any preparation that needs to be done, do it. If there’s a hidden room under your inner staircase that hasn’t been opened in years––unforgiveness, for example––and you know that the dust and grime has built up over the years, dare to open the door with the help of the Spirit of God and apply the cleaning tools of reflection and repentance. And tears. Nothing washes clean like tears. Clean up the mess before the baby comes.
Readiness is all. I want to be ready. Don’t you? I remember a time I wasn’t ready, and it impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it and will share it now with you. This would have happened about 35 years ago, when I was a mother with young children. We were visiting with friends of ours, who also had young children, and there were others there as well, a regular evening party. I had a couple of glasses of wine, not a big deal, except that I don’t do very well with spirits, other than the Holy Spirit, so I wasn’t ready for what happened. The phone rang and it was another friend of ours who was asking for prayer for an immediate emergency situation with one of her children, as I remember it. When I went to pray, I couldn’t. I was affected by the wine and so was not able to be 100% clear, for want of a better word, with God. I felt bad that I could not come before God on behalf of that child because, as I say, I was affected.
I had no illusions about my prayer being all that important. There were others who could and did pray with a clear conscience. But it mattered tremendously to me. I knew I wasn’t prepared, ready, reminiscent of the parable of the ten wise and foolish virgins, which Jesus told regarding the end times. The ten virgins took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of the virgins were wise and took extra oil with them, and five were foolish and only took their lamps without the extra oil. The bridegroom was delayed, and long in coming, and they all fell asleep. When the cry went up that the bridegroom approached, the foolish virgins asked the wise for some of their oil because their lamps had begun to flicker. The wise virgins refused, saying that if they gave the foolish ones their oil, there would not be enough left for them, and they sent off the other five to buy oil in the marketplace.
While they were gone, the bridegroom arrived and entered the wedding banquet in the company of the five wise virgins. The door was shut behind them, and the five foolish virgins were not admitted, when they returned with their oil. The moral in Matthew 25: 13 is “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
That was the way I felt that night. I had missed the boat, had missed the opportunity to meet God on the way of prayer because I had indulged myself in a way I could not afford to, if I were going to choose what for me was a better life of increasing service. I’ve never forgotten that. I’m not indicting drinking by any stretch. I’m only saying that it isn’t good for me. We’re all made differently. I only tell you this story as a reminder to get ready and be ready, whatever that means in your life, given your peculiar and particular makeup––get ready and be ready for the coming of the Lord.
One other piece of this picture puzzle of the First Sunday of Advent I’d like to add is entitled “The Curate’s Bath.” It’s from The Diaries of Francis Kilvert (1840-1879). He didn’t live a long life––39 years––and after I’ve read this, I think you’ll be able to understand why his end might have come sooner rather than later.
“As I lay awake praying in the early morning I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands because it was a mass of ice. The morning was most brilliant. Walked to the Sunday School with Gibbins and the road sparkled with millions of rainbows, the seven colours gleaming in every glittering point of hoar frost. The Church was very cold in spite of two roaring stove fires...” Very vivid picture. I feel cold reading it.
We don’t have a wood stove in our church, but we do have someone who has set the thermostat so that on Sunday mornings it will be warm in here by the time most of us arrive. And that mystery person is Bill Robb, and that ministry is one of those helps that make a church run. What Francis Kilvert describes in his diary––the solitary icy cold bath in a winter room on a Sunday morning––is about as far from comfort as one can get. If the Finns deliberately dive into the snow or through a hole in the ice of a frozen lake to cool off after a sauna, where the temperatures can reach 150 degrees of dry heat, they are performing the other side of a cleansing ritual and also inducing health with a tried and true method tested over centuries of practice.
Actually the Finnish sauna is a good parallel to our Sunday morning worship, where the way has been prepared for us by Bill Robb at the thermostat. For the most part we are already clean when we come to church, and we come clothed, thank goodness. But as in the sauna, where whole families, or groups of men and separate groups of women gather to get clean and socialize and remind each other just by being together about who they are as a people, a tribe, a group who choose to have sauna together, just so do we come together out of the cold and into this place not just of furnace warmth, but of human warmth. If the darkness is descending early––and it is––we are in company with others and we need not be afraid. We are not alone. We are not out in the cold. We are in the embrace of other faulty human beings who, for the most part, are simply doing the best they can, like ourselves.
We can support each other prayerfully and practically, and together reach out to the wider community in the same ways, especially in this dark time as we approach Christmas. Gather around and share the heat, not simply the oil-fired hot air furnace heat of this building, but the heat of life that each of us has in us. I think of the Christ child, whether born in a cave, perhaps like the Aelwie Cave, or a stable, whatever circumstance it was, it was a humble origin. No doubt it was cold, if it was indeed night when he was born. That is the story, in any case. One legend around the birth has it that the animals, the ox and the ass, the sheep and whatever else might have been found in a place out back in the Middle Eastern town of Bethlehem of that day, the animals warmed the child with their breath.
But the child himself warmed the world. The light and heat he generated in the room of his birth, at least metaphorically, might have powered a thousand generators as we now know them. But I exaggerate. What we do know is the light that we look towards, a little over three weeks hence, brings us out of the darkness, out of the cold, whether the absolute or twilight darkness within ourselves into the full radiance of the healing light, the healing love of God. That baby is our way, our ticket, our lamp full of oil, which we can safely share with one another because the source of it for all of us is unending, is infinite. But we are not there yet. We are in the darkness of Advent now. Let us make the most of this time of preparation so that we can be ready when we hear that baby’s first cry. Amen.