Sheepscott Community Church November 28, 2010
Isaiah 2: 1-5
Romans 13: 11-14
Matthew 24: 36-44
Hope and Readiness in the Dark
There are some stories and some things that I think are important enough to repeat from the pulpit from year to year. One of those things is the need to cover the windgate when the weather changes from summer to fall, a lesson we learned from Karin Swanson.You recall that the windgate is this valley between the bony ridges at the back of the neck, which the Chinese believe needs to be covered to protect the individual from cold. Covering our windgate not only protects us from the cold and wind, but is a reminder in the wider sense of how God protects us. A habit of prayer is like a scarf that protects the windgate of the soul. We are not so vulnerable when we are in the habit of daily prayer.
One of the stories that I think important enough to repeat every year is the story of my descent into the Ailwie Cave in the Burren, in County Clare, Ireland. I like to tell this story on the first Sunday of Advent because it parallels so well the reality of the four-week spiritual journey we as a church and as a people of God, embark on today.Brie has lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, a sign of hope for us, a reassurance that even as we descend toward the winter solstice on December 21, the longest night of the year, past experience tells us that there will be a re-ascension into light. The sun will return to give us more light than darkness, and the world will go on after all.
And we have heard Jan read words of hope, written in the book of the prophet Isaiah over 2500 years ago. We are poised to believe realistically that in this world of war and rumors of war, of nation pitted against nation, person against person, of cholera, hunger and HIV AIDS: with all of that, still we are poised to believe that there is reason for hope. Hear what the prophet says: “[God] shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples;/ and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,/ and their spears into pruning hooks;/ nation shall not lift up sword against nation,/ neither shall they learn war any more.”
That may sound unrealistic and overly idealistic to some, considering what we have seen over the centuries, over the millennia, and just in our lifetimes. But the truth is that the faith uttered in this prophecy is indispensable for the hope of the world. It embodies a conviction that there shall be a day when all people shall live together and walk together in faith and righteousness. Without the inspiration of such words and their power to sustain our search for a way of peace, we are condemned to the prospect of wars upon wars. Thank God for the likes of George Mitchell and his kind. He is willing to sit at the table between sworn enemies––Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Palestine and Israel––and not go under to the enmity between them. Rather, he keeps talking and bringing them back to talk again and again. How else does change happen, except that we keep talking together? Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Way back there I promised to take you down into the Ailwie Cave in County Clare. Here we go. It is an excavated descending entrance into the womb of the earth itself. At the time I was there, in ‘94, 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 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, and we all were plunged into absolute darkness, which is darkness without even a pin prick of light.
The guide had told us that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply predisposed because of her words; that’s the way it really felt. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering its seemingly haphazard construction. With the addition of the aforementioned anxiety, 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 this season of Advent we begin today, which is really an ascent toward Christmas. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown, whatever form that might take––terrorist attacks, an uncertain economy, advancing age with its increasing health risks, and so on. For the most part we are willing to have faith and not despair, to wait for the coming of the light. And, as we believe, that light is 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, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what or who is sustaining us moment by moment. 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 lives, which now include preparations for the season, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying; from cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to re-baptism into shoveling, which some of us experienced Friday, to wider service in the community.
All of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day Christmas season, which by the way runs from December 25 to January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, regardless of what the retail outlets would have you believe. The most important preparation of this penitential season before Christmas is that of the individual heart. Once we get past our primal fear of the darkness associated with the season, we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas in the same way we focus on the season of Lent before Easter, as 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, with the season of so-called ordinary time, but now the purple of penitence is in place.
So, we agree that the season of Advent with this first Sunday of a new liturgical year, begins today; that it is a penitential time to get the heart as well as the house ready for Christmas. We can also agree that there is hope in the darkness, as we wait in faith to see the promised coming of Christ. In addition to hope, let us then consider the second leg of this morning’s readings: readiness.
Get ready, Paul exhorts his readers in the epistle to the Romans, which we heard this morning. Paul speaks about that “present time,” not so different from our present time because people do not change in the larger sense.”The hour has come,” he writes, “for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”
Wake up! he is saying, which is reminiscent of what Jesus himself said in this morning’s gospel: Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. “Watch” is an often-repeated word on the lips of Jesus. A person must live with eyes open, watching. It’s easy to become absorbed in one’s career, or in one’s daily chores and responsibilities and forget the life-and-death issues of the soul, what finally matters. A person has to stop, look and listen at more than railroad crossings. That awareness should be a way of life, and the practice of prayer is crucial to that way of life, whether it’s five minutes or 55 minutes a day; or whether it’s standing on the edge of a field at dusk and simply being consciously before God. Prayer takes many forms and God receives them, is on the other side of them all, listening and answering.
To watch does not mean to forsake our daily round of tasks. If we’re always looking at the sky for signs, we’re never going to reap any harvest. If we’re always wondering and saying, “Tomorrow may be the day,” we’ll never feel at home fully in this life. So how do we do it? How do we find the balance? Consider the farmer at the plow. He keeps his eye on the furrow, because that is how a plowman plows, but he also looks up at the horizon from time to time to make sure that the furrow is straight. He might also pause to greet his friend or neighbor who comes by, and also take some moments of prayer during the workday. That is an example of a balanced approach. Watch. Keep it all in mind without anxiety, but with trust in God for the outcome. Again, as our friends in AA wisely say in this regard, Keep it simple; One day at a time; and, Help me to change the things I can change, to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Cultivate hope even in this deepest darkness of the year, watch and be ready. Remember this candle during the week. See the flame and the light it gives in your mind’s eye and remember: Jesus is on the way. Jesus is the Way. Amen.