December 8, 2019
Christ Church Gardiner
Last week in my sermon, I talked about how this whole church season of Advent is countercultural. Outside these doors, much of our world has moved into the days of jingle bells, falalalala and tidings of comfort and joy. But within these walls, we see the purple vestments, symbolizing a season of repentance and faithful preparation of that which is coming. I also asked last week that we spend some time this season with three Advent questions. This morning, I want us to recall and consider that second question:
- What can we do as individuals to reorder our lives in the light of God’s love?
In our Gospel today, John the Baptist quotes the prophet Isaiah and calls the people of Israel to “prepare the way of the Lord.” What are we doing to prepare the way? What might this season of the “not yet” time offer us? Rather than rushing headlong into the light of Christmas, perhaps the darkness of Advent has gifts for us, as well.
Like I said last Sunday, I don’t dare ask my family to wait until Christmas Eve to decorate our home. I, myself, love the decorations too much to wait. I especially love the twinkling lights of the Christmas Tree in a dark room this time of year.
But despite my love for the Christmas tree and other decorations, there is one thing that must not appear until the appropriate time. The baby Jesus always stays hidden until Christmas morning.
We have two creches or nativity scenes at our house. One is unbreakable, and so the kids get to play with it. One of the first things that Catherine and Sarah do when the Christmas decorations come out after Thanksgiving is to set up this nativity and play with the different characters. A beloved aunt sends them different angels, shepherds, and animals each year so we now have at least 30 pieces for them to maneuver. You might be surprised what mischief the angels and shepherds get into when they are in the hands of my children.
The second creche we have was given by my mother to Jeff and me at our first Christmas and has been added to over time. It’s incredibly beautiful but also very, very fragile. It sits upon something high so the kids won’t touch it and the dog can’t reach it.
In both of these nativity scenes, the baby Jesus must stay tucked away until his debut on Christmas morning. This is easy with the kids’ creche. We just take Jesus out of the manger and hide him.
But the fragile creche given to us by my mother, has a Mary with the baby Jesus cradled in her arms. This was a problem when we first got this gift. I wanted Mary in the scene, but without the baby. I was able to solve this problem when I was pregnant with Patrick, and someone gave me a figurine of an expectant mother made by the same artist who made our creche. So now, during Advent, we replace Mary holding Jesus, with this pregnant mother. And, I have come to love this beautiful wood figurine—this Mary, before Jesus—with her hands cradling her stomach.
I find this to be a perfect Advent image. Because Jesus is both there and not yet there. Mary can surely feel his movements as she holds her hands to her rounded belly, but Jesus stil dwells in the darkness of her womb, waiting to be born. And in that time of darkness, life is growing. That darkness is needed for the unseen stirrings of new life. It is a reminder that while we often fear the dark, so much growth happens outside of the light.
Of course, darkness doesn’t always come with the joyful anticipation of birth. New life may be at the end of a dark path, but much of the time it doesn’t feel like it. The darkness falls in our lives in any number of ways: the loss of a job, divorce, illness and the realization of our own mortality, the death of someone we love, unanswered prayers, a crisis of faith, worry for our children.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, “Learning to Walk in the Darkness,” insists that despite the fear we may have of the darkness and the foreboding about what it will bring, there’s no use resisting it. Sometimes, the only way through the darkness is to get walking, she tells us. And that may not be a quick journey. We might need to dwell there for a while. But as Taylor reminds us, it was in the belly of a whale that Jonah learned obedience. It was in blindness that Paul heard his call. It was in the darkness of the night that God parted the Red Sea to make liberation possible for the Israelites.
While the contrast between light and darkness is a common theme during the Advent season, we know that they can’t really be separated and that we need them both. A UCC Pastor, Mark Longhurst, describes it this way:
“The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Spiritual transformation does not happen only on the light level. We have to do the inner work of facing the shadow, or repressed realities, of who we are, both the beautiful and the bad. Some of our most painful experiences in life—whether death, divorce, or disease—often turn out to create a capacity in us for greater love. What we think is light shows up in what we think is darkness.” 
As we move through this season of Advent, where might we need to dwell in the darkness of our own souls before we can celebrate light and new life? What might be waiting to be born in us? Could a walk through the darkness create a capacity for greater love in us?
These questions bring us back to our Advent theme of preparation and Isaiah’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Those people in our Gospel today, coming out from Jerusalem and Judea to listen to John, were eager to hear more about the proclamation that the long-awaited Messiah was coming. But they were likely anxious about that news, also. Anxious about what that would mean for their own lives. John’s preaching left no question that the arrival of the Messiah wouldn’t be painless. People would have to repent—to turn their lives around. They would need to look into the darkness of their own souls for those places that needed transformation.
John the Baptist’s tirades about judgement, rooting out the bad fruit and burning the chaff, can fall heavy on our ears. But judgment begins with truth-telling. And anticipation of judgement asks that we start with telling the truth about ourselves. Our church often focuses on the bigger picture of social justice. That is important. And changing the systems to better care for those that Jesus showed preference for: the poor, the hungry, the oppressed is most certainly at the heart of our Gospel. But all change must begin within ourselves.
During this season of Advent, as we begin to prepare ourselves for both the long-awaited Messiah and the anticipation of God’s Kingdom at some future time, we shouldn’t rush the light of Christmas. I know we can’t ignore all of the Christmas festivities going on around us, but we can make time to sit with the darkness, too.
When I gaze upon Mary, expectant mother, during these dark days leading up to Christmas, I find myself waiting patiently with her. And I am reminded of what it will take for her to bring that baby into the world. When it is time for the birth of Jesus, Mary will labor and then she will have to push. New life doesn’t happen without the darkness nor does it happen without that final push. Jesus will burst from the womb on Christmas and light up the world. But now Mary needs to rest in the darkness. She is gathering strength for her labor. For now, she waits, and we wait with her in these Advent days. As we wait, we can do that important work of searching our own darkness and gathering strength for our own transformation—for new life born in us.
I want to close this morning with an Advent poem about darkness from the Iona community.
We do not choose the darkness,
and few are comfortable within it.
In the absence of light
our hearts whisper their secrets,
and loss and pain
seep from the corners
to disquiet our minds.
And yet, all life begins in darkness.
In the womb, the cocoon,
and gathers strength.
For those who find the courage to dwell there
the darkness can hold treasure
And so we wait,
listening to the stories of our hearts,
knowing that we are held safe
in the deeper story of Love,
in which the Light
will always return. 
 Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos (October 11, 2019), https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ordinarymystic/2019/10/beyond-light-supremacy-let-there-be-light-and-darkness/.
David McNeish and Sarah Anderson from the Iona Community