December 3, 2017

1st Sunday of Advent Year B

In this digital age in which everything in the home has to be connected, I am willing to remain a luddite if it requires crawling under my house to any cables. I remember too well my experience the last time I did so in the age before LED lights. I had a 30’ long extension cord with a 60-watt light bulb attached to its end, said light bulb being enclosed in a metal cage. In my family we called them “trouble lights.” I think they were so named because all they were was trouble.

First, those incandescent light bulbs were hot. That is one reason the cage was around them, but the cage would get hot as well. Touch it and you burned yourself. Then there is the light bulb’s fragile filament, easy to damage. And then imagine dragging a corded light bulb beside you while journeying through the crawl space of a house, trying to avoid sewer and water pipes and the underside of floor joists. I don’t care how careful I would be in crawling around, the cord would get caught somewhere between the opening to the crawl space and where I was under the house; I would give it one more yank to untangle it, and of course, the other end of the cord would pull out of its socket back outside the house.

What happens then? Absolute and total darkness. If you have ever worked with a trouble light, it was at this moment that you desperately hoped for someone working with you who was outside the crawl space, who could hear your curse and who would plug that trouble light in again, or who, should the bulb’s filament have broken, would shine a flashlight back to where you were so that you could sort of see to get out. It was at these times, the times when you could see nothing and ended up banging your head on a few of those floor joists, that having a relationship with someone you could trust became so essential. 

Not many of us like to go crawling under our houses. It is a job for spelunkers. We would rather be where there is sufficient light and openness so that we are certain of what is around us. There is a fear of being in the dark, a fear of unseen insects and rodents. A world of bright light gives us clarity, no explanations needed, no fears present.

That is the ideal world, in matters social and emotional, as well as physical. But if we are really honest with ourselves, so much of our lives are not spent in states of absolute clarity and openness. They are rather spent stumbling around in darkness, the darkness of confining choices, unknown futures, and unplanned problems. It is, for example, what it is like to live in this age of tremendous financial disparity, political obfuscation, and demographic and societal changes that frighten us. It is exactly in these situations that we do not need to be alone. And it is the Christian assurance that this is exactly when we are not alone. The ordinary fears will not consume us.

Today’s gospel is focused on when it is that the Son of Man will show up. Or if the Old Testament background for the use of the phrase “Son of man” is any guide, the focus is on when it is that God’s messenger is going to show up. Jesus reminds us that we will not see God’s messenger when everything is in the daylight, when we can look around and see for fifty miles. The arrival is not when we are standing away from the messiness of life. But rather, the messenger shows up when the sun is dark, when the moon does not give its light, when there are no stars in the sky—a picture of absolute and total darkness, written in an age in which there was no electric light to go home to at night, not even the signposts of the stars in the sky. The Son of Man shows up during the watches of the night, at midnight or 3 or 4 a.m., which is what the word “cockcrow” in the gospel implies, when it is dark and we are scared or tired or tossing from insomnia in the middle of the night. Our assurance is that it is then that the power of good news becomes real. 

Part of what is happening in the gospel today is that Mark is telling us that the kingdom arrives smack dab in the face of difficult situations and circumstances; it arrives when we start giving up false hopes for a clear and unambiguous future and instead continue the journey in spite of not being able to see where it will lead. That is the Advent message. The kingdom arrives when it seems impossible to see God. The kingdom arrives when we begin relying on relationship, not independence, relying on someone who stands ready to assist us. Just think that what last sentence could mean in this nation that is so focused right now on the primacy of going it alone rather than being in relationship. Christianity can indeed speak to current political turmoil.

One of the traditional tests of when darkness arrives is when we cannot tell the difference in two threads—one black and one white—that are held in front of us. It is in those moments of life, when black and white are not so clear, that Mark is telling us to be ready to be experience the risen Christ. That is good news when all our choices are imperfect, as we deal with issues as varied and as vexing as how best to fight terrorism, or how to carry for children when both parents need to work, or which ministries to focus on in a congregation when there are finite financial resources, all those issues of life for which there are no black and white answers. Rest assured that the love of God is present in the very darkness, or dare I say “trouble” in which we find ourselves.  

The world is filled with figurative trouble lights, times and situations in which we forge ahead with as much clarity as we can manage, only to find ourselves in the dark, up against all sorts of unseen and unsettling obstacles. It is then that the risen body of Christ, in the form of fellow pilgrims on this journey, begins to take shape, offering comfort and support for the journey. If it has not happened so far in some conflicted and difficult situation, keep awake, as Jesus, through Mark, tells us. When we least expect it, the messenger will show up, and Advent will turn into Incarnation, our waiting turned into the enfleshment of hope that is the heart of the Christian good news. Somewhere the risen Christ will show up in our lives when we least expect him.