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church’s New Year. The Gospel reading for this morning begins the new year by casting a vision of the end. In Luke 21 Jesus responds to the people’s desire to know when the end will take place. To help them anticipate this time Jesus himself offers a frustratingly simple parable. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” And so you have it. When the tree sprouts summer is coming. When these things happen the kingdom of God is near. It would be hard to find more simple and straightforward language than what Jesus offers here. The trouble of course is that as long as God’s people have been in existence they, as a group, have had very little success in identifying just what that sprout looks like and further, what sort of summer or change it is ushering. Jesus may be the light of the world but why is it that to us his words are not always clear? This text and the Advent season invite us to reflect on how we can understand and recognize our experience of God’s light as it enters the world. Let’s look at “those things”, the sprouting leaves, which Jesus says will begin to usher his second coming. Jesus said that, “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.
Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” What is the image we are given in this passage? Something out of the ordinary is happening in the sky, nations are confused on the earth and the sea is in an uproar. People are racked with anxiety, terror-stricken because they sense something awful is coming. So far we have chaos, confusion, terror. Then we are told that “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud”. Now how many of you, when I said this, actually had an image of a man in a white robe riding a cloud? If you did, you not be alone. This tends to be my own first impression and it was also Michelangelo’s impressions as he sketched the Sistine chapel. However, God’s presence in the midst of clouds often represents haze and darkness in the Old Testament. The image is also one of descent and covering, and if someone is descending in a cloud from above what would you most likely see from below? . . . a cloud. This image of haze or darkness is important for us to understand what may not be the reality of God’s light, but may be our experience of the light. So the sprout that we are to look for includes chaos, confusion, terror, and a cloudy haze. The coming of God’s light is apparently not making things very clear for the world. Rather this light appears to be shaking things up. Does this fit with your concept of what the light of God’s presence should be and how we should experience it? Most of us tend to think God’s revelation will make things clear, that it will be a type of a-ha moment where confusions and uncertainties vanish. This is indeed one experience of God. But in the Bible this is quite often the case.
As the Gospel of John tells us, The light came to his own, but his own did not receive him.
How could some people have so loved the light and others sought to extinguish it? Perhaps we should think about our daily experiences with light for moment. What happens when someone turns on the light in a dark room? The moment that the light comes on we do not really think about seeing the light itself we are more struck by seeing the things around us that were once hidden. This type of experience can evoke many responses. One response is indeed one of clarity where we see things that we simply did not know existed. This may be the sense of God’s revealing himself to Gentiles where he speaks through Isaiah saying, I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. The Gentiles did not even know what it was to seek for the God of Israel as he awaited them in the darkness. I grew up in the Altona Sommerfeld Mennonite church where singing was led by a vorsänger. The vorsänger led the congregation in a type of monotone nasal based tone of singing. This was my primary experience for praising God in song. In junior high I began to attend a friend’s youth group. On one weekend we went to Winnipeg for a larger youth event. I remember that it was evening and all sorts of different youth groups were gathered together with sparklers and they were singing Shine Jesus Shine. I had never experienced something like this before. The light came and revealed something that I never knew existed. This is one example of love lighting the darkness. Another and perhaps more common experience of darkness is the darkness we intentionally keep around us. Many of us probably have a room or a closet we shove things into before company comes over. We can feel comfortable letting our guests have full access of our home so long as they do not see the mess that is hidden away.
In the same way we all have things or situations in our lives we want to keep in the dark, hidden. Here we put our pride, envy, covetousness, and hatred. This is where we put our deeds of the day and the facts of our history that we would rather not have anyone to see. Here we also tend to find our confusion, fear, and insecurity. Things that are not bad but that may reveal us to be fragile and weak. This is an intentional darkness. Keeping some of these things from people can be entirely understandable and in many instances necessary because it is not only love that tries to light the darkness. We know the feeling of being hurt or hurting someone else with those things that we bring out of this darkness and expose to the light. Humanity does not have the best record of making sure it is love that lights the darkness and not curiosity, jealousy, pride, or ambition. Addressing the knowledge that comes when things are brought to light Rowan Williams speaks of the terrible threat of knowledge without love. In a sermon he says, Knowledge is power, we are told. And perhaps the place we realize this most clearly and acutely is where knowledge of other people is concerned. If we know something of the secret of another person’s heart, we are often aware of enormous power in our hands – weapons to hurt, even destroy. Something very vulnerable and fragile has been put into our grasp – because most people’s hearts are pretty fragile – and there is sometimes the fearsomely strong urge to use it to turn against someone, to lay them under obligation to us, to exert a kind of blackmail. Weakness invites crushing: that is one of the terrible things about it. And we know this too from the other side. I have shared something very private, perhaps humiliating or embarrassing, with my friends. And as soon as they’ve left, I’m in anguish of fear and regret: should I have done that? Am I safe? There is a sensation of having “signed over” something put myself at the mercy of others. All this really comes to one thing: the terrible threat of knowledge without love. Is anything in human relations more frightening than that?
Set in this context there is good reason why many people reacted so negatively towards their encounter with Jesus. Encountering Jesus people recognized someone who shone light into the dark places of their lives, and they understood all too well the potential power that this held over them. What would Jesus do with this knowledge? How much would he expose? What would people think of me once they see what I am really like? Many of the Jewish leaders were made uneasy with the things Jesus brought to light among the people. They knew, as we all do, how this knowledge, how this exposure could be used against them. And this remains the tension within church. Sometimes we speak with too much comfort and ease about the love that lights the darkness because we tend to notice only the darkness over there whether it is the darkness in Iraq or in our neighbour. We pray that they will be shown the light of love. We start to tremble a little when that light shines closer to home. We moved to Hamilton in the summer of 2005. The plan was that I begin a program at McMaster Divinity College. This program would likely last five years. We had prayed about this decision and received much encouragement about it. However, after arriving in Hamilton we were barraged with circumstances that demanded we reconsider this plan. After my first semester we came to the clear realization that, though we did not know what the next step would be, I needed to withdraw from school. Things moved from achieving a long term educational and vocational goal to finding ourselves with no work, no family, no church support network, and perhaps most frighteningly of all no idea of what would happen next. Thoughts about who I was, what my plans were, what I could achieve, who God was, what God wanted from me all begin to fade away. And nothing really took the place of the concepts that I was holding on to. Many of these days I was left feeling raw and exposed. What remained was a lingering and disorientating feeling of being left in the dark. God’s light came and it was, as one pastor has put it, a ray of darkness.
I share this in all due respect knowing that many people have experienced a much deeper and more profound feeling of darkness in their lives. This is the flip-side, the paradox of God’s light. As God’s light enters and overcomes the darkness of the world it often ushers in an experience of deeper more penetrating darkness. How is it that we can (or can we) reconcile this as an image of God’s light? If we remember Luke 21 we see that God’s light is not illuminating the world, rather it is overcoming the world. God’s light is not the light that the world lives by. This paradox is not absent in the Bible where we find the God whose spirit hovered in the darkness over the waters at creation. The God who Moses found in the thick darkness on Mt. Sinai. The God whose light blinded Paul and left him in the darkness. The medieval mystic St. John of the Cross explains it this way, Faith is an activity of the soul, certain and obscure. And the reason for its being an obscure activity is that it makes us believe truths revealed by God Himself, which surpass all natural light, and exceed all human understanding, beyond all proportion. So it follows that, for the soul, this excessive light of faith which is given to it is thick darkness, for it overwhelms greater things and does away with small things, even as the light of the sun overwhelms all other lights whatsoever, so that when it shines and disables our visual faculty they appear not to be lights at all. So that it blinds it and deprives it of the sight that has been given to it, inasmuch as its light is great beyond all proportion and surpasses the faculty of vision. This is the irony of being blinded by the light. To experience truth beyond what our minds can rationalize or control. This passage helps us return to Luke 21 and also to Advent. Love lights the darkness. In Luke 21 the foundations of the world are being shaken because the light has returned. It comes as darkness because it overwhelms us stripping us of our natural concepts and insights into reality. The people in Luke 21 are plagued with anxiety and confusion
because the things they believed in, the things they used to guide their path were revealed as illusions of safety and security. From the heavens to the sea the world shook with the coming Jesus. And so Jesus warns believers to be careful, to watch and pray because we too still live in the world and participate in its order of things. So we watch and pray. What do we watch for? “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.” This parable would make no sense if we were not shown how this branch had sprouted leaves before. Approaching Christmas we look to the first time the root of David sprouted leaves, to Jesus first coming in Bethlehem. This is ultimately the same image as we are given in Luke 21. The foundations of the world shook with birth of Jesus. We would tend not to link these two images because Luke 21 gives the impression of a more “shock and awe” style campaign on the part of God. But that is the whole point. This is not referring to an awesome display of power as the world recognizes it. God does not come and use the powers, the lights, of the world he comes to prevail over the powers of the world. This is our image. This is the challenge the church is given at the start of every new year. This is the challenge to be attentive to the things that the world views as weak or disgraceful. To enter humbly and boldly into a life of openness, vulnerability, forgiveness, and sacrifice. As Paul in 1 Corinthians recognized, these are the “weak” things of the world that would overcome the strong. This is why the poor and the oppressed often responded so positively to Jesus, because they were already living outside the order of the world.
This challenge is no natural or easy act on our part and as God encourages us towards it we tend to experience, at times, as a darkness. But we need to remember that this
darkness is only the sprout, springtime. It is the first step. Jesus told us that the end would not come right away. This step is the overcoming and the overthrowing of the world in us. A world in which we expose weaknesses for own advantage. As these things are cleared from us a new space is made, an intimate, tender, and sacred space. This space is safe where there is no threat of knowledge of without love. Where will not be mocked or despised for who we are. This is a place where we can open ourselves and expose the wound that has plagued us. The wound that has fractured us from God, from our neighbour and from ourselves. But we must be open and not be afraid of either light or dark. So this season we open ourselves and gather to worship and watch for the one whose light entered the world and overcame the darkness. As we watch we also pray that we will be transformed, as a community, into that space which banishes the threat of knowledge without love.
And we look forward with Jeremiah, our first reading for this Advent, for sees that “‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD,‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. “‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.’
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