The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Have you ever spent an evening watching the stars appear in the night sky? Oh, not now, as we near the end of November—it’s darn cold out there. But perhaps on a spring or summer evening at a cabin in Maine, or as you lie on a blanket on the flat plains of New Mexico or Arizona. Here’s the thing, no matter where you are, stars don’t appear until it’s dark. Darkness is when you can see the stars shine.
That’s true enough from the perspective of a naturalist; but it’s also true from a spiritual perspective as well. Standing at the graveside of his brother,, the agnostic Robert Ingersoll, said, “In the darkest night hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.” Darkness need not dim our perceptions—but might serve to heighten them instead.
The ancient Persians put it this way: “When it is dark enough you can see the stars”.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Looking back to other years, I realize that I generally expound on the same theme this time of year—restraint. Urging people to step back from the hurry and bustle of the season, and seek quiet in the midst of crammed calendars, frantic shopping, glitter and tinsel to behold the hallowed stillness of this time of year. And I realize, I don’t need to do that this year. In truth, it’s been handed to us—not, certainly, in the best of circumstances, but in the midst of darkness, sorrow and pain. And I wonder, perhaps this year—above all others—we have been gifted the opportunity to perceive, in ways in which we haven’t before, the hope which this holy season of Advent holds. When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
The lesson today from Mark is known as “the Little Apocalypse”. I don’t know about you, but I find it curious that the beginning of the season of Advent—indeed, the beginning of the liturgical year itself, contains a reading which isn’t about joy or peace, but is instead about the end of the world. Yet here, it’s important to reflect on what the word “apocalypse” means. An “apocalypse” is a “revealing”. It’s the pulling back of the curtain. It’s the opening of a door. It’s an opportunity to behold what is really there. The picture on the front of your program this morning portrays the meaning of the world beautifully. An apocalypse is an opened door—which throws your whole world out of alignment and offers a new perspective on reality. Writings such as this one from the Gospel of Mark reminds us that an apocalypse is a revealing—it uncovers what is truly there; indeed, what has been there all along. Like the stars. They’re shining all the time—but we don’t always see them for what they are, it takes the darkness to remind us of their light.
Most years, a reading such as this feels somewhat out of place. Except, that 2020 has been such a relentlessly trying, sobering and tragic year—and, to be perfectly honest, it’s only getting worse in recent weeks as the pandemic surges—that today, turning to a text such as the Thirteenth Chapter of Mark, actually seems to make sense. Right now, we can relate. So, let’s take a closer look. This is a passage dark enough we can see the stars shining through.
If you probe deeper into this reading, what you discover is that this lesson is a call to hope for those facing hard times. And, unless I miss my guess, this includes all of us at this particular moment in our collective history. Essentially, the point of the text is this. When there is nothing you can do—absolutely nothing—God will act on your behalf. When you are without resources of any kind, when you see the tide of sorrow flooding over you inch by inch and you stand helpless before it, when you have nothing left—no defense, no power to fight back, no shred of hope in anything you can do—that is the time to lift up your head. Because it is when things are darkest that you can see the stars.
So, let’s look at what this text is not. The Thirteenth Chapter of Mark is not a call for us to see our problems as “opportunities” to be solved. Nor is this a text telling us we need to pluck up and be cheerful in the midst of the storm. This is not a lesson telling us to look on the glass half full side of life because the problem in all in our head. This text is none of this. This is a lesson about those times in life when you don’t even have the lemons with which to make lemonade and when there are no bootstraps with which to pull yourself up.
Here, Jesus is telling us that salvation is on the way not because we are optimistic, not because we are hard workers, creative, smart or persevere. Certainly, it’s not because we were good and have played well with one another. And salvation is not on its way because there is a hope for a vaccine for COVID-19. No, our problems run far deeper than this. Just ask the millions of people the world over grieving the loss of a loved one this year. Jesus tells us salvation is on its way—not because of anything you or I might do, but because God is going to act. The Christian hope does not rest in what we might do—but in what God will do. It is God who acts when we cannot. It is God who makes the stars to shine in the darkness. It is God who brings hope from despair, God who comes to earth to save us from what we cannot save ourselves. It is God who brings us hope. Our task, is to lift up our heads, and look—to stay alert, and watch for the coming of the Lord.
Which is what brings us to why this lesson is just right for the first Sunday of Advent. You see, this is a lesson about the hope of the world; it’s a reminder that God, quite apart from anything we can do or have done, gives us a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes. We didn’t produce it, demand it, earn it, expect it—and heaven knows, we didn’t think it up or will it into being. Yet here it is, hope, in the midst of darkened skies. A candle in the midst of the darkness. A bright morning star, shining the way forward.
The call for today—this week—and in the weeks to come, is to remember in whom we are to place our trust. It is a call for us to lift up our heads, to search the skies, and behold the glimmer of a promise—the very hope of the world—given to us to light our way in the darkness and despair of this present time. In Jesus’ name. Amen.