Darkness and LightThe Rev. Nancy M. Brantingham
Advent I, Year A
Sermon: 1 December 2019
Hello to you on this, the first Sunday of Advent.
From the words of St. Paul this morning to the church at Rome: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment from you to wake from sleep. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
I love those words — for the whole message of our faith is about leaving darkness behind and moving toward light, toward love, toward the open arms of God.
“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Paul, more than anyone, knew the truth of these words as he wrote to fellow Christians at Rome. Darkness from all sides would soon envelope his body, for he would be jailed and executed for his faith in Rome, the very city to which today’s epistle is headed.
Laying aside the works of darkness… putting on the armor of light…. are not passive acts.
Paul was taking an active role in laying out his life of faith — and encourages us to do the same.
And that is what is so essential about this season of Advent. As God moves toward us in human form, we are called to move toward God. And that’s not always easy.
Many years ago, I traveled with a group of young people to Appalachia for a work study trip. Part of the experience was hiking 60 miles of the Appalachian Trail, the part that goes through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
That trek started with getting a permit, and then having the park ranger check our backpacks to make sure we were ready for whatever lay ahead.
We were ready to go early in the morning. But the ranger didn’t show up till about 11 a.m. Don’t know what he was doing. But we waited… and waited. (Perhaps he was catching wild animals, saving lives, drinking coffee, probably a combination of all three.)
So it was almost noon when we set out. And as we hiked up into the mountains, it began to rain. And then it started to snow. The weather was like Minnesota weather last night: cold, freezing, dark. Soon our group of seventeen became separated. I was in the second group, and happened to be walking with a Boy Scout named John near the back. He knew enough to make sure that everyone stayed together. But then the person at the head of our group fell to his knees; he couldn’t lead anymore.
John went forward. You have to stay here, he said. Don’t lose anybody. So I stayed there, for miles and miles, upward through the rain and the snow. We were trying to reach the shelter that the park provides, and to catch up with the group ahead.
And back there in the darkness, I wanted to go faster, for I knew I could. But there was a very out of shape woman ahead of me — ironically one of the teachers who had signed up to lead the group — who could only move slowly. Exhausted, step by step, over rocks and slippery slopes she climbed, and so did I.
Well, we didn’t lose anyone. We finally slept on the trail with a few plastic sheets over us that night, and made it to the shelter the next day, having trudged successfully through the snow and the ice and the rain.
Eventually we set up our tents and slept on the trail. We all made it to the shelter the next day, having trudged through the snow and the ice and the rain.
And that to me speaks of Advent — and symbolized our Christian life of faith as well. Out of darkness into light. Out of treacherous conditions into safety. There will be rest at the end, when we reach our final destination. There will be light and warmth and healing. We will be reunited with those who have gone before. We will see people we love again.
But there’s a lot of trudging in the snow and dark to get there. There are plenty of false trails to take. There is the temptation to leave people behind, especially if they are limited, if we don’t like them, or if they are holding us back. It takes humility to stay in the back, walking slowly helping those who are of limited ability. But it just may be that they are the people who teach us enough to show us the way home.
Advent, and our faith, even if we can barely move, is a two-way street, taking life day by day, sometimes even hour by hour, or minute by minute.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us: “Be ready. You don’t know when the final hour will come. Prepare yourself. Keep those lamps lit. Don’t be caught off guard.”
We are called to do what we can to move ahead, casting off the works of darkness around us, putting on the armor of light. Even if we are not strong, even if we are tired of the people around us, even if we think we’ve done all we can, even if… even if…
Let me conclude with a wonderful prayer in the Prayer Book, written by Theodore Parker Ferris, rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, from 1942 to 1972. And it goes like this: “This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.”
Let us together make this a gallant Advent, no matter the shape of the world, no matter the internal or external condition of our bodies and souls. Let us take on, together, the Spirit of Jesus. And working our way up the trail together, let us heed Paul’s words as we wake from sleep, laying aside the works of darkness, and most of all, putting on the armor of light.