“Sit in the Dark”
November 30, 2008 - First Sunday in Advent
A computer was installed in a monastery in Tibet, according to a short story by Arthur C. Clarke. The purpose was to identify and print out every single one of the supposed nine billion true names of God. Two technicians from the United States trek into the mountains to set up the machine. There the two men learn what the monks believe: when all the names of God have been printed, the end of the world will come. Fearing the monks’ anger when their expected apocalypse does not occur, the Americans leave before the print-out is complete. Coming down the mountain, one of them looks up at the clear night sky. The last line of the story is, “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”
The end means darkness, darkness not just on earth, but in the heavens. Here in Mark 13, verses 24 and 25, Jesus says some of the last signs of His second coming will be the darkening of the lights of the sky. When the Lord comes again, astronomers may be the first to know. Sun and moon will grow dark and the stars will, like Clarke imagined, disappear. Even more dramatically in Revelation 6, the heavens roll up like a scroll. II Peter 3 says that the heavens will be consumed in a roaring fire. The lights will go out. We will be left in the dark.
Why darkness? Why is our Savior’s return preceded by evil times? If you look at the part of Mark 13 which comes before today’s text, you see that the darkness is not just a matter of physical lights in the sky. There’s a deep spiritual darkness coming before Christ comes again. Christians will be persecuted, “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child.” There will be desecration of spiritual things, false prophets and even false Christs. The depth of the dark will be such that even the “elect,” even the true believers, will almost be deceived. But why?
Why does God find all the darkness at the end necessary? Let’s step the question back a bit and ask this: Why does He find all the darkness we experience now necessary? Our lives are not near as bad as the scene Jesus painted here in Mark’s version of the Olivet Discourse, from which we’ve read the past few weeks in Matthew. Yet we still feel the light can be awfully dim. Children and their parents murdered in India, an economic downturn still gathering force, people killed in Christmas shopping frenzies, cancer and hunger and corruption. It all threatens to pull our hearts down into a black hole where there is no light at all. Why does God allow it?
Re-write the question for whatever darkness you struggle with. Wherever the light seems dim in your life, you may ask: “Why? Why is God, whom the Bible says is all light and no darkness at all, leaving me in the dark?” Why doesn’t God just switch on all the lights now?
The church season of Advent helps us deal with the question of darkness. In a way, it is nothing more than an invitation to sit in the dark for four weeks. In Advent, the church calls you to experience being in the dark. In part, you are asked to feel how it felt to live before the first coming of Jesus into the world. What was it like to live in the shadow and wait for the light?
Boris Pasternak put these words in the mouth of Doctor Zhivago’s uncle:
Rome was a flea market of borrowed gods and conquered peoples, a bargain basement on two floors, earth and heaven, a mass of filth convoluted in a triple knot as in an intestinal obstruction. Dacians, Herculians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Hyperboreans, heavy wheels without spokes, eyes sunk in fat, sodomy, double chins, illiterate emperors, fish fed on the flesh of learned slaves…all crammed into the passages of the Coliseum, and all wretched.
And then, into this tasteless heap of gold and marble, He came, light…
Why it will be so dark at the end of the world, when Christ comes back? We may ask why the earth was so viciously dark at the beginning, when He came the first time. Why had God allowed His light to grow so dim on earth? Why did the first Advent of Jesus wait until the great civilizations of the earth were crumbling into decay and so much of humanity was so miserable? The reason is the same for the first as for the second Advent. Sometimes you can see farther in the dark.
Griffith Park Observatory was built in 1935 on the southern slope of Mt. Hollywood, near Los Angeles. Its main attractions are a planetarium and other public exhibits. It was never really intended as a place for serious astronomy, but now there isn’t a chance. If you stand in the evening on the balcony of the observatory you will be looking out over one of the greatest masses of electric lights in the world. Solar telescopes there observe the sun in the daytime, but at night the lights of Los Angeles make distant galaxies, nebulae, and the other stuff of exciting astronomy invisible. It is just not dark enough.
On the other hand, at the Powell Observatory rising in the middle of Flagstaff, Arizona, you can still observe the nighttime heavens. That city protected its observatory by deliberately limiting illuminated signs. All street lighting must aim downward and is shielded at the top. “Light pollution” is very carefully regulated so that you can still view the Milky Way, still pick out the faintest stars. It’s dark so you can see those distant lights.
When sun and moon and stars are darkened in the last days, we will be able to see further than ever before. Verse 26 says you “will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” The darkness will make the true light more visible. It will be as though we were sitting in a theater waiting for the show to begin. The house lights will be dimmed and we will be sitting in the dark. But it’s only so that, when the curtain comes up, we may clearly see the spotlight on the star of the show.
Our church season of Advent mostly focuses on Christmas, a first act of God’s salvation. But the text this morning remind us that another act in the story is yet to begin. We believe in the Savior born in a stable, crucified on a cross, and risen from the grave. We also believe in a Lord who will come again into a dark world to gather up His people. Verse 27 says we “will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” Every believer, whether alive on the earth or with Him in heaven will be gathered up at the end. If we sit in the dark, it’s to wait for the curtain to rise again on this final act of God’s great drama.
Jesus also pointed to a sign which signals the end of the darkness of winter. In verse 28, He turns to a fig tree growing nearby and notices pale green buds running up the stem. He bent a twig and felt how tender and full of life it was. He reminded us that when we see such things we realize that winter dark is ending and summer light is about to shine.
Darkness is not forever. Dark only signals the coming of the light. With the dying of the last earthly light, the One who said He is the Light of the world will return. With Christians through the ages, we still say, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!” In this season, we remember that what Jesus said in verse 29 is true, the light “is near, right at the door.”
In verses 30 and 31, Jesus says that the light shining in the darkness is so near that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” That verse troubles us because some of what Jesus preached there on the Mount of Olives has happened and some of it has not. It’s a hard saying. That generation then did see the dark times of Jerusalem destroyed and Christians and Jews terribly persecuted. But the Son of Man coming in the clouds has not yet happened. That generation did not see that, nor have many generations since then.
The “generation that will not pass away” has two senses here. It first of all meant the Jews and Christians who would witness the terrible time of Rome’s invasion of Jerusalem. But it also means that every generation has a charge to carry forward a spirit of readiness, a spirit of watchfulness, peering up out of the dark, waiting for the light. Our generation may or may not see the second Advent. We don’t know. That’s exactly what Jesus says in the next few verses.
In verses 32-37, Jesus’ conclusion to all this dark talk is a call to do just what I’ve been talking about: to sit in the dark and wait to see the light. We don’t know when His light will shine again in the heavens even more brightly than the Christmas star. “No one knows about the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We’re all in the dark about just when it will happen. No one knows. Let’s not be fooled. That’s part of the darkness, a deception we must avoid. Anyone who claims to know is wrong. We don’t know, and so we sit in the dark, and wait.
We’re waiting, but we still have work to do. Sitting in the dark is not doing nothing. Jesus little parable in verse 34 is a man who leaves his servants to guard his house, each with an assigned task. As we sit in the dark of this life, of this world, we are active for our Lord as we wait.
I used to go fish small lakes and ponds in the Midwest. Sometimes I went out in the middle of the afternoon in a small rowboat and fished until dark. As dusk begins to fall, the wind calms. The air cools. Flies begin to hatch out of the water. And fish begin to rise and consume those bugs in big gulps. I would tie on a big fly, looking for a lunker bass I hoped was there somewhere. It was when the dark was falling that I fished most earnestly. That’s the kind of watchfulness Jesus meant. Not giving up when darkness comes, but trying even more to be at our task, fishing for those who need to hear good news.
Out on the lake I fished it until it got so dark I couldn’t any longer. I couldn’t see my fly on the water and my line seemed to tangle with every cast. The fish weren’t biting anymore, but the mosquitoes were. It was so dark I couldn’t see anything. But even then, it wasn’t quite time to give up and go in. Even when our world seems very dark, it’s not time to give up.
I would sit there in the dark a little longer, and it would get brighter. The stars would come out. The moon would rise. Light would appear in a black sky. For hours I had been focused on fishing, but I realized this was what I was waiting for. I was there to see the lights of heaven come out and be reflected in the still water. That’s what I was watching for.
Advent is the time to have that experience spiritually. A time to sit in the dark and wait, patiently, as the light of Christmas, the light of Jesus’ first coming appears once again. You can’t see it as clearly if you only hang out in brightly lit big box stores or where hundreds of holiday lights are shining from the eaves of your house. You need to also be where it’s dark, where someone is hungry or someone is lonely or someone needs to hear about Jesus. In dark like that, you’ll be able to see, you will be ready to see the Christmas light, the Advent light as He shines into your life.
Out on the lake in the dark, it was time to go in. Turn on a flashlight, pick up the oars and make my way to shore. Pull the boat up, load the car, drive down a dirt road toward the lights of town. Tomorrow was work or school. People expected me to be in my place. I had commitments to fulfill. But I had seen the light of heaven in the dark. That went home with me.
Advent goes home with you. Our worship today was a little dark. Hymns in a minor key. Somber purple. No Christmas decorations yet. And we think of the tattered beggar on the corner, the abandoned child who needs a foster parent, lonely residents of nursing homes, murdered hostages in India. We see the dark all around us. And we commit ourselves once again to our assigned tasks, to do what we can to be serving our Master by serving those in need.
In Advent, we peer through the darkness in our world, through the spiritual darkness in our own lives and catch a glimpse of light. The Son of Man comes in clouds with great glory. And here in the dark, we renew our faith, we trust again in His promise in verse 31. Everything will fall into the dark. Heaven and earth will pass away into the night, but His words will not pass away. His promise will not fail. His light will come. May you be watching and waiting in the dark when His light rises upon you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj