Casting away the works of darkness

Nov. 30, 2014

Is. 64.1-9; 1 Co. 1.3-9; Mk. 13.24-37

We remember peoples' last words--they're often taken as a distillation of a life. But when you come down to it, often it adds up to the wisdom of the hotel mogul Conrad Hilton whose last words were, "Tell the people to leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub." Or maybe Poncho Villa, who was dying of a gunshot wound and he was asked if he had any final words. He said, "Please make up something great and tell 'em I said it." Last week we remembered the 52th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. His last words were, "That's obvious" spoken to the wife of the Texas governor who had just said, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you." And we remember the words of the witty English writer Oscar Wilde who on his deathbed in a Paris hotel said, "Alas, I die as I have lived, beyond my means." We hope that last words will shed some light on the path for others as they walk the walk we have walked.

But the life lived in faith, hope, and charity speaks for itself. It's like the couple who after 60 plus years of marriage came to the point where the husband was not expected to live through the night. As he drifted off into his last sleep, his wife didn't say, "Good-bye," she said what she had said on countless other nights, "Good night, see you in the morning." That's our Christian hope...to live and walk in the light of faith.

That's the power of today's collect or prayer for the 1st Sunday of Advent... that we might walk in the light. We prayed, Lord, "give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light". And when we have put on Christ, we are walking in the light. So many of the great stories of our culture, ancient and modern reflect this struggle that we all face...moving from the shadows into the light.

Just over thirty years ago, the first of the Star Wars movies was released. It famously brought us the image of the dreaded Darth Vader with his black mask and cape, and the James Earl Jones voice that seemed to slither with evil. He epitomized the "dark side of the Force". Vader urged son Luke Skywalker, "Come over to the dark side." Such evil forces seem invincible at times in that world and ours. With groups like ISIS in the Middle East or the group Boko Haram kidnapping scores of young girls in Africa's Nigeria...where they have plundered, raped, and murdered innocent men, women, and children in the name of God. Their evil seems illusive and difficult to counter. They seem to crush the innocent and the gentle power of love is under their boots. But as in the Star Wars story, light overcomes the darkness. Darkness is the absence of light...so light doesn't just push darkness back, it pierces the heart of darkness shooting it through and destroying its power. So, we pray God would help us always remember the power of the light when we are surrounded and closed in during a "dark night of the soul".

But, here's a question for you: if we're guided into this new year with the light and hope of the gospel of Christ, why are so many of the church's readings throughout this period fraught with fearful images and dreaded predictions of end times? Mark's gospel today offers the fearful prospect of God's judgment by saying, "In those days... the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken." The renowned NT scholar, Dr. Raymond Brown suggested that when these readings were being put forward in the 3rd century, they replaced a more joyful tone of preparation for Christmas...that is, the readings from Matthew and Luke's gospels explaining the events that led up to the Christmas story and its celebration. The scholar Bishop Neil Anderson, the Dean of our Episcopal Sewanee Seminary, says that Christmas Eve was originally the beginning of the church year with it's message of hopeful joy and salvation not the apocalypse.

But either way, our current readings do remind us that whenever the light is obscured or blocked by our failure in embracing and holding fast to the gospel, we cast shadows rather than dispelling them. We are challenged to walk in the light. When we focus on ourselves, the world seems a lot more narrow, a lot darker. And when we focus on God, the light seems to shine forth from even the most grim and difficult of circumstances. It reminds us of our need for God as the source of light and truth. As CS Lewis pointed out, we live in the shadowlands... where God's message can be distorted, bent, or obscured altogether. Our resolution is: Keep alert to God.

Do we really take seriously the assurance by Jesus that God will provide for us? It reminds me the man who was watching a TV evangelist. The evangelist was selling his book predicting the immanent end to the world. "Buy this book," the evangelist said, "and you will learn how to read the signs of the end times, so you'll know exactly when Jesus is coming." But a viewer called up the televangelist's 800 number, and asked them to send him the book for free. They said they couldn't do that. They told him that Jesus was coming and that if he wanted the book it was going to cost him $15.95 plus shipping and handling. BUT that would happen only if he could supply a major credit-card number.... and then, and only then would the book arrive before the fearful day. The man countered with, "No, you don't understand. If you're sure Jesus is coming right away, you should be giving the books away! What good would the money be anyway?" And with that, the line went dead. The most meaningful thing that can be said is, "Be Alert!" Walk in the light and do not fear the darkness.

You may not know this, but in English when we say, "Good-bye" it's a contraction of an old English greeting. The early form of this was, "Go buy 'ye" or "God be with you." What better last words could we speak to each other than the wish that God would be with us? These could be pretty good last words, "Be alert!" and "See you in the morning." Amen.

The Rev. Wayne Ray St Thomas Church Diamondhead, MS 11/30/14