by Ellen Sims
texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Advent begins in the darkest days of the year with scriptures prophesying ominous celestial events. Today’s Gospel lection imagines that in the end times “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” (Mk. 13:24). We are to “keep awake,” “keep alert,” and “watch.”
As if on cue, a celestial event is happening this very night, and I intend to watch for it. The only Supermoon of the year will rise a little before 4:30 in Mobile, appearing its largest as it first comes over the horizon. This evening’s moon will shine 16 percent brighter than usual and appear 7 percent larger than normal.
I intend to watch for this aberrant moon in an Advent sky in a season when celestial sightings in a darkening sky are part of the God Story. Watching is what we do when the light dims and the world we thought we knew seems strange or foreboding.
Like our Gospel reading for today, our Hebrew Bible text also locates in the skies a sign of God’s inbreaking presence as Isaiah beseeches God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (Isaiah 64:1).
It’s not just lunar activities that seem especially strange this Advent season. Our political and social circumstances have made our world darker and more dangerous these days. As I look into the night sky, it seems as if strange new constellations are retelling old myths about trickle down economics and powerful men assaulting girls and women. I imagine the stars rearranging themselves to suggest new stories of ego-driven leaders and greedy corporations that could rival the ancient Greeks’ tragedies. I worry that our war-hungry politicians and an impending ecological cataclysm deserve a Greek chorus to wail against our human folly. I see signs that America’s concern for our poorest citizens and hard fought civil rights and progress for LGBT! persons is waning now like a tired old moon.
People of conscience are called to act. But before we dare defy the dark, before we can summon the fortitude to move forward, we must first notice and acknowledge and accept what is really happening. We must first watch, our byword for this season.
I’m tempted to soften the Gospel’s apocalyptic tone because many associate it with manipulative evangelists. Would that I could simply repeat, glibly, “We must watch for signs of hope in dark times.” But I can’t be a mere cheerleader today. I want to be faithful to a challenging Gospel text and to the truth of these times. Glibness just won’t do. Because deep hope is not superficial optimism. Advent hope must begin with stark acknowledgement of the darkness in order to engage us in the hard work that real hope demands.
So I’m going to call us to do the WORK of hope rather than simply to name situations as hopeful when they are not. I hope this approach to hope won’t cause you to despair. But if this sermon leaves you feeling LESS hopeful than you were, that may not be a bad thing. What would be worse is to FEEL better without engaging to help address the needs of the times.
An article written by a therapist and titled “How to Stay Sane if Trump is Driving you Insane” may speak to you even if the President isn’t driving you insane. Because someone or something at some point will be driving you insane. And because the central idea seems, to me, quite biblical and necessary for progressive Christians to acknowledge: progress is not inevitable, pain is a part of human existence, and our love for this world calls us to grieve losses but not to give in to despair. A genuinely Christian hope is not shallow optimism; it’s a determination to face into the pain and injustice in order to work for a more compassionate world with no guarantee we’ll succeed.
Therapist Robin Chancer acknowledges that “individual psychology is influenced by political realities” and argues that typical American optimism is being challenged by current events. Further, an Americanized version of Christianity has set us up for a disorienting “national trauma” that requires us to reconcile our belief in progress with “our current political hellscape.”
Enlarging on her critique of “our American brand of Christianity,” I more specifically indict the bankrupt prosperity Gospel and the Magic God that promises we’ll get what we want if we pray the right way or think positive thoughts. As a pastor, I see the devastating effect of this naïve theology when death or disability or divorce knock the faulty moorings from someone’s faith. In the midst of a terrible loss is not the ideal time to de-construct and then re-construct one’s theology, to let go of a God who promises to be our genie in the bottle and to embrace an experience of the sacred that connects us to a broken world we learn to love. Unfortunately, that is the time many first engage seriously with the theodicy question: “How can a powerful and loving God let this terrible thing happen to me?” If they don’t reject God entirely in that moment, they often answer complex questions with clichéd and childish responses to tragedy: “Everything happens for a reason” and “God has a plan” and “Well, she’s in a better place.”
I understand why those expressions can be consoling, but they won’t satisfy most people for long or during life’s worst moments. One reason we gather here each Sunday is to grapple with the big questions in life and test how sturdy and coherent are our (always tentative) answers.
Chancer continues her article by arguing that optimism is not appropriate or possible at certain times. Her suggestion: “In response to our current nightmare, we can wish it were different and stay miserable, or we can accept our new world. To be clear, this does not mean condoning what happened. It simply means coming to terms with what is, and with what we cannot control. . . . We cannot change that Donald Trump was elected. We cannot change that he is (very likely)pathologically narcissistic. We cannot change that many Americans are loyal to him in spite of his hatred, or even because of it. . . .We do well to accept these truths so that we can move forward, rather than paralyzing ourselves with shock and outrage. Remember, of course, that acceptance is not condoning. To accept is not to say, “This is okay.” It is to say, “This is what is.” That may lead us to “a place of deep sadness. If so [we should] allow time to feel and honor it.”
She advises, “We do well to accept that Trump consistently demonstrates mental instability, greed, and aggression. But responding to his Tweets . . . with rebuttals and indignation . . . is energy wasted. . .We can get beyond his antics, anticipate them, and have a clear mind to plan our next move.
More generally, we need to acknowledge that greed and racism are part of our nation’s fabric. We cannot wish them away. . . . Once we accept that, . . . we focus on the work of fighting for human rights and accountability.”
The writer then suggests we learn to think in nuanced “dialectical” ways and asserts: “We are responsible for our world. Believing in some mysterious force called “progress” absolves individuals of responsibility. Similarly, faith that “God has a plan” can promote complacency. Compassion, love, and affirming values exist because people intentionally work toward them. Claiming responsibility focuses our attention on what we can do to improve our world. Each time you feel hopelessness creep in, focus your attention on the kindness, generosity, and good will around you. Upon hearing bad news, we can respond without giving into despair by accepting our new reality, grieving the pain of that situation, then finding some way to respond with compassionate concrete action that will feed your soul.
Chancer concludes: We are traveling a long road toward change. At times, the pain will be so intense that these skills may not serve us fully. In those moments, allow yourself breaks. Care for yourself. If you find you are struggling to function normally, you may be experiencing more serious depression, anxiety, or trauma symptoms. Reaching out to a professional can help. And in the dark night of the soul, take heart that we are witnessing an unprecedented blossoming of activism.”
Many of us have been noting this “unprecendented blossoming of activism.” Many of you are engaged, socially and politically, in heroic ways. Thanks be to God.
Most nights George and I take a late walk after dark. One of the first things we do when we step off our porch is to look up at the night sky. One of us typically makes some remark about the low clouds that night, or the position or brightness of the stars, or the phase of the moon, especially if the moon is full, as it will be tonight. The most fascinating phase of the moon, to me, is when it melts down into a sliver that is either waxing or waning. It’s that imperceptible line between ending and beginning again that I think we’re always looking for in our own times of loss and pain, in our nation’s hour of crisis, in our world’s periods of wars and disasters. There is a point when the tide turns. And in the darkness we watch the skies for signs of growing hope. Not circumstantial and conditional optimism. Real hope is a commitment to watch and then engage. And when we do so together, there can be a tipping point. Perhaps our nation is on the cusp of change.
A Victorian Advent hymn reminds me that night watching is, for Christians, a communal practice. We watch the night sky for signs of hope together. Listen to this song that features two speakers: a watchman atop a city wall—and a traveler approaching. The traveler calls up to the watcher, and then the watcher answers back. And hope is shared. This is what you and I do in community: watch together, share the signs of hope, and join hands in the hard work that brings substantial hope.
Watcher, tell us of the night, what its signs of promise are.
Traveler, O a wondrous sight. See that glory-beaming star.
Watcher, does its beauteous ray news of joy and hope fortell?
Traveler, yes, it brings the day, promised day of Israel.