The Rev. Sara Warfield
There’s a reason we light Advent candles during this season. We’re meant to start this time in utter darkness. That’s where we start in today’s scriptures. The prophet Isaiah tells the story of one of the most traumatic things that happened to the people of Judah, who would later become Jews: the exile to Babylon. People forced from their homes, families torn apart, the city of Jerusalem and their temple, the heart of their faith, destroyed.
Today’s Psalm remembers the schism between the tribes of Israel when Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh were separated from Judah and eventually destroyed by the Assyrians.
And Mark wrote his gospel around 70 CE, when the Jews in Israel rebelled against their Roman colonizers, and Rome responded by demolishing entire towns in Israel and destroying their second temple. It was never rebuilt.
In each of these moments, it felt like the end of the world, like all the lights had gone out, like everything was lost. This is where we start our Advent.
Terrorist attacks. Wars. A pandemic. Extreme polarization. A shaky democracy. Climate change.
The one candle we light this week doesn’t seem like much against such darkness. Though maybe that’s not right framing.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Darkness here isn’t destruction. It’s not loss. It’s…potential. Our very world, our sky and oceans and mountains and trees, our very being, began in darkness. Our actual, physical being starts in the darkness of the womb. A seed is planted in the darkness of soil.
So I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the candle we light this week, that stands alone until next Sunday, is for Hope.
Now I don’t mean to justify or write off the suffering that we or anyone else experiences. Sometimes suffering is stupid, meaningless,
But also, and I can only speak for myself here, even suffering that is stupid and meaningless can be the darkness of potential.
When I was in my late 20s, I went through a six-month period of insomnia. For the first few months of it, I fought it without any medical or psychological support and went day after day after day with maybe an hour or two of sleep each night, if that. Now I’ve been hospitalized many times with severe asthma attacks. I shattered the top of my tibia playing soccer. And those were not as debilitating as barely sleeping for weeks on end. There’s emergency treatment for asthma, even if it takes a few days in the hospital. Bones heal and painkillers help. But not sleeping…I couldn’t focus on anything: my work, reading, even watching tv. I became afraid to drive. My immune system puttered out and I started getting sick all the time. The muscles in my upper back were constantly spasming. I felt like my body and my mind were shutting down. I’m not sure if not sleeping can kill you, but I was afraid I was going to die.
That kind of insomnia is stupid. Meaningless. Slow-motion suffering. And it led me to a therapist who insisted first that I go on pharmaceuticals because I needed to sleep even if it was chemical sleep, which is not as restful as natural sleep, but it did help. Then she eventually suggested I try meditation. And I was beyond desperate, so I did.
I can’t say definitively that it was the meditation, but I did start to sleep again. After that, I got very into meditation, as you know. I got so into it that I started going to a Shambala Buddhist community to meditate and learn more about Buddhism. And in Buddhism there's the Buddha, or the teacher, the dharma, or the teaching, and the sangha, or the community. And while I had a community, all we did was sit and meditate together, and I started craving more interactive spiritual community. So I ended up at the Unitarian Society of New Haven, Connecticut—because after the harm I experienced from my childhood in a Pentecostal community around my queerness, I had rejected God and Jesus, so I sure as heck wasn’t going to a church.
Now this is going to be a very long story short, and some of you have heard parts of it, but the Unitarian Universalist community inspired me to go to seminary, and even though I wasn’t a Christian, that trickster of a Holy Spirit guided me to a Christian seminary—a very progressive, very queer-friendly Christian seminary. Which is where I found Jesus through the Eucharist and was led to The Episcopal Church. And the rest, you might say, is history.
Now, whenever anyone asks what led me to become a priest, I say, “well, it started with a debilitating case of insomnia.”
It was one of the darkest moments in my life. And I wasn’t looking to redeem the darkness or make deep meaning of it. I was looking for a lightswitch. But all I got at first was a single little flame: that therapist helping me to navigate the shadows. A single flame of hope. God was with me through it all.
Now hope isn’t wishing that things were different. Hope isn’t blind optimism that everything will be okay. Hope is believing God is with us.
But I could only recognize that flame of hope in retrospect. At the time, I was just trying to get through the thick fog of sleeplessness. I couldn’t find God in any of it.
Neither could Isaiah at times:
You have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
And today’s Psalm also wonders where their loving God is:
O Lord God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
If, in the midst of suffering, you want to shake your fist and yell at the sky, “Where are you God? Did I do something to deserve this? Why aren’t you doing anything to help?”—you are part of a long, sacred lineage.
It is so very human to want to find a simple, straightforward explanation for our suffering. But as far as I can tell, most suffering is senseless. There’s no explaining it. Believe me, theologians have tried for centuries and still no one has a satisfying answer.
The only agency we have when it comes to suffering is how we respond to it. And listen, yelling at God is a perfectly good place to start. Believe me, God can take it. God gets it. I believe that God’s heart is breaking right alongside ours. I believe that whether we’re able to see it or not, God is with us.
Our gospel today is a lesson in responding to suffering: “Keep awake! For you do not know when the time will come.” Which is actually terrible advice for those of us who struggle with sleeping, but we’ll keep it metaphorical here.
Keeping awake is anticipating and looking for God, even when life is darkest. Staying on the lookout for the seed of hope buried within.
And just like it’s not the best time to learn how to swim when you’re drowning, it’s not the best time to learn how to look out for God when you stumble into pitch darkness. It’s not impossible. And if you survive, it’s easy to look back and find God later, like I did. But it’s probably most helpful if you practice ahead of time. That’s the meaning, the gift of Advent.
The practice of keeping awake is making intentional space in our lives to notice how God is always with us. That’s why we make it a habit of coming to worship, because worship is about bringing God to the forefront of our lives. When we sing together, we hear the Spirit moving in each others’ voices. When we take communion, we eat from a common loaf, drink from a common cup to remind us that we are one body, the Body of Christ.
It’s why I meditate every morning. Meditation helps me to notice that my thoughts, my fears, are fleeting and that God is the only constant presence. I think that’s why sleep comes more easily now.
You might take regular walks through the forest to see God in the wild, beautiful world God created. Or listen to music with your eyes closed to really hear the Spirit in the rhythms and harmonies. These are all lovely practices of staying awake.
But I do think that practicing in community is so important. Because sometimes you fall asleep. Of course you do, you’re human. So do I. When the anger or despair or apathy that suffering brings makes you so tired that you can’t keep your eyes open any longer, the Body of Christ stays awake, keeps alert, while you rest. Your community holds your hope when you can’t.
I want you to remember that as you move through this sacred time of Advent, when one little flame at a time slowly reveals what joy might be germinating in the darkness. Keep awake, or if you can’t, lean on the Body of Christ so that you’ll be ready when that joy bursts into the light.