We Need the Darkness
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Luke 21:25-36
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. And honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of this season’s focus on darkness and light. I should rephrase that: I’m not a big fan of this season’s overly simplified focus on darkness and light. That darkness is bad and light is good. That darkness is sin and Jesus the light comes to deliver us from that darkness. It doesn’t make sense to me. You know why?
“God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Genesis 1. God could have made it light all the time. God could have created a universe where night never comes, where we are awake all the time, where we can always see where we’re going, where everything is clear.
But that’s not what God did. And as the saying goes, God doesn’t make mistakes. Just ask anyone who has struggled with insomnia. Anyone who has had extended sleeping problems knows that lacking the essential darkness of sleep makes the light of days almost unbearable. Your mind is foggy. Your body drags. Your emotions grow ragged and reactive. Insomnia is kind of like an overdose of light.
The thing is, we need darkness. Life needs darkness. Because darkness isn’t about evil or fear. It’s about mystery. it’s about letting go. It’s about the miracle of growth. We don’t just throw seeds on the ground and hope they grow. No, the light withers most seeds. Most seeds need the darkness deep down in the the dirt to sprout.
Darkness is a key ingredient to my sermon writing. My sermons don’t happen in a day. They happen over the course of the week. On Tuesday, I read the four lessons from the lectionary for the coming Sunday a few times over. I pray with the scriptures and then I sleep, letting my subconscious and the Spirit take over. The next morning, that rest, that darkness has usually led me to knowing what scripture I want to focus on. On Wednesday, I reread that scripture, along with the chapters before and after. I pray, and then I let it go, sleep, give it to the darkness again. I usually wake up with some themes in mind, sometimes in relation to things going on in the world, sometimes in relation to the liturgical season. Thursday is when I do my research. Dive more deeply into the history and context and spirituality of the scripture. I pray, I take some notes, maybe I make an outline, but I still don’t start writing. I need a little more darkness for the ideas to marinate, germinate. But then on Friday, I write. And usually I write quickly. It comes easy. I’m done before noon. And if I’m not done before noon, I know I need more darkness. I set the draft aside for one more sleep and finish it on Saturday morning.
I need it all: the conscious prayer, the intellectual exercise of reading and research. AND I need the letting go that darkness gives me, the handing over of control to the Spirit.
Because what I think darkness really represents is letting go of control. Resting in the mystery.
Which brings me to this week’s scripture. The gospel today is apocalyptic.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
What Jesus is saying is apocalyptic. As I’ve said before, apocalypse doesn’t mean end times. It doesn’t mean death and destruction. In Greek, apo means un-, and the root kuluptein means cover. Apokuluptein. The word literally means to uncover. To reveal. To unveil. And what I see in these apocalyptic texts are people’s reluctance to sit with the things that have not yet been uncovered. To sit with the things they don’t understand. To sit with change. To find peace in the mystery.
People faint from fear and foreboding because they can’t explain what’s happening around them, and they don’t have control. We read apocalyptic texts as the end of the world because we’re afraid of the dark. We don’t trust that the darkness is preparing us for an unveiling.
And I’m not saying that fear and foreboding aren’t perfectly normal responses to not knowing. That darkness between dusk and dawn, between one thing ending and another beginning, The uncertainty, the wondering how things are going to shake out. It’s a lot.
I don’t know about you, but it’s that kind of fear and foreboding that causes me not to sleep. The racing thoughts when I’m laying in bed. Perseverating on the actions I took today and how they might affect tomorrow. Wondering how I’ll handle a challenge I know is coming. Anxious about the worst things that could happen or even about the best things that could happen. I cling to the light, to trying to understand and control everything, and miss out on all the peace and rest of the darkness. I miss out on the Spirit who can only flow through my life when I let go.
And then, because I’m too exhausted and too afraid, I miss out on the light of a new dawn, that unveiling. The new thing God is doing in my life.
It’s no mistake that we have an apocalyptic reading on the first Sunday of Advent. Because the coming of Jesus into this world is an apocalypse. An unveiling. An invitation into a new way of being. But Jesus’ arrival isn’t the stuff of Advent—we save that for Christmas. The stuff of Advent is in the waiting. It’s in the uncertainty. It’s in the darkness.
So when we light our Advent candles this season, I invite us to pay as much attention to the darkness as we do to the light. And today we started in darkness. No candles lit. Even when we light our one candle this week, it just makes us aware that there’s more darkness than light right now. More to be revealed. An opportunity to bask in the mystery. An opportunity to rest. An opportunity to let go and wait. Amen.