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A Sermon for When the Light Is Fading

St. John’s Lutheran Church
12 November 2023 + Lect. 32a (24 Pentecost)
Third Sunday before Advent
Matthew 25:1-13
Rev. Josh Evans

There are two types of people this time of year: those who already have Christmas music resounding from their radios – and those who hate joy.

Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme, but what’s life without a little hyperbole? And, based on that exaggerated description, you can probably tell what type of person I am.

Whether or not you’re already listening to holiday music, or whether you put your tree up on November 1st or find yourself picking through the last few saplings in the Home Depot parking lot the week before Christmas, the truth is, we each find our joy where we can these days.

As nights grow longer and days grow shorter, the light is quite literally fading.

The momentary joy of an extra hour of sleep on the night Daylight Savings Time comes to an end is fleeting – and soon surpassed by a longing for the day after the winter solstice – “the longest night” – and an impatient yearning for the return of bright summer nights.

For many of us, with the fading light comes the weight of seasonal depression. Still others of us feel the weight of a more sinister kind of fading light – looking on helplessly and hopelessly at unending wars and violence, rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the prospect of yet another bitterly divisive national election season, and the warning cries of a planet facing the irreversible effects of climate change.

The light is fading …

… and the lamps of the five so-called “foolish” bridesmaids are growing dim.

As Jesus’s public ministry comes to a close in these waning chapters of Matthew’s gospel, and as he faces his own imminent death, it’s not surprising that in these final moments he launches into a trio of parables about the end.

Sounds intense and ominous.

But even here – here especially – is good news.

“We need a little Christmas now,” the popular song says.

But, really: “We need a little Advent now.”

Before you think I’ve lost my mind and/or gone color blind, it’s not without precedent in Christian liturgical practice to consider these November days a part of Advent just as much as “Advent proper” in December. Over the course of church history, the length of Advent has varied – and recent liturgical movements have sought to reclaim a longer Advent, in part to combat the ways Christmas has creeped in just as soon as the last trick-or-treaters leave our porch.

The light is waning, in more ways than one, and we need a little Advent. We need the promise that the Messiah has come – and we need the promise that he is coming again.

This season – and this parable – calls us to watchfulnessKeep awake! With Advent watchfulness, looking ahead to Christ’s return, we can remain hopeful and courageous, even on the most desolate of days.

The twelfth-century mystic and theologian Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of “three Advents” – the first at Christmas and the last at the end of the age, such as Jesus speaks of in his “end times” parables.

But it’s the “middle” Advent that I find most profound and meaningful in these days of fading light. For Bernard, the second Advent (not to be confused with the “second coming”) is “the everyday arrival of Jesus: the knock at the door, the still small voice, the lonely prisoner, the hungry mother, the weary refugee, the migrant worker, the asylum seeker.” (SALT)

This is not a complacent Advent – but an active Advent.

This is a season that calls us to keep awake, to stock up on oil, to keep our lamps lit, to be ever watchful and always ready, to be poised, with the wise bridesmaids, “to take part in God’s mission and celebration” …

… because none of us knows the day or hour when we might encounter Christ among us, here and now.

When the fading light – literal and otherwise – feels overwhelming, it can feel as though all there is to do is sit by helplessly.

Yet, even when the light is fading, especially when the light is fading, this is a time to remember our baptismal covenant – to “let your light so shine before others” – to keep on steadfastly “proclaiming Christ through word and deed, caring for others and the world God has made, and working for justice and peace.” (ELW)

In this season of waiting, watching, and hoping, we remember the “already/not yet” nature of the reign of God, and we both pray and act to make that reign ever more fully known “on earth as it is heaven.”

One of my favorite writers, Jan Richardson, puts it this way:

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes –
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith,
in stubborn hope,
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.

“Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,” the spiritual reminds us, “for this work’s almost done.” (ACS 949)

The work is almost done, but it isn’t done yet.

The work of the church isn’t done, and it is entrusted to each of us.

Keep awake! Keep bearing the light, even when the light is fading.

Keep finding joy in the gathering, delighting in song and sacrament, feasting on bread and wine, and belonging in community.

Keep inviting. Keep serving. Keep loving.

Keep welcoming Christ in friend and stranger.

The promise of Advent is here – and is still and always unfolding.

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