Sermon: Advent 1 RCL A – “Separating the Darkness”

Michelangelo is painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling when he sees a woman praying the rosary. He decides to take a break and lies back on the scaffolding so the woman can’t see him and says in a loud voice, “I am Jesus Christ. Listen to me, and I will perform miracles.”

The woman is intent on her beads and prayers and does not look up.

Michelangelo figures that she is hard of hearing, so he shouts, “I am Jesus Christ! Listen to me, and I will perform miracles!”

With head bent, the woman continues praying, so Michelangelo shouts, “I AM JESUS CHRIST! LISTEN TO ME!”

The woman yells back, “Would you shut up? I’m talking to your mother.”

As you know, last Sunday, a group of us went down to the city and saw the Sistine Chapel Exhibit. Being together and seeing the images close up was a treat. 

The construction of the Sistine Chapel was completed in 1483 and consecrated by Pope Sixtus IV, but Michelangelo’s work did not begin until 1508. When it started, it took him four years. That is remarkable in itself, but when you consider a few more details, it seems impossible. The chapel is 132 feet long, 44 feet wide, and 68 feet high. With the arch, the ceiling—Michelangelo’s canvas—is over 12,000 square feet. 

Ten years after it was complete, not everyone got it. For example, a visiting bishop wrote, “Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air.” That old man flying through the air is supposed to be God.

Finally, due to a mistranslated word, it was long believed that Michelangelo painted the ceiling while lying on his back. As it turns out, he did it standing and even wrote a short poem about how uncomfortable it was.

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven,
my brain’s crushed in a casket, my breast twists like a harpy’s.
My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts, my poor [back side] strains to work as a counterweight…
my spine’s all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

On our way home from the exhibit, Marianne asked us each which was our favorite image. For me, it is the one on the front of your bulletin, inspired by Genesis 1:1-4— “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.” In the picture, God is looking up and separating the light from the dark. It is as if he were pushing the darkness asides so that the light could be revealed. 

How is this relevant for us today? Because the bringing of light into the darkness is what the Season of Advent is all about. 

[Light first Advent candle]

As we light the first candle, it does not provide much light, but it is only the beginning.

You all know I’m a Stephen King fan and my favorite Stephen King book (I won’t scare you by telling you how many times I’ve read it) is The Stand. The setting is a world where 99.99% of all human beings have died—very uplifting. At one point, two individuals, Larry and Rita, must find their way out of New York City, and they choose to walk through one of the tunnels. There is no electricity, so the tunnel is dark and jammed up with cars, and… let’s just say it is a scary place. They’ve lost their lights (naturally) and are blindly stumbling through the pitch-black tunnel. Rita suddenly stops, and Larry asks her what is wrong.

Rita says, “‘I can see, Larry! It’s the end of the tunnel!’

“[Larry] blinked and realized that he could see, too. The glow was dim and it had come so gradually that he hadn’t been aware of it until Rita had spoken. He could make out a faint shine on the tiles, and the pale blur of Rita’s face closer by. Looking over to the left he could see the dead river of automobiles.”

St. Matthew tells us:

“The people dwelling in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
    on them a light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16)

Like Rita and Larry, the people had been in darkness so long that they may not have even noticed that light was coming into the world. Like the dawn that comes slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, but the light is there. The people only needed to recognize it. And recognizing the light is not always easy, especially when our souls are in a dark place.

For many individuals, the holiday season is not a happy season. They can put on a smile at the office party or be cheery while around others, but inside… they are not so good. Instead of being a time of joy, it is a time of regrets or loneliness. It is a time for missing those we’ve lost: spouses, other family members, and friends. It is also a time when we may experience the loss of ourselves and all the what-ifs. At such times, our souls can begin to feel like Michelangelo’s body as he painted the Sistine Chapel: tortured, hunched, crushed, unbalanced, bent out of shape, and worse. As a result, just as this time of year has greater darkness, a darkness of a spiritual nature can seep into our souls and spirits. Like walking through that tunnel, our souls stumble along, unable to see what is around us. For some in that place, even if the light does begin to shine, like Larry, who had spent so much time in that dark tunnel, they aren’t able to recognize that the light has started to shine. 

We know that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So, when we encounter someone in that spiritually dark place, we can quote that off to them, thinking that should be enough, but the last thing a person in a spiritually dark place needs from you is for you to start preaching to them. No. What they need from you, more than anything is for you to be that candle. Don’t tell them about the light, be the light. You can’t simply “fix” them so, it may be that you can only sit in that dark place with them, but you can be a sign of hope. Your presence will tell them what Rita said to Larry: “I can see, Larry! It’s the end of the tunnel!” 

If you are a person who is in that dark place, then I encourage you to look around you here because I see many candles burning brightly who would share their light with you. You are loved by God and by God’s people. Your soul may be in a dark place, but you do not have to be alone. I read, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” You do not have to be alone in the dark. Perform one small act of hope: reach out.

God is still separating the light from the darkness, and he invites us all to participate in this great work. When the work begins, it may be only a dim glow, one small candle’s worth, but it will be there—a sign of hope—and we can know that it is only the beginning of all that Our Father longs to give us.

Let us pray: Father in heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love, and our minds search for the light of your Word. Increase our longing for Christ our Savior and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence and welcoming the light of his truth. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen.

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