Awake in the Dark | Advent 1 | November 29

The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859

Order of Worship


      La Ténèbre (Our darkness) | Phil Yoder, vocal, cello


Call to Worship

Peace Candle 

As we worship in place today, we light a Peace Candle in our home.

May this flame be a sign of our prayer for peace within us, among us, to the ends of the earth.

The flame joins us in spirit across distance, along with our sister church in Armenia, Colombia.

Hymn | Awake | written by Phil Hart

Children’s Time 

Offering/Dedication Prayer

HWB 252 | O sacred Head, now wounded | Phil Yoder, cello

Scripture | Isaiah 64:1-4, Mark 13:24-37

HWB 176 | Comfort, comfort O my people | Phil Yoder

Sermon | Awake in the dark      (Manuscript below)

Silent Reflection

HWB 233 | Joyful is the Dark | Becca and Michael Lachman

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

Pastoral Prayer 

Extinguishing the Peace Candle 




Thanks to everyone who helped lead today’s service

Sermon: Joel Miller

Worship Leader: Jennifer Cartmel

Music coordination: Phil Yoder

Children’s Time: Mark Rupp

Peace Candle: Cartmel/Plessinger Family

Scripture Reading: Bill and Maya Plessinger  

Zoom Host: Elisa Leahy


Awake in the Dark  Sermon Manuscript

One day, five or six years ago, we can’t remember exactly when, our dear Lily came home from school in tears.  As a concerned parent, one instantly begins to wonder what could be the cause.  Had she been bullied on the playground?  Had she failed a test?  Had the teacher drawn attention to her in a way that was embarrassing?  Had something  happened on the bus ride?  Whatever it was, she was absolutely inconsolable.  Had she stepped on a nail in the driveway that was still in her foot?

No, none of this had happened.  As we soon learned, the cause of her wailing and great distress was that in class that day they had learned that our sun has a lifespan, and in about 5 billion years it will expand,  and in doing so Earth, our planet, our home, will be no more. 

When I say she was inconsolable, I mean that this lasted for days. 

Our attempts at comfort were not comforting for her.  Well, Yes, that’s true, but that’s very very far in the future…  Well, by then we’ll hopefully have found a new safe place to live…  Well, OK, let’s just be sad together for a while. 

None of this, not even empathy, “worked.”  Because how could it?  Our also being sad changed nothing.  The long timetable was irrelevant.  And she was not interested in the possibility of some yet-unknown other planet being the solution when this planet, this beautiful planet and everything on it, everything we could see and touch, would be gone.

I mean, who’s more in touch with reality here?  The child coming to grips with mortality, or the adult scrambling to smooth over something they’d rather not think about themselves? 

Thank you to the many children who put us back in touch with a deeper reality and thanks to Lily for letting me share this story.    

More recently I’ve come across a phrase that well-describes what Lily was facing, perhaps a little earlier in life than when the rest of us first confront it: Absolute grief. Circumstantial grief is a response to suffering and loss within life – things that happen to us – the bully that won’t leave you alone, the failed test, a deadly virus that cancels an entire year of plans.  But absolute grief has to do with the inescapable losses of life itself, regardless of present circumstances.* 

Now I assure you, if it were just up to me I would not be opening this Advent season by talking about absolute grief.  I plead innocent and point, once again, to the Revised Common Lectionary – for which this Advent season begins in the gospel of Mark with these words:

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  (Mark 13:24-25)

And a happy Advent to you, as well, Mr. Mark. 

These are the words of Jesus, but in them Jesus is drawing heavily from the imagery of the Hebrew prophets.  Isaiah.  Joel.  Ezekiel. 

In an unpredictable and often chaotic world, these heavenly bodies were the closest sure thing that the ancients could point to for some sense of constancy.  When the Romans wanted to project power and invincibility they claimed Sol Invictus, The Unconquered Sun, as their god, the emblem of an immortal empire. 

But, say the Hebrew prophets, and that prophet from Galilee, even the most certain things you can imagine are not unshakable.  Not those distant stars, not Rome, not our closest star.  Not even the cultural bastion of Denny’s can be “always open” during a pandemic lockdown.  

Advent is the reset button on the liturgical year, and the wise ones who determine such things, in their wisdom, determined that this is where we begin again. 
In this passage we can almost hear all the switches being flipped to Off, the lights going out one by one, until we’re left in the darkness.  Sun…moon….stars.  As if we’ve just done a complete rewind and are back to Genesis when the earth was formless and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, and nothing but a wind from God swept across the waters. 

There is, of course, no rewind button on history.  There’s no unplug, let sit for 10 seconds, and restart in order to get back to peak functioning.  When Jesus is born into this world, it’s a world that has accumulated layers and layers of story. It is a dense tangle of people and places they have called home, the joys and grief of generations, social structures that have risen and fallen, and the plants and animals that have co-evolved along the way. 

This is the world of Advent.  This is our world. 

After this creative darkening in Mark 13, Jesus sticks with imagery from the prophets before him, this time borrowing from Daniel.  Then they will see ‘The Son of Man,’ which just means ‘The Human One’ and had taken on special symbolic significance as the agent of God – Then they will see ‘The Human One’ coming in clouds with great power and glory.  Then he will send out the angels, the messengers, and gather the elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the ends of the heavens. 

With these words, we’re still on the cosmic scale, and it still feels like some singular far off event.  We’ve got clouds, angels, the four winds, and the ends of the earth and the heavens.  And – none of this is new or original.  It’s a mash up of the apocalyptic imagery the prophets had been saying for centuries, still hanging heavy in the air in Jesus time – and for Mark’s community, a couple generations later.

But Advent is all about the distant coming near.  The future giving way to the present. 

Rather than keeping the focus on the clouds and stars, Jesus invites his listeners to level their eyes, relax their strained necks, and look around them.  If we get our head out the clouds, we might be able to start paying attention to the lessons of the angels, the messengers already among us.

The text goes on referring to a very earthy messenger:

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that it is near, at the very gates. 

And the timeline is not so long as we imagined:

Again, the words of Jesus in Mark 13:

Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

Could this actually mean that the generation listening to Jesus, and the generation Mark was writing to, would have witnessed “all these things?” A great darkening.  The coming of the Human One.  Tender leaf buds signaling the beginning of a new season.

Mark slips in some not so subtle clues that this is the case:

Therefore keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn – or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

Those four watches of the day – evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn – essentially form an outline for the rest of Mark’s gospel.  It is in the evening that Jesus gathers around the table with his companions to break bread.  It is at midnight when Jesus is discovered and arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, just as the disciples are struggling to do the one thing Jesus asked them to do – to stay awake.  It is at cockcrow that Jesus is on trial and Peter denies knowing him.  At the crucifixion the sun goes dark.  And it is at dawn, just as the darkness is passing, that the women arrive at the tomb ready to anoint the dead body of Jesus, discovering he is not there.  

Surely this generation will not pass away until they enter the apocalyptic moment, enter into the darkness of absolute grief, and within that darkness stay, see if this is indeed the final word, or if the reset-button-that’s-not-quite-a-reset-button opens up a new possibility that hadn’t been there before.   

Advent begins in the same place the story ends.  We sit with the darkness.  If we can’t quite welcome it, we at least accept that it is real.  It is an inevitable part of our story.  There is no need to be too quick to console ourselves.  We need only to stay awake in the dark. 

The darkness holds more than grief.  The darkness is also the womb in which new life forms.  The darkness is where Mary welcomes the mystery of the Holy Spirit.  The darkness is where the Human One will be born.  The darkness is where God meets us as we are, comes to our window where we are watching, and invites herself in, sometimes with great power and glory, more often with very little power except the power to get our attention.  To remind us again that our generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 

This Advent, we are awake in the dark.  In the words of Jesus: “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”      


* John Tucker uses this phrase, “Absolute grief,” in his book Zero Theology and bases it off of Wittgenstein’s philosophy.