Sunday 1 December 2019
The First Sunday of Advent
There were two men in a village, a tall man and a short man; they were neighbors. This was many years ago, before electricity. If people needed heat, they relied on a wood stove. If they needed light, they had to burn candles. Candles, though, were rather expensive, so people tended not to use them unless they had a good reason.
One evening, the tall man looked out his window and saw the short man’s house lit up brightly. It was already well past sundown, so it was quite dark. It also happened to be a new moon, which made the rest of the night even darker, everything except the short man’s house.
The tall man wondered to himself what could possibly be going on at the short man’s house. It was far too late for anything reasonable to be happening. It bothered him. His neighbor must be up to something, thought the tall man. And as he thought about it more and more, it bothered him more and more.
Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer, and he decided to take action. It was a dark night, he knew. There was no moon. So he would sneak out of his house and creep over in the darkness to see what was happening at the short man’s house. He had to be up to no good. But what kind of mischief was it that the short man was getting up to? The tall man made up his mind and went. He put on his coat and his hat, quietly opened the door, and stepped out into the cold night air, silently shutting the door behind him.
He had been right: it was very dark outside. Not only was there no moon, but much of the sky was covered with clouds so that there were hardly any stars. There were, of course, no street lights, no headlights, no porch lights. The only light that could be found was the light streaming out of the short man’s windows.
The tall man moved slowly and quietly in the dark, step by step toward the short man’s house. As he got closer, he began to question what he was doing. If he went up and looked in the short man’s window, surely he himself would be spotted. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea, he thought to himself. But he just had to know what sort of evil the short man was getting up to inside his house with all that light at this late hour. He decided that he had to risk it. It was his duty, after all, on behalf of the whole village, to find out what was going on. Whatever the short man was doing, it was probably something dangerous, the people of the village had a right to know what it was.
Just then, he noticed that light wasn’t only coming out of the windows, but it was also shining out of a small hole in the door. It was the keyhole. This was back in the days when keyholes were big enough to see through. Perfect, thought the tall man, I can sneak up to the door and peak through the keyhole. That way I can find out what the short man is doing, but I won’t have to worry about him seeing me through the window. So he tiptoed up, all the more quietly, making sure that he wouldn’t be heard from inside the short man’s house.
Now, the tall man was very tall. But the keyhole was quite low, just at the perfect height for the short man to open his door. So as the tall man approached the house, he realized that he would have to bend down in order to see into the keyhole. He carefully creeped up the steps, across the creaky porch, and ducked his head down in order to look through the keyhole. Now he would finally see what the sneaky short man was up to.
But the tall man was too tall. He could not bend over enough in order to see through the keyhole. He would have to get down on his hands and knees in order to see. So very, very carefully, trying his best not to cause the loose boards on the wooden porch to squeak, he got himself down on all fours. Now all he had to do was to lean his head forward a little bit and put his eye up to the keyhole, and he would finally be able to find out what that sneaky little short man was up to with house lit up so late at night. He would figure out what sort of mischief the short man was created and let the whole village know.
The tall man leaned his head forward. He closed his left eye and brought his right eye up even with the keyhole and began to look inside.
Suddenly, the door opened. The light from inside came pouring out through the open doorway, lighting up the night. And as the light came out, it revealed the tall man, hunched over, there on his hands and knees on the short man’s porch, looking like a fool, with one eye clenched and one eye open, peering directly into the short man’s belly.
Things that happen in the dark are hidden; they can’t be seen. When the tall man thought that he was in the dark, he behaved in a certain way, because he thought that he could not be seen, that what he did would be a secret. But once the door was opened, and the light shone out, his actions were no longer hidden, they were revealed. And he himself was revealed to be a busybody, a snoop, and a muckraker. He had intended to cast guilt upon his neighbor, the short man, while keeping his own scurrilous actions a secret. But when the light was shined, when darkness became bright, when night became day, the tall man was exposed as the ne’er-do-well he actually was.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul talks about the difference between the works of darkness and the works of light. Many of us have been taught that light means good and that dark means evil. In the old western movies, you can always tell who the good guys are because they wear white hats. And you can always tell who the bad guys are because they wear black hats. White is good and black is evil.
This interpretation has often been misused to argue that all things light are good and all things dark are evil. In particular, our cultural heritage tells us that people with light skin are good, pleasing, beautiful, and people with dark skin are evil, dirty, or ugly. Think about the story of Snow White as an example. What is she known for? She is the fairest in the land. That is to say, she has the lightest skin and is therefore the most beautiful. Whiteness is used as a synonym for beauty. It’s explicitly racist language, but it is so deeply rooted in our culture that we don’t even notice it. You’ll have not trouble finding Snow White on the toy shelves next to the other Disney princesses.
But the stakes are higher than fairy tales though. The language of light and dark has been used explicitly to deny the humanity of non-white peoples. It was used to justify the enslavement of African people, the genocide of Native Americans, and the subjugation of peoples around the world. Even when this argument is not explicitly stated, it often works silently in the background to uphold the status quo of prejudice. Whether we want to or not, our culture has taught us an implicit bias against people of color. And using the language or light and dark for good and evil is a part of that bias.
I want to be absolutely clear that that is not what Paul is talking about here. When he talks about light and dark, he is not talking about black and white. In fact, he is not talking about color at all. He is not talking about pigmentation, he is talking about illumination. He is talking about precisely what we learned from the story of the tall man and short man. The difference between light and dark is not about color, it is about exposure.
In the dark, everything is hidden. In the dark, we can get away with things because no one can see that we are doing them. In the dark, we can hide all of our secret, we can do the things that we would rather people didn’t see, we can say the things that we would rather people didn’t hear. In the dark, we can act as if the way that we act doesn’t matter.
That’s why many people prefer to live in the darkness. Chances are that each and every one of has something hidden deep down that we would rather the world didn’t know about. And as long as we can stay in the darkness, then we never have to worry about being exposed.
But Paul has a message for us. He says, Remember what time it is. By that, he means that a new age has begun. The world had been in an age of darkness. But by the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the age of light is dawning. We have not yet come into the full brightness that will only arrive at the end of the age, but through Jesus Christ, the dawn is breaking. Hope is breaking through. The light is shining, and it is overcoming the darkness.
And so, we have a choice. We can continue to live in the darkness, trying to hide all of the things that we are ashamed of, trying to get away with everything that we can. Or, we can live in the light. We can live as if the Kingdom of God is already here in all of its glory. We can put on the armor of light and face the darkness unafraid. We can live every moment as if everyone could see us, to glory of our God, who sees us in the light or the dark. We live as a people of hope who share the hope of Jesus Christ with the world.
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.