On Thursday night, some of us gathered for evening prayer – something we’ll do every week in Advent. (You can join us this coming Thursday – on our regular worship Zoom link.) Following deep traditions of those who have prayed in the rhythm of the day – at break of day, midday, and then evening – we prayed a lovely liturgy from the Iona community in Scotland. The prayers of that liturgy invited us into that moment of the day “when light fades, and shadows lengthen, and sounds are subdued” – “when bodies relax, minds unwind, and tiredness comes – all as God intended.” We prayed together in the stillness of the night.
After the first prayers, the liturgy invited us to read one of “the night stories of the Bible,” explaining: “so many things happen at night... and it has always been so.”  I’ve never looked at Scripture through that lens – looking for stories that happen at night. There are plenty. In the beginning, God creates the day and the night – sets in the night sky the stars and moon – and calls all creation good. As the story unfolds, the people encounter God day and night.
We’ve heard the stories. At a critical moment in his life, Jacob wrestles with God, or someone sent from God, and gets a new name. On another night, Jacob has a dream – a vision of a ladder connecting earth and heaven – “Jacob’s ladder” – and when Jacob wakes, he says of that night, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.” Joseph – of the technicolor coat – has his dreams, and can interpret Pharoah’s.
In the dark of night, when the rest of the world falls away...
these glimpses of God.
The poetry of Scripture captures the breadth and depth of these night encounters. The awe: “I consider the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you have set in place: What is humankind that you are mindful of them?” The quiet of the night is a space when the poets talk to God – cry out: “When I was in distress, I sought God at night, I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted” – a holy time where they experience God’s presence – “By day God directs God’s love, at night God’s song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.”
And on into the New Testament: Jesus is born into the night. Seekers come to Jesus in the night. Jesus calms the storm in the night. When the disciples are in that storm-tossed boat and think all is lost – they wake Jesus, and he says, “Peace. Be still.” And back in May, we read that story where Paul and Silas are thrown in jail, and in the middle of the night, an earthquake shakes the jail, and the prison doors swing open.
So much happens at night. And it has always been so.
And then. Of course. There is this morning’s scripture. The night of all nights. The night when Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and finally, finally, lets God’s people go. We know that story. As Exodus opens, the people are enslaved in Egypt, worked ruthlessly, “their lives made bitter with harsh labor and brick and mortar.” But they are numerous, so Pharaoh tries to kill the newborn male children. Two midwives intervene and birth the children anyway. One infant, Moses, is hidden away, only to be found and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, then, only to grow to be called to lead the enslaved people to freedom.
And so Moses goes and confronts Pharaoh. Pharaoh refuses. God sends plague upon plague, until at last – on this night of nights – Pharaoh relents. Enough. “Moses and Aaron, go. Take your people and leave us be.” And so on that night – the people go. There’s not time enough to bake bread for the journey, so they take their unleavened dough – all that they can carry – their livestock – and they go.
Year after year in slavery, night after night, they have looked up at that starlit night – and hoped – longed – for freedom. And on this night – this “night of nights” – Scripture says God keeps vigil. Freedom comes in the night. God keeps vigil, as the people pour out of Pharoah’s city, out into the freedom of the night.
It’s not too much of a stretch to envision enslaved peoples walking to freedom in the dark of night in our own history. African American spirituals tell that story. Howard Thurman writes of spirituals in his book, Deep River. The spirituals rose up out of the experience of slavery. They take seriously the suffering of life, and at the same time express a hope that transcends both that hard life and even death. Thurman describes how so many spirituals – sung out of the experience of an enslaved people – describe life as a pilgrimage into a new reality, where this current age and its systems of oppression are judged, and God’s new reign opens up into freedom.
Some spirituals draw explicitly on the Advent and Christmas story. There’s Go Tell It on the Mountain: “When I was a seeker/ I sought both night and day/ I asked the Lord to help me/ And He showed me the way.” They look to the starlit night: “There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn/ Rise up shepherd and follow.” A later spiritual, Follow the Drinking Gourd, tells a very pragmatic part of the story. It points those who are enslaved to the night time sky – to a particular constellation – what they saw as a drinking gourd. It points them to the North Star as a compass in the night sky that will guide the way to freedom. That’s part of the story of the Underground Railroad. That’s how they found their way – and how they sung their way – to freedom.
Photographer Dawoud Bey imagines this in a series of photos that he calls “Night Coming Tenderly, Black.” He takes his inspiration from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Dream Variations,” in which Hughes imagines liberation “achieved not in the glare of daylight, but rather under the brooding, protective cover of night” --
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree...
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
Dawoud Bey has taken photos – at night – of stops and scenes along the Underground Railroad – the hidden system of paths and trails and protected places to rest along the way – dark woods in dim light, safe houses in shadow. He envisions the path to freedom as Underground Railroad conductors and the newly freed might have experienced it. One writer says that Bey “summons a time in African-American history when the journey to freedom was made largely through the shadows of the night.”
Did you know that, in the Gospel of Matthew, one of the first things Jesus does is escape to freedom in the deep dark of night? It’s a story we don’t tell often because of its brutality. After King Herod hears of the newborn Jesus and speaks to the Magi, he is so threatened and so craven that he orders a genocide – seeking out all the newborn males. But Scripture says that an angel comes to warn Mary and Joseph, and in the deep dark of night, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt. Jesus enters into this world and all its troubles and suffering – born into poverty – loved as part of a displaced, refugee family – migrating people fleeing a government that would kill them. One of Jesus’s first experiences is to enter into that suffering and flee to freedom in the night.
In these sacred stories, freedom comes in the night. Notice what happens. In these night stories, there is a levelling of power. The powers of the world that oppress in the light of day – fade as the shadows lengthen and as evening falls. In the dimming of the light, the edges blur and the differentials become obscure. We hope that the oppressor sleeps – as the cover of night opens up a way to freedom. Pharoah can’t give chase. Herod can’t complete his killing.
These sacred stories remind us of the power of the hope that comes in a starlit night. They embody the hope we turn to in Advent, and remind us that Advent hope always has at its heart the hope for freedom – real freedom from oppression, violence, and death. In the Advent story, for centuries, the people have been living lives of bare subsistence – at the crossroads of successive empires – Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, now Rome. Overarching all the tender hopes held close in their hearts, the people hope for freedom. They long for someone to come more powerful than empire – for a leader to be raised up – to take down the powers that oppress – and to make a way to freedom – a way where there is no way. The Isaiah scripture we read gives voice to that hope – hope for one who will stand with the poor – with the meek of the earth – for a world where the wolf shall live with the lamb in peace and justice: “They will no longer hurt or destroy on my holy mountain.”
As the people stand in the suffering of their world – longing, hoping for freedom, these sacred stories remind us that God, too, keeps watch in the night. Did you notice that? Last week, we talked about how we keep watch in the night. But here, in this Passover story, the people make their way to freedom – and the text says, “and God kept vigil in the night” – God present in that starlit night – keeping vigil until all God’s children go free – until all God’s people are safely home. There’s a little prayer in that evening prayer liturgy that prays:
God, you never sleep
you are always awake, always watching,
always willing the world and its people,
to turn in the right direction.
God keeps vigil in the night – and then, in the Passover story – God invites us to keep vigil, too – it’s actually a command. “Because God kept vigil that night to bring the people out of Egypt, on this night God’s people are to keep vigil and honor God for the generations to come” – a command, each year, to tell and to enter into this night story.
My friend Meredith – one of the first people I met at seminary – is a rabbi. Over the years, she has invited me to her family’s Passover seder dinner. On the first night of Passover, they keep the vigil, and they tell the story – the story of God’s vigil and of the freedom that came that night. Meredith has crafted a telling of the story – so that together, we tell the story of God’s liberating vigil then, there – and the aching need for liberation here, now. In the telling of the old story, she invites us to look around out own world and name where people long for freedom in our day – with an invitation to join that work now:
· We speak of those who are trafficked, enslaved in our day.
· We speak of the systems that oppress – the systems of American racism – that flow out of the evils of slavery – and persist to this day – in housing and educational inequity, voter suppression, mass incarceration, and more. The work of dismantling that is ours to do.
· This year, we would likely speak of the Ukrainian people – resisting the onslaught of an imperial army laying waste to the land and their lives.
In these sacred stories of God’s vigil – of the freedom that comes in the night – as we stand in our world:
· Where do you hear and see and feel the longing ache for freedom in the world?
· How can you – how can we – join the vigil – the work – that helps the world go free?
At this table, we tell a night story of our own. We place it at the center of our faith. On the night before he died, Jesus gathered his friends at table, and they likely shared the story of that night of nights long ago. They shared a meal. And then Jesus took bread – my body, broken, bread for the journey – and he poured a cup – my life, poured out for you. They sang a hymn, and went out into the night. In the bright light of the next day, the powers will rise against him, and crucify him. But in the deep dawn of the third day, we will discover together – at the mouth of an empty tomb – that Resurrection has come in the night.
At this table, we speak of life and love, stronger than any power,
stronger even than death.
This table points the way to freedom –
the real presence of Christ in the midst of us.
Let’s keep the vigil together.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 See The Iona Abbey Worship Book (Glasgow, UK: Wild Goose Publishing, 2017 ed.), pp. 113, 175-85.  Id. The liturgy also offers a helpful list of some “night stories.”  Psalm 8  Psalm 77  Psalm 42  See Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. i (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), pp.782-83.  See id.  Howard Thurman, Deep River: The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975).  Id. pp, 32-55.  See id. pp. 17-18.  See “North Star to Freedom” on the National Park Service’s website for the Harriet Tubman National Park, https://www.nps.gov/articles/drinkinggourd.htm  To see some of the photos and for a vivid description of the exhibit, see Maurice Berger, “Escaping to Freedom, in the Shadows of the Night,” New York Times, July 5, 2018, at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/lens/escaping-to-freedom-in-the-shadows-of-the-night.html  See https://poets.org/poem/dream-variations  See Berger article.  See Matthew 2:13-23.  See Brueggemann, p. 783 (“The phrase suggests that the departure is a time when Yahweh is especially alert and attentive, supervising to see that all are on the move... Yahweh is deeply involved in this revolutionary operation.”)
Photo credit: Jeremy Thomas, used with permission via Unsplash