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Hope of a Starlit Night -- Matthew 24:36-44 (First Sunday in Advent)

This year, Advent began for me on a sunny, summer Sunday in July, right here on the chancel steps. Earlier that week, NASA had begun to release images that were coming in from the James Webb Space Telescope. We’d watched that on the news. During Children’s Time that Sunday, Patrick put some of those NASA images up on the screen. Do you remember? A hush fell on the room – I imagine at home too. Adults and kids alike – all of us together – in awe. We were starstruck.

In the quiet of that moment, I looked up at the image on the screen and thought, “That’s Advent.” In the moment, it was just an impression; I couldn’t have told you why. But look. In that image, there are what look like hills and mountains – and there are stars – so many stars – a starlit sky not unlike those starlit skies we have experienced on so many wintry Advent nights.

Now, I’m not alone. The scientists at NASA saw the hills and mountains, too. The NASA website says that this image looks “like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening.”[1] The NASA folks explain it like this: “This landscape of ‘mountains’ and ‘valleys’ speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region... in the Carina Nebula.” They go on: “This image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.” What we get a glimpse of here is star birth.

In these images from space, we are seeing the stars as we have never seen them before – the birthing of stars. And, at the same time – there’s something about this experience – this gazing up at a starlit night – that feels... timeless.

Across the ages, people have looked up to a starlit night with wonder and awe. We stand in our world, in the mess of our day. And, in the quiet of the night, we look up, and we experience something so much bigger than ourselves. And we hope. Standing in wonder of the God who created all this – a universe bigger than we can ever comprehend or even imagine – and we pray in hope. We hope for healing for every pain, for love and comfort in all the trouble of the world, for liberation and freedom.

In the quiet of a starlit night, we watch, and wait, and hope.

This morning’s Scripture brings with it that sense of watching and waiting and hoping, but it comes with a jolt.[2] It is an apocalyptic text; the lectionary begins every Advent with an apocalyptic text. What that means is that this Scripture stands in the midst of an old order – a troubled world – and looks for the breaking in of a new era – a new age – a new day when God will come and make all things right.[3]

And, with the first Sunday in Advent, we also enter into a new gospel in our yearly cycle of Scripture readings. This year, we come to the Gospel of Matthew – and the world of Matthew is troubled indeed.[4] Matthew writes out of a Jewish-Christian community that has likely just been thrown out of the synagogue. That raw pain and discord come across in the Gospel. And, they are living in a world of crushing Empire – by the time the gospel was written, Rome had tightened its grip and torn down the Temple in Jerusalem. Theirs was a hard, uncertain world.

This morning’s Scripture enters into that uncertainty. What we read this morning is part of a longer discourse by Jesus. Jesus is teaching, and the disciples ask: “When? When is God going to come and make all this right? What will the sign be?” And Jesus basically says, “You can’t know when.” He talks of the troubles they see in the world – wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecutions. Those are but the birth pangs. You can’t know when.

This morning’s Scripture begins in that uncertainty – “No one knows about that day or hour” – when the Human One – whom we’ve heard called the Son of Man – when the Human One will come. Jesus describes folks going about their normal lives – out in the fields working, drinking and feasting, marrying – doing what we do – without a clue – without noticing how God might be coming into the world.

And so Jesus says: “Keep watch.” The Human One comes like a thief in the night. You don’t know when or where or what or how. So keep awake. Pay attention. Keep watch in the night.

In our Advent imagery, we can think of nighttime as just a way to get to the light – nighttime as a place of longing for the dawn.

But it’s not always like that. I remember a day not so long ago when we all longed for the night. It was that scorching day back in September – do you remember? Labor Day – the temperatures went over 110 degrees. There was nowhere to escape. You walked outside and the sun beat down. Inside, no air-conditioning or fan could beat that heat. At our house, we sat very still and drank lots of water, and prayed, “God please bring on the cool of night. Let the sun go down. Soon.”

Like any other time of day, night comes both with its particular challenges and its particular blessings. On those scorching, drought-parched summer days, night comes with its chill and calm. I think of that Psalm: The sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. Night comes as a time for rest, with its invitation to sleep and replenish. At night, there’s time for quiet conversations that get drowned out in the clamor of the day. Night comes, we hope, with relief and respite from the day’s work.

I remember back early in COVID when I was living in Florida with my family, taking care of Dad, and doing Zoom meetings with folks back here. Our evening meetings would go late into the night Eastern time, wrapping up sometimes at 11 or 11:30. When I’d say the closing prayer at 11:30 at night, I found myself saying what was almost a bedtime prayer – mindful in my bones of how late it was – praying for all of us a good night’s sleep and a holy rest. Nighttime’s particular gifts.

But we know that our nights are not always restful, and our sleep not always sound. I don’t know if I’ve told this before, but when I was 3-years-old, my Mom and I lived with my grandparents in Indiana while my Dad was serving in Vietnam. Mom and I had rooms upstairs. And when I couldn’t sleep in the night, I’d go to the top of the stairs – see if a light was on – it often was. I would tiptoe downstairs and find my grandmother at the kitchen table playing solitaire. 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. She would lift me into her lap. The house was still – the only sound the soft tap of card on card. Black 6 on the Red 7. Red 5 on the Black 6. Two of hearts on the Ace of Hearts, and then the 3, and then the 4. And when the game was finished, my Grandma would lift me up and set me back on the floor, kiss my head, and say, “Off to bed with you.” A particular tenderness in the watches of the night.

When I worked as a chaplain at UCSF after graduation, I learned how much of life still goes on at night. At night, the UCSF Medical Center at Parnassus is like a city within a city. The night chaplain has a little room off the main lobby – and there was always something going on – family members coming and going – sleeping on the couches –

ambulances pulling into the ER –

codes on the PA that would call folks from all corners of the hospital –

nurses, doctors, the sleeping chaplain –

all to tend to critical needs in critical moments –

expectant mothers laboring through the night.

All through the night, the place pulsed with hurt, and healing, and tender care, and love, and life. So many, keeping watch in the night.

When we were in Florida together caring for Dad, my sister and I would take turns spending the night at the house with Mom, sleeping on the couch next to Dad’s hospital bed. We spent the night half-asleep, half-alert, listening. In those last weeks, when a nurse was there through the night, we’d take turns sleeping in the room next-door. I’d wake in the night, and listen for the hum and pulse of his oxygen machine, and when I heard it, settle back into sleep, grateful Dad was still with us.

Under the blanket of a starlit night, so many folks, keeping watch.

Tonight somewhere under the starlit sky, a mother will wake to the sound of her newborn, and she’ll settle down to nurse them, and, in the quiet, she’ll hope for her child a world better than the one she has known.

In these days of inflation, somewhere under the starlit sky, a family will gather at the kitchen table, and in hushed tones talk about how they will make the rent, and put food on the table, and afford something for Christmas, hoping for enough to make ends meet.

In the Ukraine, we’ve heard that this week that Russian bombardment has effectively shut off electricity to several cities. In the particular brilliance that comes to a starlit night when there are no lights on the ground, somewhere under that starlit sky, people will hope for a restoration of life as they’ve known it, for the basic things, for peace.

Tonight, somewhere under the starlit sky, caregivers will listen for the stirring of a loved one, themselves weary from the day and yet watching for the needs that come in the night, hoping just for a moment’s rest.

Somewhere under the starlit sky, families are on the move – in refugee camps – or migrating out of the horrors of their homeland, tonight, they’ll look up in the starlit night, and hope for a home.

It reminds me of that nighttime prayer:

Watch now, dear Christ,

with those who wake or watch or weep tonight,

and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Tend your sick ones, O Christ,

bless your dying ones,

soothe your suffering ones,

shield your joyous ones,

and all for your love’s sake.[5]

Lorena Tubbs Tisdale says that our Scripture this morning is about “watchfulness, waking from our slumbering state and being ready for the unexpected inbreaking of Christ.”[6] In the meantime, she says, “we should be about building arks of safety for those most likely to be impacted by the storms of life.”[7] We should “be on the lookout – on the lookout for the goodness of God to break into the world at any minute.”

Author Madeline L’Engle – who wrote A Wrinkle in Time – she once described her experience of walking out onto the porch of her cottage at night and seeing “the great river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky.”[8] She looked at the starlit night with wonder at all that Christ has called into being – “waters, land, green growing things, birds, beasts, and human creatures.” She looked up and what she says she saw, was “a sky full of God’s children. Each galaxy, each star, each living creature, every particle and sub-atomic particle of creation, we are all children of the Maker... Children of God made in God’s image.”[9]

And then, she wondered an Advent thought:

“Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again.”[10] That moment, “When Christ came to us in Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human, wholly divine – to show us what it is to be made in the image of God” – to show us what it is to be fully human.

And then, she says this: “I stand on the deck of my cottage, looking up at [the starlit night,] the sky full of God’s children, and I know that I am one of them.”[11]

On these Advent nights, we look up to the starlit sky, and we hope:

What is the hope that you bring to this Advent?

What is your longing, your prayer?

As we keep watch together, where do we see the goodness of God breaking into the world, in the midst of us? Embodied in the midst of us?

In the quiet of a starlit night, we watch, and wait, and hope

for Christ, already with us, and always on the way.

© 2022 Scott Clark

[1] For the July photos and NASA’s descriptions, see and [2] For general background on the Gospel of Matthew, this text, and the apocalyptic, see Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995); William R. Herzog II, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1(Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), pp. 21-25; Lorena Tubbs Tisdale, Commentary in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), pp. 1-5. [3] See Herzog, p.21. [4] See Luz, pp.1-21. [5] A traditional prayer, which can be found along with other good resources for evening prayer in The Iona Abbey Worship Book (Glasgow, UK: Wild Goose Publishing, 2017 ed.), pp. 113, 175-85. [6] See Lorena Tubbs Tisdale, pp. 4-5. [7] Id. [8] See Madeline L’Engle, “A Sky Full of God’s Children,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2001), pp. 78-81. [9] Id. [10] Id. [11] Id.

Photo credit: NASA, used with permission


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