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Advent 3 - Living in Liminal Light

A sermon on Luke 1:78-79 and Malachi 4:1-2

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash)

If I were to ask each person here about the last time they stopped and stared at the beauty of the sky, I suspect that a significant portion of our stories would involve two times of day: either sunrise, or sunset.

There is simply no more awe-inspiring time of light than these two in-between spaces, when the sun is not yet, or no longer, shining down directly, but rather the light comes in at an angle, breaking into different wavelengths that paint the heavens with glorious color.

It’s a peculiar characteristic of sunlight that it is at its most beautiful when it is at its least useful.

Slanted light does not warm the earth like the mid-day sun.

Its rays are best converted to energy when they hit solar panels at a 90 degree angle, not an oblique one.

And the most essential use we make of sunlight – the illumination that lets us see clearly – is muted at the beginning and end of the day, forcing us to slow down and focus more carefully… or else to stop squinting at the details and take a break to just stare at the stunning sky.

It’s almost as though the colors that burst forth when the sun touches the horizon, are a physical reminder that our to-do list is not the only reality worth noticing… and that usefulness is not the only characteristic of value.

The light that is just there during the rest of the day, taken for granted as we rush about tasks, calls us into a different kind of attention at the transitions between daytime movement and nighttime rest.

Christ, our Dayspring, our first light of day that does not yet shine clearly enough to brighten the world around us, reminds us of the beauty, joy, and wisdom to be found in liminal spaces, where the edges blur and we find ourselves standing – at one time – in two realities:

dark and light;

night and day;

rest and activity.

Or, in the ultimate expression of our Advent reality, expectantly waiting for Christ’s full manifestation, even as we know that in another way, he is already with us.

The Dayspring light that gently, obliquely, colorfully illuminates this both-and space calls us into reflection on what it means to be a people defined by on-going transformation.

It is a call to embrace the truth that we have not yet arrived, that God continues to work in and through us in ways that we cannot control, or perhaps even predict.

We can only trust that the transformation is good.

This can be a challenge for 21st Century American Christians, conditioned to value efficiency and achievement over the long, slow process of becoming. That’s one reason why we need Advent.

The season of Advent typically includes at least one Sunday, if not two, that feature apocalyptic readings – visions that pull back the veil of common distractions and remind us that our everyday reality is not all there is:

The times we are living in are temporary. What we see now only dimly, as in the half-light, will be revealed in full in God’s final self-revelation in which all promises will be fulfilled.

For now, we live in the border space between already and not yet – a space that can discomfort us in at least two ways.

On the one hand, we tend to cling to the familiar:

Better the imperfect life we know than the anxious unknown, especially when the coming transformation is described in alarming terms.

We may be off-lectionary this Advent, but today’s reading from Malachi still offers some apocalyptic echoes with the prophesy of the coming day that will burn like an oven…in which the arrogant and evildoers will be consumed like stubble, leaving not even a root from which they can regrow. (paraphrase of Malachi 4:1).

Yikes! I think I will pass.

Sure, we have a pandemic virus, and a pandemic of violence, and homelessness, and vicious political divisiveness, and hunger, and refugees… but my life is still pretty OK. I’d rather not “burn it all down.”

This instinct for security, for a quietism that maintains the good-enough that we already know, can hold us back from embracing the rising of the sun of righteousness.

But God wants more for us. God wants to HEAL the pain that comes from all that is wrong with this current reality.

And, thankfully, our second reading reminds us that even those who hesitate can still rejoice in God’s plan.

For if Zechariah, who was struck mute after he doubted the angel who came to announce that his wife would give birth to the prophet John, can later proclaim the dawn from on high (that) will break upon us…”(Luke 1:78), then there is hope for us too.

If we can set aside our fear, we can recognize the life that God promises to bring through our transformation.

But this raises the second danger that we face in the in-between time, of waiting and moving slowly in the semi-light: impatience.

When we come to truly trust and believe that this here and now is NOT all there is, that God has a plan to heal the world and to “guide our feet into the way of peace,” we tend to want God to hurry up and get on with it!

It’s frustrating to wait.

It’s discouraging to witness pain and to long for healing that is …on its way.

It’s agonizing to live daily in the in-between space in which we see all that needs to be transformed, in ourselves and in the world, and not to be able to just rush to the end.

When we want the final destination, it is hard to see the beauty of the Dayspring just peeking over the horizon, not bright enough yet to fully illuminate the path for us to take.

And yet… creation has a wisdom to share with us, if we can only stop in our yearning to learn from the colors of the in-between sky.

It can teach us about the beauty, and the power to be found in the liminal space.

Pastor Asher O’Callahan, the first trans person ordained as a pastor in the ELCA, has offered a reflection on what we can learn from such spaces through the insights of his own transformed experience.

He writes, “In the beginning, God created day and night. But have you ever seen a sunset!?!? Well, trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Gorgeous. Full of a hundred shades of color you can’t see in plain daylight or during the night.”[1]

There are beauties we can ONLY see in the in-between light, when we reject strict binaries, and accept the truth revealed in creation, and embrace the space of in-between as a good and blessed space.

This insight applies to human gender, but it is not limited to that.

There is blessing in living our lives between the promise and fulfillment.

There is blessing in seeing by the half-light of the Dayspring, before the sun of righteousness rises to its height.

There is blessing in the time of waiting, when we see all that needs to be healed, and get to be part of God’s slow work of transformation.

At the end of Asher O’Callahan’s reflection on liminal spaces he offers a final blessing to all who find themselves in in-between spaces:

“God is still creating you,” he reminds us. “You are no less beautiful and wild than a sunset ... You are loved. You have a place here.”

You do have a place in the gentle, transforming light of the Dayspring. A place to rejoice in all that God is doing in the in-between time.

Thanks be to God.


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