December 1, 2019 – Pastor Marissa Jadrich Ortiz

We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space. As a church we partner with the liberating presence of God to cultivate joy, hope & belonging as Jesus invites us into freedom, keeps us free, and helps us free others. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision. We would love to be your church home, whether you’re here for a Sunday, a season, or a while.

Before I get too carried away here I just wanted to put out an invitation to our last Cultivate of the year. On December 15 we’re going to have the usual dinner, hearing some updates about the church, prayer ministry, READ class. But we’re also going to try something extra fun because it’s Christmas and we like each other… we’re going to dedicate some time to storytelling. My inspiration here was the Moth radio program and storytelling events, where real people tell five minute true stories on a shared theme. If you’ve never heard of this and you want to come with me there’s a Moth story slam here in Ann Arbor on Tuesday. I’m going to go and you’re all welcome to come. But I really want you to come to our Cultivate Vineyard gathering so we can all hear each other’s stories. Our theme is “unexpected help.” So think about a good story in your life where you were surprised by someone’s compassion, assistance, or generosity to you, big or small. Then practice telling the story so it can capture everything you want to express just right in five minutes or less. And then come to Cultivate and tell us your story. Please? Okay. I’ll see you there. 

Okay let’s get started with our Advent theme for the year!


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:1-5

Our theme for Advent this year is “Light and Darkness.” One of the things that makes Christmas magical in our part of the world is the way candles, decorations, glitter, and even snow bring such beautiful light into the darkest part of the year. Sometimes I think this is one reason that February feels so awful even though its not that different from December. During the holidays, even the cold and dark is part of the beauty. Even the snow can be something to celebrate. 

So as we think about light and darkness, we’re going to press pause on the possibility of seeing them in conflict. At odds. Reducing light to “good” and darkness to “bad.” We’re going to look for the ways that, for all their seeming contradictions, light and darkness work together.

These images are powerful and they carry a lot of meaning. For that very reason, before we get too comfortable with darkness I want to clarify the kind of darkness we’re talking about. Darkness is a friend when you’re looking for shooting stars or playing flashlight tag. It’s not a friend when you’re walking home alone late at night. Not all darkness means the same thing. In our cultural knowledge and in the Bible, darkness sometimes symbolizes evil, sin, or spiritual powers who rebel against God’s rule. That sort of darkness is very much present in our world. And we are not talking about that kind of darkness when we speak of light and dark working together. I don’t want to argue that God needs evil in order to do good, or that there’s some kind of partnership between spiritual oppression and the liberating God. There’s another kind of darkness. A darkness we feel when there’s confusion or chaos in our lives, when we feel directionless or hopeless or broken or grieving, when we don’t see or feel God’s presence with us. That’s the kind of darkness we’re looking at this season, in hopes that we will very much find God at work there. I worry that if we hold too tight to darkness as something wrong or evil, it gets harder to believe that God is with us in our darkness or that we haven’t somehow earned our suffering. And when we’re open to hearing from God in the midst of our mess, there are some scriptures passages that actually make more sense as being about the other kind of darkness.  

Let’s go back to the beginning. 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. Genesis 1:1-4

In the beginning, God created. Where there was nothing, now there are 3 things: a deep and formless earth. A covering darkness. And the Spirit of God, hovering over the waters. The hebrew word for spirit is the same as the word for breath. In the darkness, God is there breathing. And into this darkness, God says, “let there be light.” God separates the darkness from the light. And the great work of creation has begun, morning and evening the first day.

I want us to pay attention to how we tell the story of creation though. Do we start the story when God says “let there be light”? Or do we start the story in the darkness, where the spirit of God breathes over the waters? Where do we begin when we say “in the beginning?” Listen to these beginnings though. Because they shape the way we tell our own stories.

Instead of a birth narrative for Jesus, like the ones found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of John gives us a different “in the beginning”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:1-4

The writer of John wants to hearken us back to that other beginning, to say, remember how world changing that first moment of light was? Remember how it shaped everything that would follow, everything that exists? That’s who Jesus is, that’s what it was like when Jesus came as the Word Made Flesh to live among us. All this abundance of life is possible because of him. Without him nothing was made that has been made. But I want to stay with this part of the story, where God separates the light and darkness, and see if we can look at it again without thinking of them as enemies. We often use competitive language around ideas of light and darkness, maybe assuming that since they’re opposites, they must be at odds. The idea that light and darkness are in competition – “the light shines…the darkness does not overcome it” – is a common but not automatic understanding. The darkness not overcoming the light doesn’t have to mean the light wins or the dark is out to get us; it could mean there’s simply not a fight to be had. Like stars in a night sky, the light and the darkness coexist, each helping create space for and define the other. They are part of the same world. They make each other visible, knowable. Without that dark sky, how would we see the stars shine? Without their shining, how could we guess at the scope of the sky? 

God of our Darkness and Light

So while we’re celebrating the coming of the light of Christ, let’s consider the suggestion from Genesis and John: that the “darkness” is what is in the beginning, and “the light” is what comes. We’re rooted in the first and awaiting the second. Our lives find meaning through them both. As we step into a few different parts of the Christmas story, we can look for how God is present, working, and full of beauty in the darkness as well as the light. There’s three ways I’d like for us to look for this today.

First, you’re invited to take a minute here to think about your own “In the beginning”. Some of us have a clear “let there be light” moment where Jesus’ power and presence filled your life and set you free to belong to God’s family. For some of us this was a much less dramatic experience, like a sunrise on an overcast day. Some of us are still on the early steps of journey toward Jesus and thinking “that moment hasn’t come for me at all” and that’s okay too. So right now I want you to take one more step back on memory lane to your life story before that moment or that time. Where was God already at work in that “darkness”? Can you feel God’s spirit breathing over you in that time? I think the more we become away of God’s presence, the harder it is to say when the beginning would be. And God’s grace to us even in our emptiness, confusion or “formlessness” is such a beautiful part of our story.

I also love these stories because I believe that God has been at work preparing you for the calling God has always had on your life, long before you knew the nature of that call. Sometimes we say, “after I gave my life to Jesus, I was a different person”. But for the most part, Jesus doesn’t totally change who we are. Just like God didn’t do away with darkness when God said, “let there be light.” All the ways God cared for you and developed the talents and interest and personality you have, that’s a gift we can celebrate in the ways we tell our stories. Belonging to Jesus gives shape and meaning and direction and freedom to be the person God already made us to be at the very beginning.

A second invitation for you is to become aware of God’s presence in your light and darkness of today. I imagine many people in this room have a testimony about going through a dark time in life and how that time became a new beginning for something that follows. The tricky thing is though, that there’s no way to know what story you’re in the beginning of when you’re in that darkness. What we can do is listen for the breathing of God’s spirit over the deep waters. Our work is to become aware of God’s presence and know that the darkness has just as much of God in it as the light.

We’re going to talk about the examen prayer in a moment so I want to pause here and have a word with those of you who are coming out of an especially challenging season, or you’re in the thick of one right now. It can feel intimidating or even traumatizing to be asked to sit in all that hurt and just listen. So even though I can promise you that God has not abandoned you, it’s also okay to only get as close as you can safely go for right now. 

I’ll tell you a story about what this looked like for me one time. Once upon a time I was struggling with a really painful situation in my past that kept surfacing. This wasn’t an active situation anymore, but I kept finding out it was not as behind me as I hoped, and I wanted to be free. So during Lent my daily practice was to just sit with Jesus in the pain. But I couldn’t hold all these feelings at once. So what we did was we sat together in a house, in my imagination.Your imagination can be a great place to meet Jesus, and for someone who’s often all in my head, listening with my imagination helps me hear with my heart. So we sat in this house for a couple minutes every day. The living room was trashed all over with my feelings of hurt and betrayal. So we sat there for a few days. And gradually it was looking better. I could tell I was starting to take out the trash, so to speak, emotionally, by being there with Jesus. By the second week, Jesus started saying, “how about we try this closet.” “let’s see what’s on the porch.” “Are you ready to go down the basement.” Sometimes I wasn’t ready. Sometimes we just stared down the closet door for the day, and that was okay. There was a lot of healing in the process for me over the course of those weeks. And maybe for you, you’re not even ready to go in the house. You might just want to drive by with Jesus and look at it from the street. It’s okay. Handle yourself with care and you can be sure that Jesus will too.

When we first step out into the dark, it takes a while for our eyes to adjust before we can see all the stars. So I encourage you to try a daily exercise of examen during Advent. This is one way for our eyes to adjust to seeing God’s presence in the light and dark of the past year.

We’ve talked before about the prayer of examen and how this can help you become familiar with God’s presence. I’m offering you a slightly modified seasonal version of the examen that you can try out this winter.

Take a few quiet moments every day to reflect on the day past. First, ask yourself two questions: Where was the light today? Where was the darkness today?

Then turn your attention to the Holy Spirit, and ask God a few questions. Ask, where were you in that darkness? Where were you in that light?”

I would also encourage you maybe once a week or so to try these same questions looking back over the past year or the past few months. Hold your places of dark and light in God’s presence and ask God to show you where and how God has been with you in those times. We have our annual gratitude celebration on December 29, and we would love to hear from you at that time about how you’ve seen God at work in the dark and in the light this year.

Prayer Senses