One of the most important events in my life, and in my own call to ministry, happened when was a sophomore in college, and I went on a mission trip with a group of other Davidson students to Nicaragua. One day, our group travelled to Managua—Nicaragua’s largest and its capital city—and of all places, we visited the Managua City trash dump.
For as long as I live, I will remember that day.
Before our group entered the dump, we first walked through the shantytowns that hugged its border. We walked through neighborhoods made of cardboard; we wound through long rows of shacks where thousands of people made their homes. And then we came upon the dump itself.
Imagine for a moment, driving out into the middle of an open field—and as far as your eye can see, rolling mounds of trash. Off in the distance, you can make out the figure of a man, barebacked and stooped over, perhaps collecting what trash he can to repair his roof, or searching for a scrap of something for his daily meal.
Down at your feet, among the piles of endless debris, you see bones; and your heart stops for a moment in your chest—you hope that they are animal bones. And then you look up. You see smoke and stench rising into the air, so rank and putrid that you are afraid to breathe; and so thick, that even on a hot spring day in Central America, the sky takes on an eerie darkness. As night falls, the only light to be seen comes from the smoldering embers glowing from the mountain of trash.
This is the kind of place, you think to yourself-where even the day seems like night.
The day that I visited the Managua City Dump, is a day that I will never forget. Because it took me by surprise-like a thief in the night, you might say. And it shook my faith to its core. It forced me to ask questions that I had never asked before:
God, how could you let this happen? How can you allow such darkness in your world?
The prophet Zephaniah also talks about an unforgettable day—what he calls the great Day of the Lord. The images are so similar—it is beyond unsettling: The Day of the Lord is to be a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. There will be great distress upon people. The day will be like the night. The only light to be seen is the smoldering fires of God’s wrath, consuming the earth.
God’s wrath? Really Zephaniah?
If we turn to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Paul seems to paint a different picture of what this day will look like. On the Day of the Lord—also known as the Day of Judgment—Paul claims that "God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ."
That we are not in darkness for this "Day of the Lord" to surprise us like a thief.
Because we belong to God in Jesus Christ, we are not children of the night or of darkness, but rather of the light and of the day.
In other words, Paul is saying that in Christ we are given a new identity—and we do not suffer the wrath of God, but rather bask in God’s favor—in the light of Christ ascribed to us through His glorious death and resurrection.
But Paul doesn’t stop there:
As Christians, with this new identity in Christ, this also means we have a job to do:
As children of the day:
We are not to fall asleep, but to keep awake and be sober; to keep vigil in the night.
We are not to participate in typical nighttime behaviors that others might partake in: sleeping or drunkenness.
Because we are different. We are claimed by Christ.
Not destined for wrath, but for salvation.
Most importantly, Paul says, we are to encourage one another and build each other up.
This is what it means to be children of the day-of the real "Day of the Lord."
We are even given armor:
a breastplate of faith and love.
And a helmet of the hope of salvation.
We are given armor—war-faring tools—to protect us when the darkness does come; tools that enable us to keep vigil in the night.
They are tools that serve a solely defensive purpose, and enable us to enter places of darkness and destruction, but to anticipate—with faith, hope, and love—a day when darkness and destruction will be no more.
Well, Paul, that’s all well and good; it’s a beautiful vision.
But my question still remains: How could God allow the people I met in Nicaragua—other brothers and sisters in the faith—to live like this?
And then it hit me. I realized… that perhaps what I witnessed in Nicaragua wasn’t God’s wrath. Not God’s destructiveness.
But human destructiveness;
Humans forgetting what it means to be Children of the Day.
Instead of keeping awake, remaining vigilant… snoozing soundly through the night, in peace and security—while across the world, their brothers and sisters suffer.
For me, it was The Day at the Managua City dump that came like a thief in the night. And it woke me up, woke up my faith. I think I would have preferred to avoid such dark places. It is easier not to talk about suffering or pain, the darkness in the world, or in our own lives. But in the midst of such things—a thief can wake us up. Can help us to see light shining in that darkness… and you don’t have to go to Nicaragua, or halfway around the world, to encounter a thief.
Just last week, a friend of mine received some very sad news. It, too, came like a thief in the night.
The person that she was in love with told her that it was over.
"But last month, we were beginning to look at rings," she protested.
Just last month, there was peace and security—the hope of a certain future. And now, nothing; the darkness of sorrow, uncertainty; the fear of being alone, enveloping her like the cold, dark night.
Up until that point, I had been sleeping. We both had. Drunk on school, on work, on the drug cocktail to-do list that most of us fill our lives with each week.
But the thief in the night woke us up, awakened us to our frailty, to our vulnerability, to our need for one another.
It helped me to remember what was most important in my life.
Listening to someone. Paying attention to the needs of others.
Being there when it matters to comfort a friend.
The thief in the night woke us up—called us back to our post—as children of the day, to keep vigil in the dark of night—and to build each other up.
As Christians, many of us tend to lust for the light of day: for the seeming peace and security that daylight brings.
We prefer to avoid the night time, the dark places in our lives; coasting along on auto-pilot, enjoying life when things are good.
How quickly we can forsake our vigilant post, our true calling, as seekers of light in the darkness.
We also tend to think that being children of the day entitles us to something—to the good life—even if it comes at the expense of others.
Though we may enjoy economic security; a living wage; a cheap price on goods and services;
There are brothers and sisters with whom we share this world, who have no other choice, but to live in a toxic wasteland.
What the apostle Paul wants us to hear, we children of the day:
Is that the light we long for does not come from the day itself—from the power or security of this world.
It comes from Christ.
And the light Christ gives to us, gives us the power to enter deep darkness—and not to be overtaken by it—
not to fall asleep under its darkening lull, or to revel in the drunkenness of self-indulgence or the lie of business-
As children of the day, we are called to keep vigil in the night:
to work for justice in a broken world;
to hold the hands of others in their sadness and suffering;
to bear witness to the light of Christ.
The light of Christ gives us tremendous power—not to secure peace and prosperity for ourselves, but to care for one another; to build each other up.
When we build up one another, we are very literally building the body of Christ; the very kingdom of God on this earth.
That Day at the Managua Dump, I met a woman named Yamileth Perez. And I will also never forget her. Yamileth grew up in the shantytown bordering the dump, enduring its darkness and devastation. But she knows what it means to be a child of the day. She started health clinics and soccer leagues in her seemingly hopeless community. She even started a fair-trade artisans’ cooperative—much like the ones that our church is supporting today through One World Market.
In the midst of the darkness in her life, and the life of her community, Yamileth is holding up the light of Christ.
As children of the day, as children of God: We, too, are called to witness to the flickerings of light we believe are shining in the darkness.
For this light we know… is a light that has come to us before; a light that will continue to come to us again, and again.
Before long, we will find ourselves in the season of Advent.
In Advent, the season where the days grow shorter, and the nights grow longer, we learn most shrewdly how to keep awake, how to keep vigil, how to wait in faith, hope, and love for the light shining in the darkness.
For we know the Christ child comes to us in the midst of darkness: in the darkness of a human womb; in the darkness of a cold, Bethlehem night; in the darkness of our own lives.
As Christians, we believe that in Christ, darkness—in the world, in our own lives—can become a place of hope—where our longings for healing, for justice, for peace can grow, and even come to birth.
Gathered around her coffee table, we lit a candle. Holding hands together, as the day turned to night, my friend and I—two children of the day—we prayed together to our God.
And the light shone on in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Amen.