God in darkness
This sermon is offered with deep appreciation for Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book,
Learning to Walk in the Dark.
Sermon based on Genesis 28:10-19a.
Preached on July 20, 2014 at Germantown Mennonite Church - Amy Yoder McGloughlin
When I was a kid, I was really afraid of the dark. My bedroom was a remodeled attic in my family’s small bungalow house, and at night I’d watch the shadows move from one end of the wall to another, whenever a car went by on the street where we lived. After each car would go by, the room would return to complete darkness, and I would be left to wonder what was lurking in the now unseen shadows.
My dad, who’s parents passed on frugal post depression values, could never understand why I kept all the lights on in my room all the time, even if I wasn’t there. It would infuriate him that he’d be paying for unneeded electricity in his house. To cure me of this, my punishment would be that he would take the away the light bulb in the overhead light in my room. So, at night, I’d scurry up the stairs to my room, and hope that I wouldn’t encounter anything frightening in the darkness before I could find the little lamp on my desk.
In the last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors–way more than I usually spend. I went camping, and braved the rain, the heat and humidity of summer in the Smoky Mountains. I spent a week in the Appalachian Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, talking to middle schoolers about following in the way of Jesus.
In both places, I intentionally did not bring a flashlight, even though common sense would suggest that would be wise. On the camping trip I used the light of my iphone only when I used the bathroom at night because, well I don’t think I need to spell that out for you. But otherwise I tried as much as possible to only rely on the light of the moon and stars and the neighboring camp fires.
It’s hard for this city girl to do that. I don’t like the dark. If my porch light is out or the street light isn’t working, I feel like things are not right in the world. I feel better knowing what’s going on in the darkness. And, I like that I have power to remediate the darkness, to control it with a flood of light.
But, away from technology and electricity, all that’s there is to guide is the light of the moon and stars. And sometimes not even that.
This is an issue for me on a personal, human level, but this need for light is an issue for many of us on a spiritual level. Some of our songs this morning have been about light–longing for light, desiring that God break our spiritual darkness with God’s glorious light.
Meanwhile we equate anything dark with those things that scare us–ignorance, sin, evil, depression, fear, and death. We tend to avoid the dark at all cost, with our spiritual flashlights screaming out that God is in the light and calling for God to shine light into the darkness of our lives.
Preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor, describes this intense need to be in the light of God as “Full Solar Spirituality”–this need to focus on staying in the light of God around the clock without end. .
Our scriptures, in many ways, contribute to this inclination towards Full Solar Spirituality. We hear in scripture:
“The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not overcome it”
“God is light and in God there is no darkness”
“Open their eyes that they will turn from darkness to light”
“I am the light of the world–whoever follows me will not walk in darkness.”
All these things are true–of course–but they leave us with the illusion that God is only in the light, and that being in darkness is a bad, bad thing.
But it’s in the Biblical stories that we find God in the darkness. And Jacob is one of those characters in Genesis that sees quite a bit of darkness. In the story we heard today, Jacob had just run from his dysfunctional family, where he had taken his brother’s birthright away with his mother’s help, while his father was on his death bed.
Jacob ran into the darkness, carrying nothing with him. He stopped at Beer-Sheba in what is now the Negev desert, and laid on the ground in the darkness using a rock for a pillow. And there, in the darkness, Jacob was promised God’s presence in the form of a dream. God said, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.”
Later in life, Jacob encountered God in the dark at another time and place. He was preparing to meet his brother after a long period of silence and distance between them. Jacob was nervous about this encounter with Esau, and was not sure if his brother would be angry with him, or would try to kill him. So, Jacob went away from his family, and went into the darkness alone. And there he wrestled all night with God.
In both of these stories of Jacob’s experience with darkness, he met God. And in both of these stories he marked the place where he met God with a rock formation–an ebeneezer–to mark those places he had seen the face of God and lived.
So many times, darkness represents those things we don’t know or can’t control. But, it is also a place where God dwells. It is also a place where God is seen and known, where God resides and abides, where God speaks and reveals God’s self to us.
So many times, we think that the darkness is terrifying; that nothing good can happen in the dark. But, we know very well that some of the most beautiful and intimate things in our lives happen in the dark. And some of the most horrible, terrifying things have happened in the light.
Often we think that exposing something to the light is the most important thing, but in the darkness, we can use our other senses to touch, to listen, to smell, to hear. In the darkness, we gain a new appreciation for what is there because we are forced to understand it differently.
If there was only light, we’d miss those small places of light in the distant sky; we’d lose the coolness that comes with night, the sounds of the birds and secadas that sing only in the dark. We’d miss fireflies.
If there was only light, it would be difficult to sleep. We would not know when to rest. We would not know the time of day and our circadian rhythms would be completely off.
Taylor recommends thinking about encountering God in terms of lunar spirituality, where the divine light from God waxes and wanes with the seasons of our lives. Every night, when we go outside the moon and stars never look quite the same. Sometimes there is more light than other times. But always, God is there in our darkness. Perhaps lunar spirituality might be at truer metaphor for God’s presence than the solar spirituality.
The great hope of the Christian message is not that God will save us from the dark. The hope is that God is in the dark. We don’t need to be saved from the dark, because God is already there with us.
That is a word of great hope to me this week, because there seems to be a lot of darkness in the world.
There is a mounting death toll in Gaza, and the assault on this region has moved from air strikes to ground attacks.A passenger plane is shot down at 33,000 feet over Ukraine.Thousands of refugee children are being denied exile into this country.
My response to bad news after bad news has been righteous, justified anger. And instinctively a desire for God to shine light into the situation. But, perhaps what is needed is to be in the dark. To sit in our anger and fury, without answers. To lay in the darkness, and notice the small shafts of distant light. To wrestle with God in the darkness. Or to march in the darkness together, reclaiming it, changing how we see it, and vowing to get comfortable with it.
It is in our darkness that we experience God in new ways. It is in our darkness that God shows us a different side of God’s self, a side we couldn’t see in the light. It is in our darkness that hope is born.
Blessed be our God, who is present in the darkness and the light. AMEN.