Sunday, February 21, 2016

Phil Kniss: God of the long dark night

Lent 2: Finding light in dark text
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

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If you were here last week, the first Sunday in Lent,
    when we pondered the experience of wilderness,
    and now, the second Sunday,
        as we speak of darkness and the search for light,
    you might be starting to wonder
        if we are going over some of the same territory again.

You would not be far off.
    There are recurring themes in the season of Lent.
    Just as in the season of Advent.

In Lent, the focus is on facing the limits of our humanity,
    our sin, our need for God’s saving, transforming work in Jesus
    culminating in our celebration of resurrection.
In Advent, the focus is on the incarnation,
    God’s choice to dwell with us,
    and God’s revelation that comes through the small and weak,
    culminating in our celebration of the infant born in a stable.

So in this season, and other seasons,
    we expect to find connecting strands from Sunday to Sunday.

The texts we’re wrestling with today do have echoes of wilderness.
    But they are more focused, and maybe, more challenging.

When it comes to wilderness,
    it’s not too much of a stretch to see it as gift.
We understand that the desert has a life of its own.
We can grasp that in the experience of solitude, of wandering,
    even in loss and suffering,
    there is potential for growth, maturity,
    for finding a new, but different, home.

But what of darkness?
    What of the long and terrifying and unending night
        that can also be part of the human experience?
    What of thick darkness,
        the kind where no light has penetrated?
    What of this metaphor that is more than just a trying time,
        more than just a season of suffering,
        resulting in a season of fruitfulness?
    What of the unrelenting absence of light?

If there’s one thing that gives me confidence
    in the reliability of scripture
    is that it’s sometimes so raw.
    It doesn’t sugarcoat the faith it promotes.
    It doesn’t hide the ugly and confounding parts of being human.
    It doesn’t give us a roster of perfect heroes.
    And it doesn’t pull any punches when it describes
        the complicated human experience with God.

Today’s texts take wilderness to a new level.
    They deal in darkness and despair and unmitigated evil.

The psalmist,
    whose poetry we used in our call to worship and confession,
    wrote out of a situation that surely seemed hopeless, by all accounts.
Yes, he speaks words of confidence—
    “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
Yes, he speaks words of faith in a God
    who will not abandon him completely—
    “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

But I wonder if even those words of confidence
    were mostly his way to hold off complete despair just a little longer.

The psalmist writes as he is under siege
    by enemies intent on his destruction.
    “Evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—
        Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
            false witnesses have risen against me,
                they are breathing out violence.”

    This prayer speaks of confidence, yes,
        but it voices a hope that is, as yet, unfulfilled.
    He writes,
        “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
            in the land of the living.”
    Catch that?
        How do you like that for a resounding statement of faith?
        He says,
            “Before I die,
                I’m sure I’ll see some evidence that God is good.”
                Haven’t seen it yet, but certainly, before I die.
        It’s a touch of hope, couched in words of desperation.

We also heard a story of Abraham from Genesis 15.
    This is the strange and disturbing account
        of how God officially entered into a covenant with Abram.

But to set the stage,
    let’s review Abram’s situation.
    Abram was once in a settled and comfortable place,
        in the land of his ancestors.
        Living on land and with possessions
            that would most likely be his one day,
            heir apparent to the tribal holdings.
        And God told him to pack up his personal things and leave,
            with his wife and nephew, and some servants.
        God didn’t tell him where at first, or how long it would take,
            just to go,
            and that he would make of Abram a great nation,
            that he would be renowned among the nations.

That was in chapter 12.
    By chapter 15, many years later,
        here’s the way things had panned out so far.
    He took up life as a nomad, living in tents instead of houses.
        Camped on the outskirts of Canaan,
            whose fierce inhabitants weren’t ready to welcome him.
        Then a famine hit the area,
            and the only way he or his animals could survive,
            was to go down to Egypt for a while and beg for food.
        To make matters worse, his wife Sarai could have no children,
            which made God’s promise of many descendants
            kind of a non-starter.
        Abram was successful in business and acquired wealth,
            but without a son to give it to, it meant nothing.
            There would be no nation at all, much less a great one.

    Then his loyal nephew, when given the chance,
        took advantage of his uncle,
            grabbed the best available land and left,
            and lived among the Canaanites.
        Lot got caught in the middle of a war between cities,
            and was carried away captive,
            and Abram rustled up an army,
            and went and rescued him,
                but Lot kept living apart, in Canaan.

    So . . . here we are.
    This promise of God—
        for the sake of which Abram gave up everything,
            and lived in tents among strangers in a desert—
        this promise remains entirely unfulfilled.
        And there is no hope that anything would ever change.
        Everything hinges on one thing, offspring,
            which will never come to pass.
            Sara is still barren, and now getting old.

    This is the point where God shows up again,
        at a very dark time in Abram’s life.
        And God cuts a covenant with him.
            That’s actually what it says, “cuts a covenant.”
        The story that unfolds is strange and bewildering to us,
            but quite familiar to persons in the Ancient Near East,
                who first heard the story.
        They knew about this covenant ritual.
        Whereby animals are brought,
            their carcasses cut in two,
            and the two halves placed opposite each other, in a line,
                one half lined up here,
                the other half there.
            And in the middle,
                blood flows from the carcasses,
                forming a pool, or what was known as a blood path.
        The two parties to the covenant,
            walk between the two lines,
            they walk through the blood path,
                saying by that,
                    if I break my part of the covenant,
                    may what happened to these animals, happen to me.

        We read of this covenant ritual in other ancient literature,
            it could be done at a marriage covenant,
            or in a treaty between kings,
            or any important and binding agreement.
        The greater party to the covenant always walks the path first,
            then the lesser party in the covenant follows.

    At the moment this covenant ritual is set up in Genesis 15,
        it says that “a deep sleep fell upon Abram,
            and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”
                A deep, and terrifying darkness.
        You get the emotional picture being painted here.
            At the lowest point in Abram’s life,
                he is struck down, unconscious,
                and enveloped by a deep and terrifying darkness.
        Now, if this covenant ritual unfolded the way they usually do,
            God would have walked down the blood path,
                then Abram would have.

        That’s not how this one went.
            In the moment that Abram was incapacitated
                by terrifying darkness,
                God walked down the blood path . . . twice.
                    Once for himself, and once for Abram.
                At least, that’s how many scholars interpret it.
                It says that a smoking firepot,
                    and a flaming torch—
                        both symbols of God’s presence—
                    passed through the middle of the carcasses,
                        one after the other.
            At the darkest point of Abram’s terror,
                God stood in for him.
        Just ponder that picture of God for a moment, if you can.

And think of your own long, dark, terrifying night,
    whatever it may be—
        whether it exists only in memory,
        or whether you are in the middle of it now.

    The question is often posed,
        where is God when the night is long and dark?
    Might we say,
        with the same confidence of the psalm writers,
            and the tellers of the ancient stories,
            and the prophets,
            and the Gospel writers,
        might we say that God is right there in the thick of the night,
            with us,
            even standing in for us,
                walking the path for us,
                when we are unable to ourselves?

    Might we say,
        that this is a foretaste of what Jesus himself was called to do,
            when he stood in for us,
            facing off against the powers of evil and oppression and sin
                that filled the long, dark night of his people
                under first-century Roman rule?

I think it’s sound biblical theology
    to draw a comparison between
        Jesus’ choice to freely walk into Jerusalem
            to face the powers of darkness,
        and God’s choice to walk the blood path on Abram’s behalf,
            when that covenant was being made.

    In Luke 13, which we read today,
        even Jesus’ religious adversaries came to his aid,
            to warn him of what would happen.

    He was working around Galilee, well away from Jerusalem.
        The Pharisees, to their credit, told Jesus,
            “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

        But Jesus responded in a way
            that must have bewildered the Pharisees.
        “Go tell that fox Herod,
            I am casting out demons and healing, today and tomorrow.
            Try to kill me if you wish.
            But not only will I not run from Galilee,
                I am coming to Jerusalem itself,
                    the city that kills its prophets,
                    and stones those sent to it.”

        The Pharisees could not understand
            the rationale for Jesus’ reckless desire
            to walk straight into the long, dark night,
            to choose the path of certain suffering.
        Jesus tried to tell them why.
            It was for love and longing.
            “How often have I desired
                to gather your children together
                as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
                and you were not willing!”
            But whether you accept me or not,
                I am coming, to be with you in your darkness,
                    even to stand in your place
                    and confront the darkness on your behalf.

That is the kind of God the Bible reveals to us—
    a God who does not abandon us in the night,
        even when we, or the psalmist,
        is unable to see any concrete evidence in the land of the living.
    Our God not only accompanies us in the night,
        but stands in for us,
        and confronts the darkness on our behalf.

    Rescue? No.
    Accompaniment? Yes.
    Abandonment? No.
    Presence and advocacy? Yes.

That is reason enough for hope in the night.
    Many of us, I dare say,
        would have deeply moving stories to tell,
        of how you found hope in the midst of despair,
            and light in the dark night.
    We won’t hear them all today,
        but we will hear five brief statements of hope and light,
        ways that five of us navigate times of darkness.
    Let’s receive these words with thanksgiving . . .
        Shirley B. Yoder, Ed Yoder, Joy Anderson,
        Steve Shenk, Ed Stoltzfus, Marta Frederick.

—Phil Kniss, February 21, 2016

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