Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why Darkness? Why Chains?

Why Darkness? Why Chains?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 27, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Numbers 14: 1-3
John 3: 9-21


Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

14 Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2 And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” [1]

I testify to the fact that over and over again when I am planning on preaching on something, when I am going through my weekly process of subconsciously and consciously going over an idea in my head, so often something that I read puts everything in total perspective for me. Sometimes it says, hey  you're crazy, what are you doing? Get out of your head, that's not it at all, and other times like this week, it puts directly into words something that I was trying to get at, giving me a new way to see and to say what I was longing to figure out. That  happened this week with a poem from T.S. Eliot called "Choruses from The Rock."
Now as most of you know, if you've been here the last three weeks, that today's sermon is the third part in a plan, a plan that has been developing since January, and in some ways maybe even before that. And this one, today, this sermon was and is the one I've been looking forward to the most: looking at the question of why do the Israelites want to go back to Egypt after finally being set free?  Why according to Jesus in the Gospel of John, do people choose darkness to the light, and most importantly for us, why do we also seem to do the same thing now, choosing slavery and choosing darkness, rather than living in the light of the Risen Christ? Why do we forget what the chains were like, how bad the darkness was, what it was like to be despairing trying to do it all ourselves? Why do we forsake the light we called for with shouts of Hosanna, in our desperation calling out Save Us Now? Why do those Israelites forget the taskmasters' whip, being told to make bricks without straw, bitter bondage, edicts about first born children having to die? It's an important question, because here we are Easter people, some 2000 years later, 2000 years of basking in the light of Easter truths, and we still mire ourselves in darkness. . . the cycle comes again and again. Human beings seem to continually seek to creep backwards into the chains of the darkness, rather than leap forwards into the light of the truth, that Easter truth, that God so loves the world?
And that all brings me to Eliot, who writing in a time like ours was wondering why his modern world was walking away from the light, away from truth, away from Church, when he had of late just found the light himself, where once there was in this world  for  him only a "Wasteland," which is the title to one of is most famous poems, a poem he wrote in 1922, in 1934 he wrote what I found this week, his "Choruses from the Rock" a few years after  his Christian conversion, and in it, I found the words that I had been looking for. . .though I hadn't really sought it there, though I cannot explain why of all days I picked up Eliot, why I turned to this lesser known work, and why my eyes were captivated by exactly what I was not searching for but desperately wanting to find. . . all I can say is that I found the book, decided to pick it up, found a bookmark in it, and opened to the page that the bookmark was marking. I know I didn't put the bookmark in it, and it wasn't even my book mark. . . and it was this one, with the "Footprints" poem on it, but what was really interesting was the two Bible passages on the back. . . Isaiah 9:2 "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . " and" 1 John 1:5 "that God is Light. In him there is no darkness at all." Really strange. . . and it was all marking this poem for me, as if all wrapped up in a neat providential bow because here I was planning to preach on darkness and light.
I chose part of it for the Prayer of Preparation, the part that most talks about us growing tired of the light, needing a break, etc. , which you can take a look at and I hope you do, but these few lines here really jumped out at me, speaking volumes to me mid week.

Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
—T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”


Now obviously he is lamenting that people are leaving the church, and he accounts the church to the light. He's positive that people leaving the church is choosing to live in a kind of blissful ignorance to the truth. . . but this blissful ignorance is the shame of the poem, and the source of the darkness to follow, because it is darkness, it is darkness to ignore, try to hide, to falsely forget about, the fact that the darkness exists, we attempt to escape from the reality of the darkness, he says that we "try to escape the darkness outside and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that  no one will need to be good." Oh it's so perfect. . . it's not making people better, it's making them not have to be good, as a solution to the darkness. And I think there is a clue here to what the darkness is, and why we end up choosing it, despite ourselves. But we'll get back to it in a minute.
Now Erick and Nancy sung so beautifully what I read earlier. John 3: 16, For God so Loved the World that he gave his only begotten son,  that by believing in him we would not perish but have eternal life. Now this is what we celebrate during Easter, and try to live and believe the rest of the year. It is what the empty tomb symbolizes. . .that God is indeed more powerful than death, and that most importantly God loves us, that is Easter.
How do go from that to fear? Because fear is what sends us running back to the darkness? Strange isn't it, we are afraid of the dark, but it is the darkness that we go running toward. Because it isn't running toward at all, it is running away.
What do we fear? We fear that it isn't real? We fear that it isn't true, and if it isn't true what do we have? Because if it's true it takes all of us, and there is just a little bit of us that doesn't want to go all in. There is that little bit of us that wants to hold back. There is that little bit of us that just doesn't think we can make it through the desert of life, the long slow, walk of life, that is through the desert. That little bit of us that is unwilling to be completely born anew in this new life, holding onto the old life, because it is what we know.
Now there is context to John 3:16, Jesus is actually having a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, and Nicodemus is asking Jesus about being born of the spirit, or being born again, Jesus says, the "wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." And Nicodemus says to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus says, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" I wonder if what Jesus would say to me, on this day, wondering about Resurrection and Truth, and Light and Darkness, Are you a teacher of the Gospel but don't understand these things? And as if needing to explain it all to him, he gives that famous quote. . . as if herein is what you need to know, what you should already know, but don't. Jesus then says. . .

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

He goes back to Moses, a story that Nicodemus should know. . . he is suggesting I think that the truth of God should be known. Yes God loved you then, too, enough to hear your cries of bondage, deliver you from that bondage, led by a pillar of fire, and through a parted Red Sea. God is more powerful than the Earthly powers, those Egyptians, and loves you, to come bring you out. . . it all happened, Nicodemus, why don't you know it? And then to be more clear he goes right into John 3:16, "For God so Loved the World. . . . " on and on, all the way to but people "choose the darkness over the light."
Why?
Because life is hard and it is slow. . . days are long. . . and nights are too. And we become afraid. People can be strong for bits of time, but it is hard when time drags on. Why do you think that Hebrews talks about with Perseverance running the race, because it is long, and there are deserts. When the Israelites get out of slavery, out of Egypt, the Red Sea parts, sure a miracle, but on the other side is a desert. Really, did you part the sea just to have us die? How can we ever cross this desert? What will we eat?  manna from heaven. . .ok great, but how many days is that going to be there, better get a bunch and store up, what, no it withers after each. . . but there it is again tomorrow. . . ok sure, but what about water? coming out of the rock, really? What is the sum of the Red Sea, the Manna, and the water from the rock. . . what is the common thread. . . faith. What is the opposite of faith. . . you may say doubt, but it is more deadly than just doubt. . . it's fear. Faith and fear. . . what does Jesus say to the disciples again and again, fear not, do not be afraid. . . ye of little faith. Fear. . . it gets us, the darkness, we are afraid of the dark, but if we are afraid of the dark, why do we choose it.
It's a funny thing the desert. . . we don't live in deserts, do we. At least not literal ones, but if we think about our worries and our fears, they are the same that Jesus faced in the desert during his temptation, and they mirror the Israelites, too to some extent. Food, power, safety. Again and again, Jesus says that the Lord will provide, Jehovah Jireh, remember that from Abraham and Isaac, with perfect faith he overcomes the temptation of fear, and of the darkness, but that is difficult right. Put yourself there, you are hungry, why not make yourself some food, you have power in your grasp, why not just take it and exploit it. You can provide for yourself, and everybody else. Why not it's there, you can do it, so do it. Depend on God, why, God's the one who has brought you to this desert. Does he not care? What am I to do? In the middle of the night, what am I to do? When I'm up against the wall what am I to do? Broke? Sick? Lost? Suffering? Enemies at the gates? Heartbreak? Frustration? It's all about fear, and what is the opposite of fear. . . faith. The fact that we are, should remind us but it doesn't. . . The fact that we are no longer slaves should remind us but it doesn't. . . the fact that Christ is Risen should remind us but it doesn't. . . how else can Easter people end up back in the same chains again and again?
Because it's what we know. It is of us. Hard habits are hard to break. When you have been seeing the world a certain way a long time, it is hard to all of a sudden see it another way. . . It's hard to believe that manna will just fall from heaven. So when it does you grab it, you hoard it, you worry that it won't come again, and it withers in your hand. It's hard to believe that water can be taken from a rock. It's hard to believe that you can be dependent upon something much more powerful than yourself. It's hard because all you have ever known screams the opposite. And so we fear, and it is human nature when we fear to try to fix it. . . to panic and do, rather than be still and know. The fear creeps in, but fear is too stifling, too limiting, so instead we create in our minds ways out of that fear. We create for ourselves illusions that it is ok, that we can handle it, that we are in control. The opposite is much too scary. The worst fear isn't the fear that makes you fight, the worst fear is the fear that makes you run, that makes you hide from it, that makes you ignore it because you just can't face it.
18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Do you see that, not believing is condemning already, not in a punishment sense, but in a lost sense, in a hopeless sense.

19 And this is the judgment,

Do you see it, this is the judgment, the condemnation. . .

that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”[2]

Condemnation is a choice. . . choosing to live in fear, to create the cycle again, when it need not be. That is choosing the darkness. . . now the light then is the opposite. . . if the darkness is ourselves. . . then the light is God. Choosing to live in the light is all that matters, but the problem with it is. . . in him there is no darkness at all. . . that darkness can't stand in the light.. . . it can't stand. And so the illusions that we create have to disappear when faced with the reality of God, but those illusions, call them idols, call them whatever you want, call them darkness though, they fade way, they burn away in the light.
So what do we know because of Easter. . . that God created us, loves us, sent his Son to us, not to condemn us, but to show us light, to bring to us the light of the world. Now the light is the image of God, and it shines within us, that is what it is to be loved by God, to be a child of God. . . but now who is God. . . who is the light of the world. . . God is the one who made everything. . . all things. . . God is the one who promises, and keeps the promises. . . God is the one who pulls the Egyptians from slavery, Part the Red Sea, provides food and water in the desert, makes laws to show people how to live free in the land. . . and not only that is more powerful than death. . . in him there is no darkness at all, not even the cold dark grave. . . the night and the day are both alike, and that is all there is and all that matters.
God has made us worthy to stand in the light. God has made it possible for us to be good standing in his light with him. . . in him we can do all things. . . now let me return to the Eliot poem, because our world is much like his, where we run from the light, because it is too bright for us and we grow weary, we think we are not good enough to stand in it, we think our neighbors are not good enough to stand in it. . . and so we create a new safer illusion in the darkness. . . 



Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
—T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”

Systems, economic systems, political systems, we have even made John 3:16, we have even made Easter and salvation into a system. If God has made us good, why then would we choose to build systems where we no longer have to be good, thinking those systems apart from God, built apart from God, could stand. . .no that is the illusion. . . that is darkness. . . which do we choose? That is the question of the desert, the question of the cross, and it is our question, in a world forever changed by Easter morning's light. 








[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Nu 14:1-4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 3:18-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.