When my daughter was two years old she was, like many other children, scared of the dark. To help her sleep, I bought a giant camping flashlight which she could project up into a corner of the room. It was a great relief to her and a financial problem for me. Those batteries were expensive. All of this illustrates a larger question: Why are we conditioned to be afraid of darkness?
Many Christians I know have been told that there are clear symbols in the Bible. Light, you may have heard, is always good and darkness is always bad. There’s precedence, for this, I know. After all, Jesus does call himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and Job does a good job of eternally setting “darkness” as the “land of gloom and chaos.” That doesn’t sound very promising. And yet nearly every notable biblical figure, from Moses to Jesus, accomplishes his or her good in the dark. Is there some mistake here? Aren’t we to avoid the dark?
And so today, in our “Oz,” in order to see clearly, we need to remove the bifocals that inhibit clear pictures of who we are and what we are to do.
In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor asserts that this simple system of symbolism is not just lacking in comprehensive truth, but that it has become the a kind of blurred lens for how we how we encounter God and ourselves in times of crisis, which we usually call times of “darkness.” In the book The Wizard of Oz, all the residents of the Emerald City wear glasses tinted green. Uniformity in popular thought, as history shows, isn’t always correct. And so today, in our “Oz,” in order to see clearly, we need to remove the bifocals that inhibit clear pictures of who we are and what we are to do.
Taylor would tell you that many Christian communities, imperfect as they are, rely on this system of good and bad (light and darkness) as a moral foundation for society. And, yes, teaching children about good and evil is a real job to be taken on by parents, grandparents, and all other skilled storytellers. But what happens in real life is rarely the same as the cinematic conflicts we see in movies. Life is messier and in cases of serious grief or trauma many Christians don’t know how to properly stand by those inflicted with pain. Advice to “pray harder” falls flat. Thus, “Full Solar Spirituality” as she calls it—the type of faith that says we must remain positive at all times—can be seen by non-Christians as robotic church speak that is a danger to not just the practitioners, but for any person who finds him or herself in the throes of some major episode of depression, abuse or worse.
The God of the Universe, the Creator and Redeemer, the Alpha and Omega. God controls our lives in both times of light and darkness and uses both at his disposal; today I’m asking you to think of darkness as something more complex than a shallow portrait of something bad. I’m asking you to see darkness as something difficult to name, but seldom seen or experienced as an opportunity. It is an opportunity that most in the world would willingly sign up for. It involves tribulation, periods of waiting, or absence of the full measure of light. “Darkness,” then can and often does turn faith into doubt. It doesn’t have to though. Instead, we can allow life’s challenges to refine us—not define us.
Many important biblical events occur at night—just look to today’s readings for proof of that. As Taylor puts it:
“There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.”
Pixar Animation made a cleverly guised movie about this recently. In this movie, two emotions must learn to co-pilot a little girl through adolescence. It’s a dose of truth that most parents didn’t expect. It wasn’t a canned message that we could just ignore. As it turns out, joy and sadness must merge before wholeness is achievable. Likewise, light and darkness can work in tandem for our benefit.
That’s because the real healing in life, the real learning in life, the real guts of all our searches for identity, meaning, and salvation can and must be found in the “dark.” You cannot find Jesus in the prosperity of a life where you are perfectly tanned and everyone you know is tanned in the “Solar” plexus of dualistic theology—say one thing, live another. From the beginning of the church two thousand years ago, so-called followers of Christ have been trying to merge the Christian path with a road paved of happiness and bliss. That is not what Jesus experienced or demanded and if we are to follow him we need to lean into life trusting there will be enough—enough food, enough money, enough time. And that’s so hard. It was hard for Joseph, Elijah, Paul and of course it was soul-blistering for Jesus. The point is that there’s something to be gleaned from letting ourselves be present in the readings for this weekend’s study.
In Genesis 37, we encounter one of the most realistic portraits of family dynamics in all of literature. We’ve learned about Jacob, who was a trickster and yet was part of a lineage through Isaac and Abraham. And now we find the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. Commentaries would tell you that Rachel is Jacob’s favorite wife and thus Joseph, as the eldest child through her, is an automatic to be his father’s favorite. Does this ring a bell? Jacob knows a thing or two about “first class status” being his mother’s favorite, but he also lived in that awkward space of second place or “coach”status in his relationship with Isaac. Here’s where the story thickens. Now we find Joseph, all of seventeen, sporting a very fine robe—one usually reserved for royalty.
If you’ve heard this story before, you know that Joseph has a rare talent. He has vivid dreams and what’s more—he could interpret God’s word through them. It’s easy, then, when his brothers get jealous and then turn violent against Joseph—eventually tossing him into an empty well before he’s sold into slavery—to think of Joseph as a victim. I certainly did. I related to Joseph as an adolescent always about a decade more mature than most of my friends. When discord struck due to some superficial situation, my friends, “my brothers” deserted me.
It’s easy, then, to think of Joseph as a victim.
And so I ate lunch alone my senior year of high school. And I did it again my freshmen year of college when my best friend was too embarrassed to be seen with me. This Bible story came alive and active to me during this vulnerable time and I felt like, in a way, I had lived through that story, too. I now knew what the pit felt like to some extent. We all do. So many of us have been marginalized, excluded, or merely forgotten. “Here comes the dreamer,” they might have said about me (Gen. 37:19).
I’m here to tell you today that Joseph was not a victim. Yes, he was sold into slavery by his brothers and the great understatement of the sermon is that that was a rotten thing to do. Joseph, though, like a seventeen year old version of me, thought he was different. Maybe that was a product of being told or treated as though he were, but Joseph appears nonetheless like someone who is proud or at least that type of smug person who you avoid at all costs. Where are we in our walk with God? Are we in a peak of our power and influence or are we in the valley of despair. Because the truth is we can offer and detect God’s presence within our lives more easily when things aren’t going well. “Darkness can not drive out the darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” said MLK. There’s a difference between being gifted and knowing how to glorify God through your gifts, and there’s a danger involved for all of us who dare to test this.
Joseph, with all God’s glory endowed to him, was not a victim, but someone built for seeing in the dark. How about you? And though our text only extends so far as Joseph being lifted out of the pit (Gen. 37:28), I have to think that while ascending a rope he was a let down to a new low point that he did not see coming. Imagine being raised back out of the hole where you’ve been tossed by your brothers. Then imagine seeing the rope. Maybe you think that they’ve reconsidered. You think that maybe you’re going to make up and move on. And then the horror! Then you realize you’re nothing to them. You’ve been sold into slavery that will result in a journey that will take you into prisons and life in abject humility in Egypt.
And now you see why Christians avoid darkness like the plague. The pit is the pits. It’s the worst and while you are there in its midst, it is never-ending and relentless. Do we have the resiliency needed to belong to God?
Elijah, one of God’s most valiant prophets, had faith to see God’s word through. His boldness for God is that of legendary status. He tells the worshippers of Baal that the LORD Almighty is the only true God and that their god is nothing more than mere fantasy.
All of this work lands him blessing, prosperity, and a nice house with a picket fence. Oh. Wait. It doesn’t. It lands him a bounty of his head and so he flees. He runs for his life. Eventually he ends up living in a cave by a ravine drinking out of a brook and eating bread bestowed by birds. That sounds, to me, like a pretty good example of living in complete darkness. And yet 2 Corinthians 12:9 states: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Instead of shriveling completely, instead of letting his faith melt into a puddle, God uses Elijah’s dire situation as the way to send a firecracker, a whizzing rhetorical barb to sharpen his prophet. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” is asked in verse 9 and 13. After God asks this, Elijah takes him literally. Why am I in the cave? I’m in the cave because people want to kill me. Elijah’s ministry was his all, his everything—perhaps the wellspring of his identity. While waiting for what’s next, I imagine Elijah in a kind of trance-like despair full of holy brokenness. We do that too. We are constantly looking forward to next month, next year, next next.
Here is where the question resurfaces: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And yet uncertainty does not prevent Elijah from continuing to gaze into the darkness—all that is unknowable. Out on a mountain ledge, Elijah is instructed to wait for the LORD to “pass by” (1 Kings 19:11). Think about that. Wind and earthquakes follow. Neither conceals the presence of the LORD. It is not in a fire either (v.12).
“The sound of absolute sheer silence” follows and here is where the question resurfaces: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (v. 13)
In this encounter, God tells Elijah something revolutionary. Although Elijah projects himself to be the only living prophet keeping alive the LORD’s reputation, he is wrong. The LORD declares that there are still 7,000 in Israel. Does this speak to your heart? Do you feel alone? Do you think you’re deserted? The LORD will speak into your life too if you allow it.
What can we learn from this? If we’re brave enough, we might note that we are prone to be mistaken all the time: about life situations, people, perceived danger, and our importance. Who of us can’t relate to the simple question: “What are you doing here, ___________?” All our names fit here.
Each of us must answer where our own obedience fails. We all find ourselves in the ghost towns where we need to be reigned back to some reminder of who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing. God shows up in a big way for Elijah, but it is only in the darkness that Elijah’s own greatness and purpose can find their measure in tandem. It takes a soul burning holy energy (light) in the world (dark) to produce a story where greater audiences spanning centuries can see truth.
There’s a runner named Christy Marvin who excels in mountain races. She runs in snow, up cliffs, and she recounts that her legs feel like noodles at the end of the race. She has no idea how she’ll finish. But she aspires to be the feet of God. God does not quit and so she finds strength to press on. Are you quitting on something you know you need to stand firm upon? Where is God sending you? There will always be reasons why you couldn’t do something. It’s none of my business, but you likely know what that something is. Where is God sending you? To whom?
During the third watch of the night, when most people are asleep, Jesus decides to go for a little water stroll. He can do that kind of thing. If you’re skeptical of this, maybe it’s because you’ve seen YouTube videos of people allegedly walking on water. Or maybe it’s deeper rooted. Thomas’ doubt is all our doubt, but often lost in this story is that Peter steps toward Jesus without prompting. That’s a miracle to me. He is the feet of God in action; and for a moment he is the embodiment of courage in the dark. Yet when Peter sees the waves and storm, he grows fearful. He balks. That’s true. But first, he comes toward Jesus.
Today, like any day for the rest of eternity, is a day when you are invited to come toward Jesus. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have make promises you can’t keep. All you have to do is what his student did. Say, “Lord, save me.” And like his disciple, you’ll experience highs and lows, ups and downs, because that is part of Christian life.
The disciples in the boat on the Sea of Galilee thought Jesus was a ghost. The brothers in Joseph’s story thought he was a fool. The prophet Elijah thought he had come to ruin. We will enter times and places of darkness. If we remember who we are and what we are here to do, our eyes will adjust. We will see things we did not believe existed. Let the darkness of uncertainty be your spark to call upon God. Let His Name be the flame to ignite your days and your nights and circumstances will not dictate your joy.
Listen to this sermon: