Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Darkness and Light - the beginning of comprehension

Sorry I've not been posting as much up here as I have in the past.  It's been a little hectic these last few weeks.  But here we are at Christmas, and some thoughts about what might have been accomplished through the birth of Christ.  But first some readings...

1 Kings 8:10-15
And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
Then Solomon said,
‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.
I have built you an exalted house,
a place for you to dwell in for ever.’
Then the king turned round and blessed all the assembly of Israel, while all the assembly of Israel stood. He said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who with his hand has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David.'

1 Timothy 6:13-16
In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Darkness and Light
Preaching at midnight, heading into the deep darkness of a village with few street lights, is an ideal time to preach this sermon. I love the stillness and silence of darkness. As a child it terrified me, yet now I will happily walk or run up the mile towards Children's Farm in the dark. But then I know my way around the mile walk, and let's be honest, it's not exactly easy to get lost. The poplars guide our feet and the owls accompany our path.  But what about being lost and alone in a woodland at night? Imagine the noises, the rustling in the undergrowth, the something that brushes against your face as you stumble and trip over unseen tree roots. How long would it be before you curled up tight and wished and waited for the clear light of daybreak?

Darkness and light are two key images throughout the Bible. The model that most people speak of in church circles is that Jesus came into a dark world to save us from our sins. We use images of darkness to describe our state as being deeply sinful and in need of salvation. That's exactly the kind of thing that we find in the Gospel reading we had from St. John when he writes:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
All the way through the New Testament we get this imagery of light = God, darkness = sin. When something appalling happens in the world around us it gets referred to as 'A dark day', giving the impression of the absence of the light of hope, of decent humanity, or of God.

But this isn't the only use of the imagery of the absence of light. Right back at the beginning of the Bible the very first words that we hear God say are, 'Let there be light', and some scholars have suggested that at least in part the intention of the writer of this part of Genesis may have been to express God's desire, 'Let there be understanding.' That's why we say, 'I see' when we understand. I believe that this is and always has been the desire of God; that we would be able to be in a close and intimate relationship. And it is this desire that leads us to an alternative way of thinking about darkness. It is not simply about the absence of God; it is also about an absence of an understanding about the nature of God, and nowhere is that summed up better than in the first reading we had from the Old Testament.

This story comes from the blessing of the first temple that Israel built for God, and when the presence of God came and dwelt within the holiest inner sanctum of the temple it was as if a great thick cloud filled the place.  The most telling words are when Solomon says, 'The Lord has said that he will dwell in thick darkness.' Now it's vital that we understand that this is not a metaphor for evil; it is a metaphor for being unknowable. And why is God unknowable? It is simply because if God is who we believe God to be, the one through whom all things have come into existence, then God is far, far, far beyond the comprehension of beings whose brains are smaller than the average football.

Why does God dwell in darkness in the Old Testament? Why does he hide in a thick cloud? I suspect that it's because if he showed his true nature then anyone who drew near would be overwhelmed. An example of this is the practice that Jewish priests developed that whenever the High Priest entered this holy inner sanctuary, he would have a piece of rope tied around his waist.  This meant that the other priests could pull him out with the rope if he was overcome by the presence of God. I suspect that this may also be why sometimes the nature of God in the Old Testament seems quite harsh compared to the New Testament. It is not God who has changed, it is our understanding of God's nature, and hence our interpretation of God's actions.

And that leads us to the second reading we had, one which comes in the New Testament and which declares a very different truth about the nature of God. In the Old Testament the nature of God is so hidden that it is as if he dwells in deep unknowable darkness. Yet in his first personal letter to Timothy, St. Paul declares a different truth about God. No longer is God hidden. Instead he dwells in unapproachable light. The power and glory of God is utterly overwhelming. Maybe some of you have had one of those experiences when just for a moment the veil between heaven and earth is drawn back and the sense of the presence of God is so strong that it is difficult to bear.  I have had an unexpected encounter where that presence has inspired fear because of its power, and another where I felt so loved it was beyond anything I could have imagined. But the clear contrast is that in the Old Testament there is a darkness shrouding God and in the New Testament we have instead a great, bright, glory-filled appreciation of his nature.

What changed?

I want to suggest that it was the coming of Jesus, born as one of us yet born from above, somehow both fully and completely human and yet also fully and completely divine. We call him the Son of God but he also called himself the Son of Man. Both are vital and both are essential. Were he just the Son of God then we would be in no better state – God would still be unknown and dwelling in darkness. But as the Son of Man, Jesus was essentially the metaphysical translator of the nature of God. If you want to know what God is like, look at what Jesus did: 

He hung out with the people everyone else rejected. 
He spent time praying with and healing lepers, the untouchables of his age.  
He called the religious and political authorities to account and told them they had no comprehension of the real nature of God.
He overturned the tables of those who tried to make money out of religion, spoke in great depth as a twelve year old to religious teachers, wept tears of sadness at the death of his friend Lazarus and put his arms around Peter after Peter had denied ever even knowing him and drew him back into the fold. He treated women as important, spent time with prostitutes and told the meek, the scared, the fearful and the timid that they would inherit the earth.

And he started the whole ball rolling by being born as a pauper in the midst of cow dung of an unmarried mother and was laid in an animal's feeding trough.

And maybe we get it. 
Maybe we can understand.  

By everything that Jesus did we finally comprehend that God chooses to close the gap between us and to be known by us through knowing Jesus.

And that's what makes Christmas so special, because it is the moment that God steps out of the deep, unfathomable darkness and says to all those who want to know, 'Look, this is what I am like, and I will always be here for you, and there is nothing you can ever do that could make me love you less.'

The Gospel reading we had ended at verse 14. I want to end this by reading verse 18 to you, because John summarises the whole Gospel for us in this one sentence:
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Jesus has made God known. May we find time to step outside the tinsel and the alcohol to say to God, 'You have made yourself known to humanity. Now I want to get to know you myself.'