Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Me and You and Darkness in View

Though similar to the bronze serpent from Numbers 21, sometimes called "Nehustan," the Rod of Asclepius (left) comes from Greek mythology and has become a common symbol for medical arts. It is sometimes confused with the Caduceus (right) with two snakes and wings. It also comes from Greek mythology as the symbol of Mercury or Hermes the messenger of the gods. 

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Milwaukee Mennonite Church
March 4, 2018
© 2018

During Lent we typically look at our human need for God’s grace brought to us through Jesus’ death. We may say we agree with the theme for this Sunday, “Between Me and You, even in darkness, God’s promise and God’s love grow all around us.” But we struggle with our experiences of impenetrable darkness.
The daily news can overwhelm us with the sense of darkness around us, but more difficult and more important is when we are unable to navigate the darkness within us, when God seems silent, withdrawn, absent.
Just before what we read in Numbers 21, God had delivered the Israelites from some Canaanites who attacked them, and almost immediately they complained that God wasn’t with them. They even called the manna God gave them to eat “miserable food” (v. 5) So God sent poisonous serpents into the camp and people were dying painfully. At Moses’ appeal, God instructed him to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. Those who were bitten could look at and be healed. In order to live, they had to look at the very thing that plagued them.
What we read from John 3 compares Jesus being lifted up with the serpent in the wilderness. Scholars are not sure if Jesus said this to Nicodemus or if it is John’s commentary on their conversation. In any case, pointing ahead to Jesus’ crucifixion, we are called to look directly at the darkness of Jesus on the cross for the light of salvation. We love John 3:16 with its declaration of God’s love for the world, but we ask, “How can we believe God loves that world in which people love darkness rather than light? As we fix our gaze on the darkness of the crucified Jesus, we are drawn to come close to God’s light.
Perhaps you have heard of the “Dark Night of the Soul.” John of the Cross was a sixteenth century Spanish Carmelite friar, priest, and mystic who is best known for his book The Dark Night of the Soul. Though we don’t talk about it much, I would venture to say that anyone who has seriously journeyed with Jesus for an extended period of time has had at least one experience of the “Dark Night of the Soul.”
I had a dark night of the soul in 1977-80. I felt I was thriving in my part-time pastoral ministry and ready to move to full-time when dynamics in the congregation brought my part-time ministry to an end before I could seriously explore full-time. The way this happened brought my whole sense of calling into question. This was not about the circumstances but about crying out to God for leading and vision, and I was getting no response. My cries seemed to go into a dark hollow without an echo or glimmer of light. While I did feel down and desolate, it wasn’t the same as being depressed. My other part-time work became full-time in perfect sequence, but Christian education curriculum research, writing, and editing were not as satisfying as pastoral ministry. Yes, I was functioning using my skills and thankful to be able to provide for my family. I do believe my work helped people. But I could not sense God calling me forward or even personally present for almost three years. I kept up my daily spiritual disciplines and fellowship with the church, but felt as though God was hiding behind my daily scripture reading, absent from weekly worship, and my prayers seemed to be limp, punctured balloons littering the floor of my spirit. The breakthrough came when our small group was discussing Proverbs 17:22. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” For me this was not an admonition to “fake it until I could make it,” but more as a light in the distance of my darkness that I could follow to journey through the dark. That job change had me taking the Chicago-Northwestern train to the Chicago Loop every day for six months. I made this plaque of the ticket stubs, which I keep on the bookshelf in my office to remind me of that dark night and how God did guide me through it.

I had already been into my discipline of praying through the Psalms each month for about six years at the time. I identified with certain lines as they encountered me each month. The NRSV translates Psalm 88:18 as “All my companions are in darkness,” but I really resonated with the NIV translation, “Darkness is my only friend.” I took some hope from Psalm 139:11-12. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’” I prayed that God could see me even if I couldn’t see God.
I finally came to accept the assurance of Psalm 139:17-18, that God was thinking about me. “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.” This is echoed in the words of Simone Weil, early 20th century French mystic. “It is not up to me to think of myself. It is up to me to think of God. And it is up to God to think of me.”
One of the challenges and benefits of Lent is that it prompts us to look closely at things we would prefer to avoid. I appreciate the approach suggested by our Leader materials for today. I certainly hope you are not overly distressed that I have asked you to gaze into the darkness. In fact, I hope that you are encouraged by acknowledging that it is a normal and even healthy part of the journey with Jesus. I want to share with you insights that I have found helpful from Cistercian monk Thomas Keating in his book Intimacy with God (1995, Crossroad Publishing, New York. pp. 87-88)
God, too, seems to withdraw, to our great consternation. Instead of being present during our time of prayer, God seems not to show up anymore; it feels as if God could not care less. This is especially painful if the former relationship was very satisfying, exciting, or consoling. The thought rises, “God has abandoned me!” When the dryness is extreme, [Bible reading] is like reading the telephone book and spiritual exercises are just a bore. We are irritable and discouraged because the light of our life has gone out. It took so many years to find God and now God has gone away. There is a constant temptation to think we have done something wrong, but we can’t figure out what it was. Our tendency is to project onto God the way we would feel in a similar deteriorating relationship with another human being, namely, hopeless. This judgment is most unfair to God. At this point a lot of people throw in the towel and decide, “The spiritual journey is not for me.” … If we are very quiet in the night of sense, St. John of the Cross writes, we may notice a delicate sense of peace and may even begin to enjoy the more substantial food of pure faith.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) wrote of the spiritual life as a rhythm of consolations and desolations. He offers some very practical guidance for the seasons of desolations. (tr. George E. Ganss, S.J., 1992, Loyola University Press, Chicago, pp. 122-123)
During a time of desolation one should never make a change. Instead, one should remain firm and constant in the resolutions and in the decision which one had on the day before the desolation, on in a decision in which one was during a previous time of consolation.
Although we ought not to change our former resolutions in a time of desolation, it is very profitable to make vigorous changes in ourselves against the desolation, for example by insisting more on prayer, meditation, earnest self-examination.
God’s help always remains available, even if we do not clearly perceive it. Indeed, even though the Lord has withdrawn from us his abundant fervor, augmented, love, and intensive grace, he still supplies sufficient grace for our eternal salvation.

We will be singing Brian Wren’s hymn Joyful Is the Dark as a way of personalizing our experiences of the darkness in view.
Joyful is the dark,
holy, hidden God,
rolling cloud of night beyond all naming:
Majesty in darkness,
Energy of love,
Word in Flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Joyful is the dark,
Spirit of the deep,
winging wildly o’er the world’s creation,
silken sheen of midnight,
plumage black and bright,
swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Joyful is the dark,
coolness of the tomb,
waiting for the wonder of the morning;
never was that midnight
touched by dread and gloom:
darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark,
depth of love divine,
roaring, looming thundercloud of glory,
holy, haunting beauty,
living, loving God.
Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

Joyful is the dark.
Joyful is the dark.
Joyful is the dark!

No comments:

Post a Comment