Of Light and Dazzling Darkness
A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Marlene Kropf (Mennonite) at. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, February 28, 2016.
Two weeks ago our Lenten journey began in the wilderness. On the first Sunday of Lent, Dianne, our priest, took us to the Judean wilderness, which, she told us, is not a desert of sand dunes, but rather a high desert, a dusty, barren place of low scrub and expansive views, a place of grand desolation.
In today’s Old Testament reading from Exodus, Moses also finds himself in a wilderness.
If you remember the back-story, Moses had been rescued as an infant by an Egyptian princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, and was raised in the royal household. We don’t know how much Moses’ mother and his family kept in touch with him during those years, but we do kn0w that he retained a strong sense of his Hebrew identity and was aware that his people, the children of Israel, had been forced to become slave-laborers.
One day Moses saw an Egyptian beating one of his relatives – perhaps a cousin or an uncle, and he lashed out in anger, killed the Egyptian, and hid his body in the sand.
But word got around – and eventually Pharaoh heard of it. With his life in danger, Moses fled to the desert. There he settled down, married a local girl, and became a father. Like other young men have done, he went to work for his father-in-law and began tending sheep in the desert.
We don’t know anything at all about Moses’ relationship with God at this stage of his life.
Was he waiting for a call from God? Or was he content to live quietly, far from the perils of politics, after being raised in the splendor of Pharaoh’s household?
Like his ancestor Jacob who was astounded when God showed up in the desert, Moses too was caught off guard. One day he was tending sheep near Mount Horeb, the mountain we know later as Mount Sinai. Suddenly Moses noticed a flame of fire – a burning bush that didn’t burn up.
He saw an angel in the flame, and then heard a voice calling his name: “Moses! Moses!”
“Here I am!” Moses responds.
And that’s how the amazing relationship between God and Moses begins.In the 4th century a Cappadocian monk, Gregory of Nyssa, found in Moses’ story a paradigm for the spiritual journey that still offers wisdom to us today. Gregory noticed that Moses’ early experience of God began with light – a fiery flame that could not be ignored. It was a dramatic beginning.
Later on God spoke to Moses in a cloud. When Moses responded to God’s call and liberated his people from slavery, they were led into the wilderness. On that journey it was Moses’ habit to pitch a tent far away from the Israelite camp and go there regularly to commune with God.
Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and God would speak with Moses – face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Exodus 33: 8-11
Theirs was an intimate relationship, close, trusting — a loving companionship.
But there is another stage, according to Gregory of Nyssa. Eventually Moses’ relationship with God became an experience of darkness – deep and dazzling darkness.
At Mount Sinai, on the wilderness journey, Moses went up into a cloud of darkness, hidden from his people, and spent 40 days with God – 40 days that were so transforming that his face glowed with the glory of God. When he descended from the mountain, he had to wear a veil over his shining face.
Gregory of Nyssa says that Moses’ journey can be a guide for us. In the beginning many of us are also blessed with numinous experiences of God’s presence and love. As children, we may have felt the presence of angels surrounding us. Or as young adults we may have known a clear sense of guidance from God – a vocational direction, for example. We may have been drawn toward the light of God, the clarity of faith taught to us by our parents or the church.
I remember an experience from my early college years that marked me in a profound way.
I was a sophomore taking my first course in philosophy. Though I had always been a questioning Christian, I had never had serious doubts about the existence of God. I took God for granted. Yet the more philosophy I read, especially the existentialists, the more doubts I had about the whole religious system.
I could hardly bear to think of a world without God – but I was also committed to intellectual honesty. And finally, in despair, I realized I could no longer claim to believe in God. I decided I would just have to live my life as though God did not exist.
And so I tried.
It was a dark time. I felt as though something very precious had been taken from me. I felt sad, alone. But I stuck it out. If I couldn’t make rational sense of my faith, I would have to let it go.
After several days, something odd began happening – something very odd.
As I walked across the college campus, I kept having the sense that something was following me. At first it was a faint perception, but it kept growing stronger. Toward the end of the week, I couldn’t ignore it any more. Something was pursuing me.
I felt if I just turned my head slightly, I would surely see it. But, of course, what was there couldn’t be seen by physical eyes.
Finally, worn out by this hide-and-seek game, I said, “I give up! You win! I don’t know who you are, God, or what you want. But I can’t deny that you’re here.”
It would be a long time before I would discover what God wanted – and some years later until I read Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” and knew I wasn’t alone in having this kind of experience:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him …
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
An experience like that upends everything. It leaves one changed. The “light” of that encounter has never disappeared from my life.
In the middle of our lives, that early clarity, those certainties, those dramatic breakthroughs, often vanish or become scarce. Life becomes more complicated. We can turn away from God at this point – or we can delve into the mystery of faith: how it is that in our human-ness we relate to a God who is Spirit.
We may find ourselves hungering and thirsting for more of God, like the psalmist:
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and barren land where there is no water.
If we are fortunate enough to be taught spiritual practices and receive wise guidance from spiritual mentors and our community, we learn how to commune with God, how to drink deeply of the nourishing stream. And some of us, like Moses, enter into deep friendship with God. Many of you could tell stories of such times in your lives.
But then – the darkness descends. Perhaps not for everyone – but for many of us. The intimacy dries up; the friendship withers. What does a relationship with God look like when it’s not new anymore, when the familiar practices no longer seem fruitful, when the passion disappears?
Gregory of Nyssa says,
Those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.
If we decide to keep going beyond the point where our eyes and minds are any help to us, we may arrive at the place of complete and dazzling darkness” (p. 48, Taylor).
You see, if the darkness comes, it can’t be avoided. And what it looks like is different for every person. Barbara Brown Taylor, who wrote about darkness in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, says:
The darkness is not something to get through, like a test or a fever.
It’s God’s home. It’s the place where God dwells.
To be invited [like Moses was] is a great honor
(sermon at 2014 Festival of Homiletics).
But it changes us.
What it was like for Barbara Brown Taylor is that her bag of Christian certainties got lighter; it weighed less because it had less in it all the time. And yet, she says, learning to trust the darkness, the not-knowing, has allowed her to take back her faith. She has given up what she calls “full solar spirituality” for a more complex faith that embraces both darkness and light, pain and death as well as joy and resurrection.
Full solar spirituality focuses on “staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith” (p. 7). It’s a great way to get started, and for some people, continues all their lives. For others, the light fades or changes. And for these people, Moses’ story can be an encouragement.
So where do we find ourselves today?
At the burning bush, astonished, or gobsmacked, as the Brits say?
Or are we in the tent of meeting, in sweet communion with God?
Perhaps some of us are in the cloud of darkness
where God is surely present but can’t always be seen or felt.
What happens in all these places, all these stages of faith, is transformation. If we stay with God, if we continue to trust, we will be changed.
For 40 days, Moses stayed on the mountain in the darkness of the cloud. For 40 years, the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness until they too were transformed. Today we find ourselves in the midst of the 40 days of Lent, a season of transformation, a season of preparation for new life.
The spiritual journey we are on is a gradual process of bringing our whole selves — body, mind, heart, spirit – into a fuller, more trusting relationship with the Divine. This is an inside job – a transformation that affects every cell of our bodies, every atom of consciousness.
The spiritual practices we take on during Lent – whether it’s giving up chocolate or Facebook or dropping our spare change into a mite box – these are all ways of opening to trust and eventually to love.
When we trust God, no matter what stage of the spiritual journey, we allow the Divine more entry into our souls, more space for relationship.
In some ways, it’s pretty simple because trusting God is a lot like trusting another human being. It’s a choice we make. When we choose to trust, the walls of separation gradually disappear and we begin to love.
And that’s what transforms us: Love. Love is the true destination of Lent.
Whether it’s a flame of love in a barren desert or in a secret place where you meet God regularly, or in the dark cloud of unknowing, God waits for us during these days of Lent.
God of light, of deep and dazzling darkness,
we open ourselves to you today.
Cleanse our sight; strengthen our longing for you; guide us on our Lenten journey.
And make room in our hearts for the joy of Easter to come. AMEN