Walking with God into the Darkness
Sermon by Teri Daily
For several months a notification has been popping up on my computer that reads: “Do you want to make Google Chrome your default browser?” I have been x-ing out of it. Why would I want to try Google Chrome? After all, Internet Explorer has been working fine for me. But yesterday I “encountered a problem” with Internet Explorer, or so my computer told me over and over again. I consulted my husband, and finally he said: “I think you’re going to have to try using Google Chrome.” I did, and it worked beautifully. I may find that Google Chrome has a lot to offer, but I went there kicking and screaming. In a similar, but much more profound way, that’s how most of us enter into darkness as well—be it spiritual, physical, or emotional darkness.
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s most recent book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she laments the fact that most Christianity today is of the variety she calls “solar” Christianity. Along with dividing reality into all sorts of “opposites”—sacred/profane, spirit/flesh, good/evil—we’ve divided it into light and dark, opting for solar Christianity instead of lunar Christianity. We’ve lost all knowledge of what the darkness can teach us; we’ve come to see darkness as the absence of God; we’ve forgotten how to walk in the dark; and we avoid darkness at all cost—especially the darkness in our own lives.
Taylor says that, in the process, we push the “dark emotions”—grief, despair, fear (and I add regret)—to the far corners of our mind. We keep ourselves as busy as possible so we won’t think about them; we sing lots of praise songs; we quote platitude after platitude. We both literally and metaphorically “turn on the lights” so we don’t have to wade through these dark emotions and the pain they bring us. If we could learn to tolerate the pain, we might find healing, peace, and power somewhere within it all. That’s what so many of the world’s great religions tell us about darkness. But, as Taylor writes, “[this teaching] will never have broad appeal, since almost no one wants to go there. Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape? The only answer I can think of is this: someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound.” Few of us actually choose to enter the darkness of our lives—our pain, our failures, our griefs, our regrets, our insecurities—to find the blessing in the struggle. The Holy Spirit usually has to drive us there.
That’s the first thing the Holy Spirit does to Jesus after his baptism in our gospel reading from Mark. No sooner have the heavens parted and the dove descended upon Jesus than he is “driven” out into the wilderness. Now in Matthew and Luke Jesus is said to be “led” by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. But Mark, an evangelist not given to lots of details or to sugar-coating anything, calls it like he sees it—the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for forty days to confront both wild beasts and angels. It may sound harsh to our ears and, yet, even here Jesus is not outside the love, protection, and presence of God.
God’s presence with us in the most painful places of our lives is a long-standing part of God’s covenant with humanity; we see it in today’s reading from Genesis. To understand what’s going on when God places the rainbow in the sky, we have to begin a long way back—almost all the way back to the beginning of the story…
From the moment that Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden of Eden in the third chapter of Genesis, sin is on a fast track. Cain murders his brother Abel, there is a strange passage about the sons of God taking wives for themselves from among the daughters of humans, and then we hear these piercing words from the sixth chapter of Genesis: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” The creation that God proclaimed “good” in the first chapter of Genesis now grieves God’s heart. So God decides to send a flood to destroy all the people, along with animals and all creeping things and birds of the air. But of course we know the story: Noah finds favor with God, and so God saves Noah, along with pairs of every kind of animal and creeping thing and birds of the air.
When the flood is over and the waters recede from the earth, it’s like a second chance at creation. And just like the first time around, God blesses Noah and his family and tells them to be fruitful and multiply. But there are two things that are no different after the flood than they were before. The earth hasn’t become a second Garden of Eden. Human beings still have free will, and we will still make poor decisions at times. We still have the capacity to do harm. And if that hasn’t changed, then neither has the pain that God will feel in God’s heart. These two things remain the same even after the flood.
So what is different after the flood? The way that God will handle the brokenness of the world and the grief in God’s heart. What is changed through all this is God. Granted, to talk about God changing can make some of us uneasy. How can God change if God is perfect and constant and un-changing? So maybe, if it makes us more comfortable, we can say that our perception of God changes at this moment in history.
But however we want to say it, God decides never again to destroy all living things on the earth with a flood. It is a one-sided covenant, because Noah, his family, and the rest of creation promise nothing in return. God is the one who will live by different rules from now on. Now it wasn’t uncommon for gods in that time and region to be portrayed as warriors with bows, but when the God of Israel hangs God’s bow up in the sky, it is a sign of peace. And with that action, God limits Godself forever. From now on, the range of possible responses God will have to our sinfulness and brokenness is narrowed. This is the everlasting covenant God makes with the world.
In this covenant, we see God’s decision to be in relationship with the world despite its brokenness and our sinfulness. God knows the price of that relationship, God knows the grief it will bring to God’s heart, and God chooses to bear it—all the way to the cross.
This kind of divine love is worth remembering during the season of Lent. During Lent we spend a lot of time in self-reflection, and that’s important. Part of Lent is about understanding that we’re imperfect and that we have work to do to become the people God created us to be. But as we do this work, we also remember who God is. We remember that God is a God who continues to be in relationship with us even when it comes with a cost, continues to take our suffering into God’s heart and bear it with us, continues to love us all the way until we are restored and made new. God promises to be with us in it all; there is not one bit of “darkness”—literal or metaphorical—that is outside of God’s presence. Perhaps the greatest temptation we face is to think there is.
So in this season of Lent, don’t be afraid to take a walk in the wilderness, to step into the darkness. And as you go, remember these words from Barbara Brown Taylor:
Here is some good news you can use: even when light fades and darkness falls—as it does every single day, in every single life—God does not turn the world over to some other deity. Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers you when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with all your language for calling it to your aid, which is not above using darkness as the wrecking ball that brings all your false gods down—but whether you decide to trust the witness of those who have gone before you, or you decide to do whatever it takes to become a witness yourself, here is the testimony of faith: darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014). In her discussion on the dark emotions, Brown is drawing on the work of Miriam Greenspan in Healing Through the Dark Emotions.
 Karoline Lewis, “The Greatest Tempation”, Working Preacher Website, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3537.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark.