Learning from the Dark
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Learning from the Dark”
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 8, 2019
19 The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.
20 Your sun shall no more go down, or your moon withdraw itself; for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.
21 Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever. They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands, so that I might be glorified.
22 The least of them shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation; I am the LORD; in its time I will accomplish it quickly.
Yesterday afternoon, Judy Wrought asked me if I had finished my sermon yet. I told her I had, but that I was dissatisfied with it. In fact, I think I said it sucked.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t put a lot of time and effort into it. I had really struggled with it. Everyone in my house had to listen to me complaining about how I just didn’t like where it had ended up, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I wasn’t really sure what was wrong with it.
And then, at 6:30 this morning, it finally came to me. So I spent the last two hours writing a new sermon, which I’ve never done before. I don’t know if it’s any good. I’m not really concerned about standards of judgment when it comes to sermons because it’s a pretty subjective thing. But I’m satisfied that I resolved my problem with the sermon I wrote and the text we’re interpreting and the community gathered here today.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,
6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
So the problem with the sermon I wrote this week is I spent about 20 minutes focusing on just one set of characters in this text: the Pharisees and Sadducees. I focused on the way darkness is at play for them in this text. But that didn’t feel like something that would resonate with all of us, or perhaps even most of us right now. It’ll be important to some of us, and I left some of that in here, but that just didn’t feel like the kind of darkness we all need to hear about.
Barbara Brown Taylor organized her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, around the phases of the moon, as it wanes and waxes from full, to new moon, and back to full. Though these phases, she explores different kinds of darkness – physical, spiritual, and emotional. She also expresses an understanding that each of us experiences all these kinds of darkness differently depending on our personal experiences of darkness in the past. If you had experiences in the dark full of wonder and curiosity, you will approach it differently from someone who has been attacked in the dark.
The blessing of this text, the blessing I had missed until this morning, is that there are several characters in it who are experiencing different kinds of darkness, or at least experiencing darkness differently.
It is not just the Pharisees and Sadducees who are in the dark and being called to repentance. There are crowds of people flocking from Jerusalem and all Judea … and all the region along the Jordan. These crowds of people have a different experience of darkness than the religious leadership. They also have a different experience with John at the Jordan River.
And then there is John the Baptist himself. He has a particular experience of darkness and a different role to play in it.
My realization this morning was that we may find ourselves identifying more with one of these characters or groups than another. Or we may find something to learn from all three.
The text centers around the theme of repentance. Now, when we hear the word repentance, we tend to draw up feelings of guilt and shame. We don’t like to think about repentance because we don’t like to think we are bad people.
But repentance is not a call to feel bad about ourselves. It is a call to take responsibility for what we’ve done. Even the things we’ve done unwittingly. Even the things we’ve done indirectly. Owning our complicity, holding ourselves accountable for the ways in which we’ve separated ourselves from God and neighbor – that is repentance. It’s about the personal responsibility we have to learn from the darkness we carry around inside us and not deny it, or hide from it, or ignore it.
But repentance is also not self-purification. It is not work that we can do on our own, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps out of sin. Instead, repentance is the radical trust that Christ is our guide and teacher, that we can learn from him how to approach the darkness and let it be transformed by God.
The prophet Isaiah spends a lot of time calling the people of Israel to repentance. He confronts them with their darkness. And he draws them into relationship with God so that they can learn from their darkness. But, in the end, he assures them that they will emerge from the darkness. What they learn from the dark will lead them to a light that has nothing to do with sun or moon or stars. God will be their everlasting light, God will be their glory, and their days of mourning, of repentance, will end.
Repentance is not a state of being. We are not called to wallow in self-loathing. But we are called to trust that Christ is about the work of making all things new, and that work will require us to be confronted by our darkness from time to time, and to step into that confrontation, not with defensiveness, but with honesty and humility. This work requires us to leave our safe bubbles, our echo-chambers of ideology, and hear truths that might challenge everything we’re certain is right and good.
To learn from our darkness, we have to recognize that the world isn’t divided into bad people and good people. We all carry darkness around inside us. We all become blind to that darkness sometimes. And we all need to learn from our own darkness before we can confront the darkness we see in someone else.
So, that’s repentance. That’s what we’re dealing with here in this text. But we have three groups or characters who are dealing with it differently.
First, there are those crowds of people flocking into the wilderness to be baptized by John in the Jordan. These are the folks that maybe we would call “woke” or enlightened, but really, they are just the folks who have seen their place in the structures and systems and institutions of oppression and injustice and want no more of it. They may be confessing individual, personal sins that have hurt their neighbor or alienated them from God. That’s a part of this event, for sure. But they are also traveling from big cities and small towns, from all these places occupied by the Roman Empire, from all these places where widows and orphans and sojourners are not being cared for, from all these places where the world does not in any way resemble the kingdom of God. They are leaving those places and traveling, in some cases probably, great distances, going out into the wilderness to confess their sins and receive the baptism of purification John is offering.
But what motivates these crowds is not just their personal righteousness, their personal readiness for the arrival of God’s reign on earth. Later in Matthew’s gospel me get a hint about their true motivations. Jesus says, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'” Jesus says John was a prophet like Elijah, who spoke truth to power, who called kings and queens and false prophets to accountability for their destructive ideologies and behaviors.
And so we begin to get a picture of what was so enticing about John’s call to repentance. It is a call to transformation, not just for individuals, but for systems and societies. Owning our personal darkness, taking responsibility for how we’ve hurt others, either intentionally or unintentionally, is the path to unraveling structural oppression and institutional injustice.
This is what people were excited about. A prophet who would lead God’s people to a repentance that would bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly, a prophet who would hold leaders accountable for their corruption and greed, a prophet who would inspire transformation in their lives and in the world around them.
If you are watching the impeachment proceedings right now, or if you are even aware of them, you are most likely horrified. If you’re a Democrat, you’re horrified at the conduct of President Trump and the Republicans who support him. If you’re a Republican, you’re horrified by the conduct of the Democrats and those individuals and institutions echoing and supporting their calls for impeachment. No matter what your political persuasion, everyone feels the darkness of this time. Everyone feels the darkness of our political institutions and processes.
And so the call of this text to us is to not ignore this darkness or deny it or hide from it. We are called to head out into the wilderness to face it, to learn from it, to recognize how we’re each individually contributing to it, and to confess it. That is the path to transformation for each of us individually and for the whole society steeped in darkness.
Now, as I said, the main focus of my original sermon was on the Pharisees and Sadducees, two groups of religious leaders in first-century Judaism. In the gospel of Matthew, the Sadducees and Pharisees become these stock characters for religious elitism and exclusivism. They were well-meaning. They developed their beliefs based on scripture. They had convincing arguments for their positions. They felt like enlightened people.
But when they come out to the river, they are confronted with their darkness.
The text we read today says that they were “coming for baptism.” But the Greek word epi, translated as “for,” has a wide range of meanings. It could certainly mean coming for or about or because of baptism. But can also mean coming against baptism. Given the context, it really could make sense either way. But given the animosity that arises between these groups and the Jesus John is preparing the way for, I would like to at least explore the possibility that these groups are coming out to the desert to shut down John’s operation.
Later in Matthew’s gospel, these groups come into conflict with Jesus on multiple occasions because Jesus is coloring outside the lines. He is presenting truth claims that don’t match up with what they know to be true.
So perhaps, in their commitment to true righteousness, they take offense with John’s assertion that we all need to wake up, recognize our darkness, and repent. The religious powers, like any sort of power, need to maintain the status quo. The call to transformation, to disassembling the current institutional structures, is dangerous and threatening. There is safety in the institution of the temple industrial complex, in the claim to Abrahamic succession.
John confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees with the darkness of clinging to this ideology. It isn’t a pretty confrontation. Being called a “brood of vipers” sounds like no fun, but it takes on another level of ugliness when you consider that snakes were unclean animals. These folks who saw themselves as religiously pure are being called out as filthy beasts.
This is not a fun group to find ourselves in. This is probably the most difficult part of the path to repentance. The confrontation. The mirror held up in front of us that reflects not a shiny good person but a shadow. When we have to see, when we can no longer deny, that we are the ones in the dark. Not many people can face this confrontation and not go on the defensive.
Finally, we get to the character of John the Baptist. He’s the poor soul who is tasked with seeing and naming the darkness others are blind to. It sounds like maybe the best place to be in this story. He’s in charge of calling other people out, of pronouncing judgment. We love doing that, right? We’re really good at that.
But we might also want to remember how things end up for John. He’s killed for doing this work. People don’t like being confronted with their darkness. We would much rather close our eyes and pretend it's not there. We’d much rather silence those who try to lead us into our darkness to learn from it.
Which is why the work of those involved with Together Colorado, and all of those working on behalf of homeless youth and others in need in our community is such brave, profound work. These are folks who are calling us to see how we are complicit in the structures and institutions that contribute to homelessness in our community. It isn’t just the responsibility of those who can’t get their acts together. We have problems in our community with affordable housing and addiction and domestic violence and lots of other societal ills. And we all have to face this darkness as our own darkness. Together Colorado is doing the courageous work of learning from this darkness and calling us all to learn from it, too.
(ask people to stand who have helped or attended Thursday night’s forum, who attended or helped with the Tea, who have worked with One Community, One Family, who have helped with 137 or Community Kitchen, or helped in some other way to address the issue of homelessness in our community)
These are our John the Baptists. Watch out, Loveland. They will not allow us to remain blind to our darkness any longer. We are going to be called out, and it might not be pretty or fun.
But if we can all face our darkness, with courage and hope and faith that God in Jesus Christ has the power to transform, not just each of us individually, but our whole city, and our state, and our nation, and our world, then we are ready to come to the river.
Friends, let us repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Thanks be to God. Amen.