The Darkness of God
Todays Gospel reading is known as the Transfiguration. Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John and while there, he is transfigured before their eyes. The Greek word for transfigured is metamorphosis. Like a caterpillar going through metamorphosis, Jesus changes from an earthly appearance to a heavenly one before the disciples eyes. Jesus face shined like the sun and even his clothes become dazzling white. The one who once told the disciples I am the light of the world, shone out brightly, making that enigmatic I am statement more than a metaphor.
I personally get distracted when preacher rattle off a bunch of scriptures, hop scotching around the Bible to prove a point. But I need to make an exception today if we are going to get where I think we need to go. Listen to just a few of the many places where God is described as light:
In Johns Gospel he said This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19). Later in the same book Jesus said, I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness (John 12:46).
Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans, The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
In the letter to the Ephesians, we hear, For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of lightfor the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them (Ephesians 5:8-11).
The first letter of John is big on contrasting light and darkness. John writes, This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).
You get the idea. What Im saying is nothing new. God is light and that is good. Darkness is bad and God has nothing to do with darkness, because darkness is the absence of light. This is a good solid image from the Bible. This idea of God being light is a helpful metaphor, and we see in times like the Transfiguration that God as light may be more than a metaphor as Jesus face shines like the sun and his clothes take on a dazzling brightness.
Then we get the paradoxical description of the group being overshadowed by a bright cloud. From the cloud, God the Father booms out This is My Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!
God speaking from this bright cloud should remind us of Jesus baptism when God spoke from a cloud saying, This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. The only difference this second time is that God adds, Listen to him. Not bad advice really. But this scene also calls to mind Moses own journey, which we read this morning in the book of Exodus.
Moses too went up a high mountain. God also called to Moses from a cloud. Moreover, later, beyond our reading for today, Moses too would come down the mountain with his face shining. In fact, Moses face shone so brightly that the people wanted him to cover his face with a veil.
The stories of Jesus on the mount of transfiguration and Moses on Sinai are similar, but not quite the same. Moses mountain is covered in cloud, which Moses enters to experience more of God. Moses story is connected to another strand within the Bible, a thread winding itself through scripture in which God seems to go with darkness.
It reminded me of creating the service for Christmas Eve. I wanted to change the Prayers of the People to use the form in the book Intercessions for the Christian People, which tailors the prayers to the scripture for the day. The prayer for Christmas Eve ended,
God of darkness and silence, you have pierced the quiet of this night by the utterance of your word made flesh. May our words of praise and petition be strong echoes of your Christmas word, so that all might come to the peace you promise in Jesus, who is Lord and God this night and forever. Amen.
When I first read, God of darkness and silence, I was tempted to edit it. I knew of this strand of scripture where God is described as darkness and silence, but it didnt seem right for the season of celebrating the light of the world coming into the world. Yet, as I prayed about it, I knew that the people who wrote the prayers were on to something. At the Christmas season, many folks are in darkness or not hearing from God and they too should find themselves in the liturgy.
If you will indulge me one more time, I would like to share with you some of the many scriptures that speak positively of God and darkness:
Earlier in Exodus we are told The people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:21).
In the second book of Samuel God speaks to David who describes the event saying, Thick darkness was under his feet and he made darkness around him a canopy (2 Samuel 22:10-14).
In the first book of Kings story of the dedication of Solomons Temple records the glory of the Lord coming upon the place like this, 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 (1 Kings 8:10-12).
In Psalm 97, we hear, The Lord is King! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne (Psalm 97:1-2).
The prophet Isaiah told us a lot about light and darkness, particularly saying that the Messiah would be a light to the nations. But Isaiah also wrote, I will give you treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by name (Isaiah 45:3).
I was helped with these lesser known scriptures describing God as dwelling in darkness by a sermon collection I read just before I started seminary. The book, called A Ray of Darkness, was written by the current Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams. In it, Williams has several sermons which deal with this imagery of God as darkness.
The title of Williams book comes from the writings of a fifth-century Syrian monk who wrote using the pen-name Dionysius. For Dionysius, God sometimes cuts through our lesser light of understanding with a ray of darkness. This means that just when we think we get it, we understand who God is and how God acts, God shows us that we cannot contain God. This revelation cuts through our complacency like a ray of darkness.
Williams writes, when Gods light breaks on my darkness, the first thing I know is that I dont know, and never did.
When God is described as enshrouded in a cloud or darkness, scripture is showing us God calling us to a deeper experience of God. God is calling us into his own glory, into the secret places of which we as of yet know nothing.
These two images of God being light and darkness are reconciled when we consider the brightness of the sun. If you stare into the brightness of the sun, you get blinded by the light. Look away from the sun and you wont be able to see other things so clearly for a while. All is plunged into darkness compared to the bright light you have experienced.
Writers through the centuries have struggled to describe how the experience of God can plunge us into darkness. In fact struggling with the darkness of God was a popular spiritual and literary pursuit from the time of Moses through the seventeenth century. Just as this strand of scripture was falling out of favor in the 1600s, the Welsh poet Henry Vaughn wrote,
There is in God (some say),
Dazzling darkness is just the sort of paradox writers often used, not unlike Dyonisius writing of a Ray of Darkness to describe what it is like to have the deep and hidden things of God break into our lesser understanding of God.
But what value is the story of Moses entering a cloud to experience God more deeply? What value is Solomons assertion that God has said he will live in deep darkness? How can a ray of darkness get me though the coming week?
We learn from this darkness imagery primarily that God is God and we are not. Gods thoughts are not our thoughts, Gods ways are not our ways.
In a sermon titled The Dark Night, Rowan Williams puts it like this,
God cannot be controlled. Sometimes we will seek God and not find God, not because God is not there, for God is present in the silence, but because God avoids our every attempt at making God predictable, tame, safe.
Carry this with you as we journey through the season of Lent. When you reach out to God and experience darkness and silence, God is in that darkness and silence. Sometimes darkness and silence are the only ways the God of light and word can get our attention. Dont give up on God but pray for a deeper experience of him even as you feel most deeply Gods absence.
God may be breaking into your lesser light, your lesser understanding, your lesser experience of God with a ray of darkness. Be open to God and God will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness.
 A Ray of Darkness by Rowan Williams (Cowley Publishers, 1995).
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