God in the Dark [or: never, ever, ever give up]
Hey. What’s below is a reflection titled ‘God in the Dark’. It was for the ‘Sermon of the Year 2017’, and it seems to have made the ‘Top 10’ and been published in a book, in case you care. It’s imperfect but I guess it’s the most honest thing I’ve ever written. Wherever you are in the great riddle of life, I hope this points you to light.
I’m a superhero fan and I must admit I’m a little obsessed with Batman – known as the Dark Knight. There’s a character a little consumed by blackness. His life is tragic, he lives in a cave, fights crime at night, and of course he does not work in bright colours.
I love what LEGO Batman says in the Lego Movie. Asked if he ever works with colour, like orange – he responds, ‘I only work in black. And sometimes very, very dark grey.’
Perhaps you’ve related to that at some time in your life. Or maybe you had that emo phase as a teenager when you only listened to music about how hard and painful life is. Or maybe like me you would occasionally post a cryptic, moody post on Facebook about how no one understands you.
Sometimes it can be silly, but it can also be very serious. Often when we talk about darkness it’s when we’re trying to give words to something that’s painful and pervasive and powerful.
What is darkness? And what is light? And where is God in it all?
I want to say one thing today, which is that God is in the dark.
To say that God is in the dark is to say two profound things. It is firstly an admission that we live our lives in the dark. That all is not as it should be, and all cannot be seen for what it is. To say this is to tap in to truth, it is to reckon with reality, it is to walk in the way of wisdom.
The darkness is real. Does that need explaining? In my job I happen to spend all my day in the world’s news, which – it may not surprise you – is not always a joyful, uplifting experience. There’s a lot in the world that we know isn’t right. Injustice is ignored. Evil prevails. Human beings are deeply flawed, and we often cannot be who we want to be. There is a reason that the greatest, most common objection to the Christian faith is what CS Lewis called the problem of pain. We suffer, we know it undeniably, and we want to know why.
Well I believe that God does not deny the darkness, and that the Bible is full of honest witness to it. We live in the dark, and we must remember this because there may be no greater unkindness than to say to someone, 'Your hardship isn’t real. It’s just an illusion, or it’s just a phase that will make sense soon.'
No, Christian theology says that the darkness is real, that we live in the dark. But it says something else too. Paradoxically, the Bible says that our dark world abounds in light.
In fact deep darkness is where we first meet God. In Genesis, the story of the world begins in darkness: formless, void, nothingness. But then God speaks.
First there is chaos, but a word from the divine brings hope. So he says, so it is: let there be light. And so all over Scripture we see people finding that God is their light in a dark world - that he sets free, and he keeps safe, he guides, and he warns. He loves, and he restores.
And then at the heart of this story we meet a man who says ‘I am the light.’
We could say so much about the man Jesus and the things he said and did. I just want to draw us to one moment. It’s in the cross of Christ that we see what happens when darkness meets the light. We see something mysterious and complex but profound, and it’s something the Gospel writers are always pointing us too.
Because in this moment, it looks absolutely like the darkness has won. The promising leader is dead. The occupying forces oppress once again. All that talk of hope and light and the power of the Kingdom of God - it means nothing now. Has God left? Because even the so-called Messiah himself is on the cross saying: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
But the Gospel writers aren’t telling you this story to make you want to give up. They’re saying something even more scandalous – that at the heart of this unjust suffering is God himself incarnate.
They’re pointing at the cross to say: ‘the darkness is real!’
‘But look closer,’ they say. ‘God is real too.’
The cross is one of the darkest symbols you could imagine. Yet for Christians throughout history it has been a source of resounding hope. It looks like defeat and despair, but there is more going on. We may often live our lives feeling a conflict between believing in 'the light', but being confronted by an inner, inescapable darkness.
I once gave a talk for a Christian group at University. I talked about how the light shines in
the darkness, how it casts out fear and gives us hope. I meant it, but when that talk finished, it didn't quite go as I'd hoped, and I don't say this lightly but, I wondered if I should kill myself.
How is that possible? Where does that come from? I'm a Christian! I'm preaching about victory but inside I'm at war. How is it that we say we've seen the light, but we're ruled by darkness? We sing about hope but our default is despair.
It's in these moments of crisis though, that we see why need a light that's real, something more than just an idea. Jesus shows us that the light is real. It is earthy. It’s not just a vague ethereal concept – it actually does something.
The darkness tells the poor, the lowly and those who suffer: ‘this is just the way of the world,
how it will always be – and it may even be your fault.’ But Jesus says he brings good news for the poor, that the last shall be first, that the lowly will be brought high.
The law of darkness is that if you are wronged you must avenge. If you are struck, you must strike back. The darkness feeds off violence met with violence, and we know its destruction well. But the light comes in self-giving love that sacrifices all for another, taking the darkness on itself. The darkness does not understand this, and that is why it can never overcome. The darkness tells us to give up because there is no hope, the light makes a promise that there is always hope. That it’s worth fighting for.
When I reached the end of my university degree I had spent a year working on one project that I really thought could be good. I was actually proud of it. I thought it was good, but the feedback said that it was just…fine. It was okay, it was flawed. I was crushed at the time. After my best shot I was...not good enough. In that hour of my life the darkness said to me that ‘Well, you tried, and you failed, so what is the point of you?’
Feeling that was really hard.
But in time I heard the light say something else. The light said ‘Yes, you tried, and it didn’t go how you hoped – and that is hard – but you are still mine and that can never change. At my graduation ceremony, the guest speaker told us – ‘remember who you are.’
Remember who you are.
You see this talk about light conquering darkness – it really does mean something. And the Bible does not simply tell us that there is a light and that the light wins, but that we too can become children of the light. We can change. We can become hope that illuminates a world in despair.
Jesus, who at one point said ‘I am the light of the world’, at another point tells his disciples:
‘You are the light of the world.’ It’s as if he’s saying: it’s your turn now. I am the light, but through me you too will become light for the world.
Paul calls the Church in Ephesus ‘children of the light’, because he says ‘you do not live in darkness, but in the light.' So, he says, have nothing to do with the darkness. How do we become light for the world? Consider the moon! The celestial orb that transfixes so many at night. In a sea of black, the moon glows. But it isn't a star, it doesn't create its own light. The moon reflects - its light truly belongs to the sun. In a time when it can be hard to see, the moon, with its light, whispers of a greater light that will rise again. In a world struggling to see, we need to be like the moon.
'You are the light of the world.'
So the world is dark, but God is in the dark. He shows us light, and we too can become light.
But I know that's not easy. Ecclesiastes tells us all about life in the darkness. The writer tells us all about the savage realities of what he calls life ‘under the sun,’ where the wicked prosper, and the good suffer, where fools are lighted high, and true wisdom is ignored. Even something good like our work, it comes from envy of our brother! Everything is corrupted, the writer says. Everything is meaningless. I sense that the writer of Ecclesiastes wasn't exactly the life and soul of the party in his day! But he has something important to say.
Ecclesiastes is part of God’s word, in the Bible, because it really is true. It is profound truth about our life 'under the sun'. But it isn’t the only the true thing. There is more. There is another way to live. In the midst of the cruel life under the sun there is a kingdom of light, a kingdom of hope, the Kingdom of God.
I cannot promise peaceful politics, nor wise world leaders. But remember that deep hope looks beyond what we can clearly see. Today is in many ways a dark day, I expect tomorrow will be too. For now, we live in the dark, but one day: unending light.
If we look hard, if we ask for the eyes to see, we may discover glimpses of that light in the present, and see that we are not alone. This light is a gift, and friends, it is worth fighting for. For Jesus, it was worth dying for.
This isn't blind faith. It's deep trust. We can’t always get answers to the many questions we have. But we can know this: that God is in the dark.