Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


The Darkness of God

In tomorrow's Gospel reading, we read Luke's account of Jesus' Transfiguration (the Greek is "Metamorphosis") on a mountain prior to his crucifixion. In 2002, I preached on this picking up on God "overshadowing" the group on the mountain in a cloud. I preached in part,
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 didn’t 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 Solomon’s 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.[1] 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.

William’s writes, “when God’s light breaks on my darkness, the first thing I know is that I don’t 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 won’t 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),
A deep but dazzling darkness.”

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 Solomon’s 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. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways.

In a sermon titled The Dark Night, Rowan Williams’ puts it like this,

“If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase of God, you are still playing games. On the other hand, if you can accept and even rejoice in the experience of darkness, if you can accept that God is more than an idea that keeps your religion or philosophy or politics tidy—then you may find a way back to religion, philosophy, or politics, to an engagement with them that is more creative because you are more aware of the oddity, the uncontrollable quality of truth at the heart of all things.”

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. Don’t give up on God but pray for a deeper experience of him even as you feel most deeply God’s 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.
The full text of the sermon is online here: The Darkness of God.

The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor



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