Scott Clark is Chaplain and Associate Dean of Student Life at San Francisco Theological Seminary. On Sunday, December 4, Scott had the opportunity to preach at 7th Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco and deliver the following sermon. You can find the audio version of “No Light Without Darkness” here: https://soundcloud.com/sapcsf.
A Word from Scott on the Context and Setting: Their theme for Advent was “How the Light Gets In,” but the gospel text was that tough John the Baptist text where the light is “baptism by fire” and “unquenchable fire” that burns the chaff. So in this sermon, I try to address the problematic way that dominant culture can approach light/dark imagery; the bright light that the election and campaign have shone on American racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other hate; and an approach to repentance/transformation and finding our agency.
Sermon: I understand that your theme here this Advent is “Where the Light Gets In,” so as we approach this morning’s gospel reading, I have an assignment for you. I invite you to listen for the light imagery. Where is the light? And after the reading, there will be a quiz.
A reading of Matthew 3:1-12
Where did you see light in the text? That’s right “baptizing with fire” and “burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
When we look at this text, when we look at the light in this text, the light is a little … startling… maybe even upsetting. The light that we usually think we are looking for at Advent … it’s not supposed to look like this. And for good reason. Embedded in our culture, we too often expect light to be good.. and nice. Light is warming…the light and warmth of the sun on our skin that takes away the chill of a winter’s day. Light is revealing .. something that was obscure is now made clear. Light is freeing .. a pillar of light that leads us toward freedom. There is a dominant construction of light and dark imagery in our culture that is binary and dualistic – and that privileges light.
That’s an interpretation that we bring to Scripture, and indeed a number of passages of Scripture certainly lift up light as a healing and revealing and comforting image.
• God is my light and my salvation.
• Arise your light has come… your light will break forth like the dawn.
• A people living in darkness have seen a great light.
In this construction of our poetic world, we expect the light to be a comfort.
I want to suggest an alternative that may help us to bear the burden of the light in this Advent text. Next month, John Philip Newell – a writer and poet of Celtic spirituality — will be coming to the seminary, so I’ve been reading up. Celtic spirituality suggests another approach to light and darkness. Celtic spirituality invites us always to look for the presence of God in all creation – and, so, it suggests that light and darkness are both part of creation – both part of one whole life – neither is bad nor good – both are part of one whole.
Night flows into the subtle grays and then pinks of dawn. The light warms the earth as we move toward noon, and then the shadows lengthen as the sun sinks into horizon, and into sunset, and dusk, and as we settle into the companionship of evening, and the deep and holy rest of night, as we are refreshed for more life. And the sun rises again, and it sets.
Light and dark. Day and night. Summer, and autumn, and winter, and spring. The rhythm of one whole life.
And Scripture gives us hints of this too. In the beginning, God creates both light and dark, and she separates them into day and night, each and both part of one whole and good creation. The Psalmist reminds us that God knit us together in the shelter of our mother’s womb – our first experience of life was in the comfort and nurture of darkness. At one point, Scripture tells the Exodus story, and says that God put darkness between Pharaoh and the people, as a way of leading the people out of bondage. We live in both light and darkness, one whole life.
As we approach this Advent text this morning, I suggest that we stand in this Celtic sense of light and dark – both part of one whole life – because sometimes in our poetic world, and in our inhabited world – light is harsh. Light can show us more than we may want to see. Sometimes, we’d rather view the world through the gauzy lens of an Instagram filter. Bring down the light just a bit. Sometimes, light can feel unbearable.
That’s how it is in this story of John the Baptist – because the light here – the light that John the Baptist is talking about is the light of judgment.
(And I don’t think I have ever spoken plainly about the light of judgment in any sermon anywhere – and for good reason. For many of us, the notion of judgment has been used against us as a weapon. For those of us who have been wounded by the church, it has been used as a threat, and a cudgel. So before I say anything else – I want to re-calibrate this for us. I think of judgment as the fullness of the whole of our life coming into the light. Everything that we’ve done – all the systems that we participate in – the full reality of all of that – out in the light. We recognize that together and alone we are broken people – we bring that into the light – we are honest – and only then can we move into healing and forgiveness and freedom. It is the prayer of confession: We are honest about who we are, as an essential part of grasping and claiming the fullness of our created being – and the fullness of God’s absolutely unconditional love for us.)
And so here, in this text, John comes. John the Baptist – in his crazy hair shirt, and eating locusts and honey – he comes out into the wilderness – the blazing light of the wilderness. And the people follow. The city empties out – and folks come – they come for baptism and for repentance.
(There’s another one of those words. In the Greek, “repentance” is turning and transformation and change. It is a moral imperative that is necessary to save our lives. It is turning ourselves toward the way of Life. It is turning the world that is upside-down, right-side up.)
So, all the people, they leave the city – the center of power – and they go out into the wilderness – out into the margins. And power follows them out – those Pharisees and those Sadducees – because power doesn’t like to be left alone – power needs to know what is going on. And John speaks to power. And he speaks of the light. All that is wrong is going to be brought into the light. A baptism with revealing fire. There is one who is coming. With light. In their wilderness, he is bringing everything into the light.
In their wilderness – so what about ours? I don’t know about you, but to me, these times feel like a wilderness – a harsh, dry space where all the markers are gone – These times where we are having to face so many truths about this nation – where there is no longer anywhere to run and hide. All is laid bare.
And I do want to talk about this past month, and the aftermath of our national election – but before that, I want to say this about our times: We are about two and a half years past Ferguson, and the police killing of Michael Brown. And in those two and a half years, cell phones and the internet have brought into full public light the daily threat of state-sanctioned violence that African Americans face. The killings of unarmed African Americans – by the police, by vigilantes and by terrorists – Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, the good folks praying at Mother Emmanuel AME, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, and so many more – those killings and the total lack of accountability for those who perpetrate them – brought out into the light. And I say that because what we have seen so publicly in the past few years is nothing new – it is part and parcel of America’s 400-year long history of racism. What has long been known and experienced by African Americans, can no longer be avoided or denied by white Americans. Black writers like Ta-Nahisi Coates have put words to the experience; Black scholars like Michelle Alexander and Isabel Wilkerson have explained how the entirety of American legal and economic systems have perpetuated a racial caste system. All brought out into the light.
And I start there, because the election we just experienced is connected to that 400-year history too. We have endured an election campaign, where the rhetoric from the man who will soon be president has mocked the disabled, threatened immigrants in our country, demeaned the lives and communities of African Americans, recounted his own physical assault of women, and stated his intention to undo constitutional protections for LGBTQ families, and just about everyone else. And all that ugly, all that hate, is lying there, seething, out in the open, in the full light of day. And it is nothing new.
And as we watch an administration form, at its center, we see one who has led something called Breitbart news, the self-described media platform for this white-supremacist, neo-Nazi “alt-right” movement. Have you seen the rallies? What was hidden now feels permission to come out into the light. Virulent anti-Semitism, and racism, and sexism, and homophobia, with chants of “Hail Trump!” accompanied by a Nazi salute. And again, I need to say, this is nothing new – racism, sexism, anti-Semitism – now — it is all out there in the light – in the light of judgment where what is hidden is now in plain view.
And I don’t know about you. But for the past month, I have felt almost physically ill – and it doesn’t go away. I think it hits me in two places – it hits me in my places of oppression – I am genuinely fearful for LGBTQ people and our families. And it hits me in my places of privilege, as I see privilege of race and class and gender manifest in a way that calls into account my own participation in American systems of power and domination. And I’ve talked to others who are feeling things like this – each from our own social location – and in the laid-bare enormity of this, we are expressing a feeling of helplessness. And part of what we need is to find – somewhere, somehow — our agency – our power to do something – in a world that feels like it is spinning dangerously out of control. We desperately need agency – and we need some hope.
And all this – all this is here in this Scripture text, too. All this light – the wilderness – the powers. And our agency – and believe it or not – hope. Because John doesn’t just say, “All that is hidden will come into the light.” He also says this: “One is coming.” And then he says, “Repent, transform, transform yourself, and join together in transforming this world.” This text brings the light – the glaring, strident, truth-telling light. And then it brings hope, and it gives us something to do: Christ is coming. Transform the world.
Because this moment – it’s just one moment in one whole story – one moment in one whole life. And we know the story. We know the one who is coming. We wait, in Advent, for God to come. God is coming – Immanuel – God with us. God is coming – in the deep dark of a starlit night – God comes to us in the birth of the Christ. Jesus enters life just like we do – from the warmth and intimacy of his mother’s womb, birthed into the chill of the world. And one of his first experiences as an infant – is the threat of power – the threat of genocide – as Herod hunts the Christ down. And in the safety of night, Joseph and Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt.
Years later, they return, and Jesus grows, and enters with us into the whole of life – all of our suffering, all of our joy, all of our pain, all of our sorrow. And, and as he does, he calls disciples, and Jesus invites us to join in the whole of life, with one command: Love. Love God with all our heart, mind, and strength. And love our neighbor. Jesus says all of life is fulfilled in that – all the law, all the prophets – fulfilled in love – fulfilled in Christ. And Jesus says this to those he calls:
• You will need to keep bringing all this into the light. He tells them, ”Everything that is hidden will be brought into the light. What I am now telling you in the dark, you must proclaim in the daylight.” (10.26)
• And then he says, we will transform the world together. In love,
• And then he says, and the world will look like this:
o Blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
o Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
o Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, for the right-wising of the world, for they will be filled.
This (one hand) is the world brought out into the light;
This (other hand) is the work we have to do, together.
That is the call and the hope in their wilderness and in ours:
• We are called to continue to bring true things into the light – not too shirk away – but to keep watch – every moment as this new administration begins to wield its power — because all this has been hidden for too long – and because the stakes are so high.
• And then, we are called to repent – to act – to resist the powers to transform the world with love – to claim our agency to do good. We are not helpless or on our own, but together in the wilderness – and One is coming, with the world-transforming power of love.
We know this whole story – this whole life. And we know where it will take the One who comes. Even in Advent we know this. Jesus will come, and he will confront the powers, and it will lead him to arrest, and trial, and death.
And. And we know that in the deep dawn of the third day, in that holy place where darkness and light mingle and dance, in that moment, in this moment, we will find Resurrection. In that moment, we will find that the powers of the world ultimately hold no sway. In that moment, we will find the world-transforming, healing, saving power of love.
John is standing there in the wilderness pointing us to this moment.
And in this moment –
What we will find there – what we find here – in this moment
is our One. Whole. Life.