5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
And Jesus says to his disciples, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down….When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs of heaven.”
But Jesus doesn’t stop there.
“They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”
(Sigh) Welcome to church. As I look out, I’ll be honest, I am glad that I see so few visitors, because if this were the text on my first Sunday at a church, I don’t know that I would return. Nothing like a little holy war and famines and plagues to really kick start your faith. In fact, I have friends and family members who would scoff at hearing this text in church, proclaiming, “Ugh! It’s so dark. Why do we have to read that anyways?”
That is the way we seem to describe anything or anyone or any topic that is not happy and joyful and inspiring. It’s so dark, we say. Whether it is a movie about being enslaved for 12 years, or new music about death and mortality, or a person whose personality gives us the willies, so often we describe these things as dark. That movie is pretty dark. That music sounds dark. That person has a dark personality.
We seemed to have demonized darkness. Light equals good and darkness equals bad. I mean think about it, we are told not to walk alone in the dark, because in the dark is where bad things happen. School teachers and psychologist become alarmed when a child only wants to color and draw with that dark black crayon. Some us leave the lights on at home even when we are not there, just so that we won’t come home to darkness. It seems darkness has become something we ought to avoid.
The church hasn’t done us any favors in that area either. So often the church has paired light against darkness. Jesus is the light of the world, and if Jesus is light then darkness must be…whatever the opposite of Jesus is. In the first chapter of 1 John it says that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” No wonder people who have come close to death always talk about seeing “the light”, and never about seeing “the darkness.” And if they did see “the darkness” they probably wouldn’t tell anyone about it. In fact, we are just two weeks away from the season of Advent, where one of the major themes is “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” It seems darkness has become something we ought to avoid. Even in the church.
How do you think those of us with dark colored skin hear that kind of language about light and darkness? It amazes me that the United States that spends $12 billion a year on tanning products to make our skin darker is the same country that not so long ago viewed those with dark skin as only 3/5 human.
Light equals good and darkness equals bad? Maybe not. Perhaps that isn’t the whole story about darkness. We forget that we need the dark in order to see the light. And just think, why are candlelight midnight services so popular on Christmas Eve. There is something about coming to church in the dark that deepens and feeds our souls with the nutrients of God that coming to church in broad daylight simply can’t do.
When Lauren and I lived in St. Paul, we used to love to look at the cities lights. But when we moved here, Lauren exclaimed on one of our first night time drives, “I can see the stars here!” We had traded in the city lights for those celestial lights, and we couldn’t be happier. And it is all because of the absence of light, because of the darkness that rural life offers the evening sky. We need the dark in order to see the light.
Not only that, we need darkness to live in the light too. Hardly a night goes by that Lauren doesn’t ask me to turn down the lamp on my nightstand, so that she can get some sleep. In the dark.
I have watched as farmers have tilled up the harvested cornfields, unearthing that dark, rich soil that was beneath those corn stalks, feeding and growing that fruit of the earth that now feeds and grows us. I have watched as farmers have spread that fragrant, creamy dark, nutrient-rich manure on the empty fields, all so that it might replenish the earth for the sake of next years harvest.
Light equals good and darkness equals bad? Maybe not. Especially not for the deer this season. For it is the onset of darkness, the dimming of the sky lights that means they will live to see another day. “Thank God for the darkness,” says the deer who still has time to get away.
The truth is we, all the creatures of the creation, need darkness as much as we need light.
Which means maybe this gospel text which is so dark is not so much something that should scare us and send us running for cover, but instead is something that we need to hear. You see, when Luke wrote down this gospel story, that temple in Jerusalem that the disciples drooled over for all of its beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. That temple that was said to house the very presence of God. That temple…had already fallen down. By the time Luke wrote down his gospel story, the Roman Empire had already entered the city and destroyed that sacred place. Which means those readers of the very first edition of Luke’s gospel knew that Jesus was right. All will be thrown down because it already had been. Their precious church, life as they knew it had been thrown down. Which means these words in Luke are not meant to scare us. They are not a prediction of the end of the world that ought to alarm us. Rather these are words of comfort and courage to a community that is already living in darkness.
Many of us fear that the Christian church might be entering its own time of darkness. We are afraid that the sun is setting on the church and death is looming. We fear that we are living in a time when our churches are falling down literally and metaphorically. Lets face it, this is an uncertain time for the church. Much likes Jesus’ disciples, we are wondering, will the church finally collapse? And if so, when? Because maybe we don’t want to be in it when it does.
Over the years, many churches have tried to fight off this looming darkness with good business strategy that will excite people for mission and ministry and then pad the offering plate too. But, I’ll be honest, I don’t know that it will work.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor offers a different take. She says that perhaps as the church, we have become too dependent on artificial light. On light we have created and no longer on the light of God. She says that rather than panic and abandon our churches. Or rather than trying to prop our churches up on the wall jacks of corporate business strategy and effective fundraisers. perhaps, Taylor, we will need to learn to walk in the dark. And by learning to walk in the dark, we will have to figure out how to get around using only the things that God has given us – the moon, the stars, and our five senses.
There was a theologian who once said that some days he wished that a great big tidal wave would come along and wash away everything that the church has built up. Because then all we would have left is what we had in the beginning: ourselves and Jesus. What do you think it would be like to start to the Christian faith over again with nothing but ourselves and Jesus? No churches or cathedrals, no hymnals, no set worship liturgies, no pews. I can’t help but wonder if we might be due for a reboot.
Or maybe you don’t have the luxury of worrying about the future of the church because you are too frightfully worried about your own life and the darkness that seems to be overcoming it. Whether it is the loss of a job and bills that will not pay themselves. Or the end of a relationship that you thought was the one. Or perhaps despair over a recent diagnosis that could change all the plans you had for your life. Maybe it isn’t the darkening of the church’s path that scares you, but the darkening of your own?
Sometimes, I think, the most transformative time in our life will be when we feel like we are in darkness. When we are lost. When we are wondering what this life is for and why we are living it. Remember it was Jacob who wrestled with God in the darkness throughout the night and who, in the end, came out limping, yes, but also blessed and with a new name. It is those times in the darkness that can change our life and transform our heart into something that is much more life-giving than when our life seemed like it was bright and the path was well lit. So often it can be transformative because it is during the dark times that we have nothing left to rely on but something that is outside of ourselves. It is those times when we can no longer be our own saviors. We can no longer be the experts on our own life. Rather those dark nights, when we have nothing left to give, when we are all worn out, those are the times when we can do nothing else except open up our hands and give our life over into the hands of God.
Light equals good and darkness equals bad? Maybe not. The only question is: are you afraid of the dark? Jesus says do not be afraid. For not one single hair on your head will perish. And by enduring the hard work of learning to walk in the dark, you will gain your souls. May it be so. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, lecture given at the Festival of Homiletics, 2013.