Here is the manuscript I preached from. It came out somewhat like this. (Some parts, not so much.)
Lent is the Old Anglo Saxon word for SPRING. It is a time for us to practice being renewed. Get ready for resurrection and the new life in Risen Christ. Last week our scriptures pointed us toward “gratitude” - one of the foundations of renewal. Taking the time to be conscious of and name our blessings is a renewing exercise, and one that I hope you engaged in this week.
This week’s scripture points us in a different direction, toward an experience that is more difficult and less pleasant, perhaps, but just as real and just as necessary for our renewal:
I’ve told you about the night I climbed a mountain in Nicaragua in the dark. I’m going to tell you “the rest of the story”.
When they dropped the five of us off at the foot of the mountain, with our host Luis, the sun was just beginning to set. But a sunset in the mountains is not like sunsets here in Illinois. The sun doesn’t gently settle closer and closer to the horizon, the darkness working it’s way from east to west, seeping around but not melting into the glow of champaign/urbana to the north, bumping off of streetlights, porch lights, headlights on the highway.
Here, night comes slowly and gently. In Nicaragua, in the mountains, it descends, boom, like a curtain. Within minutes, we were walking in what to me was a pitch black night. Up a mountain. We stopped and got in our back packs, rummaged around and found flashlights. I had an LED book light that was nice and bright. Very focused in a tight circle, but bright. That was good because one woman had forgotten to bring one. She walked in front of me and I tried to shine my light so that it hit the ground in front of her feet as we moved forward.
We walked single file, because the path was about twelve inches wide. Recently it had been traveled by a mule who hauled up food and the gringas water. So we had to step carefully over mule manure, as well as rocks and tree roots.
Quantos minutos hasta la casa? Diez o quince. Bien. We chattered a little among ourselves at first. But after 20 minutes or so, we had to quit talking in order to climb. Esta cerca la casa? Muy cerca, Luis promised. But we kept walking.
After about a half hour, which included crossing a stream by hopping over rocks, all kinds of fears began to play in my mind. I told the woman in front of me, “If I have a heart attack here, don’t send my body back to the states. Please. Just bury me here. It’s fine.”
We couldn’t see anything but the 24 inches ahead of us. We heard children singing and calling, up the mountain just a little bit. Are those your children, Luis? The children are welcoming you! he told us. But we walked past the point where we heard them and on up the incline. Every time we passed through a pasture gate, we’d ask again, “Quantos minutos? Esta cerca?” And be assured, “Muy cerca.”
It hit me that I was about a million miles from home, with a little group of women, following a man I’d never met before to a destination I wasn’t sure existed. Banditos. Kidnapping. Clips from a Mexican film about the revolutionary struggle that I’d seen played in my head. I could see the images clearly, because I couldn’t see anything else. It was so dark. I couldn’t see the hand in front of my face. That dark. And I will admit now that I found the experience . . . a little unsettling. All right.
Perhaps that is why when I read this very rich and interesting narrative about the renewal of God’s covenant with Abram, it hit me this time that much of the action here takes place in the dark. And that darker emotions - fear and doubt and anger and even the threat of violence - are part of this renewal story. Verse 12 says “A deep and terrifying darkness descended on Abram.” And this account of human experience in our holy scriptures seem to invite us to think about times when we, literally and figuratively encounter God in the dark times of our lives.
How do we seek renewal and new life when the darkness closes in? When, like Abram, we begin to doubt what God is doing, and we wonder if maybe he has forgotten His promises to us.
Abram was at one of those points in life where things seemed pretty dark. God had called him out, and he’d gone. But God had promised him a child, and he had no child. God had lured him away from his father’s house in Haran, promising a new home. And Abram was still living in a tent. Was it possible that this had all been a mistake? Was God just fooling with him? Had he made the whole thing up in his own head? Abram was in a dark place - a place of fear and doubt. And he wasn’t too happy with his life, or with God. That’s a dark place.
Christians, we have dark places in our lives, too. times when loss, confusion, fear and doubt obscure our lives. We can’t see what’s ahead. We don’t feel sure of God’s involvement. We are in the dark. And it can be a bad time.
In Abram’s story, into this terrifying darkness, a light comes, in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. Our scriptures are filled with examples of light shining through the darkness, and yet, we still have trouble believing and trusting that God will bring light to our own terrifying dark places. Even when we know that Jesus is the light — to outshine all other lights, to overcome any darkness — we still huddle in fear when the darkness descends
Lent is a time when we face the darkness (together?) and admit that it scares us to death, and that we doubt God’s promises, and Lent is a time in which our connection with God and God’s intention for our lives can be renewed.
In the midst of darkness, Abraham did some things that can guide us when the darkness falls:
1 Most important! He kept talking to God. Even when all he had to say was a complaint. I know how easy it is to quit talking when God seems to have forgotten us. It’s a mistake to just keep mouthing the “Make me thankful that things aren’t worse.” prayers. We have to tell God what’s on our heart. If you don’t think you have the words, open your Bible and pray the psalms of lament. “Dogs surround me. They are yapping at my heels, trying to bring me down. Why don’t you protect me from these malicious people.” “My friends have betrayed me. Those I thought were my friends talk about me behind my back.” “I am exhausted. My strength is poured out and my bones are dried up.” There are words. Say them. God is not going to be shocked. He is big enough to handle your frustration. Talk. And listen.
2 Perform rituals to remind you who God is. Abraham performed this ritual sacrifice at God’s command. This ritual is clarified by the curses attached to a Sefire treaty, from the 8th century BCE: "Just as this calf is cut in two, so may Mati`el [one of the kings involved in this treaty] be cut in two, and may his nobles be cut in two." In Genesis, therefore, Yahweh is invoking upon himself a curse in order to make his promise credible: "May I Yahweh be cut in two if I do not carry through on my promise to Sarai and Abram."
It was God’s way of saying “Cross my heart, Hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” It was ritual. It was a visible sign of an invisible committment. It was a symbol meaning - I’ll keep my promise, or die trying.
In the dark parts of life, we need those symbols of God’s love and care and willingness to suffer for us. We need the cross. Come to church. Even if it’s hard and the sermon’s don’t apply, and the hymns sound hollow, and you don’t know why you are here. Where else are you going to see the cross? Where else are you going to be reminded of the promise of God to save you - a promise fulfilled by Jesus, even though he did have to die trying.
3 Know that its OK to believe and doubt at the same time. Faith isn’t the same thing as certainty. Faith is the substance of things hoped for - the evidence of things NOT SEEN. Abraham believed and questioned. And his faith was reckoned as righteousness. Remember when Jesus is asked to heal the centurion’s child? The father says, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” And Jesus did it. Having all the answers isn’t faith. And having stronger faith doesn’t necessarily lead to having more answers. Ask Job. Ask Jesus. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
I’m aware that there are flavors of Christianity that claim to have more answers - some claim to have all the answers - And they have answers. When I was younger, before any real darkness came into my life, I thought I had all the answers, too. From the Bible, of course. but then life happened to me. The darkness came, and I found out something about all those answers. Some of the answers are wrong. It’s like taking the SAT - you have to know when a wrong answer is going to cost you more than just leaving the question blank.
If I know what to do in every situation - If I ALWAYS KNOW what’s right and wrong - If I’ve got a rule for every situation -
I don’t need God much anyway. what’s he gonna do? Applaud my perfect life? But if I don’t - then I am more like Abram, and the rest of the human race.
We live out our faith, and ask our questions, and look to God’s mercy to sustain us.
Abraham in his time, and more fully Jesus Christ, showed the life of faith to be lived as we live it - sometimes in the dark - with barely enough light to take the next step.
Abram had a smoking firepot and a flaming torch. On the mountain in Nicaragua, I had an LED book light. But that light can be enough for us to keep going in faith, until the sun shines brighter again.
Even the darkness is not dark to God. The dark places of life can be places of renewal, if we do as Abram did:
Keep talking honestly - nagging or complaining, even - let’s just call it respectfully requesting that God enlighten you about his intentions.
Keep your eyes on the sacrifice that reminds you of God’s faithfulness - the cross. That means keep coming to church - strange as it may be, it brings you face to cross with God’s love.
Keep believing and doubting at the same time. That’s what faith is all about.
Last week, we filled out gratitude circles, listing blessings for which we thank God. This week, I’d like you to fill out the circle that petition God to shed light on the dark places of life. This might be your life, or dark places in the world. Any place or situation that makes you, like Abram, wonder if God is doing what God said he’d do. Place those prayers in the offering plate, like we did last week.
After a couple of minutes, Mark will play through the hymn, and we’ll rise to sing.