Bedlam to Bethlehem: Darkness

Scripture: Isaiah 45:3
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
November 29, 2015

This morning we begin a new sermon series entitled, “Bedlam to Bethlehem”.  Let’s admit it.  Christmas for many people is bedlam.  Bedlam means uproar, busyness, wild confusion.  Did anyone go shopping for deals on Black Friday?  Absolute bedlam! The Christmas season, beginning the day after Thanksgiving, is often associated with frayed nerves, emotional tensions, physical exhaustion, long lines, traffic jams, and hectic schedules.  And each year, on the first Sunday of Advent, I find myself asking, “So, Jill, what will it be this year?  Bedlam or Bethlehem?  Chaos or Christmas?”  Yet, a closer look at the Christmas story tells us that Bethlehem takes place right in the midst of bedlam.  The birth of Jesus came during a time of chaos and confusion.  

During the season of Advent, I will be lifting up a word that we generally associate with bedlam.  Our task will be to discover whether we can find Bethlehem in its midst.  Our word for today on the first Sunday of Advent is darkness.    After all, our days are becoming shorter, hours of daylight become fewer as we move toward the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, on December 21.  

Personally, I prefer the light over the dark, daytime over nighttime.  I prefer waking up early rather than staying up late.  Yes, I am attracted to the light – both literally and metaphorically!  I am not sure why that it is, but I believe it may have something to do with my concept of God.  Over the years, I have heard the scriptures proclaim, “The Lord is my Light and Salvation” (Psalm 27:1a).  “God is light and in God there is no darkness” (1 John 1:5).  “I am the light of the world” says Christ Jesus.  Traditional Christianity has often used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, evil.  Darkness and devil even begin with the same letter “d” preaches one pastor.  I remember my mother saying at dusk, “Come in, it’s getting dark outside.”  And she would turn on the light and lock the door behind me.  In our society, the dark has been associated with danger, nightmares, shady drug deals, dim jail cells.  Even in ordinary language we say, “That was a dark movie.”     “He’s in a dark mood; I am in a dark space.”   I associate darkness with bedlam.  I understand why people worshipped the sun.  I prefer the light too.  There is not much I like about darkness except for dark skin and dark chocolate.

About a year ago, I had heard that one of my favorite authors, theologians, preachers – Barbara Brown Taylor — had written a new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.  Though I don’t like darkness, I have great respect for Taylor and so I was willing to go on this journey with her.  In her book, Taylor makes the bold claim that we can learn things in the dark that we could never learn in the light.  That we need darkness, physically for our health and spiritually for our journey, as much as we need light.   In fact, Taylor claims God does some of God’s best work in the dark.  She opens her book with the scripture we heard today from Isaiah, “I will give you the treasures of darkness” (45:3).    

So, I broke out my Bible concordance.  And yes, sure enough God is found in the dark over and over and over again.  

  • In Genesis, God’s first act of creation takes place in the darkness when God creates light.  
  • In the story of Abraham, God invites Abraham to go outside and look at the nighttime sky.  God says, “Count the stars in the sky – this is the number of your descendants.” God creates a covenant with the Hebrew people.  It was not something that could have happened in broad daylight – the night time sky played a key role in Abraham’s decision to trust God.
  • Years later, God came to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, in the middle of the night. J Jacob has an exquisite dream.   God gives a vision of a ladder that runs from heaven to earth with the bright angels of God scurrying back and forth on it.    When Jacob awakes he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!”   This is not something that could have happened in the middle of the day.  The night vision was a key player in Jacob’s decision to believe in God.

This is just the beginning.

  • Another time, Jacob wrestles with an angel all night long.  He walks away with a limp, a blessing, a new name.
  • Joseph has dreams at night.  His dreams capture Pharaoh’s attention – and Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man – because of his dreams at night.
  • The Exodus from Egypt happens at night; God parts the Red Sea at night; manna falls from the sky in the wilderness at night.  
  • During this season as we celebrate Christ’s birth, we are aware of the many images of darkness:  Jesus was born in a darkened cave.  I know we’ve heard that Jesus born in a stable – we may picture a wooden stable.  But when I went to Bethlehem, I discovered that caves made the best stables in Jesus’ day.  The traditional place of Jesus’ birth is in a small cave under the altar of the Church of the Nativity.
  • Surrounding Jesus’ birth we read that the angel appeared to the Shepherds while they were watching their flocks by night.  Before electric lights were invented, the fields around Bethlehem would have been quite dark.  Yes, Bethlehem comes to light in bedlam’s darkness. And the star that shined in the darkness led the wise men to baby Jesus.  We can only see starlight in the dark. As you leave worship today, look up – Orion’s belt, the Big Dipper, the planet Venus are all shining brightly above you – but we can’t seem them until it is dark.  Not only can we see things in the dark that we can’t see in the light, we can see farther in the dark than we can in see in the light.  For the stars are hundreds of light years away.
  • The communion table with its bread and wine, symbolizing the Last Supper, emerges from a scene at nighttime.  
  • While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away.  Jesus was resurrected in the dark, in a sealed tomb.  We associate “Resurrection with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.   But it did not happen that way.  It happened in a cave. In absolute darkness” (Taylor, pg. 129).  Resurrection takes place in the dark.

In the dark, new life emerges.  The bulb in the dark, damp ground blossoms into a yellow daffodil.  The earth-bound caterpillar emerges from the dark cocoon as a monarch butterfly.  In the darkness of a womb, a baby grows.  Darkness is pregnant with possibilities.  So, these are the treasures of love divine that Isaiah is speaking of!

Other religions too claim the value of darkness.  Buddha spent much time in the darkness of caves meditating.    Muhammad meditated and prayed in caves day in and day out.  On what has become known as the Night of Power, the angel Gabriel came to him and shared with him the first verses of the Qur’an.  The Qur’an came into the world through the belly of a cave (Taylor, p. 128).  

In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath begins on Friday at sundown when 3 stars are visible in the sky.  The descending darkness is so beautiful say the Rabbis, that Sabbath is a bride. And when the bride appears, when the 3 stars are visible, it means the wedding can begin.

Artists too have find value in the dark.  Vincent Van Gogh was an insomniac and so he would go out at night, paint the stars and find peace in the darkness, creating masterpieces of his many versions of Starry Starry Night.

Taylor says that our comfort or discomfort with outer darkness is a good barometer for how we feel about the inner kind of darkness.  The dark night of the soul.  We try to run from that kind of dark night – and yet, God is found there too – in the dazzling darkness. Those who have found themselves in the dark will say that they would never have chosen it, not in a million years.  But now that it has happened?  They would never give it back.

Learning to walk in the dark will require us to practice the sacraments of defeat and loss – but fortunately, the religion we know best has something to say about losing as a precondition for finding.  “Yes, we must lose our life in order to find it,” says Christ.  

During this season of darkness, as you experience outer darkness with the shortening of days or the inner kind of darkness, the treasures of divine love are there.  What feels like bedlam may be leading us to the heart of Bethlehem.  On Christmas Eve, as we culminate the Advent season with the birth of Christ and we sing “Silent Night”, we will know the greatest treasure of all – a babe in a manger, love incarnate.  In that darkness we will discover how much light there truly is.


*Thank you to Barbara Brown Taylor who inspired most of this sermon through her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.