When the darkness comes, what do we do? | Sermon from January 20, 2019

When the darkness comes, what do we do?

One answer: put on your party hat and forget your sorrows. That’s what Pitbull, the Miami-based pop star, recommends. If you’re sad and despondent, if life isn’t going right, if you knew your “rent was gonna be late about a week ago,” and you “worked your [butt] off, but you still can’t pay it though,” forget about it! As he sings with Ke$ha, “Let’s have a night you won’t remember, I’ll be the one you won’t forget.” When the darkness comes, party so you can forget.

And while most of us probably don’t go to the bar or the club to forget our troubles, we all have our party hats so we can party and forget: retail therapy, traveling, hobbies and habits, overeating favorite foods. For me, if I’m really feeling sorry for myself, I want a McDonald’s double quarter pounder. I’ve learned that about myself. I tend to avoid fast food, but if I’m really in the dumps, that’s what I crave.

Somehow, that greasy, disgusting, burger, makes me forget about my woes for a bit. Whatever your party hat, we all have our rituals of forgetfulness so that we can escape the the darkness when it comes.

For the darkness comes, often without warning. And so we don our party hats, take ourselves shopping or partying or dining, and forget for a while.

When the darkness comes, what do we do? We forget.

Or at least we do our best to forget, but we all have experienced the kind of darkness that just won’t let go, that we just can’t forget no matter how hard we try. As we continue our sermon series on the cycle of life and faith we find in the Psalms, we discuss today the darkness. It’s not a fun topic, it’s not an easy topic, and, based on our behavior, we typically try and avoid talking or thinking about it. But the Psalms don’t. They delve head first into the darkness. And that’s what we find in Psalm 74.

You may remember from Sunday School or your small group that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. The elite of society were then taken captive to live in Babylon. In this Psalm, the authors record their experience of that destruction. They remember how the city was destroyed, how the temple was sacked with sacrilege, how they took axes to the doorframes and hammers to the carvings. The images are branded on their memory. They can’t forget. And so they cry out to God:

[Psalm 74]

When the darkness comes, what do we do?

The people of God just couldn’t forget.

No amount of retail therapy on fifth avenue in Babylon would undo the destruction they’d experienced. No amount of partying on the beaches of ancient Persia could cause them to forget the trauma they’d endured. No Chaldean fast food could, no matter how good the double quarter pounder falafel might be, let them escape what they’d experienced. The disaster, destruction, chaos, has left them disoriented.

They knew the kind of darkness that won’t let go.

So do we.

When a well-made decision turns out to have been wrong, the darkness won’t let go.

When the best laid plans turn to chaos, the darkness won’t let go.

When terrible illness suddenly strikes a loved one and threatens their life, the darkness won’t let go.

When our finances quickly collapse, the darkness won’t let go.

When death strikes quickly and mercilessly, the darkness won’t let go.

When a family suddenly ruptures, as I described in my sermon during the covenant renewal service, the darkness won’t let go.

The disaster, destruction, chaos, leaves us disoriented.

And that, indeed, is the name of this second part of the cycle of faith: disorientation. Life suddenly, dramatically, painfully, moves from a place of orientation, where we are in awe of God and see the world around us as a place of order where God is active and moving, to a place of disorientation, where all seems lost. Is God still worthy of awe and wonder? Is the world really that place of order where God is active and moving? Can God be trusted? Does God even exist?

Doubt creeps in during disorientation; a heavy weight of doubt. Much of what we held dear gets lost to doubt. Time honored truths seem to no longer matter.

This is when it gets tempting to forget. Buy the new thing and be excited about it so you can forget the pain. Start a new significant relationship so you can forget the pain of the old. Go on an eating or drinking binge, do whatever feels good, make yourself happy, so you can enjoy pleasure and forget the pain.

To forget is tempting. But to forget is only temporary at best. Sometimes our efforts to forget fail completely. Sometimes the darkness is so overwhelming that no pleasure can undo the pain.

When the darkness comes, what do we do?

We tell ourselves what we think is supposed to be true.

When a well-made decision turns out to have been wrong, God has a plan for my life.

When the best laid plans turn to chaos, God works all things together for my good.

When terrible illness suddenly strikes a loved one and threatens their life, God’s got this.

When our finances quickly collapse, God will provide prosperity.

When death strikes quickly and mercilessly, it was God’s will.

When a family suddenly ruptures, God will restore it.

We fill ourselves with these platitudes, trying to grab ahold of the past and make it the present. But in these moments of disorienting darkness, we know we don’t really believe it. So we try harder to believe it, telling ourselves that God does have a plan, that God will provide prosperity, that it was God’s will, and that all will be as it was before. Somehow, things will go back to the goodness we knew before when our lives were properly oriented. Somehow, the past will again be the present. Somehow. Someday. We just have to keep believing. Have to keep telling ourselves God has a plan, God works things together for good, it was God’s will, God will restore.

When the darkness comes, what do we do?

Very often, these platitudes fail. We come to realize the past can never be the present again. Time marches on, whether we like it or not. And we haven’t seen God’s plan, God’s provision, God’s restoration, yet.

When a well-made decision turns out to have been wrong and God’s plan isn’t evident, what do we do?

When the best laid plans turn to chaos and God hasn’t worked all things together for our good, what do we do?

When terrible illness suddenly strikes a loved one and threatens their life and God doesn’t seem to have it, what do we do?

When our finances quickly collapse and God doesn’t provide prosperity, what do we do?

When death strikes quickly and mercilessly and it wasn’t God’s will, because death is never God’s will, what do we do?

When a family suddenly ruptures and there’s no restoration, what do we do?

When the darkness comes, what do we do?

Platitudes, party hats to forget, and trying to earn more faith all fail us.

When the darkness comes what do we do?

We embrace the darkness.

Life comes with dark moments, in which God feels absent. These are not to be avoided by partying and forgetfulness, nor are the always the result of bad action on our part, nor are they ever the result of poor faith. These times, rather, are often inexplicable, but they happen to us all. All of us have related to one or more of the examples I have shared this morning. We have all known the darkness. In those moments, it’s best to embrace the darkness.

And the Psalms provide for us a model of what to do when the darkness of life overwhelms us. They teach us how to embrace the darkness.

In the case of this Psalm, the people’s sinfulness caused the Babylonians to destroy them. They became intoxicated with their wealth and power and it made them blind to the danger they faced. They forgot their loyalty to God and turned to worship other gods, too. With their attention diverted away from God and their own security, they suffered the natural consequences of their actions.

But by the time we get to this Psalm, the people have been suffering for a long time. They have long ago repented. In fact, they’ve repented over and over again. If you’ve ever apologized to someone and not received forgiveness, this is how they feel. They’ve apologized to God, they’ve done all they’re supposed to do to make amends, but God is absent.

And they can no longer stand the silence. “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?” they ask God in verses 10 and 11. Indeed, the Psalm opens with these words:, “Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever? Your wrath smolders against the flock You should tend.” They tell God he’s forgotten them. They tell God what God should be doing. They feel abandoned, forgotten.

But they remember.

“Yet God my king is from old, working salvation in the earth. You [God] divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter,” they declare in verses 12 through 17. They haven’t forgotten who God is and they certainly haven’t forgotten their loyalty.

In demanding and remembering, they demonstrate for us three things we are to do in the darkness.

First, have an open and brutally honest prayer life. We are to tell God exactly what we think and what we need. It may seem disrespectful to make demands of God, but when we fail to do so, we fail to be emotionally honest with God. Which is basically lying. We might be angry with God, but if we don’t tell God that we are, we’re trying to hide from God. That makes it harder for God to do the work in our hearts that God wants to do. We must be emotionally honest, even if that means making demands.

Second, remember God’s character. We must remember what we knew from moments of orientation. Not the platitudes, for those are useless, but rather to remember that God is more powerful than the darkness, that “in him is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike.” If we knew that God was active and working in the world, bringing order, during times of orientation, that remains true during times of disorientation. God is still moving and working for order.

And finally, we must remain open-minded about the new order God is creating in our lives. If this Psalm operated like our platitudes, it would have demanded restoration of the temple and Jerusalem. It would have asked for life to go back as it was. It would have demanded God give them back what they had in the past.

But the Psalm doesn’t do that. Their request is simple: remember us and “have regard for your covenant.” That is what they want. They don’t know what it will look like when God fulfills God’s promises to them, they don’t know what it will mean when God remembers them, they have no conception of the new order; they have an open mind.

And that’s the task in the darkness: maintain an open mind about the future.

The past will never be again. Platitudes are useless and, indeed, can be damaging because they promise us that God will make the past happen again. That can never be.

But God will turn the chaos into order, despair into hope, hatred into love, war into peace, for God is the God of great reversals. We just have to be open-minded, be willing to be delightfully surprised, about what God’s restoration and reconciliation looks like.

When a well-made decision turns out to have been wrong and God’s plan isn’t evident, God will make a new, surprising, path.

When the best laid plans turn to chaos and God hasn’t worked all things together for our good, God will birth something new and surprising.

When terrible illness suddenly strikes a loved one and threatens their life and God doesn’t seem to have it, God will give rise to a new and surprising hope.

When our finances quickly collapse and God doesn’t provide prosperity, God will call us in a new and surprising direction.

When death strikes quickly and mercilessly and it wasn’t God’s will, because death is never God’s will, God will turn mourning into a surprising dancing.

When a family suddenly ruptures and there’s no restoration, God will heal us in surprising ways.

When the darkness comes, God will shine a new and surprising light.

God will renew, will make new, will recreate, will reorient. That’s what we’ll talk about in the next sermon, reorientation, where a new and surprising provision is made by God in the midst of our darkness.

But while we’re in the darkness, let us not race to forget, nor fill ourselves with platitudes trying to make ourselves feel better, nor try to earn God’s favor by being more faithful. There will be pain. Let us run headlong into the pain. For we will discover God there.

Let us, then, embrace the darkness.

Live into it. Remember that God is still moving and active in your life. And the best way to do that is to keep praying. Be honest with your prayers, tell God exactly how you feel, be bold and make demands. That’s how we let God into our darkness. The psalms do it and so you can, too.

And while you’re praying, let’s talk out loud about our current suffering. So many of us hide our suffering because we are ashamed. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. We all have known terrible darknesses. I have been honest about all of mine in various sermons these last eighteen months. It’s a common human experience best shared with close friends and family. On the journey of life, we’ll enter the shadows. And the most powerful thing we can do for each other is walk that journey together, praying together, encouraging one another, until God does the surprising new thing, the work of reorientation.

When the darkness comes, when orientation gives way to disorientation, what do we do? Pray honestly. Keep an open mind. Remember who God is. Embrace the darkness.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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