Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Light of God’s Countenance” (Psalm 80:3)
December 3, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today we begin another year on the church calendar—so Happy New Year! Advent is a season of expectation and repentance as we both prepare to celebrate Jesus’ first coming at his incarnation, and also repent in anticipation of his Second Coming. A recurring theme in Advent is God shining light into the darkness of our lives. This is what allows us to repent in the first place—as we prayed in the collect for today—“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light” (The Book of Common Prayer 211).
Speaking of casting things away, I came across a helpful Christmas tip for stressed out parents of misbehaving children: wrap empty boxes as Christmas presents and when your children misbehave throw them into the fireplace—the wrapped boxes, not the kids…of course you may also need to start saving money for their therapy.
During Advent we are reminded that scripture does not turn a blind eye to feeling alone in the dark, separated from others, even separated from God—as we read today in the lesson from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, “you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (Isaiah 64:7). The psalmist described it this way: “My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion” (Psalm 88:19, BCP 713)—or as singer-songwriter Paul Simon put it, “Hello, darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again” (from “The Sound of Silence”).
This time of year I often return to the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In his masterpiece, The Hobbit, Tolkien describes what happened when Bilbo was knocked out while journeying through tunnels underneath the mountains:
When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut. No one was anywhere near him. Just imagine his fright! He could hear nothing, see nothing, and he could feel nothing except the stone of the floor (The Hobbit 76).
That would not be the first time Bilbo would feel alone in the dark. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader his classic series The Chronicles of Narnia C. S. Lewis recounts how those aboard the ship, Dawn Treader thought they were heading toward land, only to discover it was something quite different:
About nine that morning, very suddenly, it was so close that they could see that it was not land at all, nor even, in an ordinary sense, a mist. It was a Darkness. It is rather hard to describe, but you will see what it was like if you imagine yourself looking into the mouth of a railway tunnel—a tunnel either so long or so twisty that you cannot see the light at the far end…It was just so here. For a few feet in front of their bows they could see the swell of the bright greenish-blue water. Beyond that, they could see the water looking pale and gray as it would look late in the evening. But beyond that again, utter blackness (190).
The writings of Tolkien and Lewis resonate because we can relate to them. Think about your life for a moment. Like Bilbo, has something ever metaphorically knocked you out and left you feeling alone in the dark, unable to see or hear anything? Or like those aboard the Dawn Treader, have you ever thought you were heading somewhere only to find yourself lost in “utter blackness”?
In 1956, the same year he completed The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis married Joy Davidman, the love of his life, and after only four years of marriage, when she was only forty-five, Joy died of cancer. This was not make-believe; this was real life…and real death. And even C. S. Lewis felt alone in the dark, separated from God—as he put it in his poignant book A Grief Observed:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence (18).
And of course, C. S. Lewis is not alone.
I suspect it may have been in a setting like this, a place alone in the dark and feeling like even God had bolted the door shut, when the psalmist wrote in today’s psalm, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:3). Listen to how the psalmist describes what their community was going through:
O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink. You have made us the derision of our neighbors, and our enemies laugh us to scorn (Psalm 80:4-6).
Very bleak indeed, but nevertheless the psalmist repeats the verse of hope again—“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” and then concludes the psalm on this same note of hope: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:7 and 18).
What we need more than anything else when we are feeling alone in the dark, separated from God, is the light of God’s countenance, and the light of God’s countenance is summed up in one word: grace. The Apostle Paul emphasizes this grace of God in today’s passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:3-4, 8).
When I was in my mid-thirties I went through a period of feeling alone in the dark and yes, even as a priest, feeling separated from God. In fact, I was seriously second guessing my call as a priest as I found myself in a diocese in turmoil, a church plant divided, and diocesan funds that had been allocated to church plants being redirected to cover legal costs as some congregations were suing the diocese over property—which of course is what Jesus would have done. It was fun and games all around. I was considering changing careers—perhaps education or law—but supporting a family and having already spent years studying to be a priest—at that time, going back to school to start over was not a viable option.
One night I was up around 3:00 in the morning. I was tired of praying and not feeling like God was even there, let alone listening, worn down by angry church people, weary of feeling alone in the dark. And then, as I sat there eating the bread of my own tears on the couch in our family room, my then six-year old daughter Emily walked into the room in her pink nightgown with sleepy eyes and “bedhead” hair. “What’s wrong, Dad?” she asked. I lied—yes, lied to my own daughter—and tried to hide my tears, “Nothing, I’m okay.” She tilted her head, “You’re not okay, Dad.” I did not respond because I did not want to lie to her a second time.
Then I experienced the light of God’s countenance, the grace of God, in that moment, in a way I did not expect—as Emily smiled, “God loves you, Dad, it’s gonna be okay.” And for the first time in months I felt God’s grace. There it was. I gave her a hug and then she asked, “Dad, can we go to 7-Eleven tomorrow and get a Slurpee?” And we did, and the Slurpees were delicious, and I was renewed by the grace of God, and reminded that in spite of what I had been feeling, I was not alone in the dark after all. I suspect many of you have had similar experiences when you were touched by the grace of God in an unexpected and life-giving way.
Scripture tells us that at his first coming, his incarnation, Jesus came as the Light of the World (John 8:12), that as John wrote in the prologue to his account of the gospel, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). And just as the Apostle Paul encouraged the Corinthians that they had already been given the grace of God in Jesus Christ, John wrote, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
On the cross, Jesus was alone in the dark, weighed down by the sin of the world, and even he, the Son of God, felt separated from his Heavenly Father—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus ate the bread of tears and endured the derision of his neighbors and the laughter of his enemies, enemies whom he loved still.
This is not make-believe: Jesus died a real death to give you real life. And in Jesus’ death, the world, thinking it had extinguished the Light of the World, had actually been shown the light of God’s countenance, the grace of God, so that all of us could be saved.
Back to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader…Throughout The Chronicles of Narnia the great lion, Aslan, is the Christ-like figure. As the Dawn Treader was sailing in the Darkness, one of the passengers, Lucy, was encouraged by a voice “who whispered to her, ‘Courage, dear heart,’ and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.” Then Lewis continues:
In a few moments the darkness turned into a grayness ahead, and then, almost before they dared to begin hoping, they had shot out into the sunlight and were in the warm, blue world again. And all at once everybody realized that there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been (201).
And back to A Grief Observed…as awful as C. S. Lewis’ grief over his wife’s death was, as much as he felt alone in the dark and separated from God, he ends this book on a note of hope:
Once very near the end I said (to Joy), “If you can—if it is allowed—come to me when I too am on my death bed.” “Allowed!” she said. “Heaven would have a job to hold me; and as for Hell, I’d break it into bits.” She knew she was speaking a kind of mythological language, with even an element of comedy in it. There was a twinkle as well as a tear in her eye. But there was no myth and no joke about the will, deeper than any feeling, that flashed through her…There is also, whatever it means, the resurrection of the body. We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand least (88).
And then Lewis concludes: “She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me” (89). If not her husband, at whom was Joy Davidman smiling as she died? I think you know the answer.
The gospel is good news for those in “a tunnel either so long or so twisty that you cannot see the light at the far end”—for at his first coming Jesus entered a dark world to be the Light of the World, to die for your sins, and at his Second Coming the Risen Jesus will usher in the light of God’s countenance forever.
So in the meantime, remember what someone very dear once told me, “God loves you. It’s gonna be okay.”