Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Different Kind of Eclipse” (Romans 11:29-32)
August 20, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are probably aware that tomorrow there will be a highly anticipated total solar eclipse. It has been ninety-nine years since a total solar eclipse has been visible to such a large part of the United States. In an online article for Travel and Leisure magazine Jamie Carter tells us what will happen:
On Monday, August 21, 2017 a total solar eclipse will be visible to anyone standing within a 60 to 70 mile-wide Path of Totality stretching across the United States. As the moon’s shadow will entirely block out the sun only for those within that narrow track, eclipse-chasers in parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina will have the best views of the solar corona—clear skies allowing, of course…the event will only last about two-and-a-half hours from beginning to end (http://www.travelandleisure.com/trip-ideas/space-astronomy/solar-eclipse-timeline).
Millions of “eclipse chasers” are expected to travel to this Path of Totality to view this total solar eclipse. NASA has an entire website dedicated to this eclipse and defines “totality” as:
The maximum phase of a total eclipse during which the Moon’s disk completely covers the Sun. Totality is the period between second and third contact during a total eclipse. It can last from a fraction of a second to a maximum of 7 minutes 32 seconds. (https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEhelp/SEglossary.html).
On a different but related note (pun intended) in 1983 Bonnie Tyler became the first and only Welsh singer ever to have a number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100, a power ballad that most people do not want to admit they like—but they do, a legendary “couples only” roller skating classic: “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Every now and then I get a little bit lonely
And you’re never coming round
Every now and then I get a little bit tired
Of listening to the sound of my tears
Every now and then I get a little bit nervous
That the best of all the years have gone by
Every now and then I get a little bit terrified
And then I see the look in your eyes
Every now and then I fall apart…
Once upon a time I was falling in love
But now I’m only falling apart
And there’s nothing I can do
A total eclipse of the heart
(From her album Faster than the Speed of Night)
While the only ones who will be able to view tomorrow’s total solar eclipse will be those in the “path of totality,” everyone, no exceptions, has experienced or will experience a “total eclipse of the heart.” Everyone has or will have moments when they feel “a little bit lonely…a little bit tired…a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by.” Everyone has experienced or will experience what it is like to go from “falling in love” to “falling apart.”
In his seminal 1947 book entitled Eclipse of Reason German philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer described how the Nazis were successful in presenting their philosophy as “reasonable” to the vast majority of the German population. He describes such an “eclipse of reason” this way:
Although most people never overcome the habit of berating the world for their difficulties, those who are too weak to make a stand against reality have no choice but to obliterate themselves by identifying with it. They are never rationally reconciled to civilization. Instead, they bow to it, secretly accepting the identity of reason and domination, of civilization and the ideal, however much they may shrug their shoulders. Well-informed cynicism is only another mode of conformity. These people willingly embrace or force themselves to accept the rule of the stronger as the eternal norm (79).
One need only take a quick glance at the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia and other places to see that what Max Horkheimer wrote seventy years ago still rings true, that there are many current manifestations of this “eclipse of reason.” And if you are honest with yourself, you can look at your own life at specific episodes that make you ask yourself, “What was I thinking?”—episodes of your own personal “eclipse of reason.” I know I can.
Many of you will glimpse tomorrow’s total eclipse of the sun or have felt a total eclipse of the heart or have succumbed to a total eclipse of reason. Be that as it may, there is very good news today in the lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which the apostle wrote about a different kind of eclipse:
For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all (Romans 11:29-32).
This passage is near the end of the section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which he discusses that God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is for everyone, Jew and Gentile, no exceptions. Earlier in this letter he emphasized that “there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24) and “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (Romans 10:12).
In other words, all of us—Jew and Gentile, no exceptions—are sinners in need of God’s saving grace, all of us are prisoners to sin and death and need to be rescued by God. Again, as Paul wrote, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” One of my academic heroes, the late Scottish biblical scholar F. F. Bruce, describes the situation this way:
If there is to be hope for any, it must depend solely on God’s grace; but hope is held out in unstinted measure. God’s purpose in shutting Jews and Gentiles up together in a situation where their disobedience to his will must be acknowledged and brought to light was that he might lavish his unmerited mercy on Jews and Gentiles together (Romans 211).
In the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, a death he died on behalf of everyone—Jew and Gentile, no exceptions—God did exactly what F.F. Bruce said, God “lavish(ed) his unmerited mercy on Jews and Gentiles together” in order as Paul wrote “that he may be merciful to all.”
In The Book of Common Prayer this is articulated in the collect for Ash Wednesday, one of the most beautiful and moving collects in the entire prayer book:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness (BCP 264).
Do you believe that? Do you believe that God is indeed the “God of all mercy” who lavishes “unmerited mercy” on everyone, who is “merciful to all”—including you? Does it sound too good to be true? Well, it is true, and that is one of the many reasons the gospel is such good news.
Jesus, the Son of God, did not remain in heaven and shrug his shoulders when observing this fallen world. Instead, as scripture tells us, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7)—or as Max Horkheimer would have put it, obliterated himself—in order to identify with the entire fallen human race imprisoned to sin and death. During his earthly life and ministry Jesus allowed his divinity to be eclipsed by his humanity.
Jesus was not a well-informed cynic. He refused “to accept the rule of the stronger as the eternal norm” but instead touched the untouchable and loved the unlovable and said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).
On Good Friday Jesus carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa, which became the Path of Totality of the love of God. On the cross a different kind of eclipse took place as Jesus died in your place, the ultimate act of love from the God of all mercy, to render a total eclipse pf your sin, to cover the “totality” of your sin, to demonstrate historically and definitively that God is indeed “merciful to all.”
And as Jesus suffered on the cross there was a literal supernatural darkness of some kind as scripture tells us that “about noon…darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:44-45). As Jesus eclipsed your sin “the sun’s light failed”—or as the great seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631) put it in the very last sermon he ever preached—on the cross Jesus’ “glorious eyes grew faint in their light: so as the Sun ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too” (The Sermons of John Donne, Volume X 247-248).
Some cynics shrug their shoulders and dismiss all this as its own total eclipse of reason, but as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
In short, on Good Friday Jesus’ death on the cross eclipsed the power of sin—and on Easter Sunday Jesus’ resurrection from the dead eclipsed the power of death. This is very good news for everyone who is guilty of their own total eclipse of reason, for everyone who has suffered a total eclipse of the heart.
And what this means right now is that you are fully known, fully loved and fully forgiven by the God of all mercy, who is merciful to all.
This different kind of eclipse known as the gospel also means you will not always dwell under the shadow of your sin or even under what scripture calls “the shadow of death.”
Instead, you will dwell eternally under a different shadow—the shadow of the cross—or as the psalmist wrote: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1, BCP 719).