Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“And You Shall Be Saved” (Psalm 80:3)
November 30, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As we begin another year on the church calendar today, I want to wish you all a Happy New Year! During the season of Advent the assigned scripture readings from the lectionary form a type of spiritual bifocals through which we view both anticipating celebrating anew the first coming of Jesus at his incarnation and also anticipating his Second Coming when, as we prayed in the collect for today, Jesus “shall come again in his glorious majesty” (The Book of Common Prayer 211).

Another motif in Advent is light overcoming darkness, as we also prayed today—“give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

On this first Sunday of Advent we see all of this in Psalm 80 in a prayer to God that occurs three times in this Psalm: “Show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:3, 7, and 18).

Show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Sometimes in our lives we find ourselves in dark places, places in which we are desperately in need of the light of God’s countenance.

Many years ago I took a group of high school students on a caving (spelunking) trip. It was beautiful sunny day in late June and we entered a cave in West Virginia, and it was suddenly dark. We all donned our yellow plastic helmets complete with battery-operated lights attached to the front. We laughed as we stumbled along, slipping on the slick damp rock floor, knocking into one another.

After the guide led us for nearly an hour we arrived in a cavern and spread out. Then we extinguished our lights. It was absolutely pitch black dark. No streetlamp in the distance shining dimly through a window, no stream of light

coming under a doorway, no dim star flickering in the sky, no light at all anywhere. There was no adjusting your eyes to this kind of darkness.

It was a small taste of what it might have been like during the plague of darkness that preceded God’s bringing Israel out of Egypt, when God commanded Moses: “Stretch out your hand towards heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt” (Exodus 10:21).

In his masterpiece The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien describes the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, who found himself wandering through a cave in which the darkness could be felt:

“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…Very slowly he got up and groped about on all fours, till he touched the wall of the tunnel; but neither up nor down it could he find anything; nothing at all…The tunnel seemed to have no end. All he knew was that it was still going down pretty steadily and keeping in the same direction in spite of a twist and a turn or two…On and on he went, and down and down; and still he heard no sound of anything except the occasional whirr of a bat by his ears, which startled him at first, till it became too frequent to bother about. I do not know how long he kept on like this, hating to go on, not daring to stop, on, on, until he was tireder than tired. It seemed like all the way to tomorrow and over it to the days beyond” (The Hobbit, 76, 78).

Sometimes people can sense a season of darkness coming; they can feel it. Perhaps you have experienced this. In his brooding song “Not Dark Yet” Bob Dylan describes this:

“I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”
(from his 1997 album Time Out of Mind).

And eventually the darkness gets there…and no one is immune to experiencing it. No matter how hardworking or healthy or wealthy or well-connected or strong or beautiful or financially secure or resolute you are, you will still occasionally experience darkness that can be felt. In East Coker, the final poem of his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot puts it this way:

“O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark…
And we all go with them…” (Stanza III of East Coker).

And this darkness that can be felt is not always external; it is often internal as well, in our hearts, as we see in Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, when Macbeth begins to plot the murder of King Duncan:

“Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires” (I.iv.51-51).

So where is the good news in this dark sermon?

The good news is that in the midst of our darkness, both external and internal, God shows us the light of his countenance, as the Apostle Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

The good news is that Jesus Christ is the Light of the World (John 8:12), and “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

At Jesus’ first coming he was born on a dark night in a world in which the darkness could be felt. And throughout his earthly ministry in the midst of the external darkness of human depravity, disease, prejudice, pride, hypocrisy, all of it—Jesus shined the light of God’s countenance again and again.

And Jesus did more than that. Jesus was even able to reach the internal darkness in people’s hearts, where the “black and deep desires” ran rampant, and shine the light of God’s countenance even there.

And over the course of the days leading to Calvary Jesus could feel the darkness coming, and yet Jesus pressed forward anyway, and entered the “dark, dark, dark.” And in the same way Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven and darkness descended over Egypt, on the cross Jesus stretched forth his hands toward heaven and after he died Scripture tells us that “from noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Matthew 27:45).

And then Jesus’s body was placed in a dark tomb in a dark cave.

But even the darkness of death could not overcome the Light of the World, for Jesus was raised on the third day, and because the light of God’s countenance has shined on us in the death and resurrection of Jesus, “we shall be saved.”

Moreover, in today’s gospel passage Jesus makes it clear that we will experience darkness periodically, even immediately prior to his Second Coming: “But in those days,” Jesus said, “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25).

But Jesus also continues with these words of hope: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:24-26). We will all witness firsthand what we sang in today’s opening hymn:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending, once for our salvation slain
Thousand thousands saints attending swell the triumph of his train
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ the Lord returns to reign
(Charles Wesley, Hymn 57).

Perhaps some of you, like Bilbo Baggins are wandering through a seemingly endless dark tunnel, “tireder than tired,” or perhaps in some area in your life, “it’s not dark yet but it’s getting there,” or perhaps like Macbeth, there are “black and deep desires” in your heart.

None of those things can stop the light of God’s countenance from shining on you.

In the mid-90’s there was a song by Michael W. Smith called “I’ll Lead You Home” that really ministered to me. During a season in my life in which I felt lost in the dark I used to listen to again and again, especially while driving around in my Honda Accord. This song is sung from God’s perspective:

Wandering the road of desperate life
Aimlessly beneath the barren sky
Leave it to me, I’ll lead you home

So afraid that you will not be found
It won’t be long before your sun goes down
Just leave it to me, I’ll lead you home…

A troubled mind and a doubter’s heart
You wonder how you ever got this far
Leave it to me, I’ll lead you home

Vultures of darkness ate the crumbs you left
And you got no way to retrace your steps
Just leave it to me, I’ll lead you home…

So let it go and turn it over to
The One who chose to give his life for you
Leave it to me, I’ll lead you home
(title track of his 1995 album I’ll Lead You Home).

Show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. That prayer is repeated three times in Psalm 80.

And the good news of the gospel is that God answers that prayer each and every time in Jesus—for in Jesus the light of God’s countenance has always, does now, and forever will shine on you no matter what—“all the way to tomorrow and over it to the days beyond.”

And you shall be saved.