It probably won’t surprise you if I tell you that I had to change the sermon that I was going to preach today.
I was going to start with a hip, relevant reference to a movie. Except that I’m not particularly hip and relevant so it was going to be a movie from the 90s originally made in France. But it was going to relay the message of my sermon in the language of pop culture, complete with a Dustin Hoffman quote. It was going to set up a clever contrast with the passage from Genesis that we just heard, shed light on the scriptures, which was going to be ironic because the passage that we’re grappling with is about darkness.
And then the bombs went off in Boston.
It didn’t take long for the gruesome images to fill our social media sites and newsfeeds. And we watched. Watched the videos of the explosions, of runners still trying to finish. We refreshed news sites to see if there was new information. We gathered around. Huddled together. We prayed. We started planning vigils. We told stories of heroism, of runners running all the way to the hospital to give blood, of people responding. We shared posts about goodness outnumbering evil. We quoted Mr. Rogers telling us to look for the helpers when we are scared. We did what little we know how to do.
When something like Boston or like Sandy Hook happens—and isn’t it awful that we have a category to put these tragedies in, that we can say “when something like Boston or Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech or Columbine or….”—my first reaction is silence. If you know me you know that not having words is scary for me. I'm not someone who is naturally prone to silence. But what do you say in response to the terror, the shrapnel, the bleeding limbs? What do you say in response to the smoke and the wreckage? I just have to sit with it, for awhile. Just sit in the deep and terrible darkness of it.
So now here I am, speaking. And here we are, looking for answers, looking for God to show up, to do something, to give us some sort of explanation or way to react or something. I know I am. It’s a natural response, and an important one. To look for God to show up.
In theological parlance, there is a word for a revelation of God’s self. It’s called a theophany. Theophanies, in scripture, are often accompanied by signs of God’s power over creation. Fire, lightning, thunder. Earthquake. Blinding light, knocking Saul to the ground. God shows up and those who experience the theophany know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is there. God makes God’s self known in a dramatic way.
I think that when I want to hear from God, I want this kind of encounter. I mean, I could do without the earthquakes. But I want the certainty. The convincing evidence that God is here, that God has something to say directly to me.
Genesis 15, which we just heard read, is the story of a theophany, but it challenges our expectations about what it means to encounter God. Now this Genesis 15 text is a pretty key story in the Hebrew Bible. This is the first covenant with Abram. Here God, having called Abram from his home into a strange country, promises him descendants and land. This is quite a promise for an old man, with no children, wandering landless. This story foreshadows all that is to come after—the birth of the Israelite nation, the captivity in Egypt, the Exodus, the violent entry into the “Promised Land.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without this story, the rest of the Hebrew Bible doesn’t make much sense.
And so it’s fascinating to me just how ambiguous this passage is, in fact just how fractured it is. How caught up this passage is in fear and in darkness. It’s a story about a promise but it’s an ambiguous promise, an uncomfortable promise.
There are a few things that I want to point out about this text. First, there’s a ceremony being referred to here, a covenant ceremony, which the first hearers and readers of this text would have known but which we, in the 21st century, are not familiar with. The description of this ceremony is remarkably detailed considering the usually sparse nature of biblical narratives. We are given a detailed list of the animals involved and a description of the process of preparing them and protecting them from scavengers. The prepared sacrifices are then accepted by God in a haunting scene involving “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch.” What is going on here?
The way we translate from the Hebrew sheds some light. The Common English Bible translates: “That day the LORD cut a covenant with Abram.” The Inclusive Bible expands on the reason behind this translation: “In Hebrew, the word ‘covenant’ is derived from the verb ‘to cut.’ Usually both parties cut the sacrifice jointly, as if to say, ‘May this happen to me if I violate our agreement.’” So when Abram asks “how am I to know that I shall possess [the land],” God responds with a radical commitment, saying, in effect, “If I don’t hold up my end of this deal, I am going to get cut. I am going to be hurt.” This is a vulnerable God.
What brings about this radical commitment from God? Abram’s doubt. Throughout this passage Abram challenges God, asks God pointed questions, asks how he can possibly know that God is serious about this promise. Now Abram is often lifted up as the paragon of faith, the one who does just what God tells him to do. And here he is, doubting, and forcing a response—a radical response, a vulnerable response—from God.
So this promise is wrapped up in doubt. And the doubt doesn’t just manifest itself in the form of Abram’s questions. This whole passage is fractured and caught up in darkness. We are told that when God first addresses Abram, God tells him to go out and count the stars. So if we’re seeing the stars, then it’s nighttime, right? Ok. Then God talks to Abram some more and we are told that the sun is going down. So did a whole night and day go by here? Or is the story out of order? And then it’s nighttime again and we get this spooky scene with the smoking pot and the flaming torch. Time is fluid in this passage. It is fragmented. Fragmented like experiences of trauma. Because trauma disrupts our sense of time, makes seconds last hours and days disappear like smoke.
So we go from nighttime to the sun going down and then “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” I can’t get rid of this line. It sticks in my heart. A deep and terrifying darkness. That’s what I feel when I see the news about Boston, the news about Texas, the news about the Virginia Tech massacre that occurred 6 years ago this week. The news of U.S. bombs falling on a wedding party in Afghanistan, killing 30 people. A deep and terrifying darkness. That’s what I feel when mental illness swirls around me and I have what we clinically call a “depressive episode” and my brain is trying to kill me. A deep and terrifying darkness.
What I want to say here is that the fact that Abram encounters God in a fragmented way, and in a deep and terrifying darkness, tells us something about how we encounter God. Remember I told you about theophanies? This passage from Genesis is almost a reverse theophany. It does not happen with a thundering voice or with beams of light. It takes place under deep and terrifying darkness. It is in darkness and confusion that God—a radically committed God, a vulnerable God—shows up.
So tonight I want you to stay with me, at least for a little while, in the deep and terrifying darkness. It is an uncomfortable place to be. A scary place to be. A place where there are no easy answers, where, in fact, there might not be any answers at all. This is not the place where we expect to find God. This is a place where we might describe our experience as an absence of God. And what I’m telling you, and what I’m telling myself, is: don’t be so quick to leave this place.
See, I do not like the deep and terrifying darkness. I like sunshine. I like clarity. I like answers and certainty. But what I encounter in this passage is a faith, Abram’s exemplary faith, that is expressed through doubt. I encounter a sense of time that does not march by mechanically but that ebbs and flows chaotically. I encounter promises made in darkness, covenants cut in haunting scenes, God’s presence as absence.
And I want to say that what seems like bad news—doubt, fragmentation, darkness—is actually good news. Because often these things match our experiences, and we can only meet God in and through our experiences. We can only encounter God, the God who heals, if we are willing to stay with the hurt, to experience it. As the Sufi poet Rumi writes, “the cure for pain is in the pain.”
And I want to say, further, that if we are not willing to stay, for awhile, in the deep and terrifying darkness, then we are going to have a hard time following this Jesus, this Christ, about whom we sing and to whom we pray. Because the Christ who dies on the cross is dying, again, in Boston. Is dying, again, in Newtown. Is dying, again, in Afghanistan. Is dying, again, in Gaza. And even when the disciples encounter Jesus after the resurrection, they find that he still bears the scars of his torture and death in his body. The trauma does not simply disappear. It remains. The deep and terrifying darkness is not simply gone. But there is a word in that darkness, a further word, a word of radical commitment and vulnerability.
I am going to ask us to spend just a few moments, now, before we sing, in silence. To stay in this darkness, for at least a little while. To experience an absence. And thus, to encounter the presence that, perhaps, we were looking for to begin with.