Swallow Some Darkness”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
(John 1: 6-8, 19-28)
December 17, 2017 (Third Sunday of Advent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
I can only assume if you are in charge of lighting at a Broadway show, your job is to make certain the spotlight shines on the star. I also assume, from time to time, unexpected actors come out of the blue and attract more light than was previously expected.
I remember that happening in the 1969 cult classic movie, “Easy Rider. ” Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were longhaired hippies traveling across the United States on their souped up Harley Davidson choppers. Everyone knew these two, but the actor that mesmerized me was someone I had never heard of by the name of Jack Nicholson; he played a daffy lawyer who bailed Captain America and his pal Billy out of jail.
Some stars have the charisma to push themselves into the limelight. John the Baptist was such a character. The crowds flocked to him. And yet, he refused to let the light shine his way.
“Are you the Messiah?” the crowds breathlessly wondered. “No,” said John.
“Are you Elijah?” “I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?” “No.”
Why didn’t John grab some attention?
Most of us crave center stage with shining lights. We love being told how wonderful we are.
John refused such stardom: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” These words were not even original to John; he copied them straight out of the prophet Isaiah.
John kept pointing beyond himself to the other one who, according to him, he was “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
Are you able to point the spotlights beyond yourself? Have you ever said, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” or, at least, “I don’t have all the answers”? It’s not an easy thing to do.
People often ask me obscure Bible questions about which I am clueless. It happened at our Wednesday evening Bible study when Damon Gray asked me about a Greek word in the Nativity story. I was tempted to offer a brilliant answer even though I was clueless. My hope was that no one would notice my dim-witted response and I would look none the worse for the wear. It is almost impossible for me to say, “I don’t have a clue.” I prefer to say, “Shine the light on me!”
You have witnessed the absurdity of people who cannot sit quietly and wait on the Lord or, more to the point, cannot shut up! I have seen it. I have been to countless synod assemblies of our Lutheran church, as have quite a few of you, where the same pastors and the same lay people feel compelled to stand up and offer their unparalleled wisdom on perplexing matters; apparently, in their minds, no one else possesses their matchless knowledge. Over and over again they go to the microphone; over and over again they babble on and on and on. And then there are the others folks, the ones who rarely—actually never—stand up to speak; they are the majestic ones who know they don’t have all the answers and realize it is best to sit still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.
John the Baptist had such majesty. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes: “John the Baptist does not have the ultimate or full message—but his glory and genius is that he knows that! He hands it over to the one who does” (Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, pg. 48).
Advent teaches us to wait for answers that are beyond our grasp but not beyond God’s. We wait between Jesus’ coming at Bethlehem and his coming again; we have no idea when or where or how he will return and any answer seems harebrained. Sometimes we do best to be still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.
A number of years ago, during the Iraq War, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was asked by a reporter whether he thought the war was immoral. He paused for twelve seconds, an interminably long time for live radio, and said, “‘Immoral’ is a short word for a very long discussion” (Rupert Short, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pg. 289). Archbishop Williams did not rush to offer an answer to a monstrously difficult question. He allowed the question to hang silently in the air.
I increasingly am drawn to individuals and communities who resist the need to have all the answers when no easy ones seem apparent. My favorite theologian Douglas John Hall taught for many years at McGill University in Montreal. He has committed a lifetime to grappling with weighty and challenging theological matters. Like many brilliant people who realize there is so much more they do not know than what they do know, Dr. Hall says there are occasions when we must swallow some darkness.
I heard Dr. Hall deliver three substantial lectures a few years ago when he was 84 years old. During one of those lectures, which he delivered sitting down, he spoke of swallowing some darkness. One of his most brilliant students, married and the father of a small child, was struck down with leukemia. Dr. Hall told us that he had no answer why such a dreadful thing would happen to such a remarkable young man. It was at that moment of vulnerability that Dr. Hall seemed most brilliant to me and why I continue to like him very much and why I emailed this sermon to him immediately before worship began this morning.
Perhaps that is what it is to be Advent people, a humble people whose majesty comes not in having all the answers to life’s most nagging questions but rather the dignity to wait patiently, trusting that the good Lord will provide the finest answers in due time. That is why we wait like John the Baptist and let the stage lights shine on Jesus.
And, by the way, that is why fifty-two pink roses grace our sanctuary this Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete (“Joy Sunday”): their blooming joy reminds us that Christ’s promise to come again is with us throughout the year, even during our darkest days.
Wait, my dear friends, wait for the Lord.