Walking in the Light When It’s Still Dark

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-11
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Prayer of the Day: Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day…” I Thessalonians 5:4-5.

This verse stands in stark contrast to the words of the prophet Amos we heard last week.

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light…

Amos 5:18.

Whereas Paul speaks of the “Day of the Lord” as a new dawn, as a morning to be anticipated with joyful expectation, Amos warns his hearers that it will be for them not light, but darkness. Not salvation, but judgment. Perhaps they are both right. From the perspective of persons of color, the toppling of a confederate monument signifies the erasure of a symbol sanctifying the systemic prejudice they endure every waking moment. But from the perspective of those who revere the monument and what it stands for, it represents the loss of privilege and a stark judgment upon the status quo in which they have become all too comfortable. So, too, the promise of an existence where all people receive their “daily bread” sounds like liberation to the hungry, but conjurers up the dark specters of “communism” or “socialism” in the minds of those who have accumulated wealth and are accustomed to having much more than enough. Thus, whether the Day of the Lord represents darkness or light depends upon where you stand, what you value and where your hope is anchored.

Saint Paul characterizes disciples of Jesus as “children of the light and children of the day.” As such, they live and move in the light. Their eyes are accustomed to sunshine. For them, the inbreaking of God’s gentle reign of justice and peace is a welcome sight. It is possible, of course, to become accustomed to darkness. When you have been moving about in the dark for a long time, your eyes become used to it. You develop a measure of “night vision” enabling you to make out the contuers of your surroundings, avoid obstacles and identify familiar shapes. Darkness becomes the norm. But when someone switches on the light and dispels the darkness, the eyes are shocked by this unwelcome flood of luminescence. One’s normal response is to close one’s eyes against the harsh onslaught of light. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19.

Paul, therefore, encourages the church in Thessalonica to accustom their eyes to the light of day, even as they live in the midst of so much darkness. The time will come when the “hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.” Luke 1:53. The mighty will be put down “from their thrones” and “those of low degree” will be “exalted.” Luke 1:52. The day will come when “justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24. All who have been thirsting for righteousness, hungering for justice and seeking the reign of God welcome this development and every sign of its coming with joy. But those who have been living in darkness, those who assumed that might will always make right, those who imagined that the way things are is the way they must always be, for them the inbreaking of God’s reign of justice and peace will be a rude awakening, a harsh and terrifying light shining into the darkest corners and exposing what they always believed would remain forever hidden.

So the question is, are we becoming the kind of people capable of living in the light? Are we being transformed into the kind of people who can recognize and be recognizable to Jesus in the day of his coming in glory? Where will we stand in relationship to the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the persecuted and imprisoned when the Son of Man returns to judge the nations? Some might criticize me here for suggesting that salvation depends on human good works rather than grace. Rest assured, there is no question that God’s redemptive love embraces all without regard to their worthiness. Furthermore, I think that Saint Paul’s words about the Day of the Lord and the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 to which I alluded have far more to do with what God is calling us toward this moment than with who does and who does not get into heaven at the end of time. If you know that, in the end, the value of one’s life is not measured in terms of power, wealth, fame, professional accomplishment but simply in terms of how one has treated “the least” among us, what light does that shed on how we are living today? The good news is that the Day of the Lord is beginning to dawn even now. Even now it is possible to begin accustoming our eyes to the light that breaks into our lives with every opportunity to practice justice, exercise compassion and show mercy, a light that must inevitably envelop the whole of creation. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5.

Here is a poem by Maya Angelou daring us to emerge from the darkness of our fears, prejudices and blood feuds to a new day. Perhaps this is something akin to what Saint Paul means when he challenges disciples of Jesus to walk in the light.

On the Pulse of the Morning

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.

[…]

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (c. Maya Angelou 1993; pub. by Random House Inc., 1994). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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