DARKNESS AT NOON

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

August 27, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon

Amos 8:4-12; John 8:12-20

 

“On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon,

and darken the earth in broad daylight”

Amos 8:9

 

Did you see the solar eclipse? Did you step outside with a special pair of sunglasses — or maybe the visor from a welder’s helmet — and use it to gaze at the bright disk of the sun? Did you watch the small indentation gradually grow larger, until it resembled a bite out of an Oreo cookie?

Then, did you notice as the sky suddenly grew darker and the temperature dropped?

Our family saw all these things and more. We’d traveled halfway across the country, to St. Joseph, Missouri, smack dab in the middle of the well-advertised path of totality. We’d traveled there, at the instigation of my brother, Jim. He’d booked the hotel rooms more than a year in advance. We wanted to see the one thing you couldn’t see, observing the eclipse here in New Jersey.

We wanted to see the eclipse in totality: the image you see printed on your bulletin cover. The black disk of the moon, surrounded by the shimmering halo of the sun’s corona.

We were not successful in our quest. They say there’s only a 5% chance that the skies over St. Joseph will be overcast on any given day in the month of August, but we were so unlucky as to hit that 5%.  It actually rained during the early stages of the eclipse. By the time of totality the rain had stopped, but a thick carpet of gray cloud still hung high in the sky.

It was still dramatic, though, to see the world grow suddenly dark in the middle of the day. I could hear someone say, “Here it comes,” and then, from the west, a black mass like a dense swarm of bees gathered, and moments later enveloped us.

The temperature dropped noticeably.

Oddly, incongruously, the crickets started chirping.

Suddenly, it was sunset: but not just in the west. This sunset stretched all around us, 360 degrees, hugging the horizon. Overhead ,the cloudy sky above was dark as night.

It was all over in a couple of minutes. The darkness retreated, as quickly as it had arrived. A couple hours later, the clouds had retreated too, and we had just the sort of sunny summer day that would have allowed us to view the full eclipse, had it happened just a little sooner.

But that’s the risk you take, when you set off chasing the total eclipse of the sun. There are no guarantees. Something great and powerful is in motion, far bigger than anyone, any nation — even the United Nations — can influence in the smallest degree.

It’s a sudden and stunning reminder to proud and self-sufficient human beings everywhere of just how small we really are, and how utterly overpowering are the cosmic forces that keep our planet spinning on its axis, and that cause the sun to beam its benevolent rays onto this world that, without its warm embrace, would be an icy, uninhabited chunk of rock hurtling through the eternal silence of space.

*****

          One of our greatest modern writers, the essayist and keen observer of nature, Annie Dillard, recorded her experience of viewing a total eclipse in the State of Washington many years ago. Here’s how she describes the coming of the darkness:

The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit….

 

Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face. [Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (HarperCollins, 2009), 25.]

*****

          There are some, I’m sure, who traveled — as our family did — to one or another location within that band of totality, seeking something they could scarcely name. I learned recently that people like us have a special name: umbraphiles. The Latin word umbra means shadow, so umbraphiles are lovers of the shadow. They’re people who travel all over the world chasing solar eclipses. I’ve never imagined myself in such company, but I do have to admit that — having had that tantalizing experience of coming so near to seeing a total eclipse, only to have clouds get in the way — I want try again seven years from now: on April 8, 2024, when a total eclipse next comes to America. It so happens that our little cabin in the Adirondacks will be smack dab in the middle of the path of totality, so that’s where we’ll be, dark glasses on, eyes to the sky.

*****

          Why is it that people are so fascinated by solar eclipses? I’ve been asking myself that question, ever since seeing the multitudes flock to Missouri last Monday. I’m sure there were a few amateur astronomers or photographers scattered throughout the crowd, but only a few. These were ordinary people, for the most part: a cross-section of humanity curious to see the sun go away and experience for the briefest of moments what the world might feel like without it.

The sun, of course, is the only star in the universe dedicated to warming our planet. Its benign radiation is essential to life itself. There you have it: the reason for such fascination. Gazing up at an eclipse is a little like experiencing the dread of your own death, for the briefest of moments: before the comforting light returns.

We’re all very used to seeing the sun go away once a day. “The shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and they busy world is hushed” — in the words of the famous funeral prayer of Cardinal Newman. The reason you and I can close our eyes and go to sleep at night is our confidence, born of experience, that as surely as the sun goes down in the evening it will come up again at the dawning of the day.

But, what if one day it didn’t? This darkness-at-noon thing is something else altogether. We knew perfectly well that the total eclipse, in the spot where we were, would last two minutes and 38 seconds — which indeed it did. But until the light finally returned, there was just a little part of us that wondered if it really would.

Maybe witnessing a total eclipse is like watching a horror movie. Now, I’m no great fan of horror movies, but I know people who are. I’ve heard them say that the best part is walking out of the theater, after it’s all over, and reminding themselves it’s not real.

*****

          In the lesson from the Hebrew scriptures we heard this morning, the prophet Amos uses a solar eclipse to suggest the horror of divine judgment:

“On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.” [Amos 8:9-10]

Well, that sounds pretty harsh! What had the people of Israel done to deserve such a punishment?

The answer’s found earlier in that very passage: “You…trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” The prophet is incensed that the people of Israel have been saying things like this: “We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” It’s outright fraud, perpetrated at the expense of the poor. The people of God’s covenant really ought to know better. They’ve been putting their finger on the scale for so long, they barely even try anymore to cover up their deception. They’ve become the people whose motto is “Anything to make a shekel.”

Old Amos is convinced that the people of Israel have grown so selfish, and have fallen so deeply into sin, that they need a booming wake-up call. So, he gives it to them. A prophet’s condemnation is like an alarm clock sounding the harshest, most jangling bell you can imagine. It’s not that prophets like Amos take any joy in raising a ruckus. They’re committed to one task, and one task only: waking God’s people up before it’s too late.

I noticed this past week that a couple of televangelists were taking a similar line. Jim Bakker — the convicted swindler who’s now out of prison and back to his old tricks, apparently — was one of them. Anne Graham Loetz, the daughter of Billy Graham, was another. Each of them publicly wondered whether God could have sent the eclipse to warn America to clean up our act.

But that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Maybe you could say such a thing about a natural disaster that came up unexpectedly, but there’s nothing so regular, so absolutely reliable, as an eclipse of the sun. Eclipses happen when the moon passes between the sun and the earth, blocking the sun’s rays and casting that huge, racing shadow. Astronomers can predict when and where on the earth’s surface future eclipses are going to take place, down to the minute. They can do this centuries into the future. If the Creator were using last week’s eclipse to send some kind of special message, then that message was encoded ages ago, when God set the planets in their courses. Long before there was a United States of America, this eclipse was scheduled to happen. Anything the present generation may or may not have done has no bearing on it whatsoever.

Yet, such an event can serve to remind us how tenuous and fragile our lives are: how dependent we all are on the goodness of our Creator. You may take the warmth of the sun for granted — most people do —  but one thing you realize, during the two minutes or so of a total eclipse, is what a desperate situation we’d be in, were the sun to go away for good. During the two and a half minutes of totality, we felt the temperature drop about 10 degrees. How low do you suppose it would go if the sunlight never returned? Without the sun, our planet would be nothing more than an especially large asteroid: a barren, uninhabitable rock hurtling through space.

*****

          That sets us up rather nicely to take a look at today’s Gospel lesson. It comes from the Gospel of John, and it’s one of Jesus’ most famous sayings: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

The sun is the light of the world — that’s sun, s-u-n. But Jesus, God’s son — that’s s-o-n — is also the light of the world, in a different sense. Just as the sun in the sky warms our planet and causes plants to grow, so Jesus the son brings God’s nurturing love into the world.

It’s a pretty gutsy thing for him to say, because he makes that remarkable declaration in the presence of some Pharisees. Immediately they start to question him, trying to undermine his testimony. “Who are your witnesses?” they respond. “You can’t make such a claim without somebody else beside you to back it up.”

Jesus boldly declares he doesn’t need another witness to back it up. He’s already got the only witness he needs. That witness is God. “But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” Jesus goes on. “For you know neither me nor my Father.”

John adds this chilling conclusion: “He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.”

They would, of course arrest him. They would put him on trial and crucify him. And on the day he died, the sky did turn black, without even a solar eclipse to account for it. For that space of three days that followed, as far as anyone knew, the light of the world had winked out.

But then on Easter, suddenly and unexpectedly, the light of the world returned. No longer must the sons and daughters of Adam inhabit the shadows. We can stand tall and face the dawning of a new and perfect day.

But we don’t need to wait for it to come, before we can start living as though the full light of the sun were already here. The world as we know it is living through the transitory darkness of an eclipse. Scripture tells us God created the world good, but we all know things happen all the time that look awfully dark to us.

But here’s the good news. Just knowing the darkness is on its way out is very often enough. The promise of returning light — sealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — is all we need.

C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in this famous quotation: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” [The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 1976) , 140.]

*****

          Mark Twain wrote a novel called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It’s the fanciful story of a man from Connecticut named Hank, who’s somehow transported back in time to the days of King Arthur.

Things don’t go so well for him there. He gets on the wrong side of the powerful magician, Merlin, who convinces the King that Hank must be burned at the stake. Well, it so happens Hank is familiar with an almanac that records a historic eclipse of the sun that happened in England in the year 528. By good fortune, the date of the eclipse coincides with the date of Hank’s execution. He sends a messenger to the King, to warn him that he, a mighty wizard, is going to blot out the sun if the execution isn’t called off forthwith.

The eclipse does come and go, to the general terror of everyone — but, because Hank has predicted it, the King commutes his sentence. He raises him to the position of number-two man in the kingdom.

Hank’s position in the story is like the situation you and I find ourselves in, having heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Things may get dark in this world of ours, sure enough, but we know — because of Jesus’ resurrection — that the return of the light is inevitable. As Paul says in Romans 13, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” [Romans 13:11-12]

So, trust in the Lord Jesus. Commit — or recommit — your life to him. Know that the light of his glory is on the way!

 

Let us pray:

Speak to us, Lord, in our darkness.

Shout to us through our pain.

Comfort us in our heartache.

Lead us gently, but surely, from darkness into light. Amen.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.