When the darkness comes, what do we do?
One answer: put on your party hat and forget your sorrows! We all have our party hats so we can party and forget: retail therapy, traveling, hobbies and habits, drinking, overeating favorite foods, going out, dining out. For me, if I’m really feeling sorry for myself, I want a McDonald’s double quarter pounder. I’ve learned that about myself. I tend to avoid fast food, but if I’m really in the dumps, that’s what I crave. Somehow, that greasy, disgusting, burger, makes me forget about my woes for a bit. Whatever your party hat, we all have our rituals of forgetfulness so that we can escape the darkness when it comes.
For the darkness comes, sometimes without warning. And so we don our party hats, take ourselves shopping or partying or dining, and forget for a while.
When the darkness comes, what do we do? We forget.
Or at least we do our best to forget, but we all have experienced the kind of darkness that just won’t let go, that we just can’t forget no matter how hard we try. As we continue our sermon series on the cycle of life and faith we find in the Psalms, we discuss today the darkness. It’s not a fun topic, it’s not an easy topic, and, based on our behavior, we typically try and avoid talking or thinking about it. But the Psalms don’t. In their prayers, they bring the darkness out, speaking directly to it, and sharing it boldly and sometimes bluntly with God in prayer. They delve head first into the darkness. And that’s what we find in Psalm 74, what we call a Psalm of disorientation.
You may remember from Sunday School that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. The elite of society were then taken captive to live in Babylon. In this Psalm, the authors record their experience of that destruction. They remember how the city was destroyed, how the temple was sacked with sacrilege, how they took axes to the doorframes and hammers to the carvings. The images are branded on their memory. They can’t forget the darkness. It was incredibly disorienting. And so they cry out to God:
When the darkness comes, what do we do?
While we might try and forget, the people of God praying this Psalm just couldn’t forget.
No amount of retail therapy on fifth avenue in Babylon would undo the destruction they’d experienced. No amount of partying on the beaches of ancient Persia could cause them to forget the trauma they’d endured. No Chaldean fast food could, no matter how good the double quarter pounder might be, let them escape what they’d experienced. The disaster, destruction, chaos, has left them disoriented.
They knew the kind of darkness that won’t let go.
There was a time in my life I knew a darkness that just wouldn’t let go. During onboarding, one of the questions was to ask about a time of failure in my life. Just six years ago was such a failure. We’d moved from Macon to Cartersville so I could take what I thought was a dream job: to be a chaplain at a college. The first six weeks were great. But then, in September, there were warning signs. In October, there were threats against my job. In November, there was an attempt to fire me by the college president. That didn’t work out, so the president determined to make my life as miserable as possible hoping I would quit. Daily I went to Human Resources to hear how terrible I was at my job, how it would be best for everyone if I just quit, how much harm I was doing to others, what a terrible person I was. And nightly, I came home and cried or, having run out of tears and being completely emotionally drained, sat numb, doing not much of anything.
The fall of 2016 was an incredibly difficult, terrible, dark time. I have known the kind of darkness that won’t let go. I needed out, I needed relief. I felt like a failure, even though I had done nothing wrong except to run afoul of the president. And I hadn’t even meant to run afoul; it just happened. The president made some power play moves and, without meaning to, I found myself on the wrong side of those power plays.
And then, I felt terribly guilty on top of everything else. I’d moved my family up to Cartersville, leaving a life in Macon we loved. We’d sold our house and bought a new house and now looked to have to sell that one, too. I wasn’t emotionally available to Dana or my children; I was just constantly emotionally drained. I had nothing left to give but absolutely felt I should. I felt not only that I had somehow failed at my job, and maybe even at my calling to be a pastor, but that I had also failed as a husband and father.
I knew a darkness that just wouldn’t let go.
If we’re brave this morning, I imagine we all can think of times we’ve known the kind of darkness that just won’t let go.
When a well-made decision turns out to have been wrong, sometimes the darkness won’t let go.
When the best laid plans turn to chaos, sometimes the darkness won’t let go.
When terrible illness suddenly strikes a loved one and threatens their life, sometimes the darkness won’t let go.
When our finances quickly collapse, sometimes the darkness won’t let go.
When death strikes quickly and mercilessly, sometimes the darkness won’t let go.
When a family suddenly ruptures, sometimes the darkness won’t let go.
The disaster, destruction, chaos, leaves us disoriented.
And that, indeed, is the name of this second part of the cycle of faith: disorientation. Life suddenly, dramatically, painfully, moves from a place of orientation, where we are in awe of God and see the world around us as a place of order where God is active and moving, to a place of disorientation, where all seems lost and dark. Is God still worthy of awe and wonder? Is the world really that place of order where God is active and moving? Can God be trusted? These are some of the questions of disorientation. For doubt creeps in during disorientation; a heavy weight of doubt. Much of what we held dear gets lost to doubt. Time honored truths seem to no longer matter.
That was certainly my experience while in Cartersville. I had doubts about whether I had made the right decision to move up there, about whether or not I had failed, but I also had doubts about God. How could God lead me to such a time? Why would God allow it to happen? I thought God had a plan for my life. I thought it was God’s will we move there. I thought God would protect me from harm. I was experiencing none of that. So I shared all those doubts with God in prayer. My prayer journal from that time is angry and full of those kinds of prayers of doubt, just like we find in the Psalms.
It’s times like this when it gets tempting to try and forget. Buy the new thing and be excited about it so you can forget the pain. Start a new significant relationship so you can forget the pain of the old. Go on an eating or drinking binge, do whatever feels good, eat the double quarter pounder with cheese, make yourself happy, so you can enjoy pleasure and forget the pain.
To forget is tempting. But to forget is only temporary at best. Sometimes our efforts to forget fail completely. Sometimes the darkness is so overwhelming that no pleasure can undo the pain. That was certainly my experience in Cartersville.
When we experience that kind of darkness, what do we do?
When a well-made decision turns out to have been wrong and God’s plan isn’t evident, what do we do?
When the best laid plans turn to chaos and God hasn’t worked all things together for our good yet, what do we do?
When terrible illness suddenly strikes a loved one and threatens their life and God doesn’t seem to have it, what do we do?
When our finances quickly collapse and God doesn’t provide immediately, what do we do?
When death strikes quickly and mercilessly and God feels absent our pain, what do we do?
When a family suddenly ruptures and there’s no restoration, what do we do?
When the darkness comes, what do we do?
Let’s look to the Psalms; in particular Psalm 74. In their candor, they provide us with our answer this morning.
The people of God, faced with the destruction of their temple and way of life, held in captivity, pray the darkness they’re experiencing back to God.
In this Psalm, the people are sitting in the darkness of exile in Babylon. You may recall that they landed there because of the people’s sinfulness. They became intoxicated with their wealth and power and it made them blind to the danger they faced. They forgot their loyalty to God and turned to worship other gods, too. With their attention diverted away from God, they suffered the natural consequences of their actions.
But by the time we get to this Psalm, the people have been suffering for a long time. They have long ago repented. In fact, they’ve repented over and over again. If you’ve ever apologized to someone and not received forgiveness, this is how they feel. They’ve apologized to God, they’ve done all they’re supposed to do to make amends, but God feels absent anyway.
And they can no longer stand the silence. “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?” they ask God in verses 10 and 11. Indeed, the Psalm opens with these words:, “Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever? Your wrath smolders against the flock You should tend.” They tell God he’s forgotten them. They tell God what God should be doing. They’re clearly very angry and don’t shy away from showing that anger to God. They feel abandoned, forgotten.
And so they tell God about it! They don’t shy away. They tell God exactly how they feel. They pray the darkness back to God.
Which is the first way the Psalms show us how to handle the darkness: pray the darkness back to God.
And then, they do something else essential: they remember God’s character.
“Yet God my king is from old, working salvation in the earth. You [God] divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams. Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter,” they declare in verses 12 through 17. They haven’t forgotten who God is. God is all powerful, as seen in how God can create from nothing and destroy even the greatest beats they know, like dragons and sea monsters. If God can do all that, God can do for them. And they still believe that God will.
They know who God is. They are convinced that God will provide because God has provided in the past. They look back to their past to find faith and hope for their future. If God has, God will. They know God can be trusted. As angry, as conflicted, as frustrated, as forgotten as they feel, they yet say to God, “look, this is who you are. This is who we know you to be. And so we believe that you will yet provide. You will come and work on our behalf.” They remember who God is and find hope in God’s character.
When the darkness comes, what do we do?
We pray the darkness back to God, remembering in our prayers who God is to find hope for our future.
When a well-made decision turns out to have been wrong and God’s plan isn’t evident, we pray the darkness back to God, mindful that God redeems the bad things that happen to us.
When the best laid plans turn to chaos and God hasn’t worked all things together for our good yet, we pray the darkness back to God, mindful that God makes all things new again.
When terrible illness suddenly strikes a loved one and threatens their life and God doesn’t seem to have it, we pray the darkness back to God, mindful that God takes care of us.
When our finances quickly collapse and God doesn’t provide prosperity, we pray the darkness back to God, mindful that God provides for us.
When death strikes quickly and mercilessly and God feels absent, we pray the darkness back to God, mindful that God said to us, “never will I leave you.”
When a family suddenly ruptures and there’s no restoration, we pray the darkness back to God, mindful that God is the Great Healer.
When the darkness comes, we pray the darkness back to God, remembering in our prayers who God is to find hope for our future.
God will turn the chaos into order, despair into hope, hatred into love, war into peace, for God is the God of great reversals. We just have to be open-minded, be willing to be delightfully surprised, about what God’s restoration and reconciliation looks like, as we remember God’s character and pray the darkness back to God.
This morning, I wonder: where in your life are you wrestling with the darkness? Whatever darkness you might know today, or whatever darkness you might have known in the past, pray that darkness back to God, remembering in your prayers who God is to find hope for your future. Whatever darkness you know, God is faithful; the light of God will break into the darkness, for just as we see at creation, just as we see on the cross, just as we see for the people of God in exile who wrote this Psalm, the darkness didn’t have the final word: light broke in at creation, light broke through in the resurrection, and the people of God were led back to Jerusalem as God provided restoration. Whatever darkness we might know, the light will always break through.
In Cartersville, God did a great work in my life. Standing at church during Advent, for December was the worst of the darkness for me, we sang a carol I’d never heard before titled, “I want to walk as a child of the light.” In that hymn, a line says, “in him [meaning Jesus] there is no darkness at all; the night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God; shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” I lost my composure in church. The words hit me like a ton of bricks. Stop trying to usher the darkness away on your own, Ted. Jesus Christ is the light. There is no darkness in him. He will take care of you. He will provide. Don’t know how. Don’t know when. But I know he will. So pray the darkness back to him, and remember his promises, for the light will one day break through!
So I did just that. And eventually, the light shone again. The bishop in North Georgia reappointed me so I didn’t have to spend the spring at the college where I worked, which was a huge relief. Then, I was appointed the following June to Eastman and found healing there. I saw the light of Christ again and it ushered away my darkness. In fact, I have experienced much redemption, as God has taken my suffering and used it to help others. God has turned my mourning into dancing, my despair into hope, my anger into understanding, and my deep sorrow into joy. I have known God to be what I said just a moment ago: the God of great reversals.
So while we’re in the darkness, let us not try to forget, but rather pray the darkness back to God, remembering in our prayers who God is to find hope for our future. Just as I found on that day in Advent during my terrible time of darkness, we have this hope and promise from God: no matter the darkness that consumes, the light will always break through!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.