Lighten the Darkness of Our Hearts
Lighten the Darkness of Our Hearts
St. Matthew 11:2-6
by William Klock
Advent reminds us that God has not abandoned us to darkness. In the Advent Collect we cry out to him for “grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light”. Last Sunday we prayed to the Lord who has “caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning…that through patience, and the comfort of [his] holy word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life”. Both collects also point to Jesus as the source of light and hope. He came in humility to drive away the darkness. He is the one who reconciles us to God and opens the door to everlasting life.
The collect today shifts our focus a bit. In it we pray for the “ministers and stewards” of God’s mysteries to be faithful in preparing the way for Jesus’ return. It points to the story we read about John the Baptist in our Gospel and to our Epistle from 1 Corinthians in which Paul writes about his own ministry and the criticism he received. But this isn’t the original collect for today. The collect we have is one of the wonderful collects written by Bp. John Cosin when the Prayer Book was revised in 1662. This coming week is traditionally a time for ordinations and he wrote a collect that ties together the Epistle and Gospel in a way that points them in that direction. The original collect, however, passed down from ancient times and translated into English by Archbishop Cranmer in 1549, carries on with the Advent them of light coming into the darkness. This is how that ancient collect went:
Lord, we beseech thee, give ear to our prayers, and by thy gracious visitation lighten the darkness of our heart, by thy Lord Jesus Christ.
“Lord, visit us we pray, and lighten the darkness of our hearts.” I think that collect may resonate with people more than the one about the faithfulness of our ministers—not that we don’t need both. Many of us sense the darkness of the world so much more acutely as the joy of Christmas approaches—a joy we see other people embracing, but a joy that some might feel is very distant. Turn on the news and you’ll get a litany of everything that’s wrong with the world. And yet we don’t have to turn on the TV or open a newspaper to know that the world is dark. The effects of sin and death have reached every one of us. We all know broken relationships. We have all been touched by death. The older we get the more we sense our own mortality. And the more time passes the more we know and experience the sorrows and the darkness of the world. It’s easy to lose hope. It’s easy to lose sight of the light who has come into the darkness. I think our biggest problem is that in light of our current sorrows it’s incredibly easy to lose our gospel perspective—to forget the two advents. We focus on our pains and our griefs today and forget that Jesus has come and that Jesus will return. And then the darkness overwhelms us and we lose hope. This was John the Baptist’s problem in our Gospel today.
Look at Matthew 11:2-3.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus was busy. Verse 1 says that Jesus was teaching and preaching in the towns and cities. He’d been travelling all over Galilee. He was healing the blind and the lame. He was casting out demons. He was preaching good news to the poor. Meanwhile, John’s busy days were over. He was cooling his heels in Herod’s prison. Out in the wilderness he’d been heralding the coming of God’s King and calling people to repentance. Calling the ordinary people to repentance was one thing, but John called Herod to repentance as well. He denounced him for marrying his brother’s wife. That, on top of the fact that John was proclaiming that God’s true King was coming, got him thrown in prison. Herod was the King of the Jews and he wasn’t going to tolerate anyone saying otherwise.
Being imprisoned by Herod was bad, but—and I’m speculating here—John may not have been too worried about it at first. He had an ace in the hole—or so he thought. He was the Messiah’s herald. Like the Blues Brothers, he was on a mission from God and God was going to take care of him one way or another. The Messiah was his cousin, after all. Maybe Jesus would stage a jail-break. At the very least, I suspect that John was confident that when Jesus finally overthrew the Romans, put down the wicked and corrupt Herod, and took his seat on David’s throne, he’d release Herod’s political prisoners. After all, what was Jesus was also preaching “release to the captives”!
But it didn’t happen. John waited and waited in Herod’s prison. I expect he started to sympathise with Joseph, the righteous man wrongly imprisoned. Joseph had a made a friend in Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and that good-for nothing cup-bearer had forgotten about him once he was free of the prison. I wonder if John grumbled about his good-for-nothing cousin, adored by the crowds, but letting John rot in a dungeon. Again, when things aren’t going our way, when we feel alone in the dark, it’s easy to lose hope. It’s easy to let the darkness overwhelm our hearts.
But there was another reason John was beginning to lose hope. There was another reason that the darkness was beginning to overwhelm him. While John was sitting in the dark of Herod’s dungeon, Jesus was out in the sunlight seemingly wasting his time. The Messiah was supposed to vanquish the enemies of God’s people. He was supposed to restore God’s people to their rightful place on top of the world. Like Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal and having them all put to death, Jesus, if he really was the Messiah, was supposed to deal with the evil in the world and set everything to rights. But that wasn’t happening. Instead of gathering an army to challenge Herod or to challenge the Romans, Jesus was wandering around the backwaters of Galilee, making friends with tax-collectors and sinners—people the torah said to stay away from. He was healing the sick, the blind, and the lame. He was casting out demons, too. And that was all messianic work, but he wasn’t doing the really important stuff the Messiah was supposed to do—like getting rid of Herod and letting John out of prison! John was frustrated. If Jesus were really the Messiah he sure wasn’t getting the job done. And since everybody knew that the Messiah was going to get the job done—well—maybe Jesus wasn’t really the Messiah. John started to think that maybe he’d got it wrong. Maybe—even—there was no Messiah. I really doubt John’s doubts went that deep, but it’s not hard to imagine others becoming jaded and cynical. Jesus wasn’t the first person to claim to be the Messiah and he wouldn’t be the last. The history of the Second Temple period is full of false messiahs.
Does that sound at all familiar? Our culture doesn’t live in hope of a coming messiah quite the way the Jews did. But we do assume that God is good and that if he’s really there—somewhere, out there or up there—he’ll make sure that good wins and evil loses. But we look around and so often evil seems to win. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. A lot of the time bad people happen to good people. There is unspeakable evil in the world. And, again, at the personal level, we’ve all experienced the fallout of sin and death. It’s not necessary to have seen the carnage of war or the evils of genocide first hand to know the effects of sin. It breaks our relationships. It brings us pain. And even young and healthy people have held the hands of loved ones as they deal with the pain of sickness and decay and, eventually, death. It’s easy to become jaded and cynical. It’s easy to blame God and to doubt his goodness—or even his existence. If God exists, why does he allow so much suffering? Many people use the evil and pain in the world to justify their denial of God. And yet even Christians, who know that God is real, doubt his goodness or doubt his sovereignty. God is good, but more than once a suffering brother or sisters has said, “Not to me, he’s not!” Dear Friends, that’s the point at which the darkness of the world has overwhelmed our hearts. God is good. God is wise. God is sovereign. God is righteous—he makes good on his covenant promises. We’ve got an entire book as evidence. But when darkness overwhelms our hearts, all of that goes out the window and all that matters is our unmet expectations. Like John in prison, we begin to doubt. “Are you the one, or should we look for another?”
Look how Jesus responded to John’s question in verses 4-6:
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
John heard in prisons the deeds that the Messiah was doing. That’s how Matthew put it earlier. He heard of the deeds the Messiah was doing. Luke says that when John’s disciple went to ask Jesus if he was really the one, Jesus was in the middle of a crowd healing people. You get the sense that they had to push through the crowd to get to Jesus and, either they had to wait for him to finish healing someone or they had to interrupt the healings to get his attention. And they ask: Are you the Messiah? Here’s Jesus doing the stuff the prophets had said the Messiah would do and yet they’re so focused on what they think the Messiah should be doing, they completely miss it. Jesus doesn’t actually answer their question directly. He probably knew that claiming outright to be the Messiah would land him in prison with John and so he made the claim indirectly. Anyway, his answer is for them to go back to John to report that he is doing precisely what John had heard he was doing: healing, restoring sight, raising the dead, and preaching good news. It’s Jesus’ way of telling John that he needs to re-evaluate his expectations of the Messiah.
You see, John was picturing the Messiah coming like Elijah to expose the false worship of Israel, to kill the prophets of Baal, and to expose the wicked and idolatrous king. Jesus has, instead, come to Israel as Elijah went to the Widow of Zarephath. Do you remember the story? Elijah confronted King Ahab and his pagan queen after his showdown with the prophets of Baal. There was the prophet at his fieriest, proclaiming God’s judgement. But from there he went in tenderness to a poor widow and her son. They were living in the midst of famine and near death. Elijah miraculously provided a never-ending supply of flour and oil and, later, when the widow’s son died, Elijah raised him from the dead. There were two sides to the prophet’s ministry. Yes, on the one hand there were fiery proclamations of judgement, but on the other there was tenderness shown to those who had been trampled underfoot by the wicked people in power. And just so with the Messiah.
John’s problem—and he wasn’t alone, it was most of Israel’s problem—was that he thought only of the fiery judgement aspects of the Messiah’s ministry. Jesus, however, knew that the blind, the deaf, the poor, the possessed didn’t need fire and brimstone, they didn’t need judgement, so much as they needed deliverance. They were the ones ready to believe and follow. All they needed was to see the Messiah lifting the veil and giving them a taste of God’s deliverance and of Creation set right. As St. John says in that favourite passage in his Gospel: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
To set the world to rights the Messiah has to address the problem of evil. So long as there is evil in the world there will also be pain, suffering, and death. God can deal with it in two ways. He can rain down fire and brimstone—so to speak. He can come in judgement and he can wipe the evil from the face of his creation. That’s Option One. But since every one of us is guilty of sin, since every one of us has contributed to the corruption of his creation, that would mean wiping every one of us from creation’s face. And that’s not what God wants to do. He created us so that he could share himself with us. He loves us. He will do what he has to do to set his creation to rights, but he would rather redeem than condemn. And so—Option Two—he came himself, incarnate as one of us in the person of Jesus. He offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins and died in our place. And he rose from the grave, victorious over death itself. He created a new people in whom he has planted his own Spirit. Through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection we are forgiven our sins and restored to life in the presence of God. We are made new by the power of the Holy Spirit and given a promise of resurrection to life in God’s world when he has finally set all to rights. Yes, there will still be judgement. Those who continue to oppose God. Those who continue to reject his Messiah. Those who insist on rebellion and idolatry will have to be wiped from creation on that final day that it might finally be set right. But in the meantime the Messiah comes, not in judgment, but with mercy; not to condemn, but to redeem. As Jesus said to John: “Blessed is he who is not offended by me.”
Brothers and Sisters, this is the message—this is the story—we need to remember. When we forget it, we run the risk of letting the darkness in the world work its way into our hearts, crushing our hope and stealing away our faith. Like John the Baptist and like so many in Israel, we want God to come and set everything to rights. We want him to rain down fire and brimstone on those who do evil in the world. We want him to come and deal with our enemies. We want him to come and deliver us from our sicknesses. “Deliver me from evil!” we demand. And when he doesn’t we become angry. We doubt his goodness. We doubt his wisdom. We grumble. We become bitter. Our hearts become dark. But what we forget is that each of us is part of the problem. You don’t have to be a serial killer or a genocidal dictator to be part of the misery of this world. We forget that. Each of us is, from time to time, the source of someone else’s misery, pain, or sorrow. We’ve all been responsible for the breakdown of our relationships. We’ve all sinned and sent ripples of heartache out into our families and communities. We all take part in political and economic activities that are hurtful to others even if we have no knowledge of those repercussions ourselves. Brothers and Sisters, we’re all part of the problem in some way. But we forget that. We want God to come and deal with corruption and evil, to come and judge others, while forgetting that we, ourselves, are guilty too.
This is why God chose to humble himself and to be born as one of us, to die the humiliating and excruciating death of the cross, so that those who will kneel in faith before Jesus and give their allegiance to him as King, can be made new and share in the life of creation set to rights when he wipes evil from its face. This is why God delays in dealing with evil once and for all. To give the condemned a chance to repent and to find life in Jesus. And this is the mission of his Church: not just to proclaim the good news that Jesus has died and risen and is Lord, but to manifest God’s kingdom, to lift the veil on his new world by showing to the world the same mercy that God has shown us in Jesus.
Yes, judgement will come. Yes, one day evil will be wiped from the face of Creation, cast into the lake of fire to be no more. But today is the day of mercy. Today is the day of redemption. And if we want to see where God is at work, we need only look for the places where we see mercy poured out in the name of Jesus. And if we’re not seeing it, Brothers and Sisters, we need to become that place of mercy ourselves.
Let us pray: “Lord, we beseech thee, give ear to our prayers, and by thy gracious visitation lighten the darkness of our heart, by thy Lord Jesus Christ.”