23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C: 5 September 2010)

Darkness is no darkness with you

Psalm 139.1-18

We begin life in darkness. We spend nine months in the womb, changing, morphing into a recognisable human being. (Though sometimes I think it’d be better if we were called human becomings, because we’re all works in progress throughout our lives.) And I’m convinced that we do a lot of our becoming human in the darkness.

In that first nine months of our existence, we change from being a fertilised egg to a collection of cells to an embryo to a foetus to, well, the desired product—a baby.

We change appearance drastically during our nine months in our mother’s womb. I still remember being amazed as a boy looking at pictures of how we develop before we’re born. I’d assumed we just looked like littler and littler versions of a newborn baby.

In fact, that’s what people did assume several hundred years ago. So when an unfortunate woman suffered a miscarriage, they thought she’d been carrying a monster. They didn’t realise they may well have been looking at a normal human at an early stage of development.

Psalm 139 expresses confidence in the God who moulds us in the darkness of the womb:

it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

The Psalmist is amazed at the power of God. In this age of scientific knowledge, we sell ourselves short when we assume that science tells the whole story, when we fail to marvel at the God who makes and sustains the whole of life.

At three or four days after conception, we’re just a ball of cells. This ball doesn’t look like a human person at all. But this ball of cells is perfect. It’s exactly what it should be.

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.

At five weeks, we still don’t look human. We have a tail, and little ‘buds’ from which our arms and legs will form. But this little thing is perfect. It’s exactly what it should be.

I thank you,
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
marvellous are your works,
my soul knows well.

Someone had cause to have an ultrasound scan of one of their children at eight or nine weeks after conception. They saw this little thing the size of a pea, with a heart in the middle going full bore. They fell completely in love with that little creature! It was perfect. It was exactly what it should be.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
so high that I cannot attain it.

And then, we have a baby.

We change in amazing ways during that first nine months. Yet it’s not just in the dark womb that we change quickly. Once we come out into the light, we keep changing. “Oooh, loook at ’im, ’asn’t ’e grown!” the aunties would say when they saw me as a kid. “Last time Ah saw ’im ’e were only this ’igh!” (Notice how the grown-ups talked about you, not to you?)

Then of course your voice deepens (mine did anyway). And you grow hair in surprising places.

Then you get to about thirty and you’ve arrived. You stop developing. Don’t you? Don’t you? No, you don’t.

I found to my surprise that I kept on changing through life. When I was a kid, I thought you became a grown-up and then things sort of plateaued out. But I’m not the person I was nearly thirty years ago, when I was thirty. I’m still a work in progress. Anyone who really knows me will tell you that. I’m still becoming human, I’m a human becoming.

When I was in the darkness of the womb, I was changing, becoming. It doesn’t stop there; once I emerged into the light, I kept changing, becoming. But in the light, the most significant changes are often internal.

O God, you mark out my journeys
and my resting place
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Jesus was formed in the womb, just as we have been. He wasn’t born an adult. He wasn’t born a fully-fledged Saviour, ready for the cross from the beginning. He was born a baby; he couldn’t speak or feed himself. He needed his nappy changing (or his swaddling cloth wringing out!).

In Luke 2.30 and 52, we read these words:

The child [Jesus] grew and became strong, filled with wisdom… Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.

And we also read in verse 51:

His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

Mary treasured her Son’s growth in wisdom and in favour with God and with people, and she treasured these things in a hidden place, we could even say in a ‘dark’ place. In her heart.

Much of God’s work in us happens in the darkness. Have you thought about that? We’ve spoken about spiritual practices this year. Prayer is one of the basic spiritual practices. We read that Jesus went out to pray alone. I hope that personal regular prayer is not foreign to any of us; but it’s not something that is seen by others. If we pray regularly—and I hope we all do—we do it away from others. We may have a special place at home or a particular seat. My family know when I am in my seat with my prayer book in hand, that’s what I’m doing. And they usually wait to speak with me, unless it’s a particularly urgent matter like whether we remembered to record their favourite TV program.

Sometimes, I think my soul is pretty embryonic. If I could see it, I might be as shocked as people hundreds of years ago were when they saw human embryos. But if my soul is embryonic, that’s quite normal. It’s becoming a truly human soul. If I engage in spiritual practices, if I walk with Jesus on the Way, it is becoming Christlike. Sometimes, my soul moves forward millimetre by painful millimetre. Sometimes, it’s one step forward, two back. But the work is hidden.

Often the work is hidden from me. One thing we can say about prayer is that it changes us. It ‘tenderises’ us. But how? I don’t know. It’s a hidden work. Hidden from me, but not from God.

Even darkness is no darkness with you;
the night is as clear as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.

I think we often don’t comprehend the ways of the Spirit within us. But we practise our faith, and the Spirit works her work.

God works in the darkness of the womb. That is a picture of the way God works in our spirits—in hidden ways. But there is another darkness in which God works. This is the darkness that falls over every life. Every human ‘becoming’ has times of darkness, which may be very testing times indeed.

I’m talking about times of loss, of illness, of disappointment. I’m talking about how these can become times of reconnecting with God.

When we’re in trouble, when we’re up to our necks in distress, most of us do two things. We ask, ‘Why me?’ And then we look for God to rescue us. We want to be ‘out’ of trouble.

Of course, we have a great God, a powerful God, a wonder-working God. And people are delivered out of their distress. People are healed, relationships restored. We often call these things ‘miracles’, because they don’t happen all the time.

It happens far more often that we stay in the darkness for a time. Perhaps for a very long time. Yet if we stay in the darkness in the right way, we are formed as people who are more like Jesus Christ. We become more Christlike.

Jesus himself entered a time of great distress. Just three weeks ago, Jesus exclaimed these words in our Gospel reading (Luke 12.50). He was speaking of his coming death:

I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to be delivered (Luke 22.42):

‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

“Not my will but yours.” The prayer of the disciple in trouble, yet always coupled with “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

The cup was not removed. Jesus suffered to death—but then he burst through death to a new creation. And for us, death and the darknesses of our lives are signs of that victory that Jesus won, that new creation he has brought into being.

We Christians live in hope. We may be in darkness, but “darkness and light to [God] are both alike”. We may walk in darkness, but we can take the hand of the One who sees.

How deep are your counsels to me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!

Normally, when we think of ‘hope’ we think of what we hope for. We hope for a good job. We hope our children get good exam results. We hope Australia wins the Ashes series… (Actually, I don’t care; I can’t lose an Ashes series!)

Normally, when we think about hope we think about a result. Christian hope isn’t like that. We have hope in the goodness and mercy of God. Our hope is a trusting attitude to life, it’s a well-founded hope that life will triumph.

Christian hope rejoices when results come, when miracles occur, but it is not extinguished when there are no results. We need Christian hope.

We also need friends. All this reminds me of the story of Job. What darkness he went through! But you know, his ‘friends’ made the darkness worse, not better.

They started well: they sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and said not a word. It all changed when they did speak though: they spouted their theories of why bad things happen to good people.

When we are in darkness, we need friends who have also been in darkness. Friends who will speak of what they know, what they have found in the darkness as they walked with God. Not friends who parrot what they’ve heard about it; friends who can take our hands.

One day, we too may be such friends. We can truly strengthen those who walk through the darkness, whose souls are being formed in the darkness. Our own dark times become the source of our ability to be with others in their darknesses.

We’re still human becomings through all this. We never stop becoming truly human. We make mistakes, we get things wrong, the inner demons that we struggle with threaten to surface. But in all this, Jesus Christ is with us, Jesus who has won the victory over the darkness. The God to whom “darkness and light are both alike” is with us. He gives us people to be with us. We live in hope—hope in God, the hope of becoming truly human.


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