Sunday Sermon: It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Dean penny bridges preaching at pulpit

Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2021
Penelope Bridges
It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

If you Google the phrase, “It’s always darkest just before the day dawns”, you’ll find that the phrase was first committed to print by a 17th century theologian called Thomas Fuller, in the context of his Holy Land travelogue. However, it was also observed, in the 19th century, to be a phrase used by the Irish peasantry. Ireland and Palestine share the distinction of having been abused and divided by the English, of course, so perhaps it’s not surprising to find similar reflections on dark times.

In the first book of Samuel, we read of another dark time, a time when a lazy and inept man was about to face the consequences of his abuse of power. We read of Eli, the aged priest in charge of the Temple at Shiloh, a religious center in the middle of Israel. Eli’s tenure as a national spiritual leader had been undistinguished, to say the least, including accusing an innocent woman (who happened to be Samuel’s mother) of being drunk, because her lips were moving as she was praying. Eli’s two sons, also priests, were notorious for their corruption and brutality: our translation calls them scoundrels. Eli knew of their wickedness but he made little effort to stop them, and they paid absolutely no attention to the old man.

No wonder the spiritual life of the nation was so unhealthy that visions from the Lord were rare: nobody was watching for them.  This was a dark time in Israel’s history, one of the darkest, perhaps. On the night when this story takes place, we are told that the lamp of God had not yet gone out: this was a lamp that burned in the Temple all night and was extinguished at sunrise, so this story, of Samuel’s Epiphany, takes place in that profound darkness, just before the dawn of a new day for God’s people.

Knowing the situation, it’s easy to see why Eli was so slow to recognize the call of God as Samuel reported it. Thankfully, once he did recognize it, he did the right thing in guiding Samuel to answer the call, encouraging the terrified boy to tell the ominous truth, and allowing a peaceful transfer of religious power; and he subsequently raised Samuel to be one of the greatest of Israel’s judges and prophets.

We find more bad behavior among people of faith when we turn to Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, another community in need of repentance and renewal. There were all sorts of shenanigans going on: this congregation had convinced themselves that once they were baptized they could get away with anything. They had lost sight of their moral grounding. They had lost sight of how the behavior of individuals can affect the health of the entire community. “All things are lawful for me” is the retort of someone who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about doing what is for the good of the whole, but is only concerned with their own gratification.

We are well acquainted with such behavior. In the church we might see this when someone withholds their pledge because of a decision by the priest, or because a favorite ministry is no longer available to them. In the wider community we see it in the refusal to wear a face covering during a pandemic or to accept the results of a national election. And, as we are seeing right now, such an attitude can lead to outrageous and utterly unacceptable actions, not to mention thousands of unnecessary deaths from the coronavirus.

To base our behavior on what is not legally prohibited sets the bar far too low for people called and commissioned by God to love one another. As Paul says, we are members of Christ’s body; we have been bought with the price of Jesus’ blood; we are no longer our own; we have been united with the Lord and made one spirit with him. We have been freed, yes, freed from the bondage of sin, but not freed from all restraint; we have been freed to love fully, to serve humbly, to respect the dignity of every human being. That’s why, here at St. Paul’s, we are committed to dismantling the racist structures of our culture and pursuing ways to bridge the toxic political divides among us.

Now let’s look at the Gospel story. God calls the most unlikely people: little boy Samuel, immoral Corinthians, and now this glib fellow who dismisses Jesus as a hick from a hick town. Nathanael isn’t an obvious candidate for discipleship: he’s bigoted and resistant to change. But Philip invites him anyway, reaching across the divide: Come and See.  Come and see what God is up to here.  Nathanael looks across the street and sees someone different from himself, someone who he assumes has nothing to offer him. We know that he isn’t really seeing Jesus in that moment: he is seeing his preconceived notion of someone from Nazareth. He’s seeing his own prejudice reflected back at him.

But Jesus starts a conversation with him and makes clear that he sees Nathanael, sees him as a child of God who has the capacity for having visions and dreaming dreams. And once he knows he has been seen, Nathanael is captivated. Perhaps all he needed was for someone to really see him. Perhaps his mocking insult was a cover for his fear that nobody saw him, a fear that melted away when he was recognized by Jesus.

How often do we cover up our fear and insecurity with what looks and sounds like aggression? You’ve heard me say before that I believe fear is at the bottom of all our worst behavior. What if fear is at the bottom of the violent behavior of the mob that attacked the US Capitol? What if they are trying to cover up their fear of a changing world, their fear of being irrelevant, of not mattering, by putting on an angry face and lashing out?

If that fear is the core issue for our divided nation, how can we as people of faith help those people to heal from their fear? How can we help them to feel seen, so that they don’t have to hurt and destroy? How can we take them by the hand and invite them to Come and See? These are the questions for our season of Epiphany, as we seek to shine the light of Christ in this dark hour of our nation’s history, to make known the full glory of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God to a world full of fearful people longing to be seen, known, and cherished.

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