When I read this story again for the thousandth or so time, I realized something: some of God’s best work happens in the dark.
Of course, the Bible begins in the dark. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” [Genesis 1:1-3, NRSV]
And when Abraham despaired of having an heir, it says, “God brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” [Genesis 15:5, NRSV] And later, “When the sun had gone down and it was dark… the Lord made a covenant with Abraham [Abram] saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land.’” [Genesis 15:17-18, NRSV] In the dark God promised Abraham a legacy and a land to call home.
And Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, wrestled with the angel in the dark. In so doing he received a blessing and a name to go with it. He was now called Israel, which means, “One-Who-Wrestles-With-God.” Centuries later, Moses and these God-wrestlers escaped from Egypt in the dark. In Exodus we read, “At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’” [Exodus 14:24-25, NRSV] See what I mean?!
And, if the tradition is true, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in the dark. Or nearly so. The story goes that the angel appeared to her while she was gathering water at the town spring in Nazareth. This spring, which still flows today, is found in a grotto, a small cave. Mary would have had to bring a lamp with her in addition to her water jar. It would have been too dark for her otherwise. And after Joseph hears that Mary is pregnant and decides to break off the engagement, Matthew tells us, “…just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” [Matthew 1:20-21, NRSV]
And so here they were, the two of them, headed for Joseph’s ancestral town of Bethlehem to be registered. At least that was the emperor’s plan. But God had another plan. As Luke tells it, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Here, in Bethlehem, God added another name to their family registry. Jesus, son of Joseph. Jesus, whose name means, “The-One-Who-Saves.” And God does so in the dark.
It was also in the dark that the shepherds first heard this good news of great joy. And it was in the dark that the Magi followed the star which led them to Jesus and then them home by another way.
Yes, some of God’s best work happens in the dark. Which, in itself, is very good news. Because it is when we are in the dark that we need God the most.
We human beings aren’t very good in the dark. We are unsuited to it. Our eyesight and hearing are only good enough to make us more afraid in the dark, not less. All it takes is one night of camping to prove just how true this is. Trust me, you won’t get a lot of sleep. Too many things go bump in the night.
No, daytime is our time. Which is why I can’t quite understand people who actually seek out the dark. Like cave explorers. Or, like Robert MacFarlane. Robert MacFarlane recently wrote a book all about the dark. Titled Underland, it is about a series of explorations he took underground. Why would someone do this? Well, perhaps it has something to do with what came to mind after crawling out of a particularly claustrophobic ruckle in the English countryside. (I learned that a ruckle is the name for a group of boulders that have caved in upon themselves.) He writes, “…to understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark.” [Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), chap. 2.]
MacFarlane may be right. That may be true. You can’t appreciate the light until you’ve experienced the dark. But, if that’s true, then it’s also true that you don’t always have to go looking for that deep-down dark. Sometimes, you just find yourself in it.
As Mary and Joseph did. Sure, their son was born in the dark. But they were also in the dark about so much more. Mary was in the dark about why God would choose her to bring the Messiah into the world. Joseph was in the dark about why it couldn’t have waited until after the wedding. Both of them were in the dark about how all of this would come to pass, or if it would come to pass at all.
And the world they were living in had its own fair share of darkness as well. Their trip from Galilee to Bethlehem was a good example of it. They didn’t want to make that trip. They had to. The emperor wanted to count his subjects for military and monetary purposes. It was all about the swords and the shekels. It was a painful reminder to them that they weren’t free. The long shadow of Rome was still keeping their people, God’s people, in the dark. The deep-down dark.
It's been thirty-four months and we’re still in the dark about when this pandemic will finally be over. If it will ever really be over. Over these past few years, we have lost many whom we loved. We have also lost much of what we loved. It is as if we have been crawling through one long claustrophobic ruckle. The difference being we haven’t found the way out yet. We haven’t made it back to the light.
Which is why we need to hear the message of Christmas now more than ever. The message of Christmas is that we don’t have to make it back to the light. Because the light has made it back to us. Whenever and wherever we find ourselves in the dark, even the deep-down dark, we can trust that God is with us.
One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 139. It is a psalm which reminds us that there is no place we can go that God isn’t already present. In one section, the psalmist reflects, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” [Psalm 139:11-12, NRSV] It is a powerful reminder that we need not be afraid of the dark. For although we may not be able to see the light, God does. And, more importantly, God sees us. And promises to save us. Both in the dark and from the dark.
One of the people Robert MacFarlane meets on his underground journeys is a physicist named Christopher Toth. Toth works in a laboratory half a mile underground searching for evidence of dark matter, the stuff that holds the universe together. It is called dark matter because you can’t see it. Which makes it particularly difficult to find, let alone study. Toth’s research is as much an act of faith as it is of reason. Which is perhaps why, in their conversation, some 3,000 feet below the surface, the talk turned to God. Toth said, “No divinity in which I would wish to believe would declare itself by means of what we would recognize as evidence…. If there is a god, we should not be able to find it.” [Underland, chap. 3.]
Although he probably hadn’t intended it, Toth’s remarks get close to the heart of the message and the miracle of Christmas. He’s right: a baby born in a manger isn’t convincing evidence of the presence of God. We are all left to make up our own minds about Jesus. The shepherds had to. The Magi had to. The disciples had to. You and I have to. None of us ever gets enough evidence to make that decision. But, by the grace of God, hopefully we will get enough faith.
And he’s also right that if there is a God, we shouldn’t be able to find it. For, as the Christmas story teaches, we don’t find God. God finds us. Even 2,000 years later. Even 3,000 feet down. Even, yes even, in the dark.
Let us pray.
Illuminating God, we are grateful that in Jesus Christ, you have found us and are with us. Even now, and even in the dark. On this holy day, fill us with the brightness of your incarnation. Guide our steps as we try to find our footing in the new year. Hold us close when we stumble. And lead us into bright horizons of possibility as we seek to serve you and to share you. Amen.