Last Pentecost, Year B
November 22, 2015
IN THIS PRESENT DARKNESS
A funny thing happens to me these days – these days of late November. It’s a sort of time warp, a Rip Van Winkle type experience. I leave the office from either church to go home or to run some errand. When I go out my office door, it’s five o’clock. But then I go out the door that leads to the rest of the world and – bam – it’s seven-thirty. Aaugh!!!, as Lucy says in Peanuts. What happened to the time? I’m late, seriously late. White Rabbit, off with your head late. And then I check the time and find that I was right all along it’s only a little after five. The day is ending early, early, early. The light is dying along with the year.
This is a time of darkness – a darkness which falls so swiftly as to take your breath away. In late November there is no twilight, no gentle decline towards evening. There is instead a sudden blaze of light in the western sky, deeply coloring the lowering clouds, a last stab of light. And then suddenly the light disappears, disappears into a black, black sky. This dying of the light, indeed this season of dying light seems to come without warning. The warm and clear skies of October have vanished, and in their place this present darkness. Now night skies seem to cloak the stars, shut down the moon, even challenge the electric lights, the holiday lights that are twinkling, a little too soon, in vain defiance of the darkness. This is a time of ending, of fading, of withering – the beginning of a sudden, surprising slide into deep winter.
And in the gathering darkness other things are turning as well. Bombs explode and gun muzzles flash, as people scream in terror. People argue about whether or not to be afraid of immigrants. Politicians and pundits on both sides posture and attack one another. And at the same time, shopping malls are beginning to be packed, with shoppers headed towards the high holy day of consumerism. Mall Santas are beginning to hold screaming children on their laps, trying to look jolly. Football teams wind down their seasons in triumph or disappointment. Financial markets begin coasting toward year’s end. Deer hunters shiver in tree stands, waiting for a shot. Things are fading, dying, changing. It is the last Sunday of Pentecost.
The last Sunday of Pentecost. For in the Church calendar too this is a time of ending, of fading, of darkness. Advent begins next Sunday. Regular time, ordinary time is gasping to an end, that time of just living which runs on and on all the way from Pentecost Sunday at the start of the summer. And it’s just as well, for by this time we’re a little tired of it, tired of green hangings and vestments, tired of the regular routine, feeling faded and stretched, dying a little too in our common life, fading like the sun. Advent is a time of darkness. Of waiting in deep darkness, of the anticipation of the coming light. In Advent, we place ourselves, year after year in the time before, in the time of promise before fulfillment, in the time of longing, in the time of the hidden works of God, working silently, mysteriously, deeply hidden in the heart of the life of Israel.
So it is that in our lectionary the prophets lead us through Advent. With the prophets we strain our eyes in the darkness – in the dim light of distant stars – waiting and looking out like watchmen in the night, looking out for the coming of the baby who will bring change, peace, salvation. Advent is the deliberate march of the Church into the darkness of not-yet.
And so it is that on this – the last Sunday of Pentecost – the Sunday before Advent begins – so it is that we prepare ourselves for darkness, looking for a little light to carry us on our way. We look for light, for one to lead us on. We look for a king. And we look in a very strange place. We look for a king, not in a throne room, not in the vanguard of a mighty army, not in the midst of an adoring crowd. We look for our king in the dock of a criminal court and a sham of a court at that. We look for light in the midst of brutal violence and the swirl of politics and expediency and calculating self-interest. For that is right where the Gospel of John places Jesus. In today’s Gospel we have joined the story in midstream. But we know it so well. The great and holy city, filled with tourists, with pilgrims, and with politicians. The power of Rome, locally in the hands of a man famously insensitive and hamfisted. The great Temple, held by those whose lives are compromise and maneuver. The parties: Roman, Herodian, Sadducee, Pharisee, Zealot – each trying to catch the other in a false step, to twist each event to their advantage. And the crowds, fitful, hopeful, violent, edgy, – all searching, searching for the answer. In the midst of them a country preacher and part- time carpenter, a little man caught up in big events – in way over his head. They have plans for him – each of them. “It is expedient”, says Caiphus the head priest, “expedient that one man should die for the people.” They invoke the benefit of the people so easily, these politicians. It’s easy for them to find reasons to justify the blood on their hands.
And so Jesus stands in the Praetorium, stands face to face with Pilate, the Roman governor, on trial for his life. His followers scattered, his miracles come to an end, his teaching silenced, the crowd no longer his friend, he stands alone before the power that wants to kill him, caught like a fly in the web of intrigue and influence which they have woven. And a strange thing happens. Pilate quickly loses control of the trial. Jesus, standing in a position of powerlessness, of hopelessness, reverses the field. Suddenly, it is the very structures of power, the careful constructions of artifice and policy and brute force, that are on trial. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” There for an instant Pilate stands on the edge of possibility. Is he a human being or merely a functionary? Does he seek truth, or does he hunt for advantage? “I came into the world to testify to the truth.” Creation holds its breath. And just beyond the end of today’s reading, Pilate answers “What is truth?” Pilate chooses to stay in the world of power and marches off down the path of history, famous as the worst politician of all times.
They can’t see it – all these ambitious, cunning, bloody men. They can’t see true kingship when it stands before them. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” My kingdom is not from this world. Jesus is not renouncing the earth, not placing his reign in some far-off heaven. This is not about location; it is about origin. The reign of Jesus finds its beginning and ending in the life of God. It is a kingship that deliberately surrenders power, position, influence, wealth, all that the world strives for – surrenders all in the name of love. “What is truth?” says Pilate. “What is truth?” say all of them. Everything is relative they say. It is expedient that one man should die for the people. And so it is, expedient that one man should die for us all, die a death of faithfulness, a death of love, a death of refusal to add to the darkness of the world. The theologian C. E. Rolt has said this: “The only omnipotence known to God is the Almighty Power of suffering love.” The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness has not comprehended it.” I like the ambiguity of “comprehended” in the English of the King James Bible. The darkness has neither understood nor overcome the light. “What is truth?”
We live, you and I, dear friends, in a time of darkness. This odd, chaotic November echoes the darkling plain of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, swept by confused cries of alarm and flight/where ignorant armies clash by night.” People are shouting, bombs are exploding, cash registers are ringing, the light is failing. But we step boldly into Advent because we follow into the darkness a king. Jesus is Lord of all, even Lord of our darkness. As Daniel, sitting in the darkness of defeat and exile saw, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and the kingship of his love shall never be destroyed.” “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well- beloved Son, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be brought together under his most gracious rule, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.”