Thin Places: Night
I have this vivid memory of being in 9th grade. We lived in Mississippi, and one night I went outside with my dog.
We played for a bit, and then I let him run around, and I snuck over to the corner of the fence. I looked up at the darkest sky, littered with glimmering stars. In that moment I was overtaken, and a song welled up in me, and I began singing out loud:
O Lord my God,
when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars,
I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee,
How great thou art,
How great thou art.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee,
How great thou art,
How great thou art
Since that moment in 9th grade, the stars at night have been my thin place, that space where the veil between heaven and earth thins, when that space between me and God and becomes non-existent, when God is both beyond and within me.
I know it’s not exactly a Christmas carol, but as I looked at our readings for today, the words of the Psalmist, the words of the angel, the words we’ll read on Christmas Eve of the birth of Jesus, I can’t help thinking of this song. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
As I outlined this theme awhile back, thinking of thin places, “night” came to my mind for this week’s focus on thin places. Perhaps most obviously, because Joseph’s having a dream or vision at night, but it was more than this. Partly because I’m not prepared to say that God speaks to us in dreams, though I’m not going to say that can’t or doesn’t happen, I was looking more broadly at the setting in which Joseph and Mary found themselves.
As some of you know, our Jewish friends and neighbors will begin celebrating Hanukkah tonight, which will last for the next 8 days. Maybe fewer of you know the story behind Hanukkah, but I think it can touch on our text today, if only for some context.
In the 2nd century before Christ was born, the Greek empire was vast, and they ruled over the region of Judea and Israel. Antiochus III allowed the Jews to worship, but his son Antiochus IV did not, and in fact in the 160s BCE, he massacred thousands of Jewish people and desecrated the temple with sacrifices to pigs and an altar to Zeus. This led to the Maccabean revolt, which ultimately led to a century of independence, but in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, we have the story of the menorah that had only enough oil for one day, but miraculously remained lit for eight days.
A hundred years later, as the people argued about power, and who was the legitimate authority, the Romans came in and took siege of Jerusalem. Jewish power was stripped away, and they became subservient to Roman rule and occupation. The Romans appointed a “King of the Jews” named Herod.
Into that historical context, we drop back into this familiar story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. It wasn’t a care-free time of setting up the nursery and picking out baby names. They lived under the fear of a mercurial puppet king, who flexed his narcissism with lavish parties and insecurities about any political opponents who might be a threat. Even children, as we come to learn in the next chapter. He taunted his enemies, killed them, and even ridiculed them or their loved ones in the face of their deaths like he did with John the Baptist.
It was night when the angel came to Joseph, but they lived under a constant shroud of darkness as a people. They couldn’t trust their leader, they had no recourse to hold him accountable, all they had at their disposal was a faith tradition that held onto words like Isaiah’s last week and the Psalmist’s this week, that God would “shine forth,” that God’s “face would shine,” that they “may be saved.”
A people walking in darkness, as it were.
It’s into this particular moment in Israel’s history, in human history, that God intervenes, intentionally, deliberately, assuring them this Messiah will indeed come, this anointed one, this chosen one, this Christ, will be born in just a few short months.
Enormous news in which God says, I will be with you. Emmanuel, God with us. I will be with you through this.
As I think about this particular moment in our history, in human history, another blip in a long timeline of ups and downs, I hear from many of you how concerned you are for our country. And I believe you all. I don’t think anyone is really happy with the state of discourse in our time. I don’t think anyone here thinks this decade will serve as the hallmark of our nation’s finest moments of deliberation and compromise.
Indeed, I was sharing with a few people at the Men’s breakfast yesterday, some political scientists now believe that as institutional religion has sharply decreased in our nation’s consciousness and practice, i.e. people don’t go to church anymore, the tendency of human nature is to believe in something, to be guided by something or some set of principles or values, and instead of those being religious, they’ve been replaced by partisanship. Party trumps religious beliefs more times than not now. A Christian magazine spoke out from a place of Christian values and they were lambasted or praised not on the merits of their religious arguments but from the trenches of partisan warfare.
For many of us in this room, we know the names of more of our party’s leaders than we know the ten commandments or the twelve disciples or books of the Bible or stories or teachings of Jesus. I’m not judging when I say that, I’m just underscoring the reality.
It’s why I try hard not to preach about a person or a party, not just because endorsing either would be against the law, but because I don’t work for a political party. I won’t be a shill for any political party. I don’t care about political parties.I care about the gospel of Jesus the Christ who was born into the darkness of oppression and systemic injustice not to offer a political solution in that immediate moment,
but to fundamentally reshape how we look at the world,
how we engage with the world,
how we change the world,
which is not by the typical ways our world exerts power, by intimidating or subjugating or abusing or bullying or lying or cheating or stealing or humiliating,
but by loving.
That’s the power we don’t trust.
Because our imagination has atrophied, our faith has waned, to the point that we don’t think love can make a difference. We think it’s too weak to confront the biggest challenges of our day, but Jesus devoted his entire life to it, to modeling it, to proving it could decentralize and destabilize and threaten the old way.
The expectations on Jesus were to be a political savior; but in the end, he didn’t overthrow Rome. He was too much of a threat to the status quo that he was killed. He wasn’t a political solution to a systemic problem. That wasn’t his purpose. He exposed the fault lines of power by embodying the very notion of a thin place in his person, by being love. By his incarnation he did this, and it cost him his life.
Which might not sound very enticing to you, but that’s why his resurrection is so important, because by his resurrection he removed the veil between heaven and earth, he unleashed the presence of God forever in this world within us, by the Spirit of God, assuring that the advance of God’s realm and Way will win in the end, gradually, like a forest fire maybe, or better, like the expanding of the universe beyond the darkness of our night skies.
His life was a light in the darkness, the brightest star in the night sky, the thinnest place embodied in our midst, bringing humankind closer and closer to God through his love.
I used to go outside, and I’d stare at the sky, and I’d be reminded how small I was, how vast the universe was, how huge God was. And somehow it brought me peace, and a sense of hope. Because as big as it all was, somehow, for some reason, the God of it all cared about little, ole me.
It was a thin place every time.
When I think about this particular moment of darkness in our nation, the shroud of impeachment consuming everyone’s thoughts and opinions and relationships, I think of those moments looking out into the night sky. This is just a blip. One tiny moment among billions of years of moments, among billions of those stars in that night sky we can’t even see.
And I think of the light that Jesus offered the people in his time, the hope he brought by his love, by his very life. And I think about each of us. How we might not ever be the President or the Speaker of the House or the Majority Leader in the Senate,
but the Spirit of God is within each of us,
and God’s face can still shine through us,
not by spouting off partisan talking points,
but by loving one another
with our curiosity,
with our openness to being wrong,
with our willingness to change our minds,
with our commitment to something greater,
with our very lives.
If this is a moment of darkness and night for our nation, then you are the stars, glimmering with the hope that only love can offer. Like Jesus did in his incarnation, you can help create the space for thin places between one another, where God’s presence is palpable, where each of you leaves those moments together, transformed in thought and actions.
Because of how you love one another.
Which explains why sometimes, when I think about you, First Baptist, and the countless ways you are practicing acts of love in the face of this present dark and long night,
a song wells up in me,
and I can’t help but sing:
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder…
Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019.
Matthew 1:18–25; Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19