“Shining a New Light: God in Absence”

January 7, 2018


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Jan. 7, 2018

“Shining a New Light: God in Absence”
Lam. 2:1-10 excerpts; 2 Cor. 4:8-11

On Christmas Eve morning, in this room, we had a full house. We sang lots of Christmas carols and celebrated communion. We lit candles and gathered in pews and around the sanctuary. We sang “Silent Night” and then we ended with “Joy to the World!” before going out to celebrate the holy days with our families. Some years, we just end with “Silent Night”. This year, however, I was drawn to the idea of an uplifting and joyous end to the candlelight communion. There was much to lament about in 2017. From our personal sorrows to our community tragedies to our national and international issues, especially with an on-going war in the Middle East and the threat of nuclear war with North Korea.

I needed to sing “Joy to the World”. My spirit wanted to stay in the quiet beauty of “Silent Night”, but I needed to believe that there is joy and reason to hope. Perhaps your own thoughts at Christmas were in need of more joy and hope.

Wintertime is that desolate, haunting time of death. The trees themselves stand naked and cold in our midst. No green buds. No beautiful foliage. Not even the yellow/orange leaves of fall. Just starkly plain with sticks for branches and brown all over.

There is holiness in desolation though. Think about the holy places and times in your own life.
• The Wailing Wall in Israel is well-known for a place of prayer and desolation. It is a part of the ruin of Solomon’s temple. People from around the globe go there to pray. Although it is a holy site for Judaism, Christians and others find this ruin to have power. Holiness in desolation.
• Walk through a cemetery anywhere in the world and you will find sacred power. People are kneeling and remembering their loved ones. There is a quiet peace in cemeteries; places of bared souls and love poured out. Holiness in desolation.
• When have you felt closest to God? Was it in a deep and dark time of your life? After the loss of someone you loved or the loss of a job or the loss of a marriage? Was it in the desolation of your life? Holy times are often our most desolate.

The book of Lamentations is a collection of five depressing dirges, all occasioned by the leveling of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. There is every reason to believe that the Hebrew people actually sang these songs at the ruins of the Solomon’s Temple, magnificent even in ruins. Listen to their words:

How the Lord in his anger
has humiliated daughter Zion!
He has thrown down from heaven to earth
the splendor of Israel;
he has not remembered his footstool
in the day of his anger.

The Lord has become like an enemy;
he has destroyed Israel.
He has destroyed all its palaces,
laid in ruins its strongholds,
and multiplied in daughter Judah
mourning and lamentation.

The elders of daughter Zion
sit on the ground in silence;
they have thrown dust on their heads
and put on sackcloth;
the young girls of Jerusalem
have bowed their heads to the ground. Lam. 2:1-10 excerpts
Robert Price wrote in The Fourth R, a magazine published by Westar Institute, the founding organization also known as The Jesus Seminar, that “there is a paradoxical holiness in ruination”.

Each Sunday in Epiphany, I want to base the sermon from one of this scholarly group. The Fourth R, as you might guess, is a play on the sayings about the “three R’s” – reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. The fourth R is Religion – specifically religious literacy. Each week, I’ll be bringing you some of the most recent scholarship about a facet of progressive religion. The topics include:
• The fall of God (as opposed to the supposed fall of humanity in Genesis)
• Death & Salvation from a progressive point of view
• Is God even real?
• An Atheist’s 10 Suggestions (as opposed to the 10 commandments)
I’m calling this sermon series “Shining a New Light”. I urge you to invite people you may know who are anxious to hear a new religious voice.

Now, back to this idea of “joy in desolation”. If you remember physics class, you may know the term “anti-matter”. It is the particle and the anti-particle. “A positron appears for a split instant and then decays, leaving behind it a charged hole where it was! In religious terms, you could make a similar statement – when human strength decays after a brief moment of visibility, it leaves behind it a void that radiates the power of God.” -Robert Price

What gives you joy? Most of us would probably say: our families. Some might say: our toys (cars, houses, a small object, even a small aircraft or a piece of jewelry). There are relationships; they can bring joy! But, many of us don’t get to be with our family members every day. We don’t get to use our toys all the time. Those relationships can be frustrating as well as joyous. Certainly, these people and things bring a smile to our faces and a moment of joy. But what about the kind of joy that lasts day in and day out?

The Bible speaks to this.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. II Cor. 4:8-11

Pastor Adam Hamilton has a saying: The worst thing is not the last thing. After being in ministry for 30+ years, I can affirm that it is true. Some of you have experienced the worst thing – perhaps it was the loss of a child. It is hard to imagine anything worse than that. Others of you have endured a serious, debilitating, or life-ending diagnosis. That is one of the worst things. There are those among us who have been arrested and even convicted of serious crimes. That is a terrible, life-altering thing.

But the worst thing isn’t the last thing. It may feel like it. It may look like it. And I’m not saying that when we are going through the worst things that it doesn’t look completely hopeless. It may take years, but you will smile again. It may take emotional strength that you didn’t know you had, but you will laugh again. It may require years of time, but you will find joy again.

I read with interest the story in Thursday’s Wichita Eagle about Hoda Kotb, the new co-anchor on “Today”. She replaces Matt Lauer. In 1986, Hoda was driving around the southeastern part of the country, sleeping in her mother’s car and leaving television stations with rejections. 27 rejections. Her mom needed the car back, so Hoda had to go home. She couldn’t pay her bills. She finally got a job at a small local television station in Greenville, making $12,000 a year. Eventually she was hired as a traveling correspondent for “Dateline”. While she was there, and as her marriage was ending, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery as well as post-treatment. Hoda credits her bout with cancer as the push to ask the officers at NBC to let her host a segment on the “Today” show. And now, she is anchoring their flagship morning show.
This is one of the most puzzling – yet hopeful – things about the absence of God: in the midst of what seems like absence and hopelessness, there is presence and even joy. Martin Luther King said, “God wrings good things from evil.” It isn’t that God brings those horrible things into our lives. But when they happen, God finds that little bit of good and wrings it out so that we might hope again.

We have just ended the 12 days of Christmas. It is a time when we recognize that God brings light into our darkness. Into the bleak winters of our lives, into the death and desolation of doubt and worry, into the heartache and hopelessness of our thoughts – God wrings out something of good. The worst thing isn’t the last thing. The destruction of a temple can become a holy place – a place to cry and pray. The purported absence of God causes us to refocus and we can sing again, “Joy to the World”!

Resources Used:
Wichita Eagle “27 Rejections in 10 Days: Hoda Kotb Battled for the Career that led to ‘Today’”. Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. Pg. 8C.

The 4th R. The Holiness of Desolation. By Robert M. Price. Pg. 11-16.