Sermon for October 18th, 2015
7My eye has grown dim from grief, and all my members are like a shadow. 8The upright are appalled at this, and the innocent stir themselves up against the godless. 9Yet the righteous hold to their way, and they that have clean hands grow stronger and stronger. 10But you, come back now, all of you, and I shall not find a sensible person among you. 11My days are past, my plans are broken off, the desires of my heart. 12They make night into day; ‘The light,’ they say, ‘is near to the darkness.’
The Reformation: Post Tenebras Lux
Q: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Five. One brave Presbyterian to actually make the change, and four to complain about how much better the old days were, when they sat around in the darkness.
Today we come to the last motto in our series on the great mottos of the 16th century Reformation, as we celebrate our Presbyterian and Reformed heritage this month. I promise the last motto doesn't have anything to do with lightbulbs. I don't think there's even a word for lightbulb in Latin, although if there is, probably it was a Presbyterian who came up with it. Today's motto does have to do with light and darkness, however.
The motto is Post tenebras lux. In English, that's "After the darkness, comes the light." Of all the mottos of the Reformation, this one was the most well known. It is engraved on the Reformation wall in Geneva, underneath the statues of Calvin, Knox, Farrel and Beza. It remains to this day the motto of the city of Geneva, and for hundreds of years, it was also engraved on all of Geneva's coins.
But it wasn't always the motto of Geneva--at least not in this form. Before the Reformation, the motto of Geneva was Post tenebras spero lucem. After the darkness, I hope for light. That version comes from the Latin (or Vulgate) translation of Job 17, verse 12 (part of today's scripture reading). After the darkness, I hope for light.
According to at least one biographer, it was none other than John Calvin himself who took out the "spero" or "I hope." Calvin first came to Geneva in 1536, at the request of his friend, William Farel, and at the request of the town elders, who wanted him to reform the church in Geneva. But after just two years, Calvin and Farel had brought more reform than the elders had bargained for, and so they were extended the "left foot of Christian fellowship" (they were asked to leave).
That must have been a brutal experience for Calvin. It was his very first job as a pastor, and they rejected not only him, but all he believed in, all he had worked for. Calvin left Geneva and became the pastor of a small church of French refugees in the town of Strasbourg. He settled there for three years, got married, wrote some books, and was enjoying his new life...when the town elders at Geneva decided that things were worse without Calvin's leadership than they had anticipated, and so they begged him to come back.
At first, Calvin was mortified at the thought. But at the urging of several of his friends, and a relentless stream of letters from the Geneva council, he finally relented. The letters from the town council always concluded with the motto, Post tenebras spero lucem. After the darkness, I hope for light. When Calvin finally wrote back, expressing his intent to return, he ended his letter with Post tenebras lux. No more hoping: After darkness, light comes, just as sure and certain as the day follows the night.
Calvin remained in Geneva, reforming the church, teaching, preaching, and pastoring there for the rest of his life. And the motto of Geneva became the rallying cry for the entire Reformation itself: Post tenebras lux. After darkness, comes light.
That motto is one of the reasons why the medieval period came to be called the "dark ages." It's a derogatory term, and not entirely accurate. There was just as much advancement in art, literature, science, and technology in the medieval period as any before or after it. But the reformers viewed that period as a dark time in the life of the church, and they saw themselves as bringing the light of the gospel to a dark age...and the label stuck.
The truth is, there are dark times in every age, and in every life. The great Roman Catholic mystic and poet Saint John of the Cross coined the phrase "dark night of the soul" to refer to these times of hardship and difficulty we face as we struggle on our spiritual journeys. Ironically, Saint John of the Cross was a contemporary of Calvin's, and he wrote his famous poem while he was imprisoned by his Carmelite brothers. He was trying to reform their order, and they didn't appreciate that very much. No one seems to appreciate change very much until at least 100 years after it's done.
The biblical figure of Job knew a thing or two about the "dark night of the soul." By the time we encounter him here in chapter 17 of today's scripture passage--the passage that inspired the motto--Job has lost almost everything: His great wealth, his home, his livelihood, all of his children, and even his health. His three friends have arrived to comfort him, but what they find is someone beyond comfort.
Job has moved from grief into anger. Specifically (and perhaps understandably), he is angry with God, and the choice words he uses as he rages against God make his friends very uncomfortable. They are dangerous words, blasphemous words. One gets the sense that Job's friends are looking to the skies, waiting for lightning to strike Job dead for the horrible things he's saying about the creator of the universe.
And so, not as "shallow friends" or "wicked friends" (the way they are often portrayed) but rather as friends genuinely concerned for Job's eternal safety, they speak. They try to talk him down from the ledge. And the one speaking to Job right before we jump into the scene in chapter 17, is Eliphaz.
In Eliphaz's speech to Job in chapter 15, he mentions darkness no less than three times. He says that people who say such things, people who "stretched out their hands against God and bid defiance to the Almighty" know that a "day of darkness is ready at hand." He tells his friend Job that people who "despair of returning from the darkness" are "destined for the sword" (judgment) and "they will not escape from darkness." Basically he's telling his friend to snap out of it before he does harm to himself and to his soul. It's not bad advice, and even though Job gets angry at his friends for butting in, one has to wonder what might have happened if they hadn't come to him, if no one had been there for him in his grief.
Job responds to Eliphaz by saying, "My spirit is broken, my days are extinct, the grave is ready for me." Actually, he's not really responding to Eliphaz. At this point in their dialog, Job is pretty much lost in his own world of bitterness and self-pity. He's not himself, and almost not even there. Verse 7: "My eye has grown dim from grief, and all my members are like a shadow." After this, Job goes on for ten more chapters, railing against God, his friends, and his situation. The speeches of the friends get shorter and shorter, and then they just stop altogether.
You might say that this point, chapter 17, is right in the middle of Job's darkest moment; the deepest part of his agony and his dark night of the soul. And that's why I find verse 12 so fascinating. He's not really listening to his friends, perhaps he's not even capable of comprehending them as he babbles on about death and the grave. But something about Eliphaz's repeated use of the word "darkness" registers with Job. The NRSV translates verse 12 this way: They make night into day; The light, they say, is near to the darkness.
Who is the "they" Job is talking about? It could be the "righteous" in verse 9, the ones who have "clean hands" and who "grow stronger and stronger." Or it could be Job's three friends--Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In verse 10, Job says, "Come back now, all of you, and I shall not find a sensible person among you." The word sensible is the Hebrew word חָכָם (hacham). Another possible translation for that word is "experienced."
I wonder if Job's friends were about to leave, about to give up on him, and leave him to his wild rantings? And I wonder if, seeing them go, Job says "Wait! Come back! None of you has experienced what I have experienced. But...please come back." They obviously do come back, because the dialog continues in the next chapter with Bildad weighing in.
But if I'm right, and Job was speaking about and to his three friends...what was it that got through to him in the middle of his tortured agony? Listen to Job's words again in verse 12: They make night into day; the light, they say, is near to the darkness.
In our times of greatest darkness, both as individuals and communities, we are never as far as we think from seeing the light of day again. But there's something inherent in our nature: As individuals, by ourselves, we get stuck in the darkness; we sink deeper into despair. We cry out to God in anger and in desperation, wondering why our cries are met with silence, more darkness. Where is God? Where is our light?
There's a story that I've told a hundred times, but it's worth telling again. It's the story about a man who saw in the news that the flood was coming, and the city was trying to evacuate all the people. But this man was a Godly man, with great faith, and he prayed, "Lord, rescue me from this flood."
A while later, as the waters were rising, a giant truck drove through and the driver said, "Get in!" But the man said, "No thank you. God is going to rescue me." A while later, and the waters were up to the windows, the man was up on his roof, and a boat came by, saying, "Get in, before it's too late!" But the man said, "No thank you. God is going to rescue me." Finally, the waters were up to the roof, the man was hanging on for dear life, and a helicopter flies by, saying "Get in!" But the man, steadfast in his faith said, "No! I prayed to God, and God will rescue me!" Well, the man drowned. And when he stood before God's throne, bewildered, he asked God, "Why didn't you rescue me?" God said, "I tried! I sent you a truck, a boat, a helicopter..."
Where is God? Where is our light? Usually not in the place we want it to be. The city of Geneva prayed for reform, and so God sent them Calvin, but the reforms were too much, and they rejected him. Job prayed for answers, and God sent his three friends, but they weren't the answers Job wanted to hear, and so he rejected them. In the closing decades of the 20th century, the people of First Presbyterian Church here in El Paso prayed, "Lord, help us to be a 21st century church." God sent the Rev. Roland Perdue, who said, "Welcome and embrace everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. And that was more change than this church bargained for, so we rejected him.
Why do we do that? If light comes after darkness, post tenebras lux, then why do we resist the light, and the ones who bring it? I suspect it's because in the light, we see ourselves more clearly--our faults, our failures, our inconsistencies, and our errors. And that's a pretty terrifying thing. At least in the dark, we can pretend that we are who we want to be, and if it's dark enough, maybe no one will notice it isn't true. The light that comes after darkness is actually a lot of hard work. Post tenebras lux.
Fortunately, if there's a thread to all these stories, it's this: Our God is a God of second chances, and even though the darkness may last longer than we wish...the light still comes after the darkness. Calvin eventually returned to Geneva, and both the city and the pastor were better for it. Job's friends stuck with him to the end, and eventually all that he lost was restored...including his humility. And next Sunday, we have the opportunity to welcome Roland Perdue back to our church, to hear his message once more, and to say, "Thank you for inspiring us to change, even when we didn't really want to. Thank you for turning on the light."
Some of you may be in the midst of your own dark night of the soul. I want you to remember that after the darkness comes the light, and the light is nearer than you think. Remember too, that light means change, and change means hard work, serious reflection and self-examination. But remember you also don't have to do it alone--in fact, you can't do it on your own: Light comes from unexpected sources, so don't be too quick to dismiss the friend or the reformer who comes to help.
Alright...two more lightbulb jokes and we're done:
Q: How many gorillas does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Just one, but it takes a whole LOT of lightbulbs!
Q: How many weather forecasters does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Also just one, but there's only a 60% chance the light will actually turn on.