When Darkness Falls (3/20/16)

Jesus in GethsemaneA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Text: Luke 22:39-46; 23:44-49

Dinner is done. Bread has been broken and the cup shared. The candles have begun to flicker. It has been a warm and wonderful evening, for the most part; yet something ominous lingers in the air as darkness falls. He has taught them and blessed them, promising them each a role in the Beloved Community. But he has also talked of denial and betrayal, of suffering and death, and this is troubling.

Well, it has been a strange week and a full one at that. Just last Sunday there had been the thrill of entering Jerusalem in a kind of crazy make-shift processional when the crowd had broken into cheers, waving tree branches and tossing their coats onto the road – “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Eternal One! Peace in heaven! Glory in the highest!” Hadn’t that been a day?! Yet, afterwards, some had seen him sitting and weeping over the old city, “Ah Jerusalem! If you…had only recognized on this day the things that [really do] make for peace!” From cheers to tears in one short day – how strange.

Then there he was, wildly driving the sellers from the Temple grounds, shouting, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” They had never seen him so angry. In spite of the threats of those in authority, they had spent the rest of the week on the temple grounds where he had dazzled them all with his teaching. Some of the lawyers and religious experts had tried to trap him with trick questions but he outsmarted them every time. All the people were spellbound by his wisdom and charisma. It was truly a week of wonders!

Now they were feeling a little drowsy. A combination of the full week, the warmth of their intimate dinner, the effects of the wine and the fading of the light was making them sleepy. They cleaned up, packed their belongings and headed back to the campground on Mt. Olivet. In the peace of the old olive orchard they would stretch out on the grass under an ancient tree and gaze at the stars through leafy branches until they drifted off to sleep.

But Jesus seemed agitated. He was not ready to turn in. Something on his mind had to be worked through in the stillness and beauty of this night. He was going to pray and he wanted them to join him. “Pray for yourselves, that you will not sink into temptation.” Well yes, that seemed like a good idea, but maybe it could wait till morning. He went off by himself a little distance. At first they could see him clearly in the moonlight. He seemed to be wrestling intently with something. A couple of them caught words wafted on the night breeze, “…take this cup…your will…my will.” But their eyelids grew heavy and the next thing they knew, he was shaking them awake. “Why are you sleeping? Wake up and pray that you will not sink into temptation.”

There is much more to come, but let’s pause here. Today’s reading from Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of finding one’s self in a liminal space, in thin place, caught somewhere between heaven and earth or, in this case, between light and darkness. The quotation refers to an experience she has intentionally sought out, spending some time in the complete darkness of a cave. She has lined up friends who are seasoned spelunkers to take her deep into a cave, beyond the large and lighted chambers where the tourists go. This is all part of her desire to understand darkness better and to walk in it without so much anxiety and fear.

Here she is, caught between the opening to the cave and the deep darkness that awaits. It is decision time and it turns out not to be such an easy decision to make. She stands for a while in a kind of “twilight zone.” She writes, “On this threshold between dark and light, it is still possible to go either way: farther in or back out. It is still possible to see what you are about to lose” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark.). Bright daylight on one hand, bleak grayness on the other hand.

Isn’t this the same situation in which Jesus finds himself that night in the olive grove, on the threshold of dark and light? It is still possible to go either way. Shall he go further into his experience of God and God’s way or will he back out? Luke says he prays to God for deliverance. “God, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me.” I take this to mean he does not want to die. It seems to me a very human longing. God has given us the gift of life. We will all die eventually, but not now, not if it’s not necessary. The truth is, I don’t think God wants Jesus to die either. But Jesus knows that if he continues to walk God’s way and the world around him fails to change, the consequences are inevitable. He can’t keep speaking truth to power, love to fear, justice to corrupt systems and equity to those who have grown rich at the expense of the poor without stirring their ill-will. He can’t continue to be faithful to his calling and not pay the price.

On this night on the hillside, he can still “go either way…farther in or back out.” He can still see what he is about to lose and he has to make a choice. Luke makes it sound easier than Mark or Matthew does. “Yet not My will, but Your will, be done.” The right response, but is it really so easily arrived at? Well, Luke, or some later editor, concedes that as he “prayed more intensely…his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Learning to walk in the dark is not easy after all, even for Jesus. He wrestles with God, as we all do, sooner or later, if we’re willing to pay attention, if we’re willing to listen for God’s voice and look for God’s way. It may be a hard road but, in the end, it is the right road. “Pray for yourselves, that you will not sink into temptation.”

We have already seen Jesus handle temptation in his own life and ministry. More than once he has turned his back to ways that are easy, popular, self-serving. As with the disciples, any of us is vulnerable to closing our eyes in sleep when life gets to be too much. It may be the easiest way to handle the stress. When darkness falls around us, it’s easier to turn on the lights and tune out anything that “goes bump in the night.” We keep ourselves occupied until bedtime or we fall asleep on the couch in front of the television or computer. But what do we miss when we choose not to explore the deep darkness of the cave that is before us? What do we lose when we won’t face the fears that arise in those moments when we turn away from every distraction and give ourselves over to wrestling with the questions and concerns that haunt the center of our being? What would it be like if we decided to encounter more intensely the Holy One and explore more completely our role in creating and occupying God’s Beloved Community?

We are especially likely to shy away when we read the rest of the story – the betrayal by one of his own, right there in the olive grove; the harsh denial in the courtyard; the mock trials; the unjust sentence; the fleeing followers; the now jeering crowd as he parades once more through Jerusalem, this time carrying a Roman cross; the ignominious execution. Could we please skip these parts and go directly to Easter? We don’t like this twilight zone. We don’t want to go deeply into the darkness of this cave. There is too much to lose in these elements of the story. Let’s run away. Let’s pretend it never happened. Let’s take a nap and hope it will be over.

Only there he is, hanging on that wooden cross, stretched out to die an agonizing death in the blistering sun. No glowing moon, no twinkling stars, no cool night breeze, just the scorching light of day. We can ignore, deny, pretend all we want, but this is part of our tradition. It is not a pretty picture, but it is one with which we are asked to wrestle.

One irony is that here he is left to burn in the brightness of the day and what happens? Luke says that “darkness fell over the whole region” and lasted through the hottest part of the day. I had never thought of it this way before, but maybe that darkness was like a cup of cold water to a thirsty soul, a small gesture of relief on an awful afternoon. And when that darkness fell, Luke says Jesus was able to turn his gaze toward God, shouting, “Father, I entrust My spirit into Your hands!” Maybe that sounds hollow to you, given the circumstances, but I’m going to guess that Jesus is able to place his dying self into God’s hands with such profound trust precisely because he has learned to walk in the dark. He knows, in the core of his being, that, even in death, God goes with him all the way.

This is why Jesus was so eager that his disciples keep awake and pray that they wouldn’t give in to temptation. This is why Barbara Brown Taylor has invited us to share her experiences of learning to walk in the dark. This is why John of the Cross opened for us the dark night of the soul and Thomas Merton writes of the Holy One that “I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.”

Of all the weeks of this Lenten season, we come now to the one called Holy. Now when the darkness falls, where will you find yourself? In this recurring “twilight zone” in which we stand on the “threshold between dark and light,” when “it is still possible to go either way: farther in or back out,” when you “see what you are about to lose” but also have a glimpse of what might be gained, which way will you turn? Whichever way you turn, whether the crowd cheers or jeers, I hope you know that God goes with you, in the darkness and in light, in life and death – all the way. Amen.

Powerful Foolishness (May 11, 2014)

Doug DavidsonPOWERFUL FOOLISHNESS

A sermon preached by Doug Davidson
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 11, 2012

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

I want to share a concern with you.

Or, maybe I should say it another way: I’m a little worried.

Yes. Worried. Let me explain.

I think some of us have been hanging around the church for too long.

No, really–I mean it. I think some of us have spent so much time in church that we’ve gotten the wrong idea. We’ve been soaking in these waters of Christianity for so long, that we’ve developed a certain… misconception.

We’ve started to think the message of the cross is just good common sense.

We think the Gospel blends nicely with conventional wisdom.

We think the word of the cross is easily harmonized with the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Let’s see, it’s “1. Be Proactive, 2. Begin with the end in mind, and #3. If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.Or we think it fits well with the practical suggestions of Ben Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanac. Get up early, eat your vegetables, brush your teeth, work hard, oh, and bless those who persecute you. It’s the recipe for success, right?

I think maybe we’ve heard so many sermons, we’ve sung so many hymns, we’ve spent so many hours and days and week and years in churches, we’ve gotten used to it. We’ve lost sight of how crazy this message of a crucified Jesus is. How foolish. How improbable and unacceptable. How radically ridiculous.

The apostle Paul understood how extraordinary it was to suggest that God’s power is revealed to the world on a cross. Paul was a Jew, so he knew it didn’t match Jewish expectations of what a messiah would look like. Nor did it match the wisdom for which the Greeks were famous. Yet in this letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul lifts up the cross. God’s power and wisdom are revealed, says Paul, through Jesus’ crucifixion—an event the world understands only as weakness and foolishness. This cross, Paul says, offers an upside-down wisdom that causes religious folks to stumble, and makes philosophers shake their heads.

God’s power is revealed in a Jesus who, in faithfulness, empties himself of everything that looks like power.

Here’s the shape of God’s saving power, Paul says. It’s not in kings and generals and armies. It’s not in wealth and degrees. It’s in a Jesus who is betrayed and abandoned; who is stripped, beaten, and executed like a common criminal. And this one hanging on the cross calls us to follow him.

Now, maybe some of us have been around churches for so long that we’ve forgotten how ludicrous this word of the cross might sound. And that’s one reason it’s important to remember that Paul didn’t write these words with us in mind. Paul was writing a personal letter to the church in Corinth, a community of Christ followers living just 20 to 30 years after Jesus’ death. Paul wasn’t writing for the twenty-first century seminarians in Berkeley or the Baptists in Palo Alto. We’re eavesdropping. We’re reading someone else’s mail.

What’s more, as we read Paul’s words about the foolishness of the cross, we need to understand that we’re stepping into an ongoing drama. Now, if we open our Bibles, and see that we’re reading from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we might think we’re getting the beginning of the story. But as Suzanne Watts Henderson reminds us, First Corinthians “plunges readers into a conversation well underway.”[1] We’re jumping right into the middle of the scene. It’s like we’ve come home and grabbed our popcorn, sat down on the couch and turned on the TV, only to find out the show has already started. And we need to try to piece together who the characters are and what’s already going on.

In fact, it’s clear that in First Corinthians, we’re not just in the middle of an episode, we’re already several seasons into the drama. In chapter 5, verse 9, Paul refers to an earlier letter he’d written to the Corinthians, about some major issues that had entered the church. We don’t have that letter. So we need to remember that this invitation to embrace the foolishness of the cross isn’t really from “The first letter of Paul to the Corinthians,” despite what it says at the top of the page in my Bible. It’s from the first letter we have.

So figuring out exactly what word God might have for us, here, today, is a major task. Because we’re starting with a letter written 2,000 years ago that picks up in the middle of an ongoing conversation with another community in another time and another place.

But knowing a little bit about Corinth can help us begin to unpack it. Corinth was a Roman colony situated between two seaports. It was a city of diversity, “a thriving melting pot where social mobility and economic opportunity fostered vigorous competition.”[2] Sounds a little bit like Palo Alto. And the Corinthian church reflected the city’s diversity. There were Jews and Greeks, and slaves and free persons, rich and poor—a wild mix of cultures, and classes and customs. And the followers of Christ there, reflected that diversity. And from everything we can gather, they were at each other’s throats, arguing about what they thought be doing, and where the church was headed.

Paul refers to different factions within the church. Some of the believers claimed loyalty to other preachers who’d been with them, like Apollos, or Cephas. Others claimed allegiance to Paul himself—and he wasn’t really any happier about that. See for Paul it’s not about the preacher; it’s about the cross. In fact, in verse 17, Paul celebrates that he really wasn’t much of a speaker. He claims that his own proclamation was “not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” Paul seems to think the Corinthians are getting caught up in the rhetoric of their teachers. Their ability to craft brilliant arguments and communicate human ideas of knowledge—it’s getting in the way. Because it’s not about the skill and technique of a particular teacher. It’s about the power of God, which comes in the unexpected form of a crucified Lord. And it’s this power that Paul heralds as the one thing that could unite the Corinthians across all their diversity and differences.

But two thousand years later, in this heavily Christianized culture, I think we can lose our sense of how scandalous and improbable the cross is. We see crosses in our churches, some of us wear them as jewelry around our necks, or have them tattoed on our biceps. It’s become the symbol of our faith. But Beverly Gaventa says Paul’s assertion that the cross demonstrated God’s power “must have struck some of Paul’s contemporaries as the ravings of a madman.” The cross wasn’t a symbol of power. It was, in fact, “the antithesis of power–except as it revealed the power of the Roman Empire to crush those regarded as opponents.”

But the reality of the cross can still shatter our presuppositions. I was reminded of this one day when our family was living on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where my wife was working on her M.Div. Our son, Elliot, was probably about three years old at the time. One afternoon Elliot and I walked into the seminary library to drop off a book for a friend.

As we stepped through the bright red doors, moving from the bright sunlight into the darkened vestibule of the library, Elliot stopped in his tracks. There, on the wall to his right, hung a sculpted crucifix, nearly life size. I watched his young eyes study Jesus’ agonized face, the dying body nailed to a tree, the nails piercing his hands and feet.

I knew the image was a new one to him. He wasn’t used to it. He’d spent much of his young life in churches, but the crosses in our Baptist church were all clean and sanitized; their Jesuses were all resurrected and ascended.

For a moment, I considered hustling him back out the door, thinking maybe I should try to shield him from this holy horror in the same way I would sometimes “rewrite” the violent plots of his Batman comic books when I read them aloud. But he’d already taken it all in.

I thought he might cry. Instead, without ever taking his eyes off the dying Jesus, he slowly spoke words filled with great sadness and wonder: “What happened?”

Elliot reminded me of the great mystery of it all. He felt the horror of it. He’d heard stories about this Jesus who welcomed children, and healed sick people, and chased after lost sheep. But somehow this Jesus taught and healed and forgave and loved others with an intensity that threatened the religious and political powers of his day. Jesus didn’t color within the lines. He hung out with prostitutes, and ate with sinners, and welcomed the marginalized and forsaken. And he talked about a different kingdom, one that belonged to the poor, and the hungry, and downtrodden. So they made a symbol out of him: Here’s what happens when you mess with the system. You end up dead on a cross. That’s the way the world’s power works. We dare not shield ourselves from the horrible reality of this.

But that’s not the whole story. Because on the cross, Jesus demonstrated his devotion to the same love that he incarnated throughout his life. He was willing to trust in faith that the future was in God’s hands, not in the hands of the religious and political authorities who conspired to kill him. In his death, Jesus embodied the same radical devotion to God’s exorbitant love that he revealed throughout his life.

You see, Jesus lived in ways that weren’t very…practical. They don’t match up well with common sense. And he called those who would follow him to this same way. Here’s the path to life, says Jesus. It’s foolishness. Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Forgive without end. Give away all you have. Drop everything and follow me. Don’t worry about the future. Live a life of radical devotion to the one who created you. That’s God’s wisdom. Yes, it may put you at odds with the rulers of this world, who think they have the key to life. But it aligns you with something greater, with a love so powerful that even death cannot extinguish it.

So what does this mean for us, for this group of believers here at First Baptist Church of Palo Alto? How do we live into this new age? Here we sit, a few blocks from Stanford University, one of the preeminent educational institutions in the world. We’re in Silicon Valley—our neighbors are Facebook, Google, Apple, and tons of other technological companies that are reshaping the world. Palo Alto has more than it’s share of the world’s wisdom and power. How can this little church have any impact? What can we offer in light of the technological and economic power, unimaginable wealth, and knowledge that surrounds us?

What we have to share with the world is a knowledge that’s rooted in something very different. It’s a power revealed in weakness. In serving others. In practicing forgiveness. In humility. In foolish acts of faithfulness. In grace and welcome to all. This is the way God’s spirit breaks into the world.

What does it mean to worship a God whose wisdom is revealed on a cross? It means we seek to embody that same faithfulness to God that Jesus lived. It means inviting God to break our captivity to worldly conceptions of power and wisdom. It means finding our true unity by committing ourselves ever more fully to the upside-down logic of the cross. And it means knowing that when we fall short in our efforts to be faithful, and we will, we have a God’s whose forgiveness and love cover our failures.

Paul declares that God has chosen the weak of this world to shame the wise. Let us learn to let go of our own futile grasps at power and wisdom, that we might deepen our commitment to the crucified Christ. Amen.

[1] Suzanne Watts Henderson, “1 Corinthians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Beverly Roberts Gaventa and David L. Petersen, eds. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 788.

[2] Henderson, 788.