The land of deep darkness

January 23, 2008

We expect Jesus to emerge from John’s shadow in a public way, to take
on the establishment and lead the charge for God’s reign. Instead, when
John is arrested Jesus withdraws (Matt. 4:12). He slips away to the
margins, to the territory of Zebulun and Napthali, off the radar of
popular consciousness.

Jesus’ strategy runs counter to the
inclinations of the mainline church. We habitually locate in safe
neighborhoods, keeping the troubles at bay. Jesus goes to the land of
deep darkness, the place where despair overwhelms easy optimism.

Pastors
stumble into this land from time to time. It is a fearful place, just
beneath the veneer of the everyday, that is revealed when we find the
courage to host the ragged ache of frightened, wounded lives. In this
region of the soul the tired clichés and well-worn illustrations from
our preaching files have no effect. It takes courage to be hospitable
to untended pain here, because this is a dark place for the pastor too.

Matthew tells us that the gospel of God’s kingdom come begins
when Jesus survives the wilderness temptations and travels to the land
of deep darkness (Isa. 9:2; Matt. 3:16). This must be good news to
preachers and congregations who find themselves in the dark these days,
for Jesus is close at hand. Admitting that we’re in the dark is a
truth-telling turn that enables us to glimpse the nearness of the
kingdom of heaven. We’ve been imagining that it us up to us to fix
everything, to develop the right programs, to turn things around, to
make a success of the religion business. We’ve pretended that we know
what needs to be done and said. We’ve covered up our fear of the
foreboding future with tips from the latest book or seminar. We find it
hard to tell the truth, to give honest testimony, to say that we live
in a land of deep darkness. And yet it is truth-telling that turns
preacher and congregation away from a preoccupation with saving the
church and towards Jesus.

In the darkest places, the gospel
comes first among the last and least. To our continuing surprise, the
kingdom of heaven is closest to those who face the fact that they are
not capable of lighting the darkness. Jesus does not begin his ministry
with a church that is confident in its capabilities but with a people
who know that they are in trouble. It makes one wonder. Might the
troubles and losses caused by the sidelining of the mainline church be
Jesus’ doing after all? Is Jesus seeking to call his church out of the
land of deep darkness and cure it?