Today’s reading comes from the book of Exodus.
Let us remind ourselves of the context in which this passage appears. The book of Exodus develops around themes that explore the nature of God (in terms of both divine power and also divine presence), the identity of the Israelite people, and the relationship between God and the Israelites, a relationship founded on God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah. Now a large nation, the Israelites, persecuted and enslaved by the Egyptians, cry out to God. The Lord hears their cry and remembers the promises made to their ancestors. In a revelation of divine power, God defeats Pharoah, decimating Egypt, and leads the Israelite people out from slavery and into the wilderness. Once in the desert, God’s presence with the Israelites remains constant, demonstrated by God’s miraculous provisions of water and food. Despite God’s visible power and presence, the uprooted Israelites struggle with their sense of disorientation and their lack of landed identity. Chapters 19-24, from which today’s passage comes, describe God’s descent from Mount Sinai to reveal the covenantal law to the Israelites. Thunder cracks, lightning rends the sky, smoke billows in dark clouds, fire blazes and trumpets blare in the wondrous theophany.
Hear now the words of scripture taken from Exodus chapter 20 verse 21:
“Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the THICK DARKNESS where God was.”
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I invite you to close your eyes. Now imagine yourself, like the Israelites, standing in the wilderness at the base of Mount Sinai. Far from the home you left in Egypt, the only sign of human habitation here is the camp that shelters you and your community from the harsh desert. The sun blazes down from a cloudless sky, reflecting off the sand beneath your feet and glittering off of shards of rock on the face of the mountain before you. A slight breeze tickles the hair on your arms, and suddenly you find the sun above you shrouded, as though someone has lowered a veil over it. Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles, and you close your eyes against the approaching storm. When you reopen them, instead of a storm you find a cloud of thick darkness has descended. You can see nothing in it, nothing beyond it. The mountain, looming before you but a moment ago, has vanished. Goosebumps rise on your arms to meet the heavy dampness of the air. Thick darkness. What lays within it? Beyond it? Thick darkness. You will it to stay where it is; you will it not to come any closer, but you can feel its weight, you can almost taste it. Thick darkness.
Silence (5-10 seconds)
When you are ready, open your eyes, but hold onto that feeling of the thick darkness. Watch to see when most people’s eyes are open. I invite with you to share with the group: How did that feel? How did you feel standing in the presence of such thick darkness?
Wait for people’s answers. Repeat people’s answers as needed
[Did anyone feel afraid? Terrified? Alone? Disoriented? In danger? Ready to make a run for it?]
In our scripture reading, the Israelites stand at the base of Mount Sinai. The mountain has been shaken by thunder, illuminated by lightning, shrouded in smoke and burnt by flame; it has trembled to the sound of trumpets, and, now, before the Israelites, looms a Thick Darkness blocking the mountain from view. They are terrified. Yet, from the midst of this terrified crowd, one person steps forward, Moses. While we have learned to expect Moses to step forward to meet the Isrealites’ many troubles, we often forget this great prophet’s less than great beginnings. We forget who Moses is: an infant abandoned on a river; an outsider among the Egyptians with whom he grew up; an outsider among the Israelites, people of his own ethnicity; a murderer in exile; an alien in a foreign land; a shepherd, tending his father-in-law’s flocks; and an unwilling prophet, terrified, perhaps like some of us, of speaking in public. Yet God has chosen Moses, far from perfect, as flawed as any of the rest of us (did I mention he was a murderer?), to lead the Israelite people. Certainly, Moses has grown tremendously since he stood before the burning bush. Now, standing with the Isralites in front of this wall of darkness, Moses steps forward; he responds to God’s call upon him to lead and draws near to the thick darkness…. Pause. Feel again that thick darkness before you.
We, like Moses, are far from perfect. And, like Moses, we too hear God’s call upon us. As Timothy Kim preached last week, we often feel inadequate and unworthy to receive such a call from God, much less respond to it. Yet God does indeed call us to step forward, away from the comforting mass of people around us, God calls us out forth from our comfort zones. We may want to stand, hiding, deep within that crowd, deep within our comfort zones, hoping that God will not see us, dreading that when God DOES indeed see us, God will call us, God will call you and me, to step forward, to draw near to the thick darkness in the world around us.
These last two weeks, I have been thinking a lot about thick darkness. Two weeks ago, Hyde Park Union Church, where I am interning, launched its Urban Dolorosa Project – a ministry that sends clergy into those Chicago communities most affected by violence. These clergy venture forth to listen to the stories of people in these communities, many of whom have been affected by murders of brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, students, friends I have no doubt that these clergy go forth to do the work of God, that they answer a call to act out their Christian faith in the face of violence and death. In the face of thick darkness. Despite my conviction, when I think about entering into these neighborhoods myself, neighborhoods that are known for the incidence of violence, neighborhoods in which I (and many of the other volunteers) will stand out, where we do not belong, neighborhoods where people stay off the streets because the streets are dangerous, pause. When I think about this, I tremble. My heart races. My hands dampen with sweat. I feel as though I face a wall of thick Darkness. An impenetrable wall of darkness that hides I know not what, darkness in which I do not know which way to turn, darkness in which I feel disoriented, alone, vulnerable, unsafe. Thick Darkness.
What about your ministry? Pause. What are the places of thick darkness that you encounter or anticipate encountering?
Pause. Where are the places (literal or figurative) that you fear to go?
Pause. Where do you feel uncomfortable, disoriented, unsafe?
Pause. Perhaps you’ve already visited some of these places and fear going back…
I invite you, as you feel moved to do so, to share out loud these places of thick darkness in your ministry.
Respond to people’s sharing with the words: THICK DARKNESS.
Yes, our work is hard. It is terrifying. Sometimes God calls us to step out alone from the comfortable crowd of our community, to draw near to the thick darkness in the world around us. To enter into it.
But friends, there is good news. For, as this passage of Exodus proclaims to us, this THICK DARKNESS is where God is. Let me repeat that. This Thick Darkness is WHERE GOD IS. In drawing near to the thick darkness ahead of us, we draw near to God. This is good news, friends. GOOD NEWS.
Draw near to the thick darkness of ……… an unknown community…. where God IS.
(name one by one the thick darknesses that people named earlier, saying after each one “Where God IS”)
Afraid as we are, confused, disoriented, terrified as we are, God calls us to draw near, to enter into these places of thick darkness, and to encounter the divine that is there.
Let us pray: Mysterious One, beyond our deepest understanding, you who dwell in thick darkness, grant us courage to draw near you. Embolden us to step forward into the thick darkness of places and situations that terrify us. Grace us with the wisdom to recognize our own limitations, our own inexperience as we approach thick darkness, and renew our resolve to respond to your call in spite of these limitations, with humility and care. Fill us with faith, oh Gracious Spirit, to trust that in this thick darkness, we may, we will, encounter you. And in this thick darkness, crack open our hearts, that we may receive your transforming power. As we pray, we remember Jesus Christ, who lived his life drawing again and again near to the thick darkness where you are, and we pray these things in his name. Amen.