Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Sermon: The Dark Night of the Soul - Psalm 46:10

For an audio version of this sermon click here

I didn’t really come into a full-fledged relationship with Jesus until about 2004, just a couple of years after getting out of college and working as a science teacher. I was spending a lot of time reflecting on what I was going to do with my life and what, if any, role God would play in that and it came to be that God spoke into my life and called me to turn everything over to him. I remember that in those first days the joy I experienced was overwhelming and my dedication to knowing God better was extreme. I spent hours upon hours reading scripture. I read through the whole bible in a matter of days and began reading it a second time. I spent many evenings teaching myself the Hebrew alphabet and praying for hours. On Sundays I went from service to service to service and would usually hit about three different churches. I volunteered, went on a mission trip to Guatemala, led two people to Christ that year, and began taking classes at a seminary close-by in Orlando. Before I knew her, my wife pastor Benita worked in the admissions office at the seminary, and later she told me she remembered my application, not in a good way, but because everyone in the admissions office wondered if they really should accept me because I seemed a little too crazy about God. Now as time went on, this spiritual high faded. In the past decade my relationship with God has never felt exactly the same as it did when I first fell in love. There have been valleys and mountains, intense dark and intense light, moments where  I could not feel God’s presence at all and others where I could not breathe without knowing God was there.

St. John of the Cross, a 16th century monk, “said that in the early days of spiritual life, the soul often finds delight in devotional activities: We love to read the Bible, we hunger for worship, we long to pray. We may think this is a sign of our maturity; it is really more a kind of honeymoon phase. ‘But there will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation of the soul in order to teach it virtue…”[1]

There are rhythms to our relationship with God, just like any relationship. The same way you have different seasons of relationships with children, spouses, brothers, sisters, and friends, there are different rhythms in our relationship with God as well. Sometimes, we’re in Hawaii on a honeymoon with God, basking in the sun. Other times we are in the dark night of the soul, a phrase first used by St. John of the Cross to describe these times when it feels as though God has withdrawn his presence from us. The dark night of the soul is when the spiritual practices that we’ve been preaching about in this series, the tending of our souls through prayer, through the reading God’s word, through worship, and through serving others all provide nothing and our mouths are left dry and our spiritual life empty. In the dark night our prayers feel meaningless and we continue to go through the motions of church, often thinking we must have done something wrong to deserve this. The dark night of the soul isn’t something we often speak about on Sunday morning or put on the sign out front and yet scripture speaks candidly of these times, sometimes moments, sometimes years, sometimes hundreds of years, where God withdraws his presence from his people.

There are both individual and community examples of God withdrawing his presence and leaving us in darkness. The Israelites spent four hundred years of slavery in Egypt without a word from God,  without any consolation, they spent decades in exile in Babylon, and the time between the last prophet of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus was again roughly another four hundred years of silence. There are countless individuals who have experienced the dark night of the soul, this withdrawal or silence of God.

Elijah is one of the most renown prophets in the Old Testament. You may remember the story of Elijah, he’s the prophet who during a dark time for Israel challenges the false prophets of Baal to a prophet duel. This happens in 1 Kings 18. The 450 prophets of Baal versus the one prophet of God. The prophets Ball go first, they build an altar, begin praying and worshipping Baal in hopes that he would consume the altar and offering in fire. They do this all day and Elijah makes fun of them as nothing happens. He says “Shout louder! … Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” Then as evening approaches, Elijah builds his altar and digs a large trench around it and he has people pour jar after jar of water all over until the whole thing is dripping wet, the trench filling with water and he prays a two sentence prayer… and the entire altar and offering is engulfed in flames, all the water evaporates in an instant, and the people the gathered believe and know that Yahweh is God and that Baal is nothing. An amazing moment, a spiritual high, God shows up and yet often we don’t read the beginning verses of the next chapter. Elijah gets a message that the queen is coming after him and 1 Kings 19:3-4 says “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life…he went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a … tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. “Take my life…”

How is it that the day before you are standing in front of a multitude of people, God shows up in a miraculous way, people rally to him, you stare down 450 prophets who want to kill you, and the next day, you are in the dessert, dry, thirsty, and asking for death because you’ve had enough? This is just a moment in Elijah but sometimes the dark night of the soul lasts longer.

John the Baptist, Jesus calls him a modern day Elijah, is the one who prepares the way for Jesus by telling people about the kingdom of God, baptizing them in the Jordan river.  He baptizes Jesus and witnesses a miraculous moment in which the Spirit of God comes upon Jesus, they hear a voice from God the Father saying “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” What a miraculous moment. What many of us wouldn’t give to be there to see Jesus being anointed, the beginning of his public ministry, the triune God present simultaneously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet later John ends up in prison and he sends a message to Jesus asking “Are you the one?”  Seriously? John you were the one that pointed him out. You were there as the Father in Heaven proclaimed Him to be the one. In the dark night of the soul doubt pervades us and we can’t see beyond the four walls of our prisons. John spends the rest of his life in prison until he his beheaded.

Mother Teresa, whom many of us know for her dedication to the poor and to God, initially was set on fire by God but then went through a period of roughly fifty years of silence, of darkness. In those fifty years she felt that only once more did she hear from God. She confided to her spiritual director in 1957: 

“In the darkness . . .I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.  Love — the word — it brings nothing.  I am told God lives in me [and how often are we told this Sunday morning] — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”[2]

Sometimes we feel far from God because we are the ones that have stopped listening, we’ve hardened our hearts to Him, but the dark night of the soul, what we are talking about today, is when God withdraws from us. It was not a lack of effort in the cases of Elijah, John the Baptist, St. John of the Cross, and Mother Teresa. So what do we do when we are in the dark night of the soul?  The psalms are perhaps the best place to go in Scripture to see the hearts of people, usually David, who feel the darkness and are crying out to God. Psalm 46 speaks about turning to God in our trouble, seeking him as our refuge, that His help will come at the end of the dark night of the soul with the breaking of the day and verse 10 says “Be still and know that I am God.”

The first thing to do when we are in the dark night of the soul is to do nothing. Be still in the dark. Psalm 37:7 says “[b]e still before the LORD and wait patiently for him…” Have you ever been spelunking before? Spelunking is just a weird name for exploring caves. When I was growing up I went to a place called the Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee and they have an overnight tour where you get to sleep in the caves. You may think you have experienced dark, but the kind of darkness you experience in a place where there is absolutely no source of light, where five inches to your right could be a precipice that drops miles deep, is a different kind of darkness than what we usually experience. It’s not the kind when you wake up in the middle of the night and your eyes adjust and you make your way to the bathroom or to the kid crying down the hall. It is utter and complete darkness. The loss of light is one of the biggest dangers for those who explore caves. You’re supposed to go with someone else and each of you should have three sources of light on you because if you lose your light, you can lose your life. In that kind of darkness you can’t run, you can’t move, there’s no sense of direction, or time,  and the danger is too great to blindly try and go forward. Yet when we enter the dark night of the soul, that’s exactly what we try to do. We try to stand on our own two feet, and not only move, but we try and run as fast as we can to get out of there when instead we are called to wait patiently on the Lord. To be still.

The answer, in the dark night of the soul, isn’t more prayer, more serving, more giving, more trying though that’s often the message we hear. Do more and you’ll feel better. In most cases those spiritual practices are helpful, but in this case we cannot work our way out. It is a different type of darkness. Instead we must wait for rescue. This is a time, a rhythm in your life, to ask for help, (and write this down because you may never hear it in church again) to do less, to resign from things, to rest more, and to ask others to pray for us.  I recently heard someone ask “Please pray for me that I would have a desire to pray again.” It’s an honest statement that we are often afraid to say in the church because we feel like we must have done something wrong to find ourselves in the dark night of the soul.

 It must be my fault that God has withdrawn from me and the fire in my heart has all but gone out. It must have been something that I did. We tend to respond, in times of suffering and in times when God feels no longer present, with a “I hate me” or “I hate thee” attitude. If we feel like we’ve done enough and that God should be blessing us then we I have a “I hate thee” attitude. How dare you, God, do this to me! I have been a good Christian, I’ve come to church, I pray and have a quiet time, I am coming to the congregational meeting. I deserve blessing. If we feel like we haven’t done enough, we take a “I hate me” attitude. I haven’t been praying, I haven’t come to church, I’m not coming to the congregational meeting, woe as me, I deserve all of this and more and should try and work harder. Neither of these, friends, are the gospel. Though they seem radically different – hating ourselves or hating God, they both come from a view that it’s all up to us. The better I am, the more I tend my soul, the more God will love me and the worse I am, the less He will be there for me. If I work hard enough and God withdraws then I will hate Him, and if I don’t work hard enough and God withdraws then I will hate myself. The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is that it was never based on us and our work and never will be. Our relationship with God, the grace and the mercy we receive is based on God and thanks be to God for that. Our friendship, our relationship with God was restored not by anything we did but by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies (Romans 5:10). After 400 years of silence, Jesus Christ came to save Israel, to save the world, to save you. Was it because Israel finally got their act together? Was it because there was in Israel just before Jesus was born a revival of prayer, bible study, and going to the temple? Or was it because in God’s time he had mercy on Israel on the world? And after patiently waiting through the dark it was time for the light to be born into the world?

In a culture, in a mindset, dominated by instantaneous satisfaction, the concept of waiting patiently for God for days, months, years is almost inconceivable to us. We often can’t wrap our heads around why God would have us wait for Him. Or why others we know can’t seem to get out of the darkness and we have to wait for them and with them. Why in the dark night of the soul, he doesn’t snap his fingers and make the day dawn. Yet even in the darkness, especially in the darkness, God calls us to “[t]rust in the Lord with all [our] hearts and lean not on [our] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).  Tell me, when do we actually really get to do this, fully trust in God, except in those times where it feels like he isn’t there. If every day is the fire consuming the altar, is God’s spirit poured out from heaven, if he’s always overwhelmingly present, where do we learn to trust in Him? To be still before Him? To wait patiently for Him? To be still and know that He is God? It’s in our desserts, it’s in our prisons, it’s in the dark nights of the soul.

There is the one thing that we can do in the stillness, in the dark, as we wait, and that is know who God is by remembering, remembering the times he has been there historically for humanity, individually in our own lives, and the promises he has kept and made to us.

It’s what Jesus does when he is confronted with the dark night of the soul. Jesus, the Son of God, God himself, cries out on the cross “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” When does so, in the midst of pain and darkness, he is quoting Psalm 22, which moves from despair to remembering who God is and how He is faithful to us. Psalm 22 the words of David, the words of Jesus reads  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.  Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them.  They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.”

I leave it to you, whatever season your spiritual walk may be in, to remember individually the times God has been there for you, the places that he has shown up. Remember that God is faithful to keep his promises and that even the darkest night eventually has a dawn. That most often the dark night of the soul is the only place we grow in spiritual meekness, patience, and trust in the Lord. That when God says to wait patiently for him, to be still and know Him, to remember who He is and the promises He has made, He is faithful, his promises are an anchor for our souls (Hebrews 6:19). 

[1] John Ortberg. Soul Keeping. p.181-182
[2] http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/faith-and-character/faith-and-character/mother-teresas-long-dark-night.html

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