A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 4, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 22:1-13
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was looking for a new call over a decade ago, I interviewed with several churches on the east coast. I’m glad I ended up coming here for many reasons. One of the less impressive reasons in all honesty, is that I don’t feel compelled to wear a tie during the week. Heck, wearing jeans is okay. I think it’s a west coast phenomenon. Yes, there are “casual dress” churches back east, but that’s not the norm there. Here, in the Bay Area, casual dress seems to be the norm.

Perhaps some of our negative reaction to today’s second lesson, to the story of the underdressed wedding guest is rooted in this “casual norm.” “What did the king expect?! If you are going to go out into the streets and recruit guests at the last minute, how can you expect them to be wearing the right clothes? With all due respect, your highness, either give them time to go home and change or lower your standards. No one walks around in wedding robes, just in case they happen to be invited to a royal banquet.”[1]

This story is more allegory than parable. There’s a king who hosts a wedding banquet for his son. “Gee, who do you think that Son could be? Our second clue is the outrageousness of the plot. How many people do you know who murder the postal worker for delivering a wedding invitation? And how likely is it that a wedding banquet would stay warm while a king mobilized his troops, declared war, and burned a whole city to the ground? By the time all that had happened, the veal roast would be seriously overdone.”[2]

But, if we know the Jesus story, we can figure out what’s going on here. The prophets had invited the Jews to the wedding banquet that is the realm of God, and some of the prophets were met with violence. With the Jews not coming, the Gentiles were invited (in large part, thanks to the Apostle Paul). But these latecomers have no history with the God of Israel, so they don’t know how to act. And, in the end, if they don’t change into the appropriate attire, they get thrown “into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

That makes for a pretty scary king. And, since this is an allegory, it makes for a pretty scary God. If God is that mean, can you imagine how bad the monsters under the bed are?

I don’t remember being afraid of the dark, but I do remember insisting that my bedroom door be left open a crack so light from the hallway would come in. It’s not that I thought the darkness was filled with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And my bedroom didn’t have a closet for the monsters of my imagination to hide in. And under my bed was a piece of plywood on casters with roads laid out in black cloth tape for me to build a city on with Lego and Matchbox Cars – so there was no room for imagined monsters there, either. But somehow, for some reason, I was afraid of my room being completely dark.

I don’t understand it, because when I think back to the earliest experience of awe that I can remember, darkness is vital to it. I was lying on my back on the float out toward the middle of the lake at my family’s summer cabin, looking up at the sky, and really seeing for the first time the milky-ness of the Milky Way galaxy. Had the moon been out or the porch lights been on, the effect would have been lost. Only in the darkness could I see this amazing sight.

I’ve heard people say that their childhood cue to go home from playing with their friends was the streetlights coming on. My mother rang a dinner bell, but on summer nights when we didn’t have to get up for school the next day, I remember going outside to play with my friends after dinner – in the dark, or at least the relative dark of the suburbs. And yet, there certainly was a time when I was afraid of the dark. And I know I’m not the only one.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes of a Brit named James Bremner who was afraid of the dark as a child. “There was no reason for him to be afraid, he says now. He lived in a village in western Scotland where there were no wild animals or known criminals. But there were also no streetlights or porch lights in his village, which meant that once night fell, the darkness was absolute. Every evening after supper, it was his job to take the family’s empty milk bottles down to the bottom of the driveway so the milkman could swap them out next morning – a chore that put a major dent in his personal history of darkness. The drive was only about a hundred yards long, but from the house it disappeared into complete blackness almost at once. When James finally balled up the courage to walk into it – running was not an option with glass bottle in his arms – he lived for the moment when he could set them down and race back to the house. The darkness never stopped terrifying him. Ever single night it took all the courage he had.

“But while his fear of the dark may have been baseless, the bravery it drew out of him stayed with him for the rest of his life. ‘Courage,’ he writes now, ‘which is not more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous.’ Darkness, he says, fits that bill.”[3] For James, learning to walk in the dark taught him courage.

Taylor says that there are only about a hundred references to darkness in the Bible. My quick survey found about twice that number of direct references, but let’s not quibble. More important than the number is the verdict of those references, and it’s darn near unanimous: “darkness is bad news. In the first testament, light stand for life and darkness for death. When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness. Locusts darken the land. People grope in the dark without light, for the day of the Lord is darkness and not light. In the second testament, light stands for knowledge and darkness for ignorance. ‘If thine eye be evil, they whole body shall be full of darkness,’ Matthew says in the King James Version.

“When the true light comes into the world, the world does not know him. Though he comes to those in darkness and the shadow of death, they love darkness more than light. On the day he dies, darkness descends on the land from noon until three. He has come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in him shall not remain in the darkness, but some people just cannot be helped.…”[4]

But if you look at the indirect references to darkness, you start to hear a different story. He’s not on a float on a lake in New Hampshire, but Abraham looks up at the stars when God tells him he will have descendants as numerous. God comes in the night to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, in a dream of angels climbing up and down a ladder and he hears God promise to be with him as God’s promises are fulfilled. That’s not something that could have happened in the middle of the day. Later, Jacob wrestles with an angel in the darkness of the night. And his son Joseph has dreams in the darkness that give him confidence, get him into trouble with his brothers, and lead him to an important position in Pharaoh’s court.

“The exodus from Egypt happens at night; God parts the Red Sea at night; manna falls from the sky in the wilderness at night – and that’s just the beginning.”[5] At Mount Sinai, Moses ascends into a cloud of think darkness. Ascending into the darkness, Moses ascends into the presence of God.

I usually think of the presence of God as being brilliance, but here, God is present in the darkness, a darkness that has nothing to do with the time of day. “It has nothing to do with the position of the planets in the sky or the rods and cones in people’s eyes. It is an entirely unnatural darkness – both dangerous and divine – that contains the presence of God before whom there are no others. It is so different from what other Hebrew words mean when they say ‘dark’ that it has its own word in the Bible: araphel, reserved for God’s exclusive use. This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it, the same way the brightness of God’s glory does. Both are signs of God’s mercy, since ordinary human beings are not equipped to survive direct contact with the divine, in the dark or in the light.”[6]

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we read in Proverbs 9:10 (and Proverbs 1:7 and Psalm 11:10 and Job 28:28). The admonition to fear God is scattered throughout both testaments of the Bible and faithful role models are extolled for fearing God. Some scholars say that the Greek and Hebrew words that get translated “fear” are typically closer to “be in awe of” or “wonder” or “amazement” than they are “be anxious about.”[7] That may be accurate, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe a little anxiety about entering the overwhelming divine presence isn’t a good thing.

Of all the names for God, “Great Mystery” is one of my favorites. God is love, yes, and God is grace-giver. And God is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans – a terrible and fascinating mystery.

In the 300s, Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Moses’s vision began with light. Afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.”[8] Gregory goes on to say that if we wish to draw near to God, we should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.[9]

God in the darkness. This is a new idea for me, and a surprisingly comforting one. I’m not sure why yet, but I find it comforting. Perhaps it has something to do with the possibility that when things seem their darkest in my life, I may actually be closest to God?

So is God really as mean as the king in our lesson from Matthew 22? “Some scholars say that wedding hosts provided garments for their guests in those days, the same way some fancy restaurants keep a spare jacket and tie on hand for dinner guests who show up in shirt sleeves. If that was the case, then the spotlight shifts from the king to the guest. Why did he refuse the robe that was offered him? What made him think he could come as he was to such an auspicious feast without being noticed?”[10]

We celebrate a little foretaste of the wedding banquet God has in store for us when we come to the communion table. And we say that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. In other words, we say come as you are. But the implication of this story is that we shouldn’t stay as we are. If we’re going to come to the wedding banquet, we need to be willing to change. Changing into the wedding robe is just a symbol of this.

Come to the feast in denim or silk – that doesn’t matter. But come to the feast with some fear – both in the sense of awe at the great mystery of God and in the sense of some anxiety about mystery of God. For God wants to change you. God wants to draw you in even more deeply, to clothe you with love and justice and forgiveness and loving kindness and peace. And won’t we all look fabulous if we put that on?

Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Wedding Dress,” Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 192-193.

[2] Ibid, 193.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 36-37.

[4] Ibid, 43-44.

[5] Ibid, 45.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Marcus Borg, Convictions (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 211.

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, quoted by Taylor in Learning to Walk in the Dark, op. cit., 48.

[9] Taylor, Learning to Walk …, 48.

[10] Taylor, Home By Another Way, 193.

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