A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 11, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Exodus 33:18-23 and Genesis 1:1-5
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s passage from Exodus is about the nature of God. When God called Moses at the burning bush, you may remember that Moses asked God what God’s name is. God’s answer was the cryptic, “I am who (or what) I am.” Well, what does that mean?

By the time we get to the point in the story that we heard today, Moses has been communicating quite frequently with God. Moses has spent plenty of time up in the dark cloud on the mountain that I spoke about last week. He has had conferences with God in the “Tent of Meeting.” Moses and God are pretty tight, or so it would seem.

Today’s passage takes place in the midst of one of those conferences. After working out some details about how they are going to move forward, Moses asks God, almost pleads with God, that he be allowed to behold God’s “presence.” This seems almost comical to me. Moses and God have been having these confabs on a regular basis, yet Moses doesn’t feel like he has really experienced the presence of God. So Moses pleads for this experience. It’s as if Moses has been asking these past 30 chapter one over-arching question: “Who are you, God?”

“I am who I am.” “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.” These are not satisfying answers. Similarly, when Moses asks to see God’s face, the answer he receives is, “You may only see my back.” We’re told God does this to protect Moses. To see God face-to-face would be so overwhelming it would be fatal. So God protects Moses in the cleft of the rock and Moses only sees God’s back.

There is a metaphor in here that I think is powerful. Moses only sees God after the fact, after God has passed by. More often than not, we, too, become aware of God when we become aware of God’s graciousness. And like Moses, this usually happens after God passes by. “Were not our hearts burning within us,” the two on the Emmaus Road ask themselves after their experience of walking and breaking bread with the resurrected Christ.

Could it be that recognizing the presence of God in the moment would be so overwhelming that there is nothing left but awe? I don’t want people driving cars to suddenly behold the presence of God and forget that they are driving two tons of aluminum and steel down the highway. Just as someone failing to lower their beams on a dark country road can cause confusion, discomfort, even danger, we can be overwhelmed by too much light.

And there it is, my sermon in a sentence: we can be overwhelmed by too much light. I know when some of you read the printed sermon title, “Overwhelmed by Brilliance,” you figured I’d be talking about the how being intelligent can slow you down. But that’s not the brilliance I had in mind. This is about light and the importance of darkness.

When I lived in rural western Washington, wind storms or the occasional wet snow storm would often knock out the power. The longest I went without power was a week, but I lived in a subdivision, so I didn’t suffer the way my more rural neighbors did. I was on a public water system and I had hot water because that was gas. I just didn’t have heat because that was electric. I learned to put in contact lenses by candlelight and to shower in the dark that week.

One on the shorter power outages occurred early in the evening as I was watching TV. “Well,” I thought, “I can’t watch TV or go on the computer, and reading by candlelight is too difficult, so what should I do? I know! My vacuum cleaner has a headlight, so I can vacuum in the dark. Oh, that’s right. The electricity is out.” Like I said, this sermon is not about being overwhelmed by intelligence.

I live in a world where I assume that if I turn on the tap, clean water will come out, and if I flick the switch, the lights will come on. So when the power goes out, I’m often at a loss for what to do. Often, the only thing to do is go to bed. It turns out that this is a really good idea.

“Darkness turns out to be as essential to our physical well-being as light. We not only need plenty of darkness to sleep well; we also need it to be well. The circadian rhythm of waking and sleeping matches the natural cycle of day and night, which affects everything from our body chemistry to our relationships. When we tinker with it, we tinker with the well-being of ever creature whose pupils shrink when we turn on the lights.”[1]

According to Barbara Brown Taylor, “Every time we turn on the lights after dark, receptors in our eyes and skin send messages to our adrenal, pituitary, and pineal glands to stop what they are doing and get ready for the new day. Fluorescent lights and computer screens both flicker on and off at about 60-120 cycles a second, which is enough to fool your brain into thinking that the sun I coming up, but even the light from a cell phone charger or a glow-in-the-dark clock can cue your body that morning is underway. When that happens, your adrenal gland starts pumping more adrenaline into your bloodstream to handle the stress of an ordinary day. This tells your pituitary gland to back off on the human growth hormone your body uses to repair your muscles and bones at night. It also signals your pineal gland to stop making melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep, which it can only do in the dark. … Turning on your bedside lamp may help you get safely to the bathroom and back, but it will also upset your chemistry.”[2]

We know all this. And still, we light up the night. We work so hard to shrink the dark. And we do it not only to the detriment of our well-being, but also to the well-being of other species.

In the November 2008 issue of National Geographic Magazine, there is an article about light pollution. One of the pictures[3] accompanying the article is of a sheet surrounded by school children. The sheet is covered with the carcasses of birds collected over just three months in Toronto. During those three months, over 1,000 birds from 89 species died because of nighttime collisions with skyscrapers that had their lights on. Turning the lights off would not only save money on the electric bill, it would save birds’ lives.

Another picture in the article is of an endangered leatherback sea turtle shuffling toward the waves after laying and burying her eggs. Before electricity, the natural glow of the night sky off the water guided the turtles back to the sea. Now, beachfront development often leads them and their hatchlings off course, where they can be hit by cars or gobbled up by predators.

In her book that inspired this sermon series, Taylor tells of taking a daytime hike with her husband through the dunes of one of the barrier islands along the south Georgia coast.[4] They were surprised to come upon a huge loggerhead turtle. She had come ashore in the night to lay her eggs and instead of turning back to the ocean, she turned toward lights on the mainland.

“Judging from her tracks,” Taylor writes, “she had dragged herself through the sand until her flippers were buried and she could go no farther. We found her where she had given up, half cooked by the sun but still able to turn one eye up to look at us where we bent over her.”

They fetched a ranger who returned with a jeep and a chain. They flipped the turtle over, chained her up, and dragged her on her shell, back to the ocean. Flipping her right-side up, they waited for the waves to revive her. As she swam away, they hoped she would survive the ordeal and return next year to lay more eggs – and hopefully not be confused by the artificial lights at night.

So why do we do it? Why do we overwhelm ourselves with all this light? I think the answer is a four-letter “F” word: Fear. We think that the night would be a far more dangerous place without artificial light, if not in the country, certainly in the city. Except that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In her book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, Jane Brox points out that lights do not deter crime as much as their proponents hoped they would. “In the 1990s, Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation decided to increase the lighting in the city’s alleyways from 90 to 250 watts. When researchers measured the results a few months later, they found violent crime had increased by 14 percent, property crimes by 20 percent, and substance abuse violations by 51 percent. Of course there was more than one way to read those statistics. Were crimes really increasing, or did the lighting simply make it possible for more people to see and report them? Or were more people going out at night, lulled into a false sense of security by the new lights and therefore exercising less caution?”[5] Or did the criminals feel safer with the additional light, so they behaved more brazenly? Brox leaves us wondering if we are “hampered more by brilliance than our ancestors were by the dark.”[6]

Light is great, but if it chases away all the darkness, it is bad for us. And I don’t just mean physical light and physical darkness. Take a look at your bulletin cover. When our world glows in the dark like the first picture, we are unable to see the wonder of creation that is shown in the second picture. The problem is so bad that there is an international movement to open “Dark Sky Parks,” places where people can get away from the light pollution and see the beauty and wonder of the second picture.[7]

Psalm 8 is my favorite Psalm and it is a Psalm where the blessing of physical darkness and the blessing of spiritual darkness intersect. The Psalm writer was someone who clearly knew how to walk in the dark. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that your care for them?” Think for a moment about this songwriter. This person knew nothing about the big bang or the vastness of the universe. This person knew nothing about the existence of galaxies or that our earth is one, small, blue marble circling an average star out toward the edge of one of those galaxies. Yet this songwriter captures the awe I feel when I contemplate how small and insignificant I am in the vastness of this universe and the amazing reality that God cares about me nonetheless.

Like Moses, I’m in the dark when I try to explain who God is. And that’s a good thing, that’s a blessing. For if I know that I can’t know all who God is, if I know that I can’t behold the full presence of God, I am simply called to awe. I stand before God (or maybe it’s behind God) and wonder.

And when I think about grief – which I’ve been doing lately for a number of reasons – I see a blessing in the darkness. I’ve come to realize that there is no way around grief; we can only go through it. And it is by embracing that darkness that we find healing. Grief is hard in part because it requires walking in the dark. The unknown is hard because it requires walking in the dark. Yet it is only in the darkness that we can find our way. The brilliance of the light would overwhelm us.

Stumbling around the internet as I prepared for this sermon series, I came upon this poem by Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Perhaps more appropriate for last Sunday when we remembered the Magi finding the infant Jesus, its imagery seems appropriate for today’s sermon, too. “To find the child”[8]

To find the child
one must see the star.
To see the star one must go into the darkness,
the pain, the fear, the emptiness,
the hidden weeping,
the heart’s dark wounds.
Only in the darkness
can the stars be seen.

To find the child
one must hear the angels.
To hear the angels
one must listen in silence and solitude,
in perfect speechlessness,
in attentive adoration to the Mystery.
Only in such stillness
are the angels heard.

To find the child
one must enter the stable.
To enter the stable
one must stoop,
decline all palaces, all safety,
all familiarity or fortification,
and settle into poverty.
Only in such humility
is the stable entered.

To find the child
one must see the birth.
To see the birth
one must be awakened
to the heart of all things
beating in one’s soul,
the light of God shining in one’s hands.
One must be willing to speak
alone with one’s eyes.
Only in awakening
will the birth be seen.

To find the child,
seek in the darkness,
lay your heart open,
and discover therein
light unconquered.

Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 61.

[2] Ibid, 69.

[3] See the picture gallery that accompanies “Light Pollution,” National Geographic, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/light-pollution/richardson-photography (posted November 2008; accessed 10 January 2015).

[4] Taylor, op. cit., 66-68.

[5] Ibid, 70.

[6] Ibid, 71.

[7] See, for instance, Jeff Kart, “New International Dark Sky Park opens in Michigan,” Treehugger, http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/new-international-dark-sky-park-opens-in-michigan-only-nine-others-in-the-world.html (posted 16 May 2011; accessed 10 January 2015).

[8] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “To find the child,” Unfolding light, http://unfoldinglight.net/?p=2713 (15 December 2014, accessed 29 December 2014).  I am unable in the blog to give the poem its proper layout.  Please see Steve’s blog to see it’s proper layout.

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