The Lampstands in the Darkness
This past week the American consciousness has been tilted towards the East Coast. Every news source, every line posted to social media, and many of the prayers offered up have been on behalf of those who were injured, killed and/or traumatized on Monday in the Boston marathon bombing.
You may have been like some and couldn’t get enough of the news. Or maybe you felt like you just wanted to get away from it. I swung back and forth between these poles. Although I have to say it’s thrilling conclusion on Friday evening was captivating.
One of the things that Monday did for all of us who live in America was remind us of the simple fact that darkness is all around us. We don’t have to know the motives of the brothers, or whether they were helped by some terrorist network to know that these two young men were draw into a seductive darkness that is far more overwhelming than they clearly understood.
This darkness is seductive because it can pull even the most unsuspecting people into its influence and service.
And this darkness ebbs and flows. Sometimes there is a little breathing room, a moment of relative calm, sometimes it feels like everything is caving in around you.
Monday was just one more reminder that in America, just as in the rest of the world, we are surrounded by a darkness that we don’t always understand and that has seductive powers to draw people into its service.
If we were in the first century we would call this darkness the “Roman empire” and we would talk about those who were seduced by its ways of idolatry with imperialistic gods, ambivalence in faith, and participation in the empire’s economy. For John’s seven churches, we find that the letters are less about dealing with extreme persecution – although there is some present – and more about dealing with the seductive powers of the empire’s darkness.
As I see it there were at least two ways to end the Christian movement: one was to kill them all off, which the previous emperor Nero tried to do, and if that doesn’t work, seduce them into participation of the religion, economics and ways of life of the empire.
If you can kill the radical heart of the Christian movement, then you don’t need to actually kill Christians. And so this does seem to be the tactic that is making progress with early Christians.
Unfortunately, these tactics are still at play in our world today and there are many ways in which we to can find ourselves seduced and drawn as churches away from the light and life of Jesus and towards darkness. There are many ways that we all see this take place but when events like Monday happen we are given a new opportunities to gauge our hearts.
If we are seduced we may be given to hatred, and not just feelings of revenge but actually seeking revenge. We will forget that central to Christianity is love of neighbor and enemy, and the practice of forgiveness.
If we are seduced we may be given to ambivalence. You were neither hot nor cold. This is for those who fall asleep, even though they are awake, those who have the appearance of being alive but are dead.
And finally, fear is another way we can be seduced. Fear that we can do nothing to change the world. Fear of one another. Fear works against what Jesus has called for his disciples because he has called us out into the world to love, make peace, and offer mercy to those in our world.
Jesus is at the door
John’s “apocalyptic” letter is written into a situation like this, but even more grave. It is a situation where all hope is lost. It is a letter written after the news of the iceberg reaches the captain of the titanic.
Given the geographical area and the order of the churches in Chap. 2-3 it is clear that this letter was read aloud in each church and had a circuit throughout Asia Minor. E. Peterson points out that all of the letters offer direction affirmation, correction and motivation (E. Peterson).
Which does make me wonder what it must have been like to be Sardis or Laodicea who had nothing good said about them, and whose state were read aloud to everyone. It probably had the similar effect of your sixth grade teacher finding a note you’d written to you significant other only to read it in front of the whole class!
John’s letters are meant to offer some way forward for these communities in a world that was unstable and unpredictable.
As Howard Thurman once wrote:
Much of life involves us in actions grown out of decisions that work out their fulfillment through many months and often years. It is a simple but terrible truth that, in most fundamental decisions we make, we must act on evidence that is not quite conclusive. We must decide and act on our decision without having a complete knowledge even of the facts that are involved. -Howard Thurman
Jesus’ words to each church embrace their situation, the things they struggle with, the challenges of their time and tries to help them grapple with the fact that they are called out into the world despite the fact that things aren’t perfect or the way they would like.
As these communities lean into their own challenges and seductions John offers guiderails to them by drawing out the areas of light and life-giving forces already at work in their midsts.
You probably noticed that there is a pattern that arises in John’s letters – they each begin with an image or phrase from the initial vision of Jesus in chapter 1 — which suggests that there is a piece of Jesus in each community and then it goes on to give a description of the good and the correctives in the community, it offers encouragements and then a motivating promise — “To the victor I will give…”
But it is important that John focuses on the strengths of each community that is already present there: to Thyatira, “I know your words, your love, faith, service and patient endurance;” to Ephesus, “I know your deeds, labor, endurance. I know you cannot tolerate evildoers;” to Smyrna, “I know your affliction and your poverty even though you are rich…” In all but two of the letters John opens by name the life-giving force of that particular community, and even the two he doesn’t do that for, Sardis and Laodicea, he still opens with an image drawn from Jesus in chapter 1 (suggesting again that even in their waywardness the image of Jesus is still imprinted in their spirits).
The key point here is that each church must draw on the graces and the life-giving forces that it already has within it. It cannot go elsewhere, for Jesus stands among them and is present to them. If they are to resist the darkness and have “patient endurance” as they are repeatedly called to then they are to draw on the core of that grace (Branson 51-52).
John reminds Sardis, “Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent;” and Ephesus, “Remember then from what you have fallen.”
By refocusing these communities around powerful images connected to the vision of Jesus in Chp. 1 and drawing out their strengths, John is able to help reorient these communities around light and life that is already present. This can give them the courage and wear withal to move out into the darkness.
It is as Rumi once wrote:
There’s an image of God deep in your heart. You don’t need to look in some other direction. What He can subtly bestow is limitless; It will help you live within the world’s limits. -Rumi (The Egg of the Body)
So how do we find the courage and the decisiveness to act on evidence that is not quite conclusive, and to step out into a world of darkness, and suffering? I believe it is to draw on these mutually generative, life-giving places we share together.
There is a light
While it may be true that there is darkness, the Gospel of John reveals a counter-story about a light that is not overcome by darkness. And in Revelation we are told about ordinary believers in tiny, powerless communities within the Roman Empire who are “lamp stands.” They are not themselves the light, but they are the bright spots, the gathering points, the training ground for acts of love, peace, and mercy in the world.
Revelation teaches us that what promotes God’s work in the world is what receives commendation. Regardless of where it comes from. This is the light at work in the darkness.
And this past monday we saw light and life.
Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio wrote:
There are ordinary people who step out into danger, into darkness, to shine a light. On the day of the marathon bombings, bystanders who could have protected themselves rushed to help the injured . Doctors, nurses, and their assistants worked overtime to make sure that those affected received the care they deserved, while law enforcement officials sought justice on the city’s behalf. Bostonians came out to offer marathoners juice and a bathroom, even as officials told them to stay indoors . A nearby restaurant called El Pelon Taqueria gave out free food, drinks, cell phone charger outlets, and the 9-year old daughter of the owner, Addison Hoben , decorated to-go bags with the words, “It’s going to be alright” and “We’re not afraid.”
Revelation reminds us that while the darkness will not conquer the Light, we have our own role to play in the whole thing.
We must draw on our strengths, our successes, the light that is already at work among us and “step out into danger” even if the evidence is inconclusive. And I believe that we will find more light gathered, more helpers, more lamp stands along the way.