Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

The theme for today’s message is about spiritual darkness and light, spiritual sickness and healing. And to work toward that end, we’re going to start out by looking briefly at the background of two of the readings.

In the Book of Isaiah, much of the “darkness,” much of the “shadow of death ”God’s people lived and walked in came froma particular event—the invasion of the Babylonian army, which then carted off many of them to its capital city hundreds of miles to the east. In today’s 1st Lesson, the House of Israel was facing instead another hostile neighbor—the Assyrian Empire to the north. The time period was different as well—about 150 years earlier. In the Gospel of Matthew, during Jesus’ earthly life, Israel once more was under the thumb of a foreign power—this time the Roman emperor.

Do you see a pattern here? Being a small kingdom in the middle of crossroads leading to and from the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia was a very difficult thing. Being a conquered people so often was indeed a bitter pill—especially when they had been given the promise of living in a land flowing with milk and honey that was supposed to be their milk and their honey and not someone else’s. And then, of course—as time passed—the Jews didn’t even have a true homeland at all, that is, until a few decades ago.

Throughout history there have been and still are any number of what could be called “hard-luck” countries, often dominated and abused by foreign governments. It’s only natural, then, if citizens of such nations tend to suffer from a kind of collective darkness, a collective dispiritedness.

Sometimes even so-called “successful” countries have their periods of darkness. Here in the U.S., one such obvious event was the Civil War—or as some Southerners still call it, the War among the States, or even the War of Northern Aggression. Although it led to the freedom of slaves, it came at a great cost, because every casualty was an American casualty. As we know, there were even instances of real-life brothers fighting on opposite sides. In its second year, President Lincoln himself was engulfed not only by the darkness of that conflict, but also by a deeply personal loss. As a biographer has written:

The early weeks of 1862 were dark indeed, partly because of the death of [his son Willie in late February] at the age of eleven….[This] sadness was [compounded] by the constant sense of the national tragedy [that was playing out]…Lincoln’s melancholy

after Willie died was so deep…it seemed impossible to believe [his optimism] would ever return. The depression seemed complete![i]

Are there not periods in life in which we ourselves are plunged into some form of darkness? Maybe, considering all the suffering in the world, the gloominess of doubt in God’s presence or goodness or maybein God’s very existence?

And how about the darkness of depression—in and of itself? I believe it’s important to look at that in a Sunday sermon, because no part of who we are is ever isolated from the rest.What is spiritual in us is related to what is emotional, and physical, and social, and even intellectual.

When it comes to depression, just about all of us know at least one person who has had it or still suffers from it—including certainly some of us ourselves. Every life, I am convinced, has in some manner been touched by or at least exposed to this illness.

First of all, we know depression is not the same thing as having the blues or feeling down in the dumps. Those are occasional moods that we all have but not conditions that threaten to overwhelm us, that make it hard to function in daily life—for some persons making just getting out of bed a major task.

We also know that depression can sometimes have a strictly physical cause. It can be related to heredity or a serious brain injury or even a brain tumor.

But much depression is in nature situational, triggered by various kinds of stressors, the most significant among them some major loss in life or ,for some persons, several such losses in a short period of time.

Depression and grieving often go hand in hand. And when people can work through their grief, then eventually the depression itself will subside.

But that illness, that disease—if it’s proper to call it that—is not always mainly physical or emotional or situational or some combination. Another piece of it—maybe the greatest—can be a spiritual affliction. As in the old African-American hymn, “There Is a Balmin Gilead,” in which the believer is described as having a sin-sick soul that desperately needs to be healed.

Throughout the ages, many Christians have suffered from it—sometimes especially those who, in the Roman Catholic tradition, have become saints.For some it is experienced as “the dark night of the soul”—a necessary stage in their spiritual journey as they let go of the things of the world in orderto become closer to God. For some that dark night lasts not for weeksor months, but rather for years. And the torment they can suffer is extraordinary.

An example is someone we all know, who was canonized just this past fall I’m talking about Mother Teresa, who ministered nearly 50 years among the poor in the city of Calcutta. She inspired countless numbers of people. A film was made about her. She was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet ten years after her death, letters written to her confessors were published as a book ,revealing the spiritual darkness—the absence of God—she felt during virtually the entire time of that ministry. Interestingly, the book is entitled, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. The title comes from a vision of Jesus she had before undertaking her special ministry. In the vision, Jesus told her to leave the school at which she was teaching and begin working among the poor. We might regard that almost as ironic.

A ray of hope in that book has to do with something one of her superiors told her in response to the torment she was suffering from. He said that “her feelings of abandonment mirrored Jesus’s [own] feelings in the Garden [of Gethsemane] and on the Cross. [And h]er craving for God was a sure sign of His hidden presence in her life.”[ii] In other words, just as Jesus himself endured spiritual darkness and death before the light of his resurrection, so that also was what she herself was going through.

Father James Martin, editor of the Catholic magazine America, has remarked that the book may in its own way serve as a testimony of Mother Teresa. He wrote:

It is “a new ministry for [her], a written ministry of her interior life. It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.”[iii]

In the Christian life spiritual darkness and spiritual light almost seem to be two sides of the same coin. And, as strange as it may sound, it could well bethat we must embrace both of them.

So it often is in the Book of Psalms, including the one we have before us today. One verse stresses the anxiety, tthe fear the believer feels that God may withdraw, may become absent, and the darkness will overwhelm him:

Hide not your face from me, turn not away from your servant in anger.

Cast me not away—you have been my helper; forsake me not,

O God of my salvation.

But another verse is completely different. It expresses the confidence the believer feels in his heart:

            The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?

            The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Whatever spiritual darkness we encounter—whether personal or on a national scale or even worldwide—may we know that those “who [have] sat in [it, who have walked in it], have [also] seena great light…” Following that “shadow of death” [that] light has dawned.”He is the Sun/Son of Righteousness, and his name is Jesus.

[i] Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish (New York: Harper & Row, 1973): 29.