Sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Like always, I was late to an internet trend.
It was only a few years ago that I started to notice friends posting on social media with the phrase “good vibes only.” Some of them were clearly a little bit joking, but some of them were very, very serious.
A college classmate has started a life coaching business. She tells her clients (or at least her Facebook friends) that she is committed to making sure they only have good vibes in their life. That they only seek out, experience, and manifest—her words—positivity. For a fee, she promises to help you weed out anyone or anything in your life that does not fill you with happiness.
I don’t know how she manages to weed out laundry and taxes and the pandemic, but it’s a money-back guarantee, so she must have a method.
The phrase “good vibes” goes all the way back to the Beach Boys and their song Good Vibrations—an excellent song, by the way—but it started to be used on the internet around 2011 or so. “Good Vibes Only” declares that the highest ideal in life is personal happiness—which can be achieved with the right social circle, the right purchases, the right Instagram filter. It’s especially marketed to women—that we are in charge of our own happiness, and that if we are unhappy—well, that’s our own fault for accepting bad vibes.
This may be good marketing, but it’s terrible theology.
This book—this Bible that I love—is riddled with bad vibes, with sorrow, with pain, with negativity, with darkness. The writers whose lives are preserved here would have had no idea what to do with “good vibes only.” The closest you get might be Paul’s command to give thanks in all circumstances—but those very circumstances, he admits, will be doozies.
Very little of our scripture was written in easy times. The bulk of our scripture was written out of pain. It’s not a children’s book or a beach read, but it is honest. And in it’s honesty, it is holy.
This Epiphany we are making our way through the St. John’s Bible, and through some of the most important stories in our scripture. I love the illuminations—the art—of the St. John’s Bible, because it gives me different eyes to see familiar pages with.
I don’t know if any of you found it strange to hear the story of the crucifixion today, in January, out of its usual placement on Good Friday. I found it slightly strange to read. This is the most important story in our Bible—the hingepoint of our faith—the central moment of humanity’s existence—and yet we don’t often read this story in worship. We tuck it away between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, between celebration and resurrection, Hosanna and Hallelujah. We don’t often like to spend time with the naked truth of the cross.
This is an ugly story. A painful story. It is the story of a group of human who decide to execute another—and to make his death as shameful and agonizing as possible. This is the story of just how low we can sink—to take our entertainment from another’s suffering. The details are horrifying—the casual distribution of a dying man’s clothes, the taunts, the sour wine, as a last insult to mortal injury. We know there is a better ending coming, but it does not rewrite what happened. Jesus suffered.
It is a dark story. Not just metaphorically, but literally. Scripture says that while Jesus was dying on the cross, the sky went dark for three hours. And Jesus—Jesus, son of God—cries out on that cross in absolute despair: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
I do not know what it is like to suffer crucifixion, and I don’t expect, mercifully, I ever will. But I have known suffering of a paler shade, and I have met agony in many corners of life. People whom I love deeply have taken up Jesus’ cry: my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? My God, my God, why weren’t you there when I needed you?
Jesus wasn’t the first to say that. He was quoting a psalm—the 22nd Psalm. And there are other scriptures that might have come to him too, from the men and women of faith who had found themselves in darkness before.
These are from our scripture:
- My soul is in deep anguish. (Psalm 6:3)
- I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery. (Psalm 31:12)
- O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? (Habbakuk 1:2)
Very little of our Bible was written in easy times. The bulk was written out of pain.
The periods of Israelite power and prosperity, or Christian comfort and approbation, are few and far between. Our beloved Bible is not an easy read. People weep. Nations rage. Lives are shattered. The faithful doubt. Saints die. What the Bible is is honest. And in its honesty, it is holy.
Over and over again, our Holy Scripture gives a voice to the lost, the heartbroken, the outcast, the conquered, the oppressed, the sick, the desperate, the persecuted, the unwanted, the grieving. No one questions God as much as the writers of the Bible—God, where are you, when I am in so much pain?
A friend of mine from North Carolina just lost his third family member to COVID. He shared his pain on social media, and it didn’t take ten minutes for someone to try to lighten the mood with a Christian platitude. “At least you can be happy your grandma isn’t suffering anymore,” they wrote.
“Yes,” my friend responded. “But I am.”
I was amazed. I shouldn’t have been, but somewhere along the line, it became taboo for Christians to admit to our own pain. Somewhere many of us picked up the idea that to look faithful we have to lie and say that everything is always fine, that following Jesus makes everything okay. But it doesn’t. Not always. And painful honesty is more faithful than comfortable falsehoods.
It is biblical to cry out. It is biblical to wonder where God is. It is biblical to say “it hurts.”
Perhaps I am simply getting older, but in these last few years of pandemic, of disruption, of grief, of rage, of exhaustion, of exile from normalcy, of division and contention, of darkness, I am beginning to understand more of the Bible than I ever have before. Especially the parts we don’t put on motivational posters. The hard parts, the confusing parts, the angry parts: these scriptures are more comforting to me these days than the easy quotes I used to love.
I think that’s because I am looking at them with different eyes. Eyes that see God’s presence more powerfully in the darkness than in the light.
This is the image Donald Jackson painted of the crucifixion. It ought to be the darkest, the ugliest page in the Bible, soaked in blood and charcoal. But instead—look! Look at the gold that bursts off the page, that suffuses it. Gold, remember, is how Jackson indicated the presence of God—and here, on the cross, God is magnificently at work.
When Jesus thought he was most abandoned is when God was most present. He couldn’t see God, but God was there. And we, who have the benefit of hindsight, see God’s presence in the crucifixion so clearly as to make the cross the symbol of our entire faith.
I want you to close your eyes now, and imagine your life, laid out as an illuminated book. Think about which stories, which moments, which days, might be important enough to be illustrated. The birth of a child; your first job; a favorite vacation, sure; but also your worst heartbreak, the death of a loved one, the day the diagnosis came through. Perhaps you would include days where the whole world seemed to shudder and go dark. Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, or the day your school or work or church shut down for the pandemic. Think back on those vivid memories. Flip through them in your mind. See the colors on the page.
And then I want you to imagine that the presence of God is lit up there, in gold. Do you see it? Gold streaks running through the good days, but also glimmering—or perhaps even bursting through—in the bad?
I would bet a great deal of money that you did not see or feel God’s presence in all those moments, just as Jesus felt abandoned on the cross. But looking back, God was there. God was most there when we felt most alone. There is more gold in the pages of our life than we will ever be able to see, but like Taylor with her cavern crystal, sometimes it’s the darkness that gives us the best view of the light.
The psalmist sings hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and forgiveness, and healing. Steadfast love. Love that never leaves, even in the longest night.
I don’t know what darkness you are in today. Maybe you would be quick to tell me that everything is fine, and I hope that’s true. But every one of us will find the dark come crashing through at some point—in the telephone call, in the diagnosis, in the subtle shifting of the earth under our feet. Every one of us will have a day when we wonder whether the darkness is too heavy, and where God could possibly be. Every one of us will feel alone.
The comfort of the Bible is not the easy comfort of inspirational quotes or soothing sunset images. The comfort of the Bible is the more fortifying than that—the comfort of knowing that we are neither the first nor last to be lost in the dark, and that God will lead us through that darkness, as God always, always has.
So my friends,
Even when the dark comes crashing through
when you need someone to carry you
when you’re broken on the ground
you will be found.
So let the sun come streaming in
cause you’ll look up and you’ll rise again
lift your head and look around
you will be found. (You Will Be Found, Dear Evan Hansen)
You will be found.