The Power of Darkness
Third in a Lenten series from Luke
Psalm 55: 12-14, 20-21
March 3, 2013
© 2013 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
When I was with you day after day in the temple,
you did not lay hands on me.
But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!
Take a moment to think about the verses from Psalm 55 that we said together a few moments ago. Just to remind us of the bitterness the psalmist must have felt as this psalm was composed, I’ll read the words again:
It is not enemies who taunt me –
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me –
I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
we walked in the house of God with the throng.
My companion laid hands on a friend
and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.
I wonder if these words, or words like them, were on Jesus’ mind that night when he looked up and saw a crowd headed his way, with Judas leading the mob, pursing his lips for a kiss of betrayal?
I once heard about a struggling little non-profit agency on the East Coast, a local effort that helped to house people who were in need, people who, without someone to stand up for them, would be on the street. The agency struggled along doing its good deeds for the needy until one day, when a few fresh faces came onto the board of the organization, people with all the enthusiasm and promise that seemed to suggest they could help in significant ways. The first task they chose, however, was to begin exposing the weaknesses of the executive director to other members of the board. Finally, enough of the board’s energy was taken up with this discussion that their mission began to suffer, the director finally resigned, and the organization went out of business. An organization that for thirty years – with all its shortcomings and warts intact had still managed to help hundreds of families with housing needs – ceased to exist.
One observer of the human scene once said that some people, like Judas, cast out devils for a while … and then become one.
I find Jesus’ words about the power of darkness to be particularly chilling. Still, we need to recall that this is not the only “hour” about which Jesus spoke in his ministry. It is a word that comes straight across from Greek and Latin into our language: hora, meaning the time, the right sort of time, the opportune time, the blacksmith’s proverbial “strike while the iron is hot” sort of time. There had been other opportune “hours” in Jesus’ ministry, you can spot them running all through Luke’s gospel: The time when Jesus healed many, when he rejoiced, the hour of the disciples’ trials, the hour when the Son of Man comes like a thief in the night, the hour when the Pharisees warned Jesus about Herod’s evil intentions toward him, the time when the authorities expressed their desire to arrest him, the time when the Passover meal was eaten with his disciples.
Jesus had been among all these people who came to arrest him, day after day, yet they were afraid of the friendly crowds that followed him. How appropriate that they decided to come under the cover of night, when his loyal crowd, most of them, were home in their beds. In Luke 4, Jesus was tested in the wilderness and resisted, and Luke says that the devil left him until an “opportune time.” Alas, that time has come. Jesus is arrested. It is the devil’s hour, and the power of darkness provides the cover for their action which the light of day might have foiled.
All of us have known times when we intend something good, but we find no means at hand to accomplish it. The human tendency, then, is to take up any means at hand, the “ends justify the means,” as the old saying goes. But we all have seen, time after time throughout human history, that the means become, and even displace, the sought-after ends. The 17th century philosopher, Frances Bacon, once observed his own culture struggling with questions of means and ends, and reflected that when improved means are found to pursue unimproved ends, we discover that, as Bacon declared, “it is singularly amazing how long the rotten can hold together.” In the end, to abandon legitimate means to seek legitimate ends ultimately means the loss of those legitimate ends. Means become ends, methods become outcomes.
Sometimes we have the good in mind but have no power to accomplish it. Jesus knew this, but trusted enough in God’s future to realize that though this hour was not his, other hours would be. There would be other hours, triumphant hours to come. In this situation, surrender and self-sacrifice were his only choices as he held on to the confidence that the end of the story had not yet come, that there was more to be accomplished through God’s own time.
Here is a little something that I find interesting in this passage. Though they have come to arrest him, and Jesus knows this, he continues with the same sort of ministry that has characterized his life since his baptism in the Jordan: teaching and healing as signs of his kingdom. Even here, even as he is about to be handed over to those who are only too willing to do him ultimate harm, he teaches and heals. He teaches his disciples about the special impotence of violence to accomplish ultimate things, “No more of this!” he declares, and then he works to heal the effects of violence as he touches the servant’s ear and restores it. When it has been at its best, his church has been at this work ever since, teaching and healing, proclaiming and restoring.
Jesus knew that if his disciples took up the means of those who came to arrest him – the sword, the club, retaliation and bloodshed – it would ultimately taint and spoil their aim, which was to live out the love of God for all the world to see.
So the power of darkness has found its hour. What then? What is to become of the betrayer as well as the betrayed? Betrayal moves in two directions, it moves against the welfare of Jesus, but it also moves against the potential hopes and future Jesus saw in Judas when he called him to be one of his chosen disciples. Jesus had once chosen Judas, had seen something in him, some potential, had invested his time and energy into his relationship with him. Here we find that Jesus’ hopes and dreams for Judas are also betrayed. Maybe betrayal between intimates is always be like that, as tragic for the betrayer as for the one betrayed, perhaps more so.
There is a Fra Angelico painting in the Academy in Florence, Italy, where Judas is pictured with a black halo. In the island nation of Haiti, in the ragged city of Port au Prince, there is an Episcopalian Cathedral, in which you can find another depiction of the last supper. In the scene, Peter and Judas are depicted as white people, because, after all, they both denied Jesus, and white was the skin color of those devils who once enslaved the people of Haiti. The rest of the disciples are black. Yet Jesus appears as mixed race, a mulatto, neither black nor white, because of a local tradition in that culture that when the Messiah returns, he will save both white and black, the betrayer as well as the betrayed.
The power of darkness is not ultimate. The hour that Jesus mentioned passes, and another hour comes. A seed planted in dark soil, a baby after nine months in the darkness of the womb, they know the time when darkness has its hour, but they prepare there for other, brighter hours to come.
The power of darkness is proximate, but it too has lessons to teach, if we will attend to them. I’ll close this sermon with two bits of poetry, the first by contemporary Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas, the second from a hymn verse written for a hymn competition back in 1999, in anticipation of the new millennium.
Via Negativa, R.S. Thomas
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
and places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
Through the Darkness of the Ages, Hilary Jolly
Through the darkness of the ages, Through the sorrows of the days,
Strengths of weary generations, Lifting hearts in hope and praise,
Light in darkness joy in sorrows Presence to allay all fears,
Jesus, you have kept your promise, Faithful through two thousand years.
If we find ourselves deep in the hour of darkness, where there is betrayal all around us, remember there is another hour coming. Watch and be faithful.