Title: Seeing in the Dark
Date: Oct 26, 2008
Author: Isaac Villegas
Texts: Deut 34:1-12, Ps 90, I Thess 2:1-8, Matt 22:34-46
It’s the end for Moses. He led Israel out of Egypt and spent the rest of his life wandering in the wilderness. The Lord takes him up the mountain top of Nebo and shows Moses the promised land. Moses gets to see it before he dies, but he doesn’t get to live in it. His life has been one of waiting, on the verge of entering the Promised Land. A life of profound patience.
That’s what I want us to think about today: patient hope. That’s the story of Moses. He wanders and never receives the promise. But he hopes and leads Israel in hope.
Fast-forward to April 3rd, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee. The small crowd that gathered at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ) that evening heard the best sermon ever preached on our passage from Deuteronomy 34:1-12. It would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s last sermon before he was killed.
I read the commentaries this week on our bible passages. They’re usually not helpful. I don’t know why I even try. It was even worse this week because what they say is so absolutely uninteresting once you have King’s voice echoing in your head. I listened to his sermon 6 or 7 times this past week. I couldn’t stop. And I think the best thing I can do for a sermon is to have you listen to it. But it’s long. Around 45 minutes. We’ll listen to the last 2 minutes. The sermon title is “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
If you have a chance, you should watch the last few minutes of his sermon on YouTube. It’s amazing. King comes to the end of his sermon. The crowd is ecstatic. The people sitting behind him are on their feet—cheering, clapping, stomping. He preaches his last line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Then he turns away from the crowd, away from the pulpit. A couple friends who are clapping and jumping around try to grab him. But King shrugs them off, walks past them, and collapses into a chair. He looks exhausted or disoriented—maybe some of both.
King once said that “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony.” That’s what he said when he finally spoke out against the Vietnam War. A vocation of agony. That must have been the case for King when he collapsed into his chair while everyone cheered. He couldn’t enjoy it. He was in agony. Like Moses, he goes to the mountaintop, sees the wonders of the Promised Land, the glory of the Lord. And falls into the background while the people rejoice.
Like I said before, King delivered that sermon on the evening of April 3rd, 1968. He was killed the next day. He spoke the truth—maybe more true than he knew—when he said in his sermon, “I’ve been to the mountaintop… And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. But I may not get there with you.”
I may not get there with you. Like Moses, Martin Luther King wandered through the wilderness, the wilderness of the United States—definitely not the Promised Land. King knew that. I don’t think he had any illusions about this country turning itself around. That wasn’t his hope. King had a dark hope.
The hope he offered didn’t ignore the darkness of the world. He didn’t run or hide from the troubling reality in the United States. We don’t live in a very good place. King did not have any illusions about the world getting better in due time. Here’s what he says earlier in his sermon: “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” He’s not very optimistic. King is honest about the darkness. But listen to his very next line: “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”
Only when it’s dark outside can you see the stars. What kind of hope is that? I thought I should learn a little bit about stars in order to figure out what he’s talking about. So I looked up starts on wikipedia. Very interesting stuff. Does anyone remember what you learned in astronomy? How long does it take for a star to form? Here’s what I found out. The formation of a star begins with a gravitational instability inside a molecular cloud, often triggered by shockwaves from supernovae or the collision of two galaxies. Then around 10 million years of gravitation contraction—a very long time. That produces what’s called a Protostar. Some more stuff happens for another 100,000 years, and then you have a star.
So, all that to say, stars take a long time to form. They don’t happen overnight. In the same way, hope doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like you wake up one morning and decide to be hopeful. Hope takes years to form. For Israel, hope is learned in the wilderness as they spend 40 years trusting God. Hope takes time. It’s something we learn. Hope is something we learn by waiting, sometimes forever, like Moses.
This is also true of Martin Luther King’s hope. He and the hope he preached didn’t come from nowhere. He didn’t wake up one morning and have a dream. He learned how to dream from a movement of black Baptist women. Ella Baker was one of those women. She’s somewhat of a local—grew up in Littleton, North Carolina and graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh. Ella Baker had this to say about King: “the movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement.” King didn’t create the Civil Rights movement. He was product of it. The civil rights movement gave King something to talk about.
The Civil Rights movement arose out of the ordinary work of African-American churchwomen. They cared for one another, raised each other’s children, provided meals for the needy. They created communities of mutual aid; they ate together and cooked in each other’s kitchen. As Ella Baker once said, “If you share your food with people, you share your lives with people” (quoted in Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, p. 57). Those communities of mutual aid and care were the birthplaces of the Civil Rights movement. It took lots of work, lots of patience, lots of messy relationships. But it exploded into a movement of hope. That’s the movement that gave Martin Luther King something to say. Hope happens in the patience of shared meals and shared lives.
It takes time to learn how to see hope, just like it takes a long time for a star to form. There is no hope without patience; there is no hope without waiting. That’s what Moses shows us. He wandered in the wilderness. But he and Israel wandered with hope. They had hope because they learned to trust God, and know that God’s promises would come, even if it took forever.
With Moses we go up to the mountaintop. We are at the edge of the wilderness looking out upon Promised Land. Hope is a path on the edge of the wilderness, patiently awaiting the promises of God. Hope is a path of unswerving trust that God has not abandoned us in the wilderness. Hope is not a feeling. Our hope doesn’t depend on whether or not the world is getting any better. Ultimately, hope is a way of seeing; hope is a way of seeing in the dark.
Our gathering for worship is not a distraction from this plague of darkness. We aren’t here to ignore what’s going on in the world. Instead, worship is our training, it’s how we train our eyes, it’s how we tune our senses; it’s a way of disciplining our attention. Worship is how we learn to see the stars in the darkness. Worship is where we begin to see how God is at work in our dark world. God is in the long-term business of forming stars, places of hope, places that burst into new life. All in God’s mysterious timing. We patiently wait with hope. (The last two paragraphs paraphrase Nicholas Lash, Seeing in the Dark, pp. 30-31)
How do we know that this is true? How do we know that God is at work even when things go from bad to worse? We know it’s true because the hope of the world came from the least expected place: Mary’s womb. And when that hope was killed on a cross 30 years later, hope emerged another unexpected place: the darkness of a tomb
King is right. “Only when it’s dark outside can you see the stars.” Our hope comes from Mary’s travail; hope comes from the empty tomb. Hope comes to us in Jesus, the one who told us that he would never leave us nor forsake us. To live in this hope means that we do what the Lord commands—to love God and neighbor, as we hear in our passage from Matthew—even when the world is falling apart. That’s what King said in his last sermon: “It doesn’t matter with me now… I’m not concerned about that now… I’m not worried about anything now. I’m not fearing any man. For mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”