"And Moses said unto the people, ‘Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.’ And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:20-21).
God is mystery like a dark cloud. In order to pursue God, we have to be willing to step into that mystery. This road carries us through times of doubt, confusion, and suffering. It was the same for Moses, for the disciples, and for Christ himself on the way to Golgotha. It is the same for us.
What was it like for Moses to climb up Mt. Sinai? It must have been terrifying. The sky trembled in lightning and thunder. The mountain was weighed down by smoke. He would not have looked at this with our modern eyes. We do not really fear mountains any more, or anything with much depth. We have been raised to assume everything has a scientific explanation. The darkness might feel dangerous to us. Moses recognized in it something otherworldly and disturbing. In addition, he did not know about the graciousness of Jesus Christ. What he knew of God he learned in the fire and wrath that scoured Egypt. He definitely did not walk along boldly into that cloud.
But he stepped forward. Something drew him forward.
He could have stayed back with the people. The world behind was comfortable, it was what he knew, it was safe. No one would have blamed him if he held back and did not walk into that terrible cloud.
We think this way, do we not? When we feel inspired to become more religious, to take repentance more seriously, to start living a Christian life that our friends might call a little radical…something in us stalls. “You are good enough.” “That’s too much.” “Don’t go there.” But Moses stepped forward into the darkness and met God.
The disciples also followed Christ through darkness.
“Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God” (John 8:46).
It was not easy being associated with this rabbi. The disciples identified themselves as pious Jews. Yet, here was their teacher challenging everything socially acceptable. He just told the rabbis and pharisees that they were “not from God,” implying they were from the devil. Then the Jews accused their teacher of having a demon. Jesus goes on to say he has the words of eternal life, and whoever honors him honors God. This sounds crazy. “What is he doing?” “Why is he going there?” You can imagine why the Jews thought he had a demon. I am sure the disciples struggled at this moment. Then Christ goes all the way. He says what is either the most preposterous lie or the most wonderful word ever spoken:
“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58).
This was the cloud. This was the moment of darkness that the disciples had to face. Jesus Christ does not give us two options. Either you accept that he is God and the only path to salvation, or you decide he is a liar or insane, and everything he says is meaningless. To accept Christ means to reject the world. To accept the world means to reject Christ. Which will it be?
”So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59).
How did he hide himself? Everyone in the synagogue was staring at him. He was in the spotlight. But he “hid himself.” He vanished.
The scene always reminds me of a violent storm in the sky, the kind you only see in the big skies out west. The clouds are gathering quickly in ominous shadows. The sun is dim at first, then it shines out it brilliantly. Just for a minute, everything is lit up. Immediately, the clouds swallow up the light and the sun vanishes.
“I am that I am.”
Christ reveals himself to be God. The crowd picks up stones to kill him.
This is where we find ourselves on Passion Sunday. The icons are veiled. The brightness in our sanctuary is gone. It is troubling every time. Somehow, the room feels a little less special, a little more secular, a little more ordinary. It feels just a bit like God has left.
Indeed, this room feels today more like the world of our times. It is dark and it is getting darker. It feels ominous. Everything seems to whisper, “Bad things are around the corner.” We feel lost, the way the disciples felt when Christ was crucified on the cross and the sky went black.
In this dark scenario, we are left to ourselves.
Stare at the darkness.
What is life without Christ?
What matters short of where I stand before God?
God is mystery like a dark cloud. In order to pursue God, we have to be willing to step into that mystery. All the doubt, all the confusion, all our fear and suffering — you cannot avoid it in this life. All you can do is step forward.
I want to encourage you to ponder this existential darkness to which the Church brings us at the end of Lent, and I will leave you with this prayer.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”