We are Illuminants

Ephesians 5:8-14
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

When I first started in full-time ministry, I served on a church staff with a large number of pastors, compared to the congregation’s size. There was a senior pastor, a full-time associate pastor (me), a retired pastor, and an intern from Perkins School of Theology. We had the idea of reading a book about ministry together. Over the course of a couple of months, we would read a chapter, one of us would lead the discussion, and we would reflect on the practice of ministry. We were assigned Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson. It tells the story of Jonah as a metaphor for ministry.

I didn’t like the book. Not one bit.

It was too negative. Pastors were too focused on corporate advancement in ministry, always looking for their next appointment. Congregations approached the church with a consumerist mentality, wanting to be entertained by, or pleased with, the worship service, rather than experiencing the transforming power of God. So I dismissed the discussions, complaining about the author’s bias and warped view of things. But for some reason I’ve kept the book?? I don’t know how many purges of my library I have done moving from church to church, but I have kept this one? Every now and then I look at it, leaf through the pages, but until this week I never really absorbed it.

So the other day, struggling with much more than an outline for today’s sermon, I start flipping through the pages, reading only highlighted sentences and sarcastic comments in the margins demanding explanations or examples. And the more I read through the chapters, the more relevant and truthful it was. I began to appreciate its wisdom in a way only possible when there are a couple of decades of ministry inbetween readings. Maybe, after all, there was something to be learned. And while I was thinking about that, the book offered a thought on the story of Jonah I had not considered before.

I won’t re-tell the entire Jonah story here; I preached it last summer here at Grace if you want to search the archives. Jonah the prophet is called by God to go to Nineveh and challenge them to repent. Instead, he charters a ship to Tarshish, in the exact opposite direction. He’s then swallowed by a giant fish and forced to go in the direction God wants. What grabbed my attention in the book was the three days Jonah spent in the fish’s belly. The book likens Jonah’s three days to Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday, when Jesus died on the Cross and was placed in the tomb, and Easter Sunday, when Jesus rose from the dead. Holy Saturday is a day of quiet reflection on Jesus’ death. The dark of the fish’s belly or a graveyard can be a place of fear and death. But Jonah and Jesus use their time in the dark to be fruitful.

Jonah spends those three days in the belly of the fish praying:

‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
   and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
   and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
   into the heart of the seas,
   and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
   passed over me.
Then I said, “I am driven away
   from your sight;
how shall I look again
   upon your holy temple?”
The waters closed in over me;
   the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
   at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
   whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
   O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
   I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
   into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
   forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
   will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
   Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’

I normally think of this prayer as Jonah trying to manipulate God into changing the fish’s direction. But Eugene Peterson in the book breaks down the prayer word for word, discovering that none of it is original. It is not the contemporaneous prayer of a desperate person. Every single line of that prayer is cut from several psalms and pasted together into a beautiful psalm of lament. Jonah knows the liturgy of his faith. He knows the prayer book. He has been selfish and insistent on his own way, doing his own thing, in control of his own destiny. But now that it is clear that he is not in control, he draws on the words of his tradition to pray.

Here is the collect, a prayer that “collects” the people, for Holy Saturday:

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Christian tradition teaches on Holy Saturday Jesus’ spirit descended to the place of death to restore Adam and Eve and everyone else who had died in sin before the resurrection of Christ. Some forms of the Apostles Creed even include the phrase “He descended to the dead,” recalling this tradition.

And then I realized the connection between those two stories and us the last couple of weeks: Jonah in the belly of the fish. Jesus’ body in the tomb. Our bodies are isolated at home, maybe not in total darkness, but confined to the space, unsure for how long. Jonah used that time of isolation to pray and prepare for his Nineveh ministry; Jesus used his time in the tomb to bring salvation to those who lived before his earthly ministry. How are we using our time in the belly of our homes? Maybe this time is best used by remembering who we are, what our purpose is, and focusing on what God is calling us to do. Or become.

Our text for today begins with these words: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” The darkness is dangerous, and denying it exists makes it even more powerful. As persons of faith, there is always an alternative.

As disruptive as the virus has been for our everyday lives, as Christians we are still doing the spiritual work of preparing for Easter. We are on the fourth Sunday of Lent, a time of spiritual exercises and growth. Lent is a 40 day season in modern times, but for the earliest Christians, it was a three year period of study and preparation for baptism. It was an intense process called catechesis, or Christian learning. The pilgrims were known as catechumens; but this week I learned they were also called illuminants. I love this idea. As light illumines a dark room, so our faith brightens the darkness of our doubt. The learning and growth of those original illuminants was understood as a process of shining their light of faith. The more they learned, the richer their practice, the brighter their light shone. “Open my heart, illumine me, Spirit divine.”

The writer of Ephesians understands the Christian experience as a life of transformation. We have gone from darkness to light. We are stepping out of the darkness of the tomb, away from the fish’s stomach, into the light of Christ’s glory. We’re rubbing our eyes, just waking from our slumber, and the light of Christ is overwhelming. As we step into his light, we sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

You and I are illuminants, but we are still learning to shine our light. We are called to live out these virtues: what is good, right, and true.
What is good? Focus on those things that exhibit moral goodness. Serve others. Show kindness. Be generous.
What is right? Do what is holy. Live in to the righteousness of faith.
What is true? Model trustworthy behavior that reflects the covenant relationship each of us has with one another and our covenant making God.

Children of light also have a responsibility to those who live in darkness: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible…” Light has the power to rescue, not condemn, those in the dark. The text ends with this admonition: "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Even from the tombs of our homes, there is the opportunity to share the light of Christ.

Most years during Holy Week we skip right over Holy Saturday. We go all in for Palm Sunday, share communion on Holy Thursday, mourn and pray at the Cross on Good Friday. Then we zip right to Easter Sunday. But that small window of preparation and reflection can be very powerful. It was for Jonah. He used it to pray, drawing on the resources of a life of faith. Jesus used Holy Saturday to destroy the powers of sin and death forever, extending his power of salvation even to those who had already died.

Today in the United Kingdom, Churches Together in England, an ecumenical group of Christians, is offering a special observance of shining a light in the face of the darkness of the coronavirus. At 7:00 p.m. (1:00 p.m. North Texas time), Christians across England will place a lit candle in the front window of their homes. Friends in the UK, if you’re just hearing this now, you still have time to participate! John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Let’s join in this ecumenical effort. Before dusk, light a candle and let it shine from your front window. Then find ways this week to bless others with the light and love of Christ. I read this week that to light a candle in the darkness is to say, “I beg to differ.”

We’ve been confined to our homes, away from friendships and other relationships, and it may well feel like a tomb or the belly of a fish. But even there, in what was once a dark place, the light shines, and there is work for us to do. We are illuminants. So make some phone calls, leave a positive note on someone’s Facebook wall, share a prayer or scripture. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Let your light shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Here’s a prayer of lament I wrote, based on Jonah’s prayer:
We are calling to you, O God, out of our distress.
Answer our prayers.
Out of the bellies of our homes, away from the touch and laughter of friends and colleagues, hear our cries to you.
Our world is struggling in the depths of disease and worry.
Waves of doubt, misinformation, economic uncertainty, and fear crash over us. It feels like we are drowning.
Draw close to us, and for those of us who feel separated from you, bring wholeness where there is now brokenness.
Restore our lives, O God! Shine the light of Jesus on us, that we may share it with the world!
In the name of the one who is the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, our bright and morning Star, we pray. Amen