The Close and Holy Darkness

Exodus 19:1-9 can be found here...

In the bible, there seems to be a battle between light and darkness, and light seems to win every time. In the very first words of our sacred stories we read that darkness covered the face of the waters, and then God said, “Let there be light,” and saw that the light was good (Gen. 1:2,4).

And that notion— light good, darkness bad—seems coded into scripture from that point on. We come to understand that very well. Every time darkness is mentioned it seems to be about either danger or spiritual separation from God. “The wicked shall be cut off in darkness,” prays Hannah in 1 Samuel. When Jesus shows up in our sacred stories, the contrast is even more extreme. He is described as the light coming into the world, “and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4,5).

Barbara Brown Taylor, who wrote Learning to Walk in the Dark, notes that this understanding seems coded into our faith, too. She says, “From earliest times, Christians have used ‘darkness’ as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.”[i]  Taylor observes that the dominant expectation for most Christians is that we are part of something she calls “full solar spirituality,” and we are strongly encouraged to stay “in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith.”[ii] That means: lots of certainty, lots of optimism, and not much space for complexity, nuance, or the grey tones we find between the black letters on the white pages of our bibles.

But things are a little more complicated than that. And if we read a little further into the stories and the songs that make up our sacred texts, we find something that may surprise us: God is there in the darkness, too.

Our passage this evening opens with words that signal darkness right away: “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt…” Stop. Stop for a moment and remember what a new moon is. A new moon is the beginning of the 28-day cycle when the moon is hidden from our sight, because the earth has gotten in the way and is stopping the sunlight from shining on the moon, and showing it to us. (In astronomy-speak, the earth and the sun “have the same ecliptic longitude.”[iii]) Now, stop again. Imagine what it must be like to be in the vast, endless wilderness at night, at the time of the new moon. There could be starlight, and it might be magnificent. But what if there’s cloud cover? I wonder whether we can imagine the profound nature of that darkness?

This is the moment in the story after God has led the Israelites out of slavery; after they have celebrated their escape with dancing; after they have traveled for three months to God-only-knows-where in the wilderness; and after they’ve mourned the complete lack of water and food and everything else that was available to them in their time of slavery. After all that, God is ready to make a covenant with them. Another covenant. A new covenant. They come into the wilderness of Sinai, and God immediately makes contact through Moses, calling him up the mountain to convey a message to the people. That message is:

You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. ~ Exodus 19:4-5 (The Message Paraphrase).

Furthermore, God says, “I’m going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after” (~Exodus 19:9, NRSV)

At the time when the night sky in the desert is at its darkest, God is going to appear by being completely shrouded in cloud and darkness.

There’s no hint of sin here. There’s no suggestion of ignorance, or spiritual blindness, or death. God chooses darkness for the moment of covenant-making with God’s chosen people. This is the close and holy darkness of God.

And if we look further in scripture, we find that God is there in the darkness. Again and again. “Night and day are both alike to you,” says the psalm (139). “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places,” says the Lord in Isaiah (45).  Jacob finds God in his dreams when he is on the run, at the darkest moment of his life (Genesis 28). And again, in another psalm:

The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice;

    let the many coastlands be glad!

Clouds and thick darkness are all around him… (97:1-2)

God reveals Godself in the darkness, and we can take that a in number of ways. We can think of the Israelites on the night of the new moon listening for God, robed in clouds and thick darkness, to give the covenant. We can wonder… what are those treasures of darkness God promises? We can pray, lying on our beds in the darkest hours of the night or of our lives, and expect that God, not only will hear our cries, but is there all along, keeping vigil with us.

If you think about it, most of our experience of God is a walk in the dark, because, despite our best efforts, only the mystics among us walk around aware of God’s presence every moment. For the rest of us, God feels more hidden than not, though we do get glimpses…and for me, those seem more like starlight than sunlight.

Barbara Brown Taylor says:

I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage. Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains. Some nights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence. All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.[iv]

God is there in the darkness. In the blazing sun of daylight, too, and also in cloud-cover, so, residents of the Southern Tier: rejoice! We, all of us, may lean more towards one or the other ways of experiencing God… we may be people of the warm sunlight shining brightly or dappling our faces through the spring leave; or we may be people of the sweet moonlight, lifting our faces to see the reflected light as it waxes and wanes. Neither is the only way. Both are faithful. But we need have no fear if our experience feels more like the cloud of unknowing than the light of the world. God is present in each, and we don’t need to be afraid if heaven’s answer seems hidden from our sight.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 6.

[ii] Ibid., 7.

[iii] Meeus, Jean (1991). Astronomical Algorithms. Willmann-Bell. Via Wikipedia, “New Moon.”

[iv] Taylor, op. cit., 9.