Life out of death, light in our darkness
There are lots of different ways of reading the Bible. One of my favourite ways is to trace its metaphors, to identify the patterns of images and events that together create a picture of what God is like and how God relates to the world.
While the Bible consists of a multitude of different books, they're often drawing on the same image strands and reworking the images to say something about God. Typology is the word that describes this way of reading the bible. In this practice, we read each new instance of a biblical image as building on, and reinterpreting, and fulfilling, the prior ones. The Bible writers do this themselves, which is how we have Jesus being simultaneously spoken of as the sacrificial lamb and the temple, and the great high priest. He is bread from heaven, a typological fulfilment of the exodus manna in the desert. He is the Logos made flesh, the new Adam...and so on.
My assumption is that the metaphors that are used to describe God and God's actions in the Bible, tell us not just about historical events, things that happened 'once upon a time', but they tell us about the kind of thing that God is always doing, and continues to do.
Some examples of images that recur through the Bible are:
1.the metaphor of the feast. This is picked up in a number of different ways in both old and new testaments, and gives us a sense of a God who celebrates, who provides, who welcomes, who is guest and host, and whose reconciling vision is to draw people together in true fellowship and community from all nations of the world.
2.the metaphor of sheep and shepherd. Jesus draws on imagery already present in first testament prophecy, to describe the care, protection, guiding and leading that he offers, as a contrast to the hired hand or the thief. The metaphor also yields the sheep/goats comparison, and the idea of lostness – sheep that go astray. But Jesus is also the lamb that was slain – the one who identified with our sheepliness and died as one of us.
3.the metaphor of water in the desert. The idea of God as creating oasis, and providing water out of dust or rock is strong in the first testament. The words of encouragement in Isaiah are to do with springs flowing in formerly dry places. Jeremiah and the psalms talk of those who meditate on God being like trees that reach down their roots to draw up water from the river. Then Jesus talks of being the living water, and the image of the holy city in Revelation has a river running through it.
Today I want to focus on a couple of other patterns, to trace their metaphors through the Bible. And the point of it isn't just to point at the correspondences and say 'oooh, look, how neat that is', but to enable us to have hope and to know better how to pray. Because if in the Bible we see God doing some things consistently, then we can perhaps have confidence that this same impulse is in God towards us in our lives and our world, today.
Here are two things that God seems to like doing:
bringing light into darkness, and
bringing life out of death or chaos.
I really enjoyed the story that Evelyn brought to us on the first Sunday of Creationtide. She wrote of being in a bit of a negative spiral of introspection, and how she was drawn out of that by meditating on the image of God hovering over the chaos before creating the world. A transcendent image to put the smallness of her former thoughts into perspective.
I suspect that the power of this image goes further still. Because hidden in this image of the creating God, brooding over the chaos, is a promise – a promise that God is always creative, always present with the chaos, and always hovering ready to nurture new life and new being out of the places where our lives seem dead or a shambles.
In this first moment of the Bible, God speaks and says 'let there be light.' God's first act of creation is to bring light into the nothingness. And since then, God seems to have been pretty consistently interested in finding out the dark places of our world and of our hearts and bringing light there.
Throughout the first testament there are incidents where light is associated with God's activity and God's people, such as the plagues of Egypt, where a 'darkness that can be felt' comes over the land, and the people can't see or do anything...except for the Israelites who 'had light where they lived.' God led the people out of Egypt with a pillar of fire to give them light by night. Israelite worship involved lighted lamps, and the holy light of the Shekinah, God's glory.
In John's gospel we read that 'What has come into being in him – Jesus - was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.' Jesus proclaims: 'I am the light of the world,' and applies to himself the prophecy of Isaiah that 'the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.'
And at the end of the Bible, the light of God shines so thoroughly that there is no more darkness...hence the claim in Revelation that 'night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.'
Light in the Bible is associated with goodness and blessing, it's a symbol of truth and revelation, and of finding your way, it's associated with the transcendent Being of God, and the community of those who have entered into God's light through Christ.
One of my favourite Bible verses is in 2 Corinthians 4 (OHT): 'For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.'
I like it because despite its convoluted structure, this verse is doing a typological reading: taking the imagery from Genesis and applying it to the new life in Christ. The same God who created light in the beginning, in Genesis, 'shines' in our hearts in such a way as to lead us to see God in Jesus. Here we have creation, and the new creation held together in one image. The transformation of that first Genesis moment is present to us as our relationship with Christ transforms us day by day.
All of this encourages me to ask – where do I experience darkness? What is the darkness of my world? What is the darkness within myself? And having asked that question, I want to affirm with some confidence that it is in God's nature and God's will to shine light into those places. Because the same God who said 'let light shine out of darkness' is waiting also to be invited to shine in our hearts, and in our world.
In the same way, I see God as also being interested in bringing life out of death, and chaos. For this image I go back to Genesis again, and see God making a 'good' earth out of the nothingness, and then breathing life into the dust of the earth, creating a living human.
Another of my favourite biblical images is the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel. God takes Ezekiel to a valley full of bones, and commands him to prophesy: 'Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.' This is an image of God renewing the 'house of Israel', by placing God's Spirit within the people and returning them to their land.
In the gospel of John, Jesus claims: 'I am the resurrection and the life', and then goes on to raise Lazarus from the dead.
And then, of course, the central narrative of Christianity is Christ's own death, descent, and resurrection, which affirms once and for all the power of God to bring life out of death.
Alongside death is the image of chaos...the formless and empty state into which God speaks creative words. In Colossians, we are given a glimpse of Christ as the one 'who holds all things together', the one in whom order and life originate. The phrase from Genesis 'without form and void' repeats in both Isaiah and Jeremiah to allude to the forces of chaos both primordial, but also internal, or psychological.
Occasionally in the Bible God generates chaos as a way of disrupting human rebellion. I suspect that chaos is also sometimes the necessary precursor to creative renewal. The sea – or the deep or the abyss - and the monsters that live in it, are the main symbols of chaos in the Bible. So we have poor old Jonah, who runs away from God straight into the depths of chaos...first the ocean, then the belly of a sea creature. There are a number of instances where God's victory over the forces of chaos are proclaimed, through the stilling of the sea, and the defeat of its storms and serpents.
Jesus calls fishermen to be his disciples – people who have a daily relationship to the sea. We often see Jesus at the sea's edge, calming a storm, raising a miraculous catch, or preaching from a boat. In these ways we see Jesus as unthreatened by chaos, and in fact a master of the forces of chaos. 'Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?' is a question designed to assert Jesus' divinity.
In Revelation, just as we have an image of a time when there will be no more need for light other than God, we also have the affirmation that one day, there is no longer any sea...that is, the forces of chaos will have been subdued.
I like the line in that song that we sing from time to time which says 'Be still my soul: the tempests still obey his voice who ruled them once on Galilee.' That line is doing what I'm hoping to communicate today...taking comfort in the idea that what God has done, God continues to do. So, we can look at the Bible and see that where there is death, dryness, dust, God is able to bring life. And that where there is chaos and confusion, God is able to bring order, clarity, and calm.
This doesn't mean that God will always do what we want or expect in any given situation. And of course there are often multiple complexities in our lives that can't be so simply addressed as needing 'life' or 'light'. But I think that when we struggle to know how to pray, it's helpful to notice that the imagery of the Bible encourages us to see our God as a God who lightens the darkness, and who brings life out of death, and calm out of chaos. These are the things that God is always influencing us toward, always desiring for us, always inviting us to hope for. These metaphors work together to suggest that there are patterns in God's way of being and acting that we can trust.
I'd like to invite us now into a brief meditation to hopefully put this idea into practice.
Take a moment to close your eyes, if you want to, and bring to mind a situation – maybe in your life, or a friend's, or in the wider world – a situation where you feel there is darkness, death, or chaos.
Reflect on that situation for a while, visualising the elements of it.
Then open your mind to one image from the Bible where God brings light or life:
maybe the creation of the world
maybe one of the actions of Jesus
Invite God to stir in you an image that fits the situation you are concerned about.
Then when you are ready, invite God to act in that same way in the situation you first thought about, the one in your life or the world around you now.
As far as possible, trust that this is what God wants to do, and will do, in ways that God chooses.
Then when you want to, open your eyes.