All Saints 2010
Dan 7. 1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Eph 1.11-end, Luke 6.20-31
This morning we are celebrating the feast of All Saints. This evening we are going to move on swiftly to All Souls and the commemoration of our loved ones who have died. Of course the truth is that actually this isn’t really the proper day for keeping either of these feasts. Strictly speaking All Saints’ is tomorrow and All Souls’ is Tuesday; it is just more convenient to keep them now. Today, as I am sure you are all aware, is actually the eve of All Saints, All Hallows – Hallowe’en – an occasion which seems to get bigger and bigger every year, partly, I’m sure, because the shops have realised its sales potential. There are costumes for ghosts and witches in Tesco, gingerbread skeleton men in the cake shops, pumpkin lanterns to put by the front door, plastic spiders and fake webs to adorn your home (if you don’t have enough of the real thing, like us!) ,
But with this annual ghoulfest comes an equally predictable annual bout of anxiety from Christians. Hallowe’en is a sensitive subject, especially when children are involved. Is it healthy to peer into the dark aspects of life? Should we try to ban Hallowe’en or steer them away from it? Personally, though I understand those feelings, I don’t entirely share them. I’m not keen on trick or treating, which often seems to me to be rather intimidating and manipulative but I’m not too worried about Hallowe’en itself. Of course we want to protect our children, but the world can be a scary place, and sooner or later they are sure to discover that and have to cope with it. It may not be ghosts or witches they’ll face, but perhaps illness, war, cruelty, failure – things that can be even more terrifying. Children learn to cope with the adult world through play, and it seems to me that Hallowe’en gives them a rare chance to play with their fears, and to develop their inner resilience, the sense that they can, if they need to, “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Properly handled, Hallowe’en, can give them valuable practice in this, but the key is in those words “properly handled”, and that is where I think Christian faith has some wisdom to bring to this debate.
Staring into the darkness isn’t enough on its own. Acknowledging that the world is scary isn’t enough. It’s how you understand that darkness – how you interpret and react to the bad things that happen to you and around you – that makes the difference. It’s tempting, when things go wrong in our lives, to assume that we have failed, or that God has abandoned us, and simply to give up. But those aren’t the only interpretations open to us. In our second reading today we heard Paul’s words to the Christians in Ephesus. They knew all about terror; they lived with the constant threat of persecution. Yet Paul prays that they will learn to see with “the eyes of their hearts enlightened”, and will learn to interpret their lives in a way that helps them to cope with this. He prays that they will know that, just as God was present in the darkness of the tomb when he raised Christ from the dead, he is also present with them in their dark times, working for good through the “immeasurable greatness of his power”.
Having the “eyes of your heart enlightened” might seem like an odd image, but perhaps we might think of it instead as having a sort of spiritual “night-vision”, the ability to see beyond the obvious. These days we have technology which enables us to do that physically – wildlife films use it often, and it is standard kit for the military – but even without the gadgets we all know how our eyes adjust to the darkness after a while, revealing things that you couldn’t see at first. They may not be very clear, but we can tell that there is more there, more going on than we first thought. Paul’s talking about the spiritual equivalent of that here and just like it’s physical counterpart, you only really develop it if you are prepared to sit in the darkness for a while first.
Daniel, in our Old Testament reading, is a good example of this. This is the same Daniel who was thrown into the lions’ den, but that was just one trial among many. His story is set during the time when the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. Life was precarious for the exiles. Though Daniel had become influential in the Babylonian court, he was far from safe and he soon fell foul of its murky politics. He wouldn’t play ball with the power games of the court, and the lions’ den was the inevitable result. He wasn’t the only one to suffer though. His fellow Jews, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, were pushed into a fiery furnace to die because they refused to worship idols.
As it happened God preserved Daniel’s life in the lions’ den, and for the other three, the deliverance was even more dramatic. Instead of being burnt alive, they came out of the furnace with not so much as a scorch mark on them. The watching Babylonians, peering into the furnace, saw them standing in the flames, singing praises, with a fourth figure standing with them, a messenger of God sent to sustain them. Their stories have happy endings, but that doesn’t cancel out the terror that came before, or the questions which their suffering must have made them ask.
Daniel’s dream, which we heard about this morning, reflects those questions. He is trying to make sense of his ordeal. Why is God letting this happen? Is there any purpose to the sufferings of his people, or is it all pointless? Will their story end in tears or triumph? He has a dream of four great beasts rising from the sea. It is very puzzling, but a heavenly being in the vision explains it to him.
“Four kings shall arise out of the earth,” says the being. “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever – for ever and ever” (in case he missed the point!)
The power of Babylon, the overwhelming nature of the oppression he and his people faced had loomed so large in Daniel’s sight that he couldn’t see anything else. But this isn’t the whole picture, says God, and Daniel needs to learn to see this. Empires will rise and fall, kings will come and go, and those who concentrate simply on currying favour with them will rise and fall, come and go, with them. The holy ones of God, though – those whose loyalty is to God’s kingdom of righteousness and love – will find a peace and a purpose which will last for ever and for ever, and which nothing can destroy. God calls Daniel to use his “night vision” his “enlightened eyes”, to look into the darkness that confronts him and see it for what it is, something which will pass while the deeper things of God endure.
Jesus makes the same point in the Gospels. There were many people at the time – as there are now – who assume that wealth and success are proof that you are in God’s favour, while the poor and excluded are somehow getting what they deserve. But Jesus says that God is at work in ways that don’t fit that simplistic view. Jesus will himself soon be poor, hungry and thirsty, stripped naked on a cross, sorrowful and abandoned. Does this mean he’ll have failed? No. In fact, Christians believe that it is in the darkness of the cross that we see most clearly the depth of God’s love. Jesus refuses to turn away from it, to seek an easy way out – he lives the message he has preached - and so the cross becomes to us a promise of God’s presence in every darkness, every death.
This “night vision”, the ability to see in the dark, which transforms our view of the world is something which many people of many faiths and backgrounds affirm. I was reminded of it in a story I read this week in the supporters’ magazine of the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture. In it, an Iranian refugee, a Muslim, wrote of her experience. She had been imprisoned without trial for many years, and for some of that time had been held along with a 17 year old girl called Nosrat. They grew close during their ordeal. Then one day, the guards burst into their cell and announced that they were to be executed. They were led out to the courtyard, blindfolded and terrified.
She wrote that as she stood there, shaking with fear, Nosrat leant close to her, took her hand and began to sing quietly into her ear. “Her voice made me warm,” she said, “like a very strong wine flowing in my veins… Her voice was like a song of the Prophet David. I felt angels flying above us, felt their wings; we weren’t alone”.
They waited for the soldiers to shoot, but at the last moment they put down their guns and began to laugh. It had all been a sick joke.
But the woman went on… “A few days later they did execute Nosrat. God didn’t save her, nor did the angels… After a few years I was freed and I still think of her song. You might not believe it, but some nights I’m woken from my sleep by her voice, her song.”
That is not, in any sense, a story with a happy ending, and yet she has clearly drawn continuing strength from that memory. “We weren’t alone” she says – and if they weren’t alone then at that darkest of times, when would she ever be alone? She discovered her “night vision” – that counter-intuitive sense of the comforting presence of God when we are at our lowest, and her story echoes to me the story of Daniel, of Jesus on the cross, of Paul and those early Christians. When the “eyes of our hearts are enlightened” we learn to see God at work even in the darkness, especially in the darkness. And then we know for sure that the darkness can never have the last or truest word. Instead of being a place of terror it becomes the home of God, a place where we can meet with him most deeply.
We keep All Saints today against the background of its shadow, Hallowe’en, and I pray that this will help us to remember that sainthood isn’t a matter of avoiding the darkness, but of discovering that within it, as in every place, the Lord of life is with us.