“Luminous: To See More Clearly”

The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer, First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo

August 20, 2023 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 1:68-79; Genesis 45:1-15

They’d thrown Joseph down a well in the desert. His arrogance and condescension just got to be too much—their father’s pet with a special coat, seeing dreams of selfish power and grandeur, including all his brothers bowing down to serve him. They’d schemed to silence him for good. Staring over the edge into that deep, dark hole of their vengeance, they saw in the distance a caravan going to Egypt. Even better, they thought, we’ll lighten our load and make our purse a bit heavier. He’s as good as dead to them like another prodigal in Jesus’ parable. And so, they tell their loving father. There’s a reason Joseph’s story is the stuff of Broadway theatre, could be soap operas. Rags to riches to dark prison dungeon, until he gets taken to the room where it happens, interprets Pharoah’s dream, and becomes his right-hand man. Famine strikes the land. Desperate for food, his brothers head off to Egypt. They don’t recognize the one who treats them so mercifully, now cloaked in Pharaoh’s favor not their father’s. They head home with money unspent and bags full of grain, including one in which the regal one (who did know them) planted a royal silver cup to frame his revenge. Soldiers arrest his brothers and bring them to judgment, when Joseph simply can’t finish his devious plan. As his eldest brother pleads, Joseph starts to respond. Hear what the Spirit may say. [Read Genesis 45:1-15]

I’ve never been more grateful for light. On a seminary trip to the Holy Land, we passed through the archway into the mountain beneath an ancient fortress above. Step by step deeper into the tunnel, sunrays from outside illuminated the texture of walls and ceiling ever more faintly, luminous reflection fading into pitch darkness. I got out the flashlight we were told to bring—a travel-size Maglite. What usually seemed so bright struggled to pierce the obscure blanket of blackness closing in. Moments later, we saw a dim glow ahead, must be people where we were heading—to a huge, deep cistern, a vital source for life in the desert, that helped the city above hold out against besieging armies. I don’t recall much protection at the edge of the precipice. Maybe a single thin bar. Others there before us left, diminishing greatly our collective luminosity. That’s when I did one of my not-the-finest Boy Scout moves. Not sure what obscure muddle deluded my head—I thought it might help to go from a concentrated beam to candle form of the flashlight. You know, where you screw off the top, so the tiny bulb glows freely. Except I screwed off just the lens part—the bit that actually somehow presses something to make the bulb shine. Plunged into darkness, it fumbled out of my fingers and fell, a single [clink] on the ground near our feet. In my mind’s eye, I watched it bounce over into the abyss and some eternity later (maybe a few seconds) heard a very faint plunk, far at the bottom. Stunned, terrified we’d follow, muscle memory tells me Suzanne and I didn’t dare move a toe, standing now in utter, impenetrable darkness.

Friends, I wonder what moment of terrified darkness, a memory of fearful vulnerability, a place of paralysis, experience of powerlessness may come to mind for us. We wield our travel Maglites of heart, mind, hard work, earnest effort to make our way in life. Then something goes terribly amiss. The world is wondrous and harsh, life is beautiful and hard, and we’re imperfect. We unscrew the wrong bit. And there we are … with consequences of our choices, with a medical diagnosis, with relationships on the rocks, with financial stress, a job lost, someone beloved lost, our grip fumbling, hope falling, [clink] dreams in our minds eye bouncing, how we envisioned life tumbling into an abyss, as obscure blackness closes in. There have we stood, or lain in bed, curled on a couch, huddled on the street, cried in our car terrified, paralyzed, in what can seem impenetrable darkness.

Friends, the Bible tells us, that’s when God’s grace comes to us like light in the darkness. Maybe we should pause a moment to note concern in current society with meaning attached to light as good and dark as bad, and then those associations attached to other people laced with bias, prejudice, itself a kind of darkness. We get it. No metaphor is perfect. Still, I pray we get the gospel promise that people like us across ages long ago and places far away, and others near and dear who’ve sat in this sanctuary on a dark Christmas Eve or Good Friday pass on to us. God is in the darkness we feel and face. Holy Love brings life, John proclaims as he begins his good news, and this life is light for all people. Goodness in bad. Comfort in sorrow. Hope in distress. Courage in fear. New possibilities amid hard realities. Resurrection after crucifixion. Even the deepest darkness of the tomb is not dark to God. Night is as bright as day, as the Divine Presence blazes among us.

Chiaroscuro. That’s how I imagine it. Ooh, he joked, Renaissance art classes … it’s all trying to come back to me. The spark of an idea for this sermon got lit months ago in a Thoughtful Readers discussion about a novel woven around that theme. It’s about the interplay of light in darkness to accentuate figures, action, focus attention. It’s the Dutch Masters’ painting of women by a window, or romantic landscapes. It’s classic movie scenes highlighting a face, casting shadows. It’s a steady candle when the power goes out. A campfire or crackling logs in the fireplace on a chill night. It’s what makes places like Scotland so stunning when after low clouds and misty rain, the cover beaks, sunrays beam and glisten and shimmer as if the world is radiant and sometimes even as in Yellowstone a few years ago a brilliant double rainbow gleams against the gray canvas. It’s Aaron Van Heest’s beautiful photo of our stairwell that hangs in my office near the table to remind, inspire me for any conversation of struggle or celebration we share … as we try to climb the stairway to heaven, our hearts and feet guided in the way of peace. Friends, it’s in the juxtaposed contrasts of life and faith where Grace can touch us so profoundly, move us so deeply, when like cracked stained glass a beam pierces our open hearts … and what’s wondrous and beautiful seem ever more so. And we believe. And we see. Chiaroscuro means light / dark or more literally clear / obscure.

“By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” It’s Zechariah’s Benedictus for his newborn son, John, bursting forth in song when he’s been struck silent for the entire pregnancy. It’s really a blessing theme for the gospel promise in all Jesus will embody. You see, that’s what people felt every time he taught and healed and welcomed them at table and got water from a lonely woman at the well. “I saw Eternity the other night, Like a great ring of pure and endless light …” yeah, that’s how I see the crowds Jesus taught the Beatitudes and fed beside the sea. I imagine that’s the earliest Christians and other over the ages to whom Paul wrote about seeing in a mirror dimly, but one day face to face. “There is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness as we here / Say it is late and dusky, because we / See not all clear. … Yet a great ring of pure and endless light (can we see the faces? feel the love?) / Dazzles the darkness in my heart And breaks apart the dusky clouds of night.”[i]

This Sacred Gift of life, John says, this Divine Light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. So, we pray when lighting candles in the back for a dear loved one or world situation. As we, like John, try to bear witness, to be luminous, to seek something like the illustration / illumination of Luke’s scene in the St. John’s Bible gold leaf beaming as if the page itself was radiant … silhouetting all the other figures around the manger. So, it will feel when the whole cast of characters to come have their feet guided into the ways of peace. As Mary will do at the dawn of Easter when she recognizes her Lord with her so intimately.

And that’s really what Joseph’s revelation scene is all about. It’s resurrection. The one believed to be dead stands before his brothers radiantly alive in ways impossible, unimaginable. They’re astounded, terrified, their world and mirrored selves shattered in fragments of guilt, fear, grief, maybe relief, an obscure swirl of blackness closing in. It always gets me—one of the most deeply moving scenes in all of scripture for me. So much pathos. So much promise as hateful revenge turns to humble mercy. Hugs and kisses of peace. To be real, it’s not entirely clear if Joseph’s declaration leads to full reconciliation. I mean he’s still lauding himself all “God sent me here. God made me Lord of all Egypt, father to Pharaoh.” Might sound a bit like the same old Joseph they threw down a well. Maybe at least it’s a first stumbling step, as each works through famine toward fullness of life in their way, humbled and hungering for another way. As through Joseph’s dreams and vision for how to manage threatened food resources, God offers a path toward more shalom. Because anyway, the point of this story and all the Bible is that God works among us in ways beyond our calculating and even imagining. By Grace we see more clearly when before all seemed darkly clouded. We envision hope. We radiate purpose. We glow with possibility.

Friends, in the bright light of this day I pray that we may cherish that promise of Holy Love, maybe as we’ve made our way out of a tunnel, or still find ourselves at the precipice of a cistern abyss. Whatever famine we feel may we be nurtured. Whatever fear and uncertainty may it give way to security of faith. Whatever hurt, distress, anger arising or vengeance conniving may it dissolve in tears of mutual forgiveness. You know, about the worst thing in life isn’t necessarily that hard times will come. That we’ll fumble and twist the wrong bit of the flashlight. It’s that we may feel left alone, unable to move a toe. Despite our good intentions and effort, we know there are people of our congregation who feel that way. Despite all the social services and earnest servants of our city, there are still people who share a meal with us on Wednesday and maybe join worship here today who find it hard to see how to take the next step away or even get out of the hole—the well of hell—they’ve gotten into in life one way or another. May we open our hearts to receive Zechariah’s blessing of salvation in this house of Presbyterians, like the house of Pharaoh and David long ago. The tender mercy of our God dawning from on high, breaking the gray cover to beam and gleam and shimmer in a world that seems even more wondrous, life more beautiful.

And so may we like John be prophets, people going in loving service trusting the Lord will come among us. Each in our way may we answer God’s call to send us before others, like Joseph, to preserve and prepare and promote life. To be luminous. This past Tuesday at noon we noodled a chapter from Barbara Brown Taylor about faith and astrophysics—quarks and quantum entanglement and field theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Honestly, yes, it’s all a bit esoteric, mind-blowing when we really try to think of it—stuff that scared some of the very people who made these scientific discoveries. Maybe we can’t fathom quantum mechanics of deep space, 96% of which is filled with what we call “dark matter / dark energy” because we haven’t a clue what it really is. In the end, I love how Taylor connects all this science and theology each as a kind of poetry. Hang with me here!

“In Sunday school,” she writes, “I learned to think of God as a very old white-bearded man on a throne, who stood above creation and occasionally stirred it with a stick. When I am dreaming quantum dreams (hello Joseph!), what I see is an infinite web of relationships, flung across the vastness of space like a luminous net. It is made of energy, not thread. As I look, I can see light moving through it as a pulse moves through veins. What I see “out there” is no different from what I feel inside. There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars. Where am I in this picture? I am all over the place … up there, down here, inside my skin and out … Am I alone? How could I ever be alone? I am part of a web that is pure relationship, with energy … around since the universe was born. Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place … up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light … in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.”[ii]

Friends, we’ve known that light in our darkness, we see that luminous web of love and life. The light glinting in another person’s eyes, in a tender gaze or joyous smile. The glow in a child’s discovery and friends getting together again after so long. The burning purpose to make the world just a bit better for the person right in front of us, and for someone suffering name unknown to us farther away. The unmerited grace / mercy or forgiveness / simple goodness abounding each dawn of every new day.

It’s Sacred Chiaroscuro. Dear friends, try to see how we can give that light to others sitting in darkness. Sparks of ideas, passions, purpose getting lit among us. For we are luminous! Stunned, terrified we might follow my tiny Maglite lens over the precipice, we didn’t dare move a toe, standing in the utter impenetrable darkness. The good news is that it wasn’t long before others came to the precipice of the deep dark cistern abyss as had we, like Joseph and his brothers long before. Maybe we glimpsed Eternity—for in and with their radiant presence we were able to see more clearly. Our feet were guided back from the darkest night imaginable into the day, marching into the way of God’s Peace.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light (New York: MacMillan, 1980)

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000), 54.