Lighten our Darkness

A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells

The words ‘Lighten our darkness’ begin one of the best-known prayers in the English language. It’s a prayer that we might be defended ‘from all perils and dangers of this night.’ It’s an example of how Anglican theology is characteristically articulated through its prayers. I want tonight to explore the theology behind this prayer.

Of all the reasons given for not believing in God, the most passionately held is God’s alleged failure to dismantle limitation, sin, and evil. These three forms of deficit constitute all that holds humanity back from full flourishing. Together they constitute what the prayer calls ‘our darkness.’ Let’s look at each of these three deficits for a moment to be clear about the three key terms we’re dealing with.

Let’s start with limitation. Limitation refers to all that constrains human freedom, expression and relationship in extent and duration. We have bodily limitations that mean no one can run 100 metres in under nine seconds. We think that’s fair enough. But when we face the death of a loved one, we find bodily limitation a lot harder to stomach. The stuff of life is about coming to terms with our limitations; the challenge of life is about overcoming or circumventing some of them. We can’t fly – but in a helicopter we can. We can’t shout across the world; but on a telephone we can. The technological revolution has overcome many limitations; but rather than make us happy, it’s made us increasingly impatient with those limitations technology can’t overcome.

The second deficit is sin. Sin is living as if the world were not created, sustained, redeemed and awaiting final consummation by God. More specifically it’s enjoying that which should be used, which is idolatry; or using that which should be enjoyed, which is blasphemy. When challenged to account for our sin, we may say, bewildered, we don’t know what came over us, we may respond, penitently, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, or we may say, cynically, everyone does it, we meant no harm, no one was really hurt, others are worse than me. What transforms sin into evil is losing what all these responses have in common – a recognition of being in the wrong.

Evil differs on two counts: it is, first, something regarded by its perpetrators not as shabby and dishonourable but positively as good and right and true; and, second, it is turned into an active programme to be implemented not just in one circumstance but in several. Thus when I assault you in an argument it’s sin, because it’s an act of cruelty, violence or homicide committed out of envy, malice or fear. But when Nazis carefully plan and execute the Holocaust it’s evil, because they’re convinced of the righteousness of what they’re doing, and create a system of transportation, incarceration and slaughter to achieve their malign ends.

These then are what the prayers calls the ‘perils and dangers of this night.’ Human beings tend to react to these three deficits with their head, their hand and their heart.

We react with our head when we ask ourselves, ‘How could a good God have created a world in which there is limitation, sin, and evil? Even if we come to terms with limitation, there’s still no accounting for sin and evil. Does the primal force in the universe have no moral compass, is there a reason for sin and evil that we haven’t yet grasped, are we supposed to find some character-forming purpose in responding to adversity, or is God simply not strong enough to defeat these malign forces?’ We react with our hand when we say, ‘Whatever the origin of sin and evil, they’re undoubtedly still here, and I’m going to dedicate my life to alleviating their effects by making practical steps to ease the burden of those subject to the greatest suffering.’ We react with our heart when we say, ‘Whatever the cause of sin and evil, why doesn’t God do something about it now?’

I believe the conventional theological debate about sin and evil has taken place on the wrong territory. It’s almost always about creation, and whether there was something wrong about God’s plan or whether sin and evil were a consequence of free will; and it’s almost always about providence, and whether God truly governs our well-being, given how nasty, brutish and short life can be. I think the right territory for debating sin and evil lies elsewhere. It lies in two questions. The first is, ‘If Jesus ascended to heaven having completed his work on earth, why is there still evil?’ The second is, ‘If, in the fullness of time, God will vindicate the oppressed, why does God not do so now?

The reason I think these are the right two questions is that they both put Jesus at the centre of the question, initially in his first coming and subsequently in his second, in a way that speculation about creation fails to do; but also because they make sense of intercessory prayer. I want to suggest to you that all intercessory prayer, of which ‘Lighten our darkness’ is an example, is doing one of these same two things. It’s either asking God to demonstrate to us more vividly how Jesus is enough for us; or it’s asking God to forward to us an element of the complete salvation that will come to all people and things at the end of time. Either way it’s based on the conviction that God in Christ has done something definitive about suffering, by sharing it, outlasting it, and going beyond it; and in the fullness of time God will finally turn that something into everything.

Let’s take two examples. Imagine you’re praying for an end to a civil war in a country that’s been in the news. What you’re doing is calling on the power of Christ’s work on earth, which overcame enmity and made reconciliation possible. That reconciliation is a combination of justice and mercy, penance and forgiveness, which is exactly what’s required to end the civil war. So the prayer to end the civil war is asking God to show how Jesus’ work is sufficient for today.

Then imagine that a member of your beloved circle lies gravely ill. You don’t know whether to pray for healing, for a gentle death, or for some kind of transfiguration that makes sense of all this grief and loss. What you’re praying for is an advance portion of the fullness of God that’ll be present to us all at the end of time. You’re saying, ‘I’d like a good dose of that fullness now, please – right now, this second, for this person, and for all who love them, and for me.’

So all intercessory prayer either looks backwards to Christ’s first coming and asks the Spirit to make that first coming take effect today, or it looks forwards to Christ’s second coming and asks the Spirit to forward an advance portion of the last day to take effect right now. What we want is for God to bring about Christ’s sacrificial grace and full glory now: what we get instead is reminders and anticipations. Why can’t we get everything Christ embodied and promised now? That’s the question we ask in humble faith and exasperated fury, on our knees in intercession and on our feet, shaking our arms in crestfallen lament.

I think there is an answer to the question, and I name it with some apprehension, lest finding a reason for the delay in Christ’s second appearing seem to justify or underestimate the suffering that results from sin and evil in the world. But think of this. At the end of time there’s something lost as well as something gained. That something is all the good there has been and will be in the world from the ascension of Christ until the Last Day. Heaven works retrospectively: it restores all that’s been lost and vindicates all that’s been trodden down. Heaven also highly exalts all that’s been faithful and cherishes everything that’s been genuinely hopeful. What heaven doesn’t do is create new life: instead it restores the life that’s already been created, healing the wounds and mending the flaws.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to dwell on what would be lost if there were no new life: not just the joy and fulfilment and wonder of bringing new creatures into being, but the renewal and replenishment and enrichment of existence. There’s no question that the prospects for retrieval of what’s been lost in the neglect, rejection and oppression of so much of humankind and the wider creation is a glorious thing; but if heaven is truly everlasting, a point will surely come when the joy of restoration will seem insufficient without the dynamism of new beginnings. That’s what’s lost in moving from creation to new creation. And that, I take it, is why God doesn’t simply bring heaven now – even when earth seems pretty close to hell. The longer our wait, the greater will our final glory be.

All of which brings us back to the prayer, ‘Lighten our darkness.’ Of course we pray to avert the perils and dangers – the perils of limitation, sin and evil, and the danger that they might damage, engulf or destroy us. But our real prayer is that the Holy Spirit would enlighten the darkness of our incapacity and disinclination to see God’s ways. In the face of suffering, such seeing relates to Christ’s coming, Christ’s return, and the empowerment of Pentecost that equips us for the season between these two advents.

The conviction about what Christ has done we call faith. The confidence in what Christ will do we call hope. The embodiment in the power of Spirit of what Christ is doing now we call love. Being a Christian means living the love possible in the present given that Christ is with us, in the faith that Christ was with us in the past in manger, cross and empty tomb, and in the hope that in the future Christ will be with us always. Whatever perils and dangers beset us, this is our light in the darkness.