Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Emptiness

empty hands

Texts used – Psalm 81:6-16; Matthew 16:24-28

  • Today, we continue our summer sermon series through the Dark Wood.
    • Reminder: Dark Wood = moments of challenge and difficulty in our lives that lead to some of our most precious revelations from God → places when we unexpectedly and undeniably encounter God
    • Using book Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes[1]
    • First week: talked about what the Dark Wood is
    • Last week: tackled 1st gift – uncertainty → talked about how uncertainty actually invites and encourages one of the most important aspects of our relationship with God: trust
    • Today: talking about 2nd gift – emptiness → Before we go any further, let’s take a moment for a point of clarification because let’s be honest, there are a lot of different ways that we can feel empty, aren’t there?
      • Loneliness can feel empty
      • Grief can feel empty
      • Depression can feel empty
      • Anxiety can feel empty
      • And I have no doubt that God does indeed sit with us in those difficult, empty-feeling places in our lives, weeping with us when we weep, carrying us when we need to be carried, sheltering us when we need to be sheltered. In the face of those kinds of emptiness, it is best to seek out someone else – someone you can talk to, cry with, pray with, and most importantly, be safe with. But the kind of emptiness that Elnes addresses in this book – the kind of emptiness that we’ll be talking about this morning – is a different kind of emptiness. It’s more intentional emptiness. This one may be better titled “the gift of being emptied.” There’s a purposefulness about it – a choice to empty oneself out.
        • Elnes’ description of “emptiness” (starts with a poem by Rūmī): “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass, / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.” The Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings us straight to this place beyond notions of wrongdoing and rightdoing. It’s not a place beyond morality. Rather, it’s where our fractured humanity finds its most intimate connection to divinity and an astonishing fullness is discovered within our deepest emptiness.[2] → It’s about getting out of our own way – clearing away all the clutter and chaos of life so that we can listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit uninterrupted, undistracted, and unencumbered.
  • That’s why the passage that we read from Matthew’s gospel is so perfect for today.
    • Probably one of the more challenging Scriptures to wrestle with – text: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.[3] → This is a hard Scripture passage, right? These words of Jesus are challenging, especially to the comfortable, Western-world lives that we live, aren’t they? “Lose my life to find my life?” What does that mean?
      • Many interpretations and iterations of this in Christianity throughout the centuries
        • Desert fathers and mothers of the early church à Christian hermits and ascetics (those who practices severe self-discipline and abstention from basically everything) who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the 3rd C.E.
          • E.g.s – Anthony the Great, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Theodora of Alexandria
        • Various monastic order in the Catholic church that practice denials of different kinds → vows of poverty, silence, obedience, etc. all aimed at this idea of “saying no” to oneself in order to listen better for God
        • Tackled by Protestant thinkers and theologians as well – Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Self-denial means knowing only Christ, and no longer oneself. It means seeing only Christ, who goes ahead of us, and no longer the path that is too difficult for us. Again, self-denial is saying only: He goes ahead of us; hold fast to him.[4] → This is the version of emptiness that Elnes identifies as a gift of the Dark Wood. In those Dark Wood moments, feelings of inadequacy, of not measuring up, of failure and incompetence, feelings that tell us we’re not enough force us to encounter our emptiness. But then, instead of letting that emptiness to define us, we turn it around. We use that emptiness, morphing it into an emptiness that involves us deliberately letting go of all those things that pull our attention away from God and the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
          • Distractions
          • Worries
          • Fears
          • Busy work
          • Faults
          • Insecurities
          • Mistakes
          • Excuses
    • What if that’s how we read Jesus’ words in this Matthew passage? – text (modified): Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to their worries … their fears … their insecurities … their fears … their excuses, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to come after me must say no to the mistakes … the failures … the wrong turns that hold them back, take up their cross, and follow me.”
      • Elnes: No amount of success, brilliance, or published works exempt you from insecurity and failure, even when you are walking squarely on your life’s path. … Imagine what it would be like to be free – free not of your faults but your fear of them. This is precisely what the Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings.[5]
  • OT reading this morning reminds us that God is there to fill our emptiness no matter what
    • Ps addresses those Dark Wood moments: I lifted the burden off your shoulders; your hands are free of the brick basket! In distress you cried out, so I rescued you. I answered you in the secret thunder.[6]
    • Ps speaks uniquely to moment in which God’s people refused to empty themselves and make room for God: My people wouldn’t listen to my voice. Israel simply wasn’t agreeable toward me. So I sent them off to follow their willful hearts; they followed their own advice. How I wish my people would listen to me! How I wish Israel would walk in my ways![7] → Even after all that they had been through – slavery in Egypt, the first Passover when God spared the lives of all those who listened to God’s instruction through Moses, their exodus from Egypt in which they were guided by God both day and night, God saving them and obliterating Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea … even after all of that, the Israelites refused to fully empty themselves in the wilderness and follow God. “They followed their own advice.”
      • Heb. is pretty clear: “stubborn hearts” “walk in their counsel/plan” → popular saying is “Let go and let God” … but how often do we actually allow ourselves to do that? Let go and let God? How often do we embrace and embody that intentional emptying to make room for God?
    • Ps also hears God explicitly saying “I will fill your emptiness!”: I am the Lord your God, who brought you up from Egypt’s land. Open your mouth wide – I will fill it up! … How I wish my people would listen to me! How I wish Israel would walk in my ways! Then I would subdue their enemies in a second; I would turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the Lord would grovel before me, and their doom would last forever! But I would feed you with the finest wheat. I would satisfy you with honey from the rock.[8] → God promises protection. God promises to nurture and fill and even indulge the people with the finest wheat and honey if only they would let go of the things that pull their attention and devotion away from God.
      • Highlights what makes the Israelites’ 40-yr. journey in the wilderness such a perfect e.g.
        • Israelites refused to follow God – refused to empty themselves and make that space to listen for and follow God
        • Consequence: made it to the doorstep of the Promised Land, then wandered around in the wilderness for 40 yrs. “follow[ing] their willful hearts,” as the psalm put it
        • But even in the midst of all that wandering – even in the midst of those 40 yrs. of Dark Wood moments – God didn’t leave the Israelites alone. And in our own Dark Wood moments, we are not alone either. Even when we are feeling our emptiest – especially when we are feeling our emptiest! – God is with us.
  • I want you to look up front this morning. We have two crucial symbols of just how powerful it can be to empty ourselves in order for God to fill us up.
    • 1st symbol is there every Sunday = the cross → Elnes: For Christians, one of the greatest symbols of the Dark Wood gift of emptiness is the Cross. Here we find the emptiness of the heavens merging with the emptiness of a human body. At their intersection we hear the emptiest and most human of all cries on the lips of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that great and terrible moment of emptiness, not even Jesus could find God. Yet for the last two thousand years, Christians have insisted that the Cross is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new one. Why? Not because Jesus found God as he stared from the Cross into the vast emptiness of the heavens, but because from within this Great Emptiness God found Jesus. The message could not be more profound: If you yearn to find God, get empty! Let God find you.[9] → Again, it’s about the intentionality of the emptiness. It’s about recognizing that our own strength, smarts, structures, and selves are not enough to navigate our way through this life alone. It’s about recognizing our need – our deepest, most emptying need – and giving that need to God, not so that God can take it away or put a Band-Aid on it, but so that God can fill it up.
    • Brings us to 2nd symbol = communion → Whenever we gather at this table, we are offering up our emptiness to God and asking to be filled up again – filled up in body and spirit, in heart and mind and strength. We fill our bodies with the bread and the wine or the juice, and we fill our souls with the presence and reassurance and love of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. So as we prepare for this glorious feast, let me encourage you wholeheartedly, friends: Let’s get empty. Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[2] Elnes, 41-42.

[3] Mt 16:24-25.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Why Self-Denial? Discipleship and the Cross” found on The Plough: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/why-self-denial.

[5] Elnes, 45.

[6] Ps 81:6-7.

[7] Ps 81:11-13.

[8] Ps 81:10, 13-16.

[9] Elnes, 61.

6 responses to “Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Emptiness

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Being Thunderstruck | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  2. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Getting Lost | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  3. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Temptation | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  4. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Disappearing | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  5. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Misfits | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  6. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Where We Go From Here | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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