Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Disappearing

sideways into the light

Texts used – Luke 1:5-25, 57-64; Ephesians 2:1-10

  • Well, friends, we are nearly through our summer sermon series on Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes.[1] So far, we’ve spent six Sundays talking about what the Dark Wood is and how, even though we are often initially disheartened to find ourselves there, some of the gifts that can come from our Dark Wood experiences can be the most formative, faith-assuring, life-changing experiences we’ve ever had.
    • Reminder of where we’ve been
      • Dark Wood = difficult times/places along our journeys
        • Journeys of life
        • Journeys of faith
      • Unexpected gifts that we find there
        • Uncertainty → trust in God
        • Emptiness/being emptied → make space for God in our lives
        • Being thunderstruck → being open to the flashes of the Holy Spirit that illuminate our path and reverberate in our souls
        • Getting lost → being found by a God who loves us wholly
        • Last week: temptation → discerning God’s authentic and unique call for each and every one of us
    • Last week, as we started talking about the gift of temptation, I said that it was a tricky one. And this week is also a bit of a tricky one. This week, we’re talking about the gift of disappearing.
      • Basic idea: gift of disappearing is all about humility
        • Elnes: Humility is what keeps us grounded in reality. … Humility is living by God’s vision of you, not your own. God sees a lot more than you do. … The Dark Wood gift of disappearing helps us maintain a healthy distance from self-conceptions that are either built upon a grand house of cards or upon a meager image pulled from the swamp of shame. More than most, this gift provides us a certain spaciousness and grace to move about life freely, following those sweet-spot moments that mark our path even when significant obstacles are placed before us.[2] → Last week, we talked about how the gift of temptation helps us discern God’s truest and most authentic call in our lives in terms of our vocation – what we do and how we go about being in this world. This week is sort of the flip side of that coin. The gift of disappearing helps us discern God’s truest and most authentic claim on our lives in terms of our identity – who we are and how we go about being in this world.
  • Throughout the chapter, Elnes uses a poem written by British poet David Whyte to illustrate his point.
    • Opening stanza: “Turn sideways into the light as they say // the old ones did and disappear // into the originality of it all.” → That language of “turn sideways into the light” is what Elnes considers “disappearing.” It’s all about sloughing off all of the labels that the world has tried to stick to us and clinging wholeheartedly to the only label that matters: beloved child of God.
      • Reminds me of a beautiful children’s book by prolific Christian author Max Lucado → basic storyline of You Are Special[3]
        • Elnes (in speaking about the power of and need for the gift of disappearing): Pride artificially inflates our self-image. Shame artificially deflates it. Both tend to set us on dead-end paths because they cause us to willingly obstruct our connection with God. Pride convinces us that we are better off living under our own power and authority. Shame convinces us that God does not love us as we are, thus we are unworthy of connection. Ironically, both pride and shame tend to fabricate an image of ourselves that is ultimately too small to live within. Too small because it is restricted by the limits of our imagination, which itself is limited by the cultural norms of our surroundings, historical contexts, family upbringing, personal fears and insecurities, and so on.[4] → Just like the Wemmicks in the story, we so often get wrapped up in wearing all our accomplishments and all our failures for the world to see, letting them completely cover up the person that God truly intends for us to be. The gift of disappearing gives us the opportunity to reveal who we truly are both to ourselves and to the world around us.
  • NT scripture reading from Ephesians this morning reminds us of the importance of humility in terms of our faith
    • Text: At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. … However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! … This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.[5] → “This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.” It’s not about who your friends are, where you live, how big your house is, what’s on your dinner table, how much is in your bank account, where you go on vacation, or any of those other ways that we try to measure ourselves against one another in this world today. It’s about God. It’s about us. It’s about how crazy-much God loves us, and how desperately God wants us to understand that.
      • Elnes speaks of the gift of disappearing “refus[ing] to give into any power that seeks to give us a name or identity that is too small for us. … We seek a place where the world around us can call forth something deep from the world within us in a way that points toward our highest identity. … The key is to refuse to let any situation or circumstance mark you in a way that does not reflect your highest identity. You must disappear.[6]
  • So what does Zechariah and the birth of John the Baptist have to do with this idea of disappearing into our most authentic self? Let’s explore it a little bit.
    • Historical explanation – text: One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering.[7] → This is one of those places in Scripture where we lose quite a bit if we aren’t familiar of the cultural and historical context. We hear “go into the Lord’s sanctuary,” and we think of our own sanctuary. It’s a beautiful place to be. It’s a worshipful place to be. There are certainly times when it is holy ground – moments in various services throughout the year when we feel God’s presence here in this place. But in Zechariah’s case, this was a thousand times more important than that. Zechariah was chosen by lottery to go into the Holy of Holies.
      • Holy of Holies = inner sanctum of the Temple
        • Remember the Temple was the only place that was considered the House of God → Jews could learn from teachers and scholars in small synagogues scattered throughout the countryside, but those weren’t considered places of worship. The Temple was the only place to truly worship.
          • Temple = most holy place
          • Holy of Holies = most holy spot in their most holy place
        • Holy of Holies housed many things including Ark of the Covenant which contained, among other cultural treasure, the Commandment tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai
        • Holy of Holies could only be entered by priests of the highest rank on ONE DAY A YEAR
          • Priest tended to the altar within and the furnishings
          • Rope around the priest’s waist just in case he died while he was in there – pull him out so no one else would have to enter → goes back to the ancient Israelite fear that those who met with God face-to-face would die
    • So here we find Zechariah chosen by lottery to perform this incredibly honorable and sacred duty. He’s in the Holy of Holies, and an angel of the Lord appears to him to tell him that he and his wife are going to have a child … and we find Zechariah clinging to the broken identity that the world has given him – text: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John.” … Zechariah said, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”[8] → In the face of this miraculous pronouncement … to this face of Gabriel, God’s most powerful messenger … in the holiest spot on earth, Zechariah says, “Really? Are you sure? Somehow I doubt it. Can’t happen. Not to me … not to us.”
      • Gabriel’s response: The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”[9]
        • Gr. “you will remain silent” = preceded by powerful, attention-grabbing word (idou) which means whatever directly follows it is exceptionally important
        • Most often view Zechariah’s term of silence as a punishment for his doubt BUT Elnes presents another idea: By striking Zechariah deaf and mute, God is not punishing him for failure to accept his true identity. God is blessing Zechariah, helping him accept his identity. How? Imagine how Zechariah’s world might change over the coming nine months while Elizabeth is pregnant. He will be more of a silent observer of life than an active participant. The last sound Zechariah would have heard before his hearing was taken away was the sound of his son’s name being spoken by the archangel Gabriel: “His name will be John.” John is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew name Jonathan, which means “Yahweh [God] is gracious.” Can you imagine how your world might change if, for nine long months, you heard nothing, and said nothing, yet the last words you heard constantly ran through your head, “God is gracious”?[10] → In essence, Zechariah disappears from his life for a bit. He cannot hear what is going on around him. He cannot give voice to his thoughts, needs, desires, prayers, hopes, or dreams. When Elizabeth finally shares with him that she is pregnant, he cannot even laugh out loud as Sarah did centuries before. And yet in disappearing, Zechariah finds a strengthen and a trueness of his identity in God and in God’s path for him – an authenticity that leads him to finally declare (through the written word) when the child is born, “His name is John.” And in that naming – in claiming that authentic identity for his son and also accepting his own authentic identity that God has given him – Zechariah’s hearing and speech are restored.
  • So friends, let me leave you with a question this morning.
    • Elnes: This story [of Zechariah] ends practically begging the question, What is the miracle that gives you voice in the world? What treasure have you found in the darkness that blesses you and others?[11] → What element of your truest and most authentic self is God leading you to claim? To cling to? To disappear into? And what part of your identity is God encouraging you to let go of? To escape? To disappear from? Amen.

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

[2] Elnes, 126-127.

[3] Max Lucado. You Are Special. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books), 1997.

[4] Elnes, 125-126.

[5] Eph 2:1-2a, 4-5, 8b-10.

[6] Elnes, 127-128, 129.

[7] Lk 1:8-10.

[8] Lk 1:13, 18.

[9] Lk 1:19-20.

[10] Elnes, 140.

[11] Elnes, 141.

2 responses to “Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Disappearing

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

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

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