Some years ago, my family took a vacation to colonial Williamsburg, and we had dinner at one of ye olde taverns. In the middle of the meal, a patriotic magician approached the table and commenced a series of magic tricks using an orange. He was no more than two feet from me, and yet I was stupefied by the ways the orange would disappear and reappear under a coffee mug or even in my own pocket. I know how magic works, how the able magician distracts the audience from the real action, thus allowing sleight of hand. Even with that knowledge, I was an easy mark. The magician enthralled me with his distractions. He was able to change what I thought I saw.
This is what the Pharisees are up to at the beginning of today’s Gospel passage. Jesus has just finished an extended soliloquy on what Paul Borgman calls “kingdom joy,”[i] in which Jesus proclaims that there are no limits to the freedom from bondage God conveys, that God’s kingdom is like yeast hidden in bread, like a tiny mustard seed that grows to overtake the whole garden, that people will stream from east and west, from north and south, to encounter God’s grace.
Jesus’ words are granting hope to the hopeless. They are shining light in lives that have been marked by shadow. And then the Pharisees show up with their sleight of hand. They sidle up to Jesus and warn him, as if they are concerned for his safety, to quiet his message and flee King Herod, who wants to kill Jesus. We mustn’t mistake what’s going on here. With a magician’s ability to distract, the Pharisees are really saying to Jesus—and to the people gathered around him in hope—“Don’t look there! Don’t pay attention to words of grace and light. Look this way instead, because danger lurks around the corner. Shadows encroach. Be afraid, and run away!”
With waving hands and histrionic voices, the Pharisees seek to enthrall with their distraction. They want to cloud the people’s vision of the world Jesus promises with a smokescreen of darkness, anxiety, and fear.
The people must have become furtive. I can imagine the flight response welling up in them, feet fidgeting, heart rates increasing, eyes tracking the Pharisees’ waving hands. But Jesus’ eyes do not move, and his message never wavers. “Tell King Herod,” Jesus says, “That I will do tomorrow exactly what I am doing today.” Words of hope will not be silenced. Light will continue to deny the power of darkness. Love will not flee. Does that give you chills? It does me.
Jesus then does, however, add a sobering note about what awaits him because his message will not waver. He will go to Jerusalem, he alludes, and there he will die.
You see, to the things of this world that feed on darkness, anxiety, and fear, love is the ultimate threat. This is as profoundly true as it is simple. To the things of this world that feed on darkness, anxiety, and fear, love is the ultimate threat. Such things are, throughout Luke’s Gospel, symbolized by Jerusalem. And there Jesus will go, never quieting his voice as he marches into the maw of danger. Jesus will not run from Herod, as the Pharisees mockingly warn, but will run toward him, revealing in Jesus’ very person the alternative to Herod and the Pharisees and Caesar himself: love instead of fear; light instead of darkness.
Beginning today and repeatedly throughout Lent, as Jesus makes his way charlatans and magicians will attempt to obfuscate and trick him into abandoning grace in favor of power, even as he hangs on the cross. They’ll beg the question of him: “As the noose tightens, will you persist with these words of grace? Will you refuse to spew vitriol, to raise a hand in your own defense, to give in to the darkness around you?”
It is the Lenten question. It is a variation on the question that was asked repeatedly last week, when Satan himself tempted Jesus. And, for those of us here, the Body of Christ, it is a question asked of us. Here it is, in its most distilled form: “Are we, the disciples of Jesus, willing to deny darkness and die for love?” Are we willing to die for love?
Thank God, we know Jesus’ answer. What is ours? The death can take innumerable and daily forms, just as does the world’s darkness. In our world, social interactions, the economy, politics, indeed, religion all oftentimes seem to cast more darkness than light. It is so easy to reside in the shadows, far easier than to push it back with light. When darkness rolls over us, will we shine? Will we persist always with words of grace? Will we be willing to risk the death of relationships, our strongly-held opinions and prejudices, even our comfort and material well-being in favor of love?
At paragraphs like that, we feel the flight response well up. Our feet fidget. Our heart rates rise. Our eyes become furtive. But Jesus does not move. He will do the same tomorrow that he does today. He will march straight toward Herod—even Herod!—in love, and when they kill him, even the darkness of the grave will not smother his light. Does that give you chills? Oh, it must.
And he calls us to gather under his wing.
A couple of weeks ago, Jill and I binged watched the remarkable first season of HBO’s series “True Detective.” It’s a dark show, and the heroes, Rust and Marty, played expertly by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, struggle continually against the darkness without and the darkness within. They are no Pollyannas. “True Detective” is a hard show to watch, because throughout—not unlike Jesus’ Lenten march toward Jerusalem—it bears an impending sense of doom. At its very end, after the killer is vanquished and the heroes have barely survived, the two detectives have a final conversation outside the hospital. Rust, who has just, after revealing his own willingness to die for love, lingered for days in the twilight between life and death, recounts his childhood in Alaska, when he would gaze for hours at the stars in the nighttime sky, pinpricks of light piercing the darkness. “There’s just one story,” Rust says, “The oldest story…light versus dark.”
Marty responds, “It appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”
But Rust, who until now has been the more despairing of the two, pushes back. “You’re looking at it wrong,” he says, “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light is winning.”
It is, indeed, the only story. It is the Lenten story, as we move inexorably toward the Passion. Darkness, and the incessant voices that speak its language—that come at us like the Pharisees, with confusion and threat and fear and anxiety—seem to blanket the world like a burial shroud. But there is a light that will not be smothered. Even today, it shines. It speaks words of grace. It gathers under its wing. It marches on Jerusalem. In our world. In my heart. In yours.
Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light is winning.
[i] Borgman, Paul. The Way According to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts, pp. 205-208.