The Common Good
November-December 2001

Let There Be Light

by William H. Willimon | November-December 2001

A September 11 sermon

On that fateful Tuesday, I turned from the trivialities of morning TV for only a moment. When I looked again, there was the smoke, a tower with its top in the heavens now aflame, and a world rocked. Stuck in South Dakota, I began my three-day trek home in order to be in my pulpit in Duke Chapel. On that Sunday after that Tuesday, if I had to characterize the mood of my congregation it would be desperation. In my years of ministry, never had I seen people so hungry for a word.

Most of the time, we preachers are ignored. But not this week. I had calls from reporters at BBC, MSNBC, the local paper, all asking, "Is there any word from the Lord?" Actually, their question was, "What are you going to say on Sunday?" The world wanted to hear a good sermon in the worst way.

The Common Lectionary text for that Sunday was from Luke 15, Jesus' story of the Lost Sheep. Many pastors stuck with the assigned text, speaking about God's amazing grace and expansive love, many of them mentioning God's love for people of all faiths and nationalities, for those who perished. Some of this seemed sentimental, but still, comforting. Many preachers, including me, decided that what grieving people need most is reassurance and comfort and forsook the lectionary in order to find a consoling text. I chose Genesis 1:1-5.

"Then God said, ‘Let there be light'; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good" (Genesis 1:3-4).

We believe these verses originated in Israel's exile, amid hopelessness and despair engendered by having your country pillaged, your temple ruined, your cities wrecked. In other words, this sermon, Genesis 1, was first preached amid national desolation. Thrashing about for a text for you, I thought of Genesis 1.

"Formless void" more truthfully tells what happened to our collective consciousness this Tuesday past than "America under attack" or "civilization in peril."

This week we have learned our lesson: The world, at one moment so stable, secure, fixed, and reliable, is more fragile than it seems. The CIA was clueless, airport security an oxymoron, and innocent people, just trying to do their job, horribly hurt. I looked into the faces of the perpetrators desperate for a glimpse of how their humanity could have been so defaced as to lead them to such violence. I wished there had been only one of them to explain away.

Yet maybe our feelings of vulnerability and fragility are the closest we've come to rationality in a long time. Maybe we are really more exposed than we thought. Maybe it was madness to assume that in arming the Afghan rebels against Soviets they would never turn their guns toward us; that decades of injustice and poverty, of escalating violence could be kept over there and never here. Maybe Jesus was right in his dire predictions of what happens to those who take up the sword.

I'm sure that, in ancient Israel, there were folk who sincerely believed that the thick walls around Jerusalem couldn't be breached, that the vast temple would stand forever. And when this crumbled in a weekend, dark despair went with them into exile. It was night, like that cloud covering the sun on a once perfect Manhattan September day.

And what then? In the darkest days of their exile, isn't it amazing that Israel risked some of its most pushy, strong poetry like Genesis 1? Declaring in full throated joy, "In the beginning, when there was nothing but formless void, then God said, ‘Let there be light!' And there was."

I would have thought the first word might be vengeance, or cowering fear, or at least bitterness. But no, the first word the exiles heard God say to formless void was, "Light!"

It is a word that we cannot say to ourselves. It must be spoken to us, overheard in God's conversation with the formless void. No word, not mine, or the president's, or some grief counselor, or therapist can help us when the chips are down, and the mountains tremble and the earth shakes, no word can help except one spoken from the outside. And just at full midnight we hear that word, and it is a sovereign command, a promise, a creative act, "Light!"

The trouble between us and the resilient formless void is serious. If there is not a God who delights at bringing light out of night, who likes nothing better than to go one-on-one with the void, then we are quite frankly without hope and my little words of comfort in the face of your despair are pointless.

The good news. God's will for the world will not be stumped. You were right to look for clues in the faces of heroic firefighters and heroic mothers who, even with the one most dear to them ripped from them in death, are heroically not bitter, not hate-filled. The creative lover that had the first word shall also have the last. All evidence to the contrary, God's love is stronger than human hate because that's the way God has set up the world.

In life and death, in life beyond death, there is only one word. At the end, it's the same word as at the beginning, that by God: A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

William H. Willimon was dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, when this article appeared.

Image: Burning candles, Elena Itsenko  / Shutterstock.com

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