Psalm 30:4-12; John 21:4-15
The First Congregational Church, Columbus
April 25, 2004 -3rd Sunday of Easter
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
On May 8, 1984, Benjamin and Carol Weir walked out of their apartment building in Beirut, Lebanon. As they went down a narrow street a car came up behind them and stopped. A man got out and muttered a few words. Sensing that something was wrong, Benjamin Weir asked, "What do you want?"
The man replied, "I want you."
With his abduction, Ben Weir began 495 days of captivity in the hands of extremists. That was 20 years ago next month, but the past and the present in the Middle East have an ominous familiarity to them. The news events of yesterday are not unlike those of today, just change the country and the names.
After his ordeal Weir wrote about this harrowing experience. He relates: "During the first 14 months of my captivity I was isolated in a bare room. Each day I welcomed the coming of morning but rued the fading of the day as night approached. Louvered shutters prevented me from seeing out the French door, but permitted indirect sunlight to enter. I could remove my blindfold in the absence of guards, see my surroundings, and read my Arabic New Testament. I was cheered by the daylight.
"I experienced light in the darkness through my faith as well. I knew I was in the care of God and remembered the things for which I was thankful. When I was awakened in the morning in the first room in which I was kept, I usually could hear birds twitter or dogs barking or other signs of life going on, and I would respond in a spirit of thanksgiving that God had given me another day with health and strength."
"Weeping may linger for the night," says the psalmist, "but joy comes with the morning."
The Hebrews reckoned a day in much the same way as we do: morning, afternoon, and night. Morning was the beginning of the day at sunrise, which was about 6:00 a.m. The first hour was, therefore 7:00 a.m., the second 8:00, and so on. Noon in their timekeeping was the sixth hour. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus hung on the cross from the sixth to the ninth hours, that is from noon to 3:00.
From the many times it is mentioned in the scriptures, morning seemed to be the favored time for our spiritual ancestors. It was the coolest, the most productive, perhaps the happiest time of the day.
Morning is first mentioned in the creation account of Genesis 1. It began when God separated the light form the darkness and called it "day." Morning was the time when God provided manna for Israel in the wilderness. Additionally, morning was always a time of prayer and worship--a practice we still hold to in our Sunday service.
Morning was a time for rejoicing. As each dawn brought a new day, so the morning reminded Israel of God's forgiving love, a chance daily to begin anew. Centuries later Ben Weir could even feel this hope within his confinement. As he said, it was one of the few things he actually looked forward to in his ordeal.
In our first reading for the morning, the occasion for this psalm is the author's recovery from sickness. He presents a thank offering in the temple as a response to his healing and encourages his fellow worshippers to join their voices with his and give thanks to the Lord.
God has heard his prayers; he has been delivered from a cruel fate. It's a time for rejoicing. "You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord, my God, I will give you thanks forever."
I think we can all identify with the feelings of this ancient psalmist. We've all had our share of difficulties. We've all had times of dark hours in our lives. Sometimes it looked as if there would be no way out of our difficulty and then, just when we were ready to give up hope, just when everything seemed bleakest, something happened to change our situation.
The cartoon artist conveys despair by drawing a dark rain cloud above a character which follows him around. Everywhere he goes, it goes. That's how life sometimes seems until the doctor tells us our condition is responding to treatment and we won't have to have surgery after all; until we find we have just enough money in the bank to pay our unexpected bills; until we learn some employees are going to be laid off, but that our job is going to be spared; until we discover that our daughter and son-in-law have reconciled and divorce has been avoided.
The black cloud lifts and life feels ten times lighter. It's a time for rejoicing. It's a time for giving thanks. It must have been that way for Benjamin Weir the first day he was freed from his imprisonment.
We've all had the experience of waking up in the middle of the night with our minds filled with troubles. The more we try to get back to sleep, the harder it becomes. Our fears loom up like giants in the darkness. Our problems seem monumental and threaten to undo us. The minutes on the clock creep by, as if in slow motion. Just when everything is at its worst, when everything is most hopeless, then we look out the window and notice a sliver of light beginning to appear on the horizon.
Little by little daylight starts to overtake the darkness, objects can be made out once again, and the utter despair of our sleepless hours recedes with the passing of the night. Our problems may not be gone, but at least they feel like they're more manageable. It's easier to cope in the daylight. Things always look better with the arrival of dawn. We can see again.
In a sense our passage from John carries this same theme. The time it describes is after the crucifixion. The disciples are disturbed, confused, directionless; yet, they try to go through their normal routines. Most of them are fishermen, so they return to what they know best--they fish. They may not feel like doing it, but at least there is some comfort in the known, the familiar.
The net is thrown over the side of the boat as they hover just offshore. The disciples wonder if everything they worked for, they sacrificed for, has been in vain. They're men without a leader. The net catches only water, porous just like their lives. Then a stranger on the shore calls to them, "Cast your net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some."
"What does he know," they must have thought. But with nothing to lose they shift their net to the other side and, surprisingly, it fills with a large catch. One of their number looks to the beach and says, just as the dawn is breaking, "It is the Lord!"
When they get back to the shore Jesus invites them to breakfast. A charcoal fire burns on the sand and there is the smell of fresh bread. They eat in silence and wonderment, waiting for Jesus to speak. Then he turns to Simon Peter. "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord, I love you."
"Then feed my lambs."
By that time the sun was fully up. The disciples had no doubt that this was Jesus, different but the same, dead but present again. As they listened to him their mission and purpose was restored. They could see ahead again in the clarity of the early morning sun. The darkness of their long night since Passover had ended.
Like the disciples, there's a reminder here to us that we aren't really alone within the darkness of our lives. It may seem as if we are left to our own devices, that we have none but ourselves to rely upon, but that is a deception. We will walk through periods where there is no light upon our path, but ahead is the dawn waiting to break through.
Even when the world seems to close in around us and threatens us with the blackness of midnight, we are not forsaken. For you see, Jesus is there in the shadows, too. In fear we may not be able to see our way, but in faith we can take Christ's hand in the darkness. It's a matter of trust built on the promise of his love for us. Through him God will strengthen and lead us to where we can find our way once again.
Our experience allows us to affirm along with the psalmist, "Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning."
With the daylight, we can move on in our lives. With the daylight, it's time to give thanks.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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