1 Samuel 16:1-13
“Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” At a glance, it seems that Paul is telling us of the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, when Christ comes again to call all things to himself. I’ve always thought that C.S. Lewis envisioned something wonderful in The Last Battle, his children’s novel of, well, the resurrection. For him it seemed to be a mystery of joy and exuberance and celebration and talking dogs. Perhaps, when I awake, I’ll finally know what my dogs are thinking. I’ve also liked Gerard Manley Hopkins version of the resurrection in his poem “The Caged Skylark”: “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best/But unencumbered: meadow-down is not distressed/ for a rainbow footing it nor he for his bones risen.” I’ve always like that comparison of our bodies to a rainbow, which is made of light and water. He means that we, at the resurrection, will be as refreshed by our bodies as the rain and sun refresh a meadow together.
Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, Christ will shine on you. Paul isn’t however, really talking about life after death, at least, not the way we often think about it. Too often we think of our life with God in a linear way: we are born, we live, we die, we go to heaven. But this line from Paul, which seems to be a fragment of an early Christian hymn based on a passage from Isaiah, has a mingled nature, like a rainbow made of both light and water: it is a promise of life and a judgment of life. It is a promise of what is to come, but also a description of what is happening right now. Light, in this passage, both gives life and exposes the works of darkness—things that we do and say now. All that is light is good and right and true—and all that is good and right and true will expose all that is not. Our lives, indeed, will be exposed by Christ’s light, and our deeds will come to light. So, now, right now, Paul says, live as children of the light. Christ’s light is already shining on us, both to expose and to give life. Christ’s light is shining, and we are already dead, but see—we live.
Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ’s light will shine on you. The Letter to the Ephesians is a masterful letter, eloquent, forceful, with a simple focus: to simply live is to be living in death, but Christ brings life to death. This is religious language, and so it doesn’t mean just one thing; or rather, as Paul writes, Christ enters and gathers thoughts and ideas around him, wrapping them into a single truth. So this is about light and judgment and walking in the light of Christ. But even more fundamentally, this is about living life forwards, from the end.
This is what I mean: Ephesians is fundamentally a Gospel proclamation that God, who is outside of time and space, sent his eternal Son into time and the world, to save it and redeem it, and to bring all people into God’s eternal life. Our end is eternal life with God—but because Christ has already called us and marked us with the Holy Spirit, that eternity has pierced our temporality. We are already in Christ’s light; already, we sleepers have woken. And just as Ephesians is a Gospel proclamation, it is also a proclamation about Baptism, by which we die to the world and rise to the grace of God.
When we enter today’s texts, we open ourselves to realities that escape words. Paul must speak in metaphors of light and darkness, because literal speech is beyond what humans can say—Paul would have filibuster forever to say what he can evoke with a metaphor. Indeed, we can even say that Paul is speaking symbolically: in the sense that symbol is like a reality vortex. So much reality gathers around symbols that we cannot speak what they symbolize.
That’s exactly what our story from the Gospel of John is. John’s gospel is not like the others. It doesn’t really have much of a plot. Rather, it’s a book of signs and sermons, and this is one of the signs. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who show many miracles, John only shows a few, and each of these miracles are drenched in symbolism. These signs are not written to show us Jesus’ historical deeds, but they are written to show how the eternal Word, the beginning and ending of existence, breaks into our lives from outside of time. We are meant to read this passage and receive the symbols. Or better put, we are meant to be pulled into the gravity of symbols, as they take our reality and bring it to the reality that girds everything together, the presence of God in our world.
Ancient preachers believed this was a story that symbolized God’s work to redeem human kind. Who sinned that this man was born blind? Jesus says, this man was born so the works of God could be revealed. And indeed, that is the purpose of all our births and the birth of all creation. All that is are the works of God that proclaim God’s beauty and truth, which God has called forth so all that God has created may come to know him through his works. Jesus makes mud to put on the eyes of the blind man: ancient preachers say this mud symbolized the human being, whom God created from the earth. He washes this mud from his eyes in the pool of Siloam. Ancient preachers said that this is a sign of baptism, which takes away blindness, mortality, the old Adam, the sinful self, and gives us light, immortality, life, a new birth. And the light comes, and the man testifies to the light, and some hear and believe, and others reject it. This is a story of the ancient experience of the church, which was driven from the synagogues and forced to chart a new path in the world. Many ancient preachers were convinced, and some modern scholars, too, that this is text that tells us of baptism, of the way Jesus, from before we were born, knows us and loves us, and brings out of death to life.
Sleeper, awake! Blind man, see. Rise from the dead, and look upon the face of Christ. We put this font in the middle of our church during Lent to remind us of Baptism. We put it here to remind us of our death to darkness and our birth to life. We put it here to remember our God-drenched world, in which light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. We put it here so we can know that the fundament of our existence is that God has made us, loved us, and made us part of his eternal life. The sign he gave us for this is his Son’s death on the cross and his resurrection from that death. At this font, that sign was extended to us. We come through water and death to life at the other side. Our Baptisms take us from the reality of death, in which the linear progression of temporality, and all its panics and anxieties, our fears of running out of options and out of time, is ruptured. Jesus breaks through here, and speaks to you saying, “I am the light of the world. Shine by my light.” Come out of death and step into life.
How many of you have ever been driving in a car, or taking a hike, or simply minding your own business, and dropped everything to stop and take a picture of a rainbow? It is just light and water. You could probably make one in your own room, if you wanted. But isn’t a rainbow joy? We live a rainbow life: Christ is our sun, the rain our baptisms. The union of the eternal and the temporal, the spirit and the flesh, the color of light as it is breaks through darkness. God’s presence among us is a reality that breaks through everything else. It is the kind of thing that will make people pull their cars to the side of the road of life, to get out and gawk at its beauty. Rise sleeper, and wake from death. Amen.
The Rev. John Zachary Flack