Seeing in the Dark


A Sermon on Mark 11:1-11

“After sending for the colt.

After the procession.

After the palms.

After the cloak strewn-road.

After the hosannas.

After blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

After all this, Mark – alone of all the gospels – tells us that Jesus goes into the temple and looks around at everything.

He does not teach. He does not preach. He does not heal. He does not confront or challenge. He does not even speak; neither does he cross the path of anyone who requires his attention. Mark conveys the impression that here, in this sacred space that lies at the heart of his people, Jesus is quite alone, and that it is night.

Jesus simply looks around. What is it that he sees in the temple by night?[1]

* * *

These words open a reflection on today’s gospel reading written by Pastor and artist Jan Richardson. This reflection drew me in because it focused in on the one detail of today’s reading that has been pulling at my attention all week.

It’s not the detail that I associate with Palm Sunday. Those details have to do with the palm branches and the cloaks… or with shouted Hosannas… or even with the odd detail of riding a donkey that had never ridden before. Those details are about the celebratory atmosphere, and the expectations that filled it, and the disconnect with what Jesus was about to undergo.

My encounter with Palm Sunday has always been about what it looked like to the people crowding around Jesus, or to the disciples procuring the donkey, or even to the jealous leaders observing the fanfare from a distance. I never thought about the whole spectacle from Jesus’ perspective.

But this one detail made me wonder. What is it that he sees in the temple by night?

One thing he DOES NOT see is people. It’s late. The business of the day is over. The regular cycle of sacred life has decreed that priests and people alike depart. Even the Hosanna-shouting crowds have gone off to their suppers.

And I think it must be a relief to Jesus. To be alone. To NOT be called after and grasped and confronted with the bottomless well of need from the people who were always crowding round him. Wanting his words. Wanting his touch. Wanting his healing, and his signs of power, and his evidence that there was hope in the midst of suffering.

There IS hope, but it doesn’t look like what the crowds want it to look like. Jesus knows that. And it is getting close. And the immediate, individual needs are important to him, but they also make it harder. Harder to prepare to leave them. Harder to save the world, instead of just the beloved children of God in front of him.

And so, he enters the temple to look around when the people are NOT there. What is it that he sees in the temple by night?

I imagine that he sees a sacred space where people come to bring their needs to God, and to pray, and to express their needs and prayers in ritual. Ritual that can communicate deep spiritual meaning, OR obscure it. Sacrifices that connect them to the ancient roots of their faith, but that also feed a temple economy that exploits the people who come seeking God.

When Jesus looks around the Temple at night, he sees the court of the Gentiles – the space that the prophet Isaiah had declared would be a house of prayer for all nations[2] – and he sees its ample open space crowded and blocked by the tables of the money changers and animal sellers that he will overturn the next day.

There is that task still to do before the final task at Calgary.

But I hope he also sees a space STILL sacred. Still at the heart of his people’s longing for connection to God. Still a place for HIM to be restored. And find the strength to do what he will need to do… once all the needy crowds turn on him.

Knowing what this week holds, and coming to this place in preparation, What is it that he sees in the temple by night?

Perhaps he sees a mirror.

They are parallels, in a way. The Temple and Jesus. What the temple has been for the Jews, Jesus’ body will be for the world:

A physical sign of God’s presence;

A place to find forgiveness for sins;

A point of connection between the frailty and weakness of humanity, and the infinite power and love of God.

Maybe as he looks around the temple at night, Jesus sees a reminder – in the solid pillars – of his own determination and strength to hold a sacred space for God’s people.

Maybe he sees – in the open courtyards – his own arms stretched wide to receive all who come.

Maybe he sees – in the construction of court within court… leading to the central Holiest of Holies – maybe as he walks toward the center he sees himself as the spiritual path that he guides his people down – into the heart of reverence, fear, and love.

Maybe he sees – past the inner courts – the veil that has always divided humanity from God. And he knows, when his own body is torn, that separation will be torn forever.

Maybe he sees all of these things, but if he does, he sees them in darkness. In night. And in this time shadow What CAN he see in the temple by night?

I believe he sees a gift: of solitude, and of sacred grounding, and yes – even of darkness.

Humanity has always feared darkness. The inability to see the threat our conscience or our demons tell us must be lurking there, somewhere. Ready to attack.

Sometimes this fear is for good reason. Awful things can happen in the dark. Last Sunday night, in the dark, Stephon Clark lost his life. Shot 20 times in his own back yard because, in the dark, a cell phone somehow got interpreted as a gun. Because darkness makes fallible people see dangers that aren’t there. Makes us wrongly see dark-skinned people as inherently dangerous.

Darkness can blind us. And when darkness stops us from seeing the truth, it is right to fear the obscuring of our vision. To long for some way to see the world – and each other – more clearly. Without the shroud of fear.

But darkness is not always something to fear.

In the temple this night, Mark tells us, Jesus looks around at everything. The darkness does not obscure his sight… even in the darkness, he can see. And I wonder, if the reason he can see in the temple by night is because he cannot be dismayed or deceived by fear.

It’s not that there is nothing to fear for Jesus. In the temple this night he has less than a week until his execution and he knows it. But the fear of what is to come cannot threaten him. It cannot force him to crouch, cowering, or to lash out in attack. He walks toward it. He comes to the temple this night not to retreat from his task, but to prepare for it.

So, what is it that Jesus sees in the temple by night?

He sees a sacred space – a space to come and be restored in his connection to a Loving God.

He sees a mirror – an image of his temple task to remove the division between us and God.

He sees a gift of darkness – a quiet solitude in which to prepare to face his fear, and to overcome it.

And so he will. In this coming week he’ll face the threat and overcome it. And in that victory he will become, for us, the Temple to which we come:

For sacred space,

and for invitation to know God,

and for the gift of seeing in the darkness, that can take away our fear.

So now, and in the week to come, the question is: What is it that WE see in the temple by night?

May it be Jesus. The one who has conquered fear, so we don’t have to be afraid of the dark ever again.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Jan Richardson, “The Temple By Night” http://paintedprayerbook.com/2009/03/29/palm-sunday-the-temple-by-night/ (accessed 3/22/2018).

[2] Isaiah 56:7 and Mark 11:17.

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