Scriptures: Mark 15:33-39, Psalm 19

A quirky book by Wallace Trip includes a cartoon strip which riffs on the children’s song, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” In the first frame, there are two foxes, a young one and a grown-up one, viewing the night sky together. “Father, tell me about the stars,” says the young fox.  The father replies, “My child, the stars are the toys of the cherubim and the beacons of the departed. They are the music of our eyes, the chimes of exultation and the sparks of our inspiration. They have lit our long journey from the swamp to this day when we stare back, reflecting their images like tears of love in a silver mirror.” In the final frame, the two wander on, and the little fox observes, “Father, I fear yours is not a scientific mind,” while a rabbit passing nearby is singing,“Twinkle, Twinkle, little star, I don’t wonder what you are:you’re the cooling down of gasses forming into solid masses.”[1]

What a collision of worldviews this little cartoon depicts! I’m using the word “worldview” to describe a foundational picture of reality which guides our basic orientation in the world. Or, more appropriate to “Sky Sunday” is the word “cosmology.” Cosmos comes from the Greek word for “order,” and from it we get our English word, which signifies a “harmoniously patterned universe.”[2] Worldviews and cosmologies affect not only individuals but the way whole societies perceive reality, unconsciously patterning our assumptions about the nature of things, telling us, “where is heaven, where is earth, what is visible and invisible, what is real and unreal.” [3]

In our time, we are experiencing a major collision of worldviews, with widespread uncertainty and confusion. The foxes and the rabbit represent the basic clash between a rational, modern, materialist orientation—what some would call “scientific”—the idea that reality is only what we can experience and test with our senses, and a more mytho-poetic worldview, in which events in the natural world are also seen to have spiritual significance. As Christians of this generation, who read and interpret ancient scriptures in our desire to follow God’s Word in our own time, we often find ourselves struggling to understand our reality as ancient, modern, and post-modern worldviews collide in the very earthy questions of our daily attitudes, habits, and practices.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” states Psalm 19, exemplifying an ancient-world view of reality. In ancient thought, everything and every event on heaven is understood to have a counterpart on earth, and vice versa; “every material reality has a spiritual dimension, and every spiritual reality has physical consequence.” [4] Psalm 19 celebrates the stability and order God creates, paralleling the life of the skies with the lives of God’s faithful people. First, the Psalmist calls attention to the “firmament,” which was understood to be a “dome-shaped covering” separating earthly and heavenly waters.[5] Remember that water signified chaos to the ancient Hebrews; so they saw the firmament as a gracious gift, carving out space and structure for life to flourish on earth.

The Psalmist also commends the sun and the moon, running their courses in stately rhythm, day to day and night to night, voicing, without human language, a proclamation of God’s reliable, trustworthy and life-renewing presence.

Then, the second section of Psalm 19 praises God’s gift of stability and order to human beings who have received the Torah, God’s perfect instructions, which the Psalmist tells us are sure, clear, pure, and true, teaching simple people a righteous way of living which brings great reward. The imagery of gold and honey draw connections between the golden sun and the Law. The Law, centered on the Temple, is understood to reveal God’s glory on earth, just as the sun reveals God’s glory in the temple of the skies; so “the orderliness of the skies is reflected in the righteousness of human beings.”[6] In Psalm 19, heaven and earth, the sky and God’s people, are united in the harmonious celebration of God’s glory.

But the skies in Mark’s gospel speak in quite a different tone. “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,” begins Mark’s bleak account of Jesus’ death on the cross.

Now, plenty of folks, from a modern, scientific worldview, have tried to find reasons for the three hours of darkness—perhaps an eclipse or a sandstorm! But we need to remember that the author of Mark is making meaning from his orientation in the ancient worldview, not recording “historical facts” as we might conceive of them. For the skies to be darkened at noon, the brightest hour of the sun’s zenith, means that the elegant order of creation has been dreadfully disrupted. It is a strange moment, and Mark doesn’t really explain it, so scholars seek clues to understand it in other biblical texts.

Some have suggested that Mark is alluding to Amos 8:9-10, in which God pronounces to unfaithful Israel that the Day of Judgment is coming, in which there will be darkness at noon, which will make it a time like “mourning for an only son.” In the horror of the moment when Jesus experiences abandonment and rejection from every human being, the moment when God on the cross cries out to God in the heavens, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”; in that moment, we notice that the sky is still there, bearing witness to and, even—if we can stretch our worldview to perceive it—empathizing with Jesus’ suffering.

One author notes, “The skies are not a mere background to human events but an integral part of the web of the human and natural world…the skies mourn the death of Jesus.”[7] The sky’s darkness is related to the tearing of the temple veil; tearing garments was an action of protest and mourning. As the temple veil was designed with four colors representing the four elements of the universe, perhaps its tearing at Jesus’ death represents creation’s mourning of the disrupted order which made his death inevitable.[8]A rent in the fabric of creation reveals that the world of Temple-centered religion, broken and corrupted by evil, has, in Jesus’ death, been brought back to chaos.

But here there is also hope, for there was chaos at the beginning of creation. Jesus’ death is a turning point, and after the sky’s darkness, the light of a new age begins to dawn. The first person it dawns on is the least likely one imaginable: a “battle-hardened thug in Roman uniform, who has helped to perpetrate Jesus’ death. Having witnessed the whole panorama of Jesus’ death, the Roman centurion speaks words which witness to the new age being born: “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” The Roman centurion is the “first sane human being in Mark’s gospel to call Jesus God’s son, and mean it.”[9] And if he can see this truth, others will too. The dawning of the new age of God’s kingdom has come, and the news will spread around the world.

The good news of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ continues to tear through the veils of all our false cosmologies and worldviews, all the foundational ideologies upon which we have mistakenly staked our lives, and the sky continues to bear witness.

In our time, we are seeing anew how heaven and earth are connected, how our small mundane habits, repeated over time and space, have an effect on the sky. The sky bears prophetic witness against our capacity for injustice to God’s creation and especially the poorest people who inhabit it, who suffer most when ecosystems fail, when the sky turns dark with vehicle exhaust, with dust bowl storms, or with nuclear mushroom clouds.[10]

My friends, the truth is that the meaning of the sky’s darkness in this passage, like the fullest meaning of the stars and storms, climate and cloud patterns in our lives, remains a mystery, no matter how hard we try to apply scientific method or theology! The sky, like God’s glory, is full of paradox, ever-changing, revealing and obscuring, protecting but permeable, sustaining us with the air we breathe even as it generates destructive storms, connecting everything on earth as water evaporates into cloud systems that form and shower the earth and dissipate and move on. We humans keep attempting to grasp it, trying to conquer its vastness of space and stars, but we can never fully grasp its evanescence.

Just so, the heavens are telling…they tell the stories of both our ingenuity and our failures to live out our human vocation as partners with God in the care of creation, even as they tell the ongoing story of God the Creator’s reliable love and sustaining care. They tell the story of our greatest dreams and our false idolatries, but they also tell of God’s redeeming love which by incredible grace transforms our failure into the new creation. The sky is telling, like a beautiful work of art, and desecrating the sky is like smashing an icon or a stained glass window, destroying the original chapel God gave us.[11]

My friends, we are called to live on Earth as people of “sky,” in whom heaven and earth are united by the cross of Jesus Christ. In communion with the Maker of the Stars, trusting in the ephemeral Spirit of Life within us, let us wonder anew at the stars, even as we trust in the reliable grace by which night turns to day and day returns to night, in the redeeming power which transforms human suffering and death into new life.

Amen.

[1] Tripp, Wallace. Marguerite, Go Wash Your Feet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985, 25.

[2] Lathrop, Gordon W.  Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 6.

[3] Wink, Walter. The Powers that Be. New York: Galilee Doublday, 1998, 14-20.

[4] Wink, 15.

[5] Miller, Susan, “Sky Sunday,” in The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, Norman C. Habel, David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire, Eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 157.

[6] Miller, 158.

[7] Miller, 160-161.

[8] Miller, 160-161.

[9] Wright, N.T., Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 216.

[10] Rob Saler, http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/the-third-sunday-in-the-season-of-creation-in-year-b-sky-sunday

[11] Saler, as above.

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