Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is “Sky Sunday” in our “Season of Creation” series, perhaps partially reflective of the fact that many ancient peoples viewed the sky as the realm of the divine, but more reflective of the fact that several Biblical passages feature the sky, as well as sun, moon, and stars, and these accounts point to the beauty of the expanse of the sky, and celebrate both light and darkness.
The two creation accounts in Genesis are so well-known and so illustrious of these facts that we do not have either of them as our First Reading this morning, but instead have a text from the prophet Jeremiah. Here the sky is referred to as “the heavens,” and both at the beginning and the end of this reading the heavens are shrouded in darkness.
The scene is one of desolation and horror. The fruitful land is now a desert; the cities, the pinnacles of human civilization, have been laid in ruin. The prophet alone is the witness to this destruction, and clearly the darkening of the skies is evidence of the judgment and the “fierce anger” of God (Jeremiah 4:26).
But why is God so riled up and mad? The verse prior to our text tells the story: “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but they do not know how to do good” (Jeremiah 4:22).
Clearly, these words of the prophet as a messenger of God are speaking a word of harsh judgment, though we’re told that total destruction is not the intent. But clearly the failure of humans to worship the Lord and to live in just and righteous ways is an offense so great to God that the skies in darkening are the sign of divine mourning and displeasure.
According to Jeremiah, God’s fierce anger, reflected in the absence of light in the skies, is intended to arouse a human response of repentance. The implied message is, “Look around and wake up, people: even the dark skies cry out that God is not happy with you; turn back from your evil ways; return now to the Lord your God.”
But if the threat and intensity of our First Reading is a little much, a little too intense, we can seek refuge and find comfort in the words of today’s psalm, Psalm 19, which has much more of a focus on the glory of God, rather than on the judgment and on the fierce anger of God.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Here the skies are reflective of festivity and joy, and the heavens celebrate the creative power of God.
The mention of the “firmament,” by the way, is a reference from ancient cosmology, from the worldview which believed the earth was covered by a large dome, separating the heavenly waters from the earthly waters.
Interestingly, in Psalm 19 both light and darkness and their changing cycle bear testimony to the goodness of God. The positive portrayal of darkness is highlighted in the verse that says, “night to night declares knowledge” (Psalm 19:2), affirming that the whole created world worships God.
The positive and hopeful message of Psalm 19 carries over to our Second Reading in which the Apostle Paul encourages his readers to be “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” and “to shine like stars in the sky” (Philippians 2:15).
This is a natural world analogy viewing the stars in the sky as invincible and unchanging and bringing light in the midst of a world darkened by evil and wrongdoing. But exactly how are we believers going “to shine like the stars in the sky”?
Our radiance, our bright witness, is derived from “hold[ing] firmly to the word of life,” from building a faith on Scripture as the Word of God (Philippians 2:16).
If we want to shine like the stars of the sky and bring hope to a dark world – and this is the encouragement and direction we are given in our Second Reading, we should cling to God’s Word, grow in God’s Word, become “enlightened,” and allow our brightness to bathe others and the world around us in the light of Christ.
This Second Reading passage concludes with the Apostle Paul encouraging gladness and rejoicing (Philippians 2:17, 18), but that may not be our first inclination, especially as we move into looking at our Gospel text because it takes us back to a darkened sky and to, initially, at least, a sad encounter with the death of Jesus.
Gospel-writer Mark says the sky was dark for the three hours while Jesus was dying on the cross. Those who interpret this descent of darkness as the mourning of the skies at the death of Jesus claim this understanding is supported by the account, also found here, of the tearing of the temple veil.
Elsewhere in Scripture and here the tearing of cloth or garments is a sign of mourning and grief. So many say Mark’s message is clear: the dark sky during the crucifixion is a sign that the whole of creation is mourning the death of Jesus.
But let’s also remember that it’s called “Good Friday” for a reason – a reason clearly sensed and understood by the centurion, the Roman soldier who stood right there in front of Jesus. When he saw how Jesus died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
The darkened sky, just like that centurion, was a witness to the torture and agony Jesus endured on the cross.
And, in a great reversal, the death of Jesus brings new life, new life for us, through Jesus’ defeat of the powers of sin, evil, and death by means of the cross and His resurrection.
In our physical lives, we recognize that we are dependent on clear skies and clean air to breathe and to maintain a healthy existence. An ecological reading of these texts ought to remind us of our need to protect the sky and the air around us from pollution.
In our spiritual lives, we are dependent upon our merciful and loving God who, through the cross and empty tomb of Jesus, has granted us forgiveness, new life in Christ, and eternal salvation. This is our hope, and may this knowledge and trust be always at the heart of our faith. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.