Riddles in the Dark


When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut. No one was anywhere near him. Just imagine his fright! He could hear nothing, see nothing, and he could feel nothing except the stones of the floor. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 5)

Later in the chapter Bilbo encounters a strange creature who lives in the darkness and the depths of the mountain; his name is Gollum. As Bilbo tries to figure a way out of his predicament, he distracts Gollum from attack by engaging him in a game of riddles. Gollum offers Bilbo a riddle:

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,

Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.

It lies behind stars and under hills,

And empty holes it fills.

It comes first and follows after,

Ends life, kills laughter.

(The answer: Dark)

A lot of scary things can happen in the dark. It feels like we, as humans, are designed to be creatures of the light; not the darkness! How many of us tense up a bit as we are out and about, and notice the daylight is diminishing? How many of us feel better indoors at night? How many of us have all sorts of lights on at the house, whether they are floodlights outside, or hallway lights, or night lights that are left on all night…just in case.

Our fear of the dark is not all completely made up, right? Most crimes happen in the dark…an assumption that is not completely accurate. Predators hunt at night!…and in the day. Well, at least I feel more uncomfortable in the dark! We feel less attuned with the outside world in the darkness; we feel less secure.

What is it about the darkness that we fear?

In a similar way, many of us have labeled times of tragedy, disappointment, and failure in our lives as ‘dark’ days. After all, we as humans have an entire time period in human history called ‘The Dark Ages’!

There is another book that I have enjoyed reading this past year called ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark,’ by Barbara Brown Taylor. She picks up on this natural…and learned fear of the dark, and shares of her own experiences within the physical, as well as spiritual darkness that we all seem to go through at one point or another. We all have our highs and lows, our good days and bad, our days filled with light, and others that just seem filled with darkness of the soul.

Let’s face it, there seems to be a lot of darkness in the world today. Darkness is easy to understand and describe as we live with the short days of January, the lack of sun, and the overabundance of night. The nation seems divided amongst itself, unwilling to compromise and seek common ground for the sake of unity. There is endless violence around the world and here at home. People continue to suffer and die each day from causes that seem so easily preventable. Immorality within our communities seems to be on the incline as church membership declines. The very fabrics of strength and reliability that we have grown up relying on seem to be dangling in the wind of uncertainty and fear.

When will the morning light come?

Many similar images of darkness can be found in scripture as well. The Bible begins with a story of God creating the universe out of darkness and emptiness. Moses, Job, Jonah, Ezekiel, Nicodemus…even Jesus will experience darkness. This morning’s scripture texts, however, are not only about darkness, but also about light.

Our scripture text from the prophet Isaiah provides words of hope and faith for a people who have lived and struggled for so many days. We read through the chapters of Isaiah as the people of Israel are warned of future conquest, occupation, and oppression at the hand of the Babylonians.

Yet in chapter 9 we read words ultimately of hope:

2   The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. 

Our Gospel text from Matthew in chapter 4 will take these very same words from Isaiah to connect with the life and ministry of Jesus as the Messiah when he heads to Galilee.

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15  “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles

16  the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

We then pick up with verse 17:

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

It’s as if the darkness of John’s imprisonment in verse 12 has helped propel the story of the spreading light of Christ as Jesus begins his ministry; “…the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

 In many ways this is reminiscent of the Advent story as the light of Christ enters the scene. This light of God would continue to grow as Jesus invites disciples to follow him. And who are the first people to experience this light that is dawning? Fishermen; young men, who often times would work all night long on the sea to catch enough fish to survive in the tough world of biblical Israel.

19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 


23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I wonder what these fishermen were thinking when Jesus approached. I wonder if they spoke of such things while they tended their nets on the boats leading up to that point.

‘Hey, did you hear about this Jesus guy who is in town? I wonder what he is all about.’

I wonder if during those long nights on the boat, deep within their hearts, if they yearned for something deeper in their lives.

If they had a purpose beyond simply the daily grind of fishing day and night.

If God had other plans.

I wonder if they ever heard the words of Isaiah before; words written from long ago, during dark times in the history of the people of Israel:

…in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2   The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.


So here’s the thing about the dark. It can be scary at first, but after a while we recognize that there are some good…even great things that are there.

It’s only in the darkness of a night’s sky that we can witness the splendor of the moon and stars. It’s in the darkness that our bodies slow and begin the process of restorative sleep. It’s in the darkness that fires burn their brightest, and we enjoy the warmth of the blue, yellow, and orange flames. And its in the darkness of our spiritual journeys that we are able to see the light of Christ.

Bilbo Baggins, our beloved Hobbit, did not know it at the time, but there in the darkness as he stumbled amongst the rocks, he discovered an object, a ring, that would later turn the tides of history.

This is our Good News this morning: when there is darkness in the world, God moves, even in the darkest of moments. And this movement of God is realized in the light of Christ as God’s Kingdom is realized here on earth.

If God is moving in the darkness even now, then how is God moving in our lives? Where, even in the darkness, can we maybe listen and hear the movement of God, or see the faint silhouette of our Creator at work in the world around us? Even in the darkness of these days with all of the world’s uncertainties, frustrations, and fears…where can we point to God at work in the world?


It is in Christ Jesus that we find our light, our love, our hope. It’s in Jesus that those young fishermen were compelled to leave their old lives behind in order to follow him; to become part of God’s light, themselves.

We are called to be the light today. On this day, in this time, yes there are dark days. Yes, we have grown wearisome and disheartened. Yet God is still moving, even…especially in the midst of such darkness.

16  the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The light of God is present today, especially in the darkness of our lives. God is not only around us, but the light of God is within us as well. In the relationships we form, in the words we share, and in the actions we take for justice and love. Thanks be to God, who moves within this darkness to share with us the light and love of Christ Jesus. Amen.




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