Monday, July 4, 2016

in the fourth watch of the night

“For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.” -Elie Wiesel
“…and in the fourth watch of the night…” -Matthew 14:25

It is 3 a.m. on July 3 and I am sleepless. Yesterday I read two more distressing reports of violence.

And, coincidentally, Elie Wiesel has died. He was a man of peace who was all too familiar with the violence of Auschwitz—violence gone mad.

The world seems to have had its fill of violence. When is enough enough? When will it be over?

It is 3 a.m. and I am watching, waiting, hoping, praying.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
How long, O Lord, how long?

“…and in the fourth watch of the night…”

The Romans marked time in three-hour increments as did the Jews of the first century CE.

Each three-hour increment was called a watch. The first watch began at sunset. It stretched from 6 pm to 9 pm. The second watch went up to midnight, the third watch till 3 a.m. and the fourth watch till 6 a.m.—when the morning began.

In the account of creation found in Genesis, we read that when the world was made—when everything good and bright and beautiful appeared—it emerged in a surprising rhythm. “And there was evening and there was morning…” the text reads.

Evening came first; then morning.  

The two form a rhythm, not unlike the contractions of childbirth, pain followed by release. “History is cosmic pregnancy,” writes the philosopher Peter Kreeft. The new birth will come, but the real labor of life occurs at night.

Never forget: important things happen in darkness.  

“…and in the fourth watch of the night…”

It is still dark outside. I can hear a cardinal—yes, I can tell the sound of his call—anticipating the dawn with his clear, strong voice. It is as if he is saying, “Listen! There is life. Listen, just listen!”

Let’s listen. A moment of silence, please, for victims of violence.


The list takes its toll. It is 3 a.m. and I am sleepless. Awakened by tragedy. So much tragedy in less than one month.

I am burdened by the nightclub in Orlando.


The airport in Turkey.


The restaurant in Bangladesh.


Four days ago, John Njaramba Kiruga, a Christian leader in Kenya wrote this brief email to a friend: "Am at Garrisa we had a very good peace seminar since yesterday. Heading to Mandera tomorrow. Pray for us pray for Kenya....More details next week. Again pray for us Mandera is not that safe for now, but we must preach peace at all cost. John."

Pastor John, as he is known, was dedicated to peacemaking between Muslims and Christians.

His friend, grieving, wrote these words on Saturday. “He had finished the peacemaking programs and was just one hour outside of Mandera when the bus he was riding in was attacked by gunman. Five others were also killed.”

A colleague of Pastor John’s wrote: “Pastor John was a faithful servant who loved God and desired for others to experience that love…I hope his life of faith inspires a new generation of Kenyans to live into the calling God has for them.”

A moment of silence for lives taken in Kenya.

“For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.”

Is there hope? We remember, but memory is not enough. We need hope.

Is there hope? Will the night end?

In the classic book Night, Wiesel writes of the night he arrived at the concentration camp: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

His was a life dedicated to the practice of remembrance. Never forget. Never.

In his lecture upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Wiesel tells this wonderful story about the power of memory.

A Hasidic legend tells us that the great Rabbi Baal-Shem-Tov, Master of the Good Name, also known as the Besht, undertook an urgent and perilous mission: to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people, all humanity were suffering too much, beset by too many evils. They had to be saved, and swiftly. For having tried to meddle with history, the Besht was punished; banished along with his faithful servant to a distant island. In despair, the servant implored his master to exercise his mysterious powers in order to bring them both home. "Impossible", the Besht replied. "My powers have been taken from me". "Then, please, say a prayer, recite a litany, work a miracle". "Impossible", the Master replied, "I have forgotten everything". They both fell to weeping.

Suddenly the Master turned to his servant and asked: "Remind me of a prayer - any prayer." "If only I could", said the servant. "I too have forgotten everything". "Everything - absolutely everything?" "Yes, except - "Except what?" "Except the alphabet". At that the Besht cried out joyfully: "Then what are you waiting for? Begin reciting the alphabet and I shall repeat after you...". And together the two exiled men began to recite, at first in whispers, then more loudly: "Aleph, beth, gimel, daleth...". And over again, each time more vigorously, more fervently; until, ultimately, the Besht regained his powers, having regained his memory.

When a loved one dies we desire to “honor their memory.” We observe moments of silence to show our honor. Is there more? How does one best honor the memory of victims of violence?

Pastor John and Elie Wiesel have something in common. They honor the memory of victims by the practice of peace.

“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying,
‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’” -Luke 22:19

It is now 4:45 a.m. as I write this. The call of the cardinal has not diminished.

It is the first Sunday of the month and our church has a custom of taking communion on the first Sunday. It just so happens that this week the children at our church will lead the service. Since I have the privilege of working with the children, I will help them.

It is my first time leading communion at our church and I wanted the church to hear a story we use to help children reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist.

The story as I will tell it is adapted from two authors (Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman). As I take my place behind the altar table on which is placed the bread and the wine, I will say:

This table is set in the midst of violence. This table is a place of crucifixion and resurrection. Because of that it is, ultimately, God’s answer to a world of violence.

Here is how we talk about this table when we wonder about its meaning with the children at Grace. The story goes this way:

I am the Good Shepherd.  I know each one of my sheep by name. They know the sound of my voice.

When I call, they follow.

I lead them to good, green places. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, my sheep have nothing to fear. I am with them.

I prepare a table for them in the midst of enemies. I prepare a table in the darkness.

I am here in the bread and wine. I am here in the feast.

Anyone who follows me comes to this table. All are welcome at this table. Young and old. Rich and poor. People of all colors come to this table.

This table is a place of peace. This table is my answer to the world’s violence.

It’s a mystery how something so small can be so important. It’s a mystery how something so simple and gentle can be so powerful. This table is my answer to the world’s violence.  

At this table there is remembrance in its fullest form. Full remembrance summons the past to provide hope for the future. In full remembrance, the past is alive today. The Table is a place of full remembrance. Something happened and still happens today. That something is forgiveness, reconciliation, peace. Christ, who could have called ten thousand angels to liberate him from injustice, laid down his rights instead and suffered the punishment we deserved. Paraphrasing Peter: “He who had no sin was made sin for us.”

He did this to conquer enmity, to lay to rest the source of the endless cycle of violence and counter-violence—the hatred within.

That is why I love the Table of Jesus. It helps us remember atonement, even as we remember injustice. Because there is redemption at the Table, our remembrance of injustice cannot paralyze us. Rather, redemption frees us to act boldly in mercy and love.

“As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.” -John 13:30

Important things happen at night.

When the friends of Jesus were stuck in the middle of the lake in the middle of a storm that threatened to take their lives, Jesus showed up “in the fourth watch of the night”—sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.

You may not believe Jesus actually walked on water but even taken as a mythic story, there is significance in the detail of timing. The fourth watch is that time when it still feels like the thick of the night, but if you just hold on a little longer, the night will be over and the sun will rise. The fourth watch may begin with nightmares but it ends with awakening. It is in the fourth watch that Jesus comes to the rescue and calms the storm.

In Luke 20:9-15 Jesus tells a story about an owner of a vineyard. The owner rented his property to some farmers and then went on a long journey. When the owner sent a servant to collect his due, the renters beat him and sent him away. When the owner sent a second servant, the renters treated him the same way. The owner then sent a third servant and this one they wounded. Finally, the owner sent a fourth person, his own son—and the renters killed him.

The repetition is reminiscent of the watches of the night. The parallel is apparent. It is now the fourth watch and the Son of Man has arrived. The time is pregnant. The dawn of a new day is upon us.

In Mark 13:34-37 the remarks of Jesus remind us of the parable of the tenants. He says, “It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

Note the time sequencing embedded in Jesus’ words: In the evening (9 p.m.), at midnight (12 a.m.), when the rooster crows (3 a.m.) and at dawn (6 a.m.). 

This same three-four pattern is reflected repeatedly in connection with Jesus’ passion. Notice that the Passover supper is observed at sunset, in the early evening. When the meal is finished, Jesus goes with the eleven disciples (Judas had left already) to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.

He asks Peter, James and John to pray with him but they fall asleep.  He asks them again, but they fall asleep. Finally, he asks them a third time and when he returns, the “fourth watch” is nigh.

Mark 14:41 says: “Returning the third time, he said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come.” (emphasis added)

Later, Peter is questioned by those who would see Jesus killed. He denies it…three times…and then the rooster crows. Note the parallel with the text in Mark when Jesus says we will know the “end” is near when the rooster crows.

What is surprising about the narrative from a literary standpoint is this: if this were “just a story” the author would tend to craft it to “resolve” at daybreak. But with the story of Jesus we pass through the third and fourth watch of the night and when the dawn comes the worst is yet to be. He is nailed to the cross at 9 a.m. (at the close of the “first watch of the day”) and he dies around 3 p.m., when the “fourth watch of the day” is just beginning. His body is taken down from the cross and buried before 6 p.m. Friday which is when the Sabbath began.

Then, there is Sabbath. That in itself is interesting to ponder. But note: Jesus is in the grave for two nights and then...prior to the end of the fourth watch of the night, he is raised from the dead.

Like the rescue of his friends in the midst of the storm, Jesus comes “just in time” when the darkness seems to be most dense.

Important things happen at night. The question is: what should we do when the darkness thickens as it has this past month? What should we do when terror and fear seem to grow stronger and stronger?

Don’t take this question as if I am an end-times nut, but I wonder…what should we do in this “fourth watch of the night”?

Elie Wiesel reminds us never to forget the atrocities of the night. That is a good start and it may be a good ending, too—especially if the remembrance is a “full remembrance” where the past speaks to a future hope.

But, I still wonder…what else is important to remember and practice in these dark days? And I am especially thinking of those who say they follow Jesus when I ask this.  


Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight…But now my kingdom is from another place.” -John 18:36

As I finish these reflections it is now 12:15 a.m. on July 4. July 4…an important day in the collective consciousness of the United States. It is no coincidence this sense of “darkness” feels overwhelming to many, many people.

It is an election year. Already the campaign has been ugly. There is a sense of hopelessness as voters begin to weigh their options. Should one vote for the “bad” candidate or the “less bad” candidate?

Many Christians wonder: “What is happening to us?” By “us” is meant…America—and Christians.

The darkness seems dense. What is one to do? I offer some thoughts.

I find Jesus’ words to Pilate instructive: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight…But now my kingdom is from another place.” -John 18:36

The context here is that Pilate “threatened” Jesus with his power. Christ’s response is telling: his power cannot be taken away by any government, whether political or religious.

I will not mince words here. Christian: the practice of your faith does not depend on governmental backing or any kind of Constitution, no matter how “perfect” we think that Constitution may be.

What’s more, if Jesus’ words are true (and I think they are) you should remember that no one can “take away” your “rights” because in this world you have no rights. You belong to Christ’s kingdom and that kingdom is not of this world.

These days I hear lots of talk about how Christian “religious liberty” is being threatened. But how can that be? Christian liberty is not something that can be granted by political process. Religious liberty is something you have or don’t have. It is intrinsic to your being and no one can take that from you, no matter how difficult they may make life for you.

Because “religious liberty” is an intrinsic quality, we need not feel threatened by the ebb and flow of external favor…by the populace, the media, the government or the strength of those who practice a faith different than yours.

Remember: there is no such thing as compelled liberty. A liberty that requires legislation is not true liberty. Laws may attempt to protect liberty but the deepest forms of liberty do not need laws. That is Christian liberty.

Speaking of protection, the Christian does not need the protection of guns to practice the faith. To follow Jesus one does not need a firearm. The Christian answer to violence is the Table not the pistol.

This does not mean it is wrong to own a gun. It simply means: you do not need a gun or even an amendment guaranteeing the “right to bear arms” to follow Jesus. Gun or no gun, you can follow Jesus.

The greatest “weapon” in the Christian’s arsenal during dark times is simply this: light. I know that sounds naïve, but it is really true. Our greatest defense against the dark is light.

That light is love, sacrificial love. That light is inviting. That light invites. There is no coercion with light. There is no strong-armed politics with light. Light needs no spin. It is simple and pure. It is warm, bright and cheerful. It is hospitable, even to strangers. Light is friendly. Warm lights make good neighbors. The light of Christ is not diminished when we share it freely. On the contrary, all new light taken from the original light leaves the original light intact and only adds to the light. Light shared freely multiplies.

In the fourth watch of the night reach for the light.

In the fourth watch do not reach for your Constitution. The Constitution is not the light. The Constitution may fail one day, but the light of Jesus never will.

In the fourth watch do not lose sleep about your candidate and their platform. In the fourth watch look for Jesus. He will come to you walking on the water if he has to, in the midst of the storm. He will go to hell and back for you. He will fight without a sword. He will tear down the walls, not build them. In the fourth watch, he opens his arms to all. In the fourth watch, we can open our arms, too—because we are safe in him.

“During these many tedious and distressing hours of storm and tempest, of darkness and danger, Jesus saw his disciples, though they saw not him: he beheld their perplexity and fear, while they were conflicting with the winds and waves, and observed how they toiled in rowing: yet he delayed all this time to go to their relief; seeing it proper so long to try their faith and patience. But in the fourth watch — When, it is probable, as the storm was not at all abated, they had begun to despair of deliverance; Jesus went unto them, walking on the water — agitated, stormy, and tumultuous as its billows were. Thus God often lengthens out the troubles of his people, and defers the time of their deliverance. But when things are come to an extremity, and they are ready to think he hath forgotten them, he unexpectedly appears for their relief and rescue; of a sudden the storm becomes a calm, and they are happily brought into a safe port. Thus, in the morning watch he appeared for Israel in the Red sea, troubled and dismayed their pursuing enemies, and delivered his people: and in all ages the extremity of his church has been his opportunity to visit and appear for her. He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, but has constantly his eye upon them, and, when there is need, walks in darkness for their succour, support, and comfort.” (Benson Commentary; Matthew 14:25)

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