Banishing the fear that shrouds the light of Christ
Lent 4B | John 3:14-21
In the Dark of Night
When we pulled up to the bus stop this week in the inky-blue of morning, we found ourselves at the back of the line. A small handful of 3rd or 4th graders rule the stop and are always out there, in the snow and cold, or like this week, the fog and the rain. They play at the corner and obliviously run out into the street.
Before the time change, I could see it all much more clearly. And my being there every morning made it possible to know who was always there. I knew which children were waiting and playing and obstructing. I didn’t need to make out their faces, just their general size and shape. The coat they wear or the color of their backpack is enough.
Jesus talks about the dark and the things done in the dark, but he isn’t talking about bus stops, is he? He isn’t talking about driving home after the 2nd shift or in for the 3rd shift. He isn’t talking about staying out for an evening class or to drink or brew beer with friends.
He talks about the dark because of what the dark obscures. We have the perfect phrase for what Jesus is speaking to: “under the cover of darkness.” Darkness is the cover, the blanket, the part that prevents us from seeing truth.
Jesus brings up this image of the dark and the evil that lurks there because this moment in the story, he is standing in the dark.
Nicodemus, a known Pharisee, comes to Jesus in the middle of the night. He has questions and wants to ask them when its safe, when nobody can see him talking with Jesus. He’s a smart man who seems foolish before Jesus. We’re invited to see this moment as an opportunity for vulnerability, for Nicodemus opening himself up in the way that he didn’t otherwise feel like he could.
This seems like a good thing. And yet Jesus goes on about the dark, about evil and the love of the dark. That people love the dark so that they can’t be seen: so that their evil can’t be exposed. In this story, it feels like Jesus is going after the wrong guy, riding him for coming forward, for even sticking his neck out at all.
But his neck isn’t actually out if nobody else can see it.
“Nothing good happens after 2 A.M.”
As much as the story’s light/dark motif gets us thinking about good and evil, and Jesus’s own words get us thinking about what evil is, the story has less to say about what counts as evil, about what makes acts of evil actually evil. It speaks instead to what evil does to us. It speaks to our need to hide it away and pretend it isn’t there. To lie and cheat and sow despair because we don’t want to be caught doing evil. In other words, evil begets evil. The darkness is the way to hide it. But hidden, evil doesn’t go away, it stews and grows.
So we’re told to come to the light: that what is done in the light is of GOD. Be honest. Tell the truth. Maybe go home earlier rather than later. Great advice. Like one of the greatest truths from the show How I Met Your Mother: “Nothing good happens after 2 A.M.” Just go home.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Much easier to say you’re not going to lie when you aren’t the one in trouble. Much easier to say that mistakes need to be punished when we aren’t the ones making the mistakes. Much easier to shake the investigation off your tail and pretend like it was all some great misunderstanding. Rather than come forward: admit we made a mistake or did what we knew was wrong.
And much easier to condemn people for the cover up. Or the screw up. Or both. Much easier to think the evil Jesus is talking about is on somebody else. Not us. Never us.
The Snake and the Light
This is why the snake reference is here. This isn’t a preview of Good Friday, when Jesus will literally be lifted up, or an elevation of place, but quite the opposite. Jesus compares the Son of Man, the Human One to the snake GOD instructed Moses to lift up to heal the people.
A central theme of the book Numbers, the 4th book of the Torah, is about GOD’s work, that GOD liberated the people from Egypt and provided for them in the desert, gave them structure and order and safety, defeated their enemies, and gave them the land they were promised. This isn’t stuff they did on their own: they didn’t earn it. GOD did it. The book of Numbers is all about GOD.
And my favorite part of Numbers, why I keep preaching at our Bible study that Numbers is actually relevant to our experience, is that GOD keeps communicating this fact to the people and they just can’t get it. Like Jesus with the disciples, they hear it and then the next day, the are grumbling about not having any food. Er, I mean, good food. Like the kind we’re willing to eat. Or we’re tired of this Manna you gave to save us, GOD. Where’s the steak? Where’s the mac and cheese? The hot dogs on the grill? The fruit juice. Gosh! What I wouldn’t give for some juice! No fruit juice? You’re the worst!
And even Moses makes the mistake of thinking that this is about him and not about GOD.
GOD provides the people with this snake to heal them. So for Jesus, GOD provides the Human One to save.
Which means this isn’t about who Jesus is, or how he fits into the grand scheme of things. Right here, he is telling us to see him as an act of GOD, not as some magician or that he is being a god. But that he is being revealed so that GOD can heal.
We wouldn’t be able to see him in the dark if he weren’t the light. If he weren’t the light casting out the darkness and revealing the corners and shifting the shadows from below our tables and under our beds. That’s why we’re talking about the light. Not because Jesus is good and people are evil. It is because GOD is being revealed, the good is shining through, even in the darkest places.
And we, if we are of GOD, are light-bearers and light-bringers.
From the Darkness
I choose to think that Nicodemus can find Jesus at night because Jesus isn’t hiding from the dark. And more to it, that he is lurking in the dark. And not because he’s evil or because he’s immune to the stuff. I think he’s hanging out, waiting for people who need healing: people like Nicodemus who don’t know how to come out during the day, who don’t know how to be vulnerable, who are too afraid of being hurt, this is when they come out.
I choose to think that Jesus wanted to go to where he was needed most, to the place where darkness has obscured the living.
That’s really what Jesus is getting at when he speaks of “eternal life”. Not an objective permanent life in some other place, but vibrant living now. Healing, saving, bringing light to now so that we can live the lives of GOD’s dreams. Not in the abundance of stuff, but in a life of hope and joy and thankfulness for what GOD is doing in our midst. A life that radiates and illuminates, not our way but the way for all those around us.
Like Jesus, we become the gift for others, the very salvific light that beats back the darkness and destroys the evil of deceit and hatred. The light that nourishes and sustains our loved ones with joy: like faith melatonin in the gray days of winter.
So we can’t be afraid of the dark or the evils lurking in the dark. Instead, we are called to stop being afraid of the light. Afraid of the truth. Afraid of our own weakness. Our own mortality. Our own mistakes. The things we try to hide in dark corners of our homes and our churches and our lives.
Because we forget that we are the flashlight: we’re the way other people can even see where they’re going. How they can even make it through the night alive. So we need to be hanging out in dark places. Where light can actually do something.
Though our lights may dim from time to time, we don’t have to worry about changing the batteries. What we have to do is live. Really live. Vibrant, present life. A life of GOD: of joy and hope and thankfulness: and to give of ourselves. A life of vulnerability and honesty. A life that is unmistakably GOD’s. A really powerful life. A life of light to scatter the darkness in our midst. A life lighted by all these people around us and all those lives we touch. Here, now.