TEXTS: Number 21:4-9; John 3:1-21
It is so good to be back into the swing of things here at Zion Church and in life in general. Crazy weather does crazy things to people and I have to tell you that I have spent a good bit of time over the past several days just telling myself what day of the week it was. I don’t think that I can blame it on the weather, but in preparing for this Sunday I did something that I seldom do. I deviated from the official lectionary text for the week! You see, the Lectionary text has us picking up the gospel reading immediately after the story of Nicodemus, well into the theological commentary on what took place during the story of Nicodemus. Now this honestly made no sense to me whatsoever, as it was giving us a commentary without the context. In my understanding, the central point of verses14 – 21 is the statement, “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light.” And yet, in original lectionary text, we miss the point that Jesus was speaking this to Nicodemus who came him in the darkness of night!
We actually know little about Nicodemus. The only mention of him is in the Gospel of John, which could easily mean that he was part of or at least known to the Johannine community. Nicodemus appears three times in John’s gospel and always as Jewish leader that was drawn to and sympathetic of this strange prophet from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth. We have him here in the third chapter curious but cautious, approaching Jesus at night, asking questions at a time when he might not be seen or recognized. Somewhat later we see him as part of the ruling council in Jerusalem calling for moderation toward Jesus and his followers. And finally John has him joining Joseph of Arimathea to assist with the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion.
In the encounter outlined by John in today’s reading poor Nicodemus was really quite lost, as he questioned Jesus from a very concrete, physical position of the law of Moses and was answered by Jesus on a purely Spiritual level as God incarnate. For Nicodemus faith was all about adherence to the law, do this – don’t do that, eat this – don’t eat that, work six days – rest one day. The law, and your attitude toward it, defined your relationship with God and so your theology. How could he then even begin to grasp the teachings of Jesus which centered on a spiritual unity with God that then defined one’s everyday actions and attitudes? The two men were, after all, coming from polar opposites in their understanding of what it was to be a faithful follower of God their Creator.
John then expands this polarization with the concept and imagery of light and dark. The receiving of God, specifically of God’s Spirit, is for John the welcoming of light in the midst of darkness, for the Spirit of God sheds light upon all that we do and say and allows us to make decisions with judgements based on our vision of a world that is filled with that same light of God, a world where we can see all things clearly. Navigating a world where there is no light of God, where we might even shut out the light of God from our lives means that we must grope around in darkness make decisions and judgments based upon a very limited field of vision, and maybe no field of vision at all.
So why would John proclaim in his Gospel that the Judgment of God is that light has come but the people love darkness rather than light? Let me give you just few reasons:
First, as John clearly states, the people love darkness rather light because their deeds are evil. The problem with light is that it is not selective, it illuminates everything, including those things that we just as soon others not see, and like to imagine God cannot see. The #1 deterrent to those who might want to burglarize or vandalize your business or home? Proper lighting, of course! It is very difficult for a burglar or a vandal to hide their actions or even their identity if there is enough light for others to see them. I might add that in today’s electronic era digital cameras, which are more or less extensions of light, increase our ability to see. Cameras as we have here in our own building are constantly able to see what is happening when human eyes are absent.
This whole concept, when taken figuratively, says that humankind loves darkness more than light because humankind, sinful as we are, always has things that we would rather not be seen by those around us, by the world in general, and by God above all.
Secondly, I believe that humankind loves darkness because darkness is what many and possibly most of us are accustomed to. And while, as I noted earlier, we are forced to grope around blindly in the darkness of our lives, once we have familiarized ourselves with the feel of our immediate surroundings, we tend to prefer that familiar territory to the greater lighted world which can be challenging and even troubling.
I have, on many occasions as pastor, found myself listening to people complain about a particular pain or irregularity that they are experiencing with their bodies. But when I kindly suggest that they should get that pain checked out by physician they quickly protest and downplay the problem, “Oh no, I’m sure that it is nothing.” It is quite apparent to me that they would rather deal with the darkness of not knowing rather than risk shedding light upon a problem in fear that the problem is a serious problem. I would much rather sit in my darkened room and deal with my paranoia about the possible dangers of my surroundings than turn on the light to discover that there is indeed a boogeyman standing at the foot of my bed!
Finally, humankind is very adept, and always has been, at creating our own artificial lights and convincing ourselves that the light that we create is enough. I remember my young days on the farm when the dark of night was truly dark. We had no street lamps or dusk to dawn lights; not even the glow from an urban area close by. Yet if there was at least some bit of a moon out or even if the skies were clear enough to let the light of the stars through, I preferred venturing out with no artificial light rather than with something like a flashlight. For while a flashlight lit up my immediate surroundings well, it also blinded me to that which was beyond its beam. I often ventured out, let my eyes adjust, and moved around very well using only the natural light of the night around me.
I believe that people often become convinced that the area lit by their own artificial light is not only enough for them, but sometimes seem to go as far as to believe that there is nothing beyond the reach of their little flashlights, or at least nothing of consequence. This odd form of arrogance causes people to say, “If we haven’t discovered it, it’s not worth discovering.” “If I don’t know something, that thing is not worth knowing.” “If it disagrees with what I believe and what I see within the narrow band of my mental and emotional “flashlight”, then it doesn’t really exist or is completely unimportant to me.
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into world and the people loved darkness rather than light.” Friends, Jesus Christ was and is and will forever be the light that has come into the world. We have the same choice that stood before people of ancient times and before people of every time since, the same choice that will stand before humankind to all eternity; we can choose the light of Christ, the light that is Christ, or we can choose darkness.
I remember a favorite saying of a certain auctioneer that I knew back in Connecticut. Every time Mr. Wacht brought up an antique cast iron door stop, he would introduce it with the words, “Buy this piece, take it home, and when you stub your toe on it in the middle of the night you can name it anything you want!” Friends, it is time for us to quit stumbling around in the night, stubbing our toes and cursing the darkness. The light of God is always before us in the one who we proclaim as Savior of the world. Let us then move to Christ and step into the light that Christ is, Let us renew our joy in the knowledge that we are born anew, born from above, born of the Spirit of God. Let us be a people of the light and share that light with all who will receive it. Amen.