theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

March 30, 2003 (Lent 4B)

[preached at First Lutheran Church, Vancouver, BC]
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21 (primary text)

Since I didn't like what I preached on March 28th, I ditched it and wrote this from scratch. Click the time link below to read the sermon.

When I first got a Palm Pilot, I spent days going through every possible feature, setting every setting, customizing everything to my own personal life. I put in every single class, assignment, meeting, birthday, anniversary, holiday, every conceivable thing I might ever want to remember found its way into this little tiny device. When I was setting the location, which in turn sets the format of dates and times, I realized that by moving from Seattle to Vancouver, when the longest day of the year came, I had gained a whopping fifteen minutes of extra daylight. Fifteen minutes! Can you believe it! Drive two hours north and you get an extra fifteen minutes on June 21st! I know this might seem silly to those of you who have lived in northern Canada, where you get hours of extra daylight on June 21st, but bear with me here. I was so excited; I didn’t have any games on the Palm Pilot yet, so for fun I’d pretend I was in different cities around the world and see how much extra time I got.

Of course, eventually I settled down and left the Palm Pilot set to Vancouver. Eventually I also realized that I would lose fifteen minutes on December 21st. The gift of extra light wasn’t a gift at all; it was simply an exchange that would even itself out in the end. Now, as we approach the fullness of Lent--after all, Lent means “lengthening”, which is what the days are doing now--it can be so pleasing and hopeful to have more daylight that we don’t think about the corresponding shorter days of the fall, the darker times that are ahead. The longest day is yet to come, the sun has yet to shine in all its glory, the brightest light is not yet here.

There’s an important thing to know about John’s Gospel, and that’s the language he used, the specific key words. We encounter lots of polar opposites, lots of words that are set against each other. Either you are in, or out. Either you are good, or evil. Either you are white, or black. Either you are right, or wrong. Either you are with us, or you are against us. You get the picture. It can be confusing sometimes, because John uses all these opposites, but that’s not what it’s really about. Yes, John does use “light” and “darkness” as opposites, but look at the other words. Instead of setting “evil” against “good”, he sets “evil” against “truth”. And “world”--what is “world” set up against?

It is worth taking some time to think about what we mean when we are talking about light. We are not talking about white instead of black, right instead of wrong, good instead of evil. We are talking about realization, sight, knowing. We are talking about reality, about the way things really are, about true identities. What was the first thing God created? Light. Where was God before creation? In the dark.

It is worth taking some time to think about what we mean when we are talking about darkness. We are not talking about a substance, an evil entity that seeks to bring death and destruction. We are talking about the absence of light, the absence of revelation, the absence of knowing the truth. People--including us--do not love darkness because it is evil, but because it prevents knowledge of evil. We do not love one half of the whole; we love what keeps us from seeing the whole. We say we want to know the truth, but in the words of Jack Nicholson, we can’t handle the truth. Too much light, and we are blinded. Too much dark, and we are also blinded.

Even though we will get fifteen more minutes of light here in Vancouver, the darkness still abounds. Evil cannot be confined to one arena; it spreads through personal and public space, through hearts and minds and mouths, through hands and feet and eyes, through pocketbooks and cell phones and magazines and picket signs and gas pumps, through high-rise offices and suburban houses and tiny straw huts, through Ottawa and Washington D.C. and Baghdad and Pyongyang. Sometimes we can point outside us to evil and sometimes it is present in our closest relationships. Even when we think the light is finally here, evil whitewashes itself and struts proudly at full noon. We grab huge buckets of black and white paint and throw them desperately at those we think should be in the light. Because we are in darkness, we can’t see what is true, and because we can’t do what is true, we can’t come to the light.

Receiving and basking in the light is much more difficult than trying to give the light--or the darkness, for that matter--to someone else. Notice how even in verse 18 of our lesson, when those who believe are not condemned but those who do not believe are condemned, the condemnation doesn’t come from those who believe, it doesn’t come from Jesus, and it doesn’t even come from God. It simply is. Is this a matter of heaven and hell? Or maybe, is this a matter of knowing and not knowing? Of not being able to see God’s truth?

Maybe we can find a clue about light and darkness by looking before this passage, by reading the story of Nicodemus and how he came to Jesus and asked how one could be born from above. He came to Jesus at night--alone--in the darkness--and he could not see the truth of what Jesus was telling him. Nicodemus--a Pharisee, an enlightened member of society--was intrigued by Jesus’ message, but was enmeshed in darkness. But as the gospel of John unfolds, we see a miraculous change in Nicodemus. When the Jewish leaders seek to give Jesus an unfair trial, Nicodemus tries to stand up to them. After the crucifixion, Nicodemus helps take Jesus’ body from the cross and bury it. Although he was in darkness, he continued to follow the spark of light which in the end could not be overcome. In the next chapter, we find the story of the Samaritan woman, who in the eyes of her society was a true creature of the night, yet she came to Jesus at full noon, and understood the truth about him almost immediately.

Can you see the successful CEO, with the beautiful wife and the Granville Island condo and the two perfect kids and the Mercedes, slipping out of his crisp clean sheets one night and dressing in a hurry, dashing down the mirrored hall, creeping out to see this strange man called Jesus? Can you see Jesus asking the prostitute from the downtown Eastside for a drink in the middle of a hot August day, and can you see her saying to her friends at lunch that day, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did?” Can you see the fences and boundaries of the world being crossed freely and being redefined when the light falls on them?

We can become so absorbed in the language of light and darkness, of belief and judgment, of evil and truth, that we forget to look forward to the end of the story, the end that we know is coming at the end of Lent. The cruel end of judgment and condemnation and rejection and betrayal. Even though Jesus knows Judas will betray him, he still washes his feet and called him his own, and blesses those who remain in darkness. After darkness has covered the land on Friday, we sit in the darkness of the tomb, but when the stone finally groans and rolls an inch to the side, light spills through the crack, and suddenly we have a difficult choice to make. Do we dare show people how wounded we are, show the truth about ourselves in order to see the truth about God?

In being “lifted up”, the boundaries we draw for blessing or condemnation are often wrenched from our hands and put to God’s purposes. Being lifted up on the cross was the ultimate sign of Jesus’ condemnation. Gazing with horror on that instrument of capital punishment put you in the line of fire; put you in danger of being the next one up there. Yet condemnation here is twisted into exaltation; Jesus’ being lifted up is in the end not degradation, but his glorification. Lifting up a man on a cross has been twisted into lifting a beloved Son into his Father’s embrace.

For God loved the world like this. That sacrifice is being twisted into abundance, that darkness is being twisted into light, that death is being twisted into life, and that the world--------the world, too, is being twisted into life.

And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds through Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.