For the love of darkness

It is almost unfair to make John 3:16 part of a lesson that can be read on Sunday morning.  It has become such a cultural Christian trope that it is basically impossible for us to hear anything other than “For God so loved the world…”  We miss, in my opinion, the far better verse that immediately follows.  The RCL hivemind has tried to help us out, by including Jesus’ passing reference to that really odd story from Numbers 21, but honestly, what preacher in their right mind is going to the “God killed people with snakes and then saved them with an idol of a snake” story?  It seems the best option for this week might be to help people get past the snakes and forget about the man in the rainbow wig and preach the reprise of John’s light and darkness motif.


The judgment that Jesus came to save us from is this, that the light had come into the world, and people loved darkness instead of the light.  For all the good that Christianity has done in the world, for its music and art, for its (occasional) embrace of peace, for its (purported) sharing of the love of God, this statement about our love of darkness is as true today as it was when Jesus first said it.

It doesn’t take long to see what Jesus means.  A quick scroll of your Facebook newsfeed will show that Christians on both sides of the American political divide have decided to live in darkness, addicted to anger and worshiping the idol of being right.  Some are obvious: the racially motivated meme or the picture intended to poke fun at someone’s appearance.  Other instances of the darkness that we choose to love are less conspicuous.  It is the veiled dig at those who disagree with us; the passive aggressive comment about fellow children of God.

As we enter the middle week of Lent, it seems appropriate that things are as dark as they will get ahead of Good Friday.  Perhaps this week, rather than being enamored with John 3:16 or grossed out by snakes, it is probably a good opportunity to take stock of where we have decided to choose darkness rather than light, to repent of those decisions, and to ask God to help us walk in the true light of grace.


Testify to the Light


When approaching an airport in low light conditions, a pilot is trained to look for the airport’s beacon.  You’ve surely seen them as well.  They are particularly noticeable near a smaller airfield where roads often pass by in close proximity.  Often when there are some low level clouds lingering about, you’ll see the white and green beams streaking across the sky.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, helping a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules get their bearings and begin the approach process.  If you can’t see the beacon at the airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

The beacon image came to mind this morning as I was reading John’s version of the John the Baptist story.  The lectionary assigns selected verses from John 1 (6-8, 19-28), including three from the familiar and beloved prologue.  With its dual themes of Word and light, the prologue sets up for the reader the theological foundation of John’s Gospel.  The preexistent Word was sent into the world to shine the light of God for all people.  In our text for Sunday, John is careful to note that John the Baptist is not the light, but rather “he came as a witness to testify to the light.”

Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John was the witness of the light who was to witness about the light.  To stretch the flying metaphor above, JBap had been given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ, and was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light.  He was calling everyone back to their home field.  He was inviting them all to see the light shining in the darkness of the world.

As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are inheritors of this primary vocation.  We are called to share the Good News of Jesus; to help our family, friends, and neighbors to see the beacon that is so often obscured by the fog of fear, anger, hurt, and regret.  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry that light out into the world to help people see that in the light of Christ there is life, and that life is abundant with joy, compassion, grace, hope, and love.  The world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but with the light of Christ, Christians are called to shine in the darkness, for as we hear in the prologue, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Wednesday in Holy Week 2017 – a homily

This is the sermon I preached at Wednesday’s Downtown Church’s Holy Week Service.

Good afternoon.  It is my pleasure to be in the pulpit at First Christian Church today.  Megan and Kyle have been such gifts to me during my recent transition into Bowling Green, and so I am extra glad to have my first ecumenical Holy Week sermon take place here.  We have heard two excellent sermons so far, this week.  I’m grateful for my colleagues who have modeled for me what a noonday prayer service homily is supposed to look like.  I hope I don’t disappoint.  Let’s turn our attention then to that which never disappoints us, the word of God.  Our lesson for today comes from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John.

At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples– the one whom Jesus loved– was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.”

When someone asks me how they can get in the habit of reading the Bible with regularity, I always point them to John’s Gospel.  It isn’t that it’s the best book in the Bible or that it tells the Good News of Jesus more effectively than the Synoptic Gospels, but more that I think John was just a remarkable story teller.  Like any good sermon, John hooks us with a fantastic introduction.  The first half of the book uses seven signs and discourses to point us to the mission and ministry of Jesus.  Then, in the second half, John turns his attention to the Passion, which for John is Jesus’ ultimate coronation as the King of kings.  All the way through the text, John weaves key themes as reminders of what this story is really all about.  John’s Gospel is like a great symphony or the score of an epic film.  These leitmotifs, which are introduced at the very beginning, continue to pop up throughout the course of John’s Gospel.

“And it was night.”  Throughout the course of John’s Gospel, the theme of light and dark – day and night – sight and blindness – appear again and again.  In John’s great prologue, he introduces Jesus as, among other things, the light of the world.  Those who live in the light of God’s Son are given the ability to see clearly the will of God for creation, while those who choose to live in darkness are subject to the sort of blindness that happens at night.  Nicodemus, you’ll remember, comes to visit Jesus in the cover of darkness.  When Jesus invites him into the light by being born again, he can’t handle it, and disappears back into the perceived safety of the shadows.  Later, when a crowd had lifted up stones against the woman caught in adultery, Jesus invited them to step into the light.  “Let the one among you who is sinless cast the first stone,” he challenged them.  In the stark light of Christ, none of them were found to be sinless, which prompted Jesus to make one of his great “I am” statements, another leitmotif for John.  “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Even still, the Pharisees would not step into the light – choosing instead to remain in the safety of the darkness.

The theme returns in the story of the man born blind.  Just before Jesus spat on the ground to make the mud that would heal the man, he reiterated to his disciples that his work was to occur in the light of day.  After the drama with the Synagogue was over, the Pharisees again chose to remain blind, living in the darkness of the certainty of their rules and regulations about the Sabbath rather than stepping into the joyful light of Christ’s healing presence.  Yet again, at the raising of Lazarus, Jesus reintroduces the theme of light and darkness.  Over and over again, in John’s Gospel we hear of Jesus who is the light of life while the powers that are actively fighting against the Kingdom of God remain blind in the dark of night.

“Nothing good happens after midnight.”  I’m sure Bo Schembechler wasn’t the first person to say this phrase, but he did make it famous.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve known this to be true in my own life.  We may no longer believe that the night air carries with it evil spirits, but there is still a lot of blindness that happens at night.  Here on Spy Wednesday, we are reminded of that truth on what was one of the darkest night of all, the night Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Way back in chapter six, John tells us that the darkness had already entered Judas long before Jesus handed him that piece of bread.  It seems that Judas had been working for quite a while on his own scheme for the Kingdom of Jesus.  James and John were more forthright, asking Jesus plainly to sit at his right hand and at his left.  Judas was more discreet.  His plan was to use the cover of darkness to launch a surprise attack.  It would require an army, a careful plan, and a leader who was willing to fight.  Increasingly, however, it became clear to Judas that Jesus wasn’t that kind of leader.  Jesus preferred the light of day.  He entered Jerusalem on a donkey in the brightness of the Sunday afternoon sun.  He flipped the tables in the Temple court in front of everyone.  On Tuesday and Wednesday, in the light of day, right in the middle of the Temple court, during the busiest travel holiday on the Jewish calendar, Jesus directly challenged the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees.  By the time dinner rolled around on Wednesday evening, Judas was fully in the dark as to how Jesus’ plan could possibly work, and so, like so many others, Judas committed himself to the darkness.  Maybe if he forced Jesus’ hand.  Maybe if he could get him arrested, Jesus would finally call up the army Judas had been waiting for.  Maybe those legions of angels would come and restore the throne of David to its rightful place.  All of Judas’ maybes depended upon the darkness, but he forgot one key point: Jesus is the light of the world.  The plans of the darkness will never work in the light.  The light always wins.

As we prepare for the Triduum, the most holy of the seasons of the Church, I find myself struggling with the darkness.  Maybe you are too.  Sometimes, it seems, my plans would be so much easier than God’s plan.  Sometimes, it seems, that the safety of the darkness is preferable to the vulnerability of living in the light.  Sometimes, it seems, that Judas exists within all of us.  But Jesus is the light of the world.  Jesus invites us to put our trust in his plans.  They may not be easy, certainly dying on a cross wasn’t easy, but the will of God is light and life abundant.  Jesus invites us to step into the light, warts and all, so that we might see the fullness of God’s overwhelming love.  Jesus invites us to see the Judas that lives inside of us, to be honest about our sinfulness, our failings, our comfort in the darkness, and to allow God’s grace to flood us with the light of life.  “It was night,” John tells us, and we know that it is only going to get darker as the week comes to an end, but we also know that the light of day is soon to break once more.  “The light shines in the darkness,” John assures us as he introduces this theme in the prologue, “and the darkness did not overcome it.”  It was night.  It is night.  But thanks be to God, the light of the world is coming.  Amen.

Formless and Void

I’ve linked to Rob Bell’s fabulously amazing video called “Everything is Spiritual” on this blog before, and I’m glad to do it again today, but things feel different now.  Bell is no longer the pastor of a congregation, having left Mars Hill Bible Church in 2012.  He is now living in California, doing spiritual weekend retreats, a Robcast, and hanging out with Oprah more than I’m comfortable with.  Like other pastors turned famous authors, Bell seems to have succumb to the pressure of his publishers to stay relevant and sales worthy, though I’ll readily admit he still has a strong voice and is certainly making a difference in the world.  I begrudge him partly because I’m jealous and partly because I can’t imagine being a priest outside of the context of a regular, ongoing community, but both of those are about me, not about Rob Bell.

Anyway, long preamble aside, this post isn’t about Rob Bell’s life choices, it is about the book of Genesis, which Bell opens up in a really neat way as his one hour and seventeen minute presentation/lecture/sermon begins in the video below.*

“The earth was formless and void… some translate it ‘wild and waste.'”

That’s where we find ourselves as the lessons open up on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, in a world that is formless and void; wild and waste.  The Spirit is hovering over the waters of chaos, and God is just about to act, simply by saying a word, the Word, but it hasn’t happened quite yet.  There is a tendency to rush to “let their be light.”  We want God to get to work fixing things so that they make sense to our human comprehension, but there is something quite beautiful about the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos.  I think, in times like these, in any times really, it would behoove us to pause, even if only for a moment and think about what it means that God was present, not just before it all, but in it all, especially in the mess and muck and wild and waste.  Think about what it means that God is present even in the chaos.

Just yesterday, an NAACP office was bombed in Colorado; a dozen people were killed in an orchestrated attack on a French satire newspaper; thousands of people were diagnosed with cancer; hundreds of women died in childbirth; and a child died of the totally preventable malaria every 30 seconds.  Some might say that the world is once again wild and waste, and they probably wouldn’t be wrong.  There is a tendency to rush toward the light, to ignore all the bad stuff and look only for God to speak a word, the Word, and make it all right, but there is something to be said, for all of us who live in the midst of chaos and void, for taking time to realize that God is present, even in the darkness.  Perhaps especially in the darkness.

In this Season of Epiphany, as we seek God in the light, I hope we’ll take just a moment to realize that many people live in deep darkness every day.  There is a (somewhat arrogant) tendency to insist that those people join us in the light, but as Christians, we have the opportunity to meet them in that darkness, knowing that God is there.  We aren’t called to stay there, mind you, for the Lord will speak a word, the Word, soon enough, and light will come and it will be good.  It might take a while for the spark to ignite.  In the meantime, we can join with the Spirit as one who is present, hovering over the chaos, offering a word of peace, of comfort, and most especially, of hope.

* You should totally take the time to watch it all. It is a beautiful example of Bell’s gifted storytelling and imaginative theology at work.