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.