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Both Light and Darkness

  • March 14, 2021
  • 10:30 AM

Sermon for 14 March 2021 (Lent 4 B – Laetare Sunday)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, John 3.14-21

Title:               Both Light and Darkness

In the Name of our loving, liberating and life-giving God! Amen.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3.19).

My friends, do you stand in the light, or do you stay in the darkness?

In typical fashion, John’s Gospel makes grand sweeping statements that are binary in structure: truth or evil, light or darkness, salvation or condemnation, life or death.

This is fairly normal when speaking in spiritual terms. You can pick up a text of scripture from any tradition around the world and you might find this same kind of either/or dualism. It’s a common teaching method, but the writings of John present this binary approach in the most lapidary fashion:  “All who do evil hate the light.”

But is that true? Are there actually people who love darkness more than light? Does not everyone enjoy it when the light shines on their face?

Are there some who prefer to not see the sun, to stay in darkness where things are obscured and difficult to see, difficult to define?

Truthfully, have you ever known someone whose deeds were evil, someone who hated the light? I’ve been trying to think if I have known someone like that, and I’m not sure.

How do you categorize a person in this way, as one who hates the light or else as one who does what is true? Aren’t we all somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes? Isn’t THIS how we experience life, as something always in-between?

John’s Gospel wants us to think in these stark categories of either/or, but is it not more true to say that the most profound experiences of life are found in the liminal spaces, the in-between times, the gray zone between the black and white?

Think of sunsets and sunrises. Think of the intimacy of secrets with a friend or a lover. Think of fusion foods that bring together the best from multiple cultures.

These are superficial examples, of course, but is this not the same when it comes to the deepest parts of ourselves?

Today’s first lesson from the book of Numbers was selected because of its connection to the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness, but in another sense this ancient story offers a helpful counterbalance to the certainty and clarity of John’s Gospel.

It is just so odd and confusing, to be completely honest! God tells Moses to do precisely what God earlier in the Ten Commandments told Moses NOT to do!

The Decalogue with which we begin the liturgy in Lent, the one on page 350 in the Prayer Book, well that is a simplified and slimmed down version of the original.

The Prayer Book says, “You shall not make for yourself any idol.” But the text in Exodus chapter 20 says,

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20.4-5).

And yet, now God directs Moses to make a serpent statue at which the people must look to be healed.

I guess one could quibble and say that the Israelites were not BOWING DOWN to the bronze serpent, because LOOKING UP at it! But that seems like a pretty minor distinction to me.

By the way, do you know that this bronze serpent on a pole did in fact become an idol? That it became a new object of worship for some of the Hebrews?

And here is the real trivia test for you: does anyone know the name of that bronze serpent statue? What was it called? We read about it in the Second Book of Kings:

“[King] Hezekiah crushed the bronze snake that Moses made, because up until then [some 500 years later] the Israelites had been burning incense to it. And the snake was named Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18.4).

(File that away as a future Jeopardy answer: What is Nehushtan?!)

The entire story of the Hebrews argues against this kind of clear-line-delineation that John’s Gospel loves so much. Even though their actions were far from perfect, these Hebrews were the chosen and dearly loved people of God.

Of course, this kind of binary, either-or approach is not exclusive to the writings of John. Another example is the well-known, famous parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s Gospel, where the King says to the righteous sheep, “Just as you have done it to one of the least of these members of my family, you have done it to me” (Matthew 25.40).

There is a wonderful story from the fourth century desert tradition that undercuts the simplicity of that dualistic mindset.

One day some people came to an unnamed elder with a person in the grips of a evil spirit, hoping that the elder might heal their possessed friend. So the elder said to the demon, “Come out of that which God has made!” The evil spirit replied and said, “I am coming out, but first I ask you one question: in the Gospel, who are the goats and who are the sheep?” The elder said, “The goats, it is I. Only God knows who the sheep are.” On hearing this, the demon cried out with a loud voice, “Look! It’s your humility that drives me out!” And the person was healed that very hour. (Anonymous Collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, 307).

Let’s be honest: who can look in the mirror and say that they are full of light, or – God forbid it – full of darkness? I certainly cannot, because what I see when I look in the mirror is an uncertain mixture of good and evil, light and darkness.

Who among us can examine their own faith and say – in these famous words of John’s Gospel – yes, I believe fully in the only Son of God?

If those who do NOT believe are condemned already, what does that say about ME when I struggle with seasons of doubt and uncertainty?

To muddy the waters even further, is it not appropriate to keep some actions hidden in darkness, and not to bring them out into the light?

Perhaps you have seen that recent TV commercial about internet protection. In it, people are speaking aloud in public spaces the things that they are doing on the internet. Like searching for divorce attorneys because their marriage has fallen apart, or sharing their credit card number for making online purchases.

It’s funny and surprising, because we all know that some things should be kept out of the light of day.

But then there are other people who keep too much hidden in darkness. I have vivid memories of this when we lived in Virginia during our seminary years, and that southern veneer of charm caused some people to smile when they really didn’t want to! Our landlord’s wife was one of those southern belles who was always polite and charming, and yet her 6 year old son, who often came to visit us and little Angus and Se’ after school and on the weekends, he would say things like, “Momma didn’t like it when Angus played in her daffodils.” She grew award-winning daffodils all around the property. The flowers were wonderful, but it sure didn’t feel well to find out that she was saying things behind our backs, while always smiling to our faces.

I’m from Philadelphia. If you’ve got something to say to me, just go ahead and say it! I can handle the truth!

Sorry, Gospel of John, but the reality of what deeds we expose to the light and which one we keep in darkness is not a simple matter. This is the realm of nuance, and subtlety.

Erin, my better half, is out in Hawaii now visiting our son Angus for two weeks. It’s been an adventure hanging out with his circle of friends, all of them in their twenties and soaking up the fantasy world which is Honolulu.  Well, on Friday night, his group of friends went to a strip club. And guess what? Erin went along as well. I don’t have time to explain the whole story, but rest assured that they stayed there for only 10 minutes.

If you are young, you know, like under 30, having your mom tag along with you is a bit like standing in the full light of day. There are things you just don’t do when mom is around. You keep those things hidden away, in the dark – at least from mom!

When all is said and done, life is complex, and messy. We stand both in the light AND in the dark. We are all much more like those complaining Hebrews than we might want to admit.

And so, like them, our only recourse is to the mercy of God.

The good news is that there IS clarity and certainty about God’s intention toward us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son… (John 3.16)”

Yes! Even though we humans are messed up, we KNOW what God is all about, and we KNOW where we are headed, the direction in which we are moving!

And we KNOW that we can always rely on the mercy of God, whose intent and purpose is LOVE.

My friends, will you trust in that intention and purpose? And will you keep on working with God until you reach the fullness of eternal life?

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