“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
We are great lovers of darkness, of this there can be no doubt.
Flip through the channels on the television and take note of the number of procedural crime shows you will find. NCIS, Law and Order, Criminal Minds, even PBS flourishes best when there is murder and mayhem to be observed and examined.
We are oddly fascinated by the dark side.
We break the world into “predator and prey.”
We are quick to point out that such divisions are hard and fast and that one is either one or the other. We do not make moral judgments about such behavior, but rather simply accept it as a part of how this world is arranged.
We watch with morbid fascination as the lioness stalks her prey on the nature show, and then transfer that same fascination with every bit as much adrenaline anticipation when the car chase unfolds in the movie or on the breaking news.
Will he/she elude? Or is the dark ending inevitable? Even if you escape to live another day it is just a matter of time.
This the just the way the world is, has always been.
John’s gospel is a study in contrasts. He introduces the events of Jesus with talk of light and darkness right from the beginning. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not prevail against it…”
The world is divided for John into insiders and outsiders.
There are those who follow Jesus, and those who oppose him and the Kingdom he comes to proclaim.
The complicating factor in that is that those who follow and those who oppose are often members of the same community.
So it is, that as John speaks of “the Jews,” he is talking about members of his own community who have rejected Jesus as Messiah.
John is (in other words) trying to make sense of why some look at Jesus and see God’s light shining, and why some look at Jesus and choose to make another choice.
It turns out to be complicated.
That’s one of the reasons why this Gospel reading for today is a little difficult to wrap our heads around, its complexity and what it tries to include and convey.
We’re most familiar with John 3:16-18, the “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son… not to condemn, but the save it.”
But wrapped around that kernel is this talk of Moses lifting up serpents in the wilderness, and Jesus being lifted up, and the talk of judgment and condemnation already for those who do not believe.
It’s a little harder to pull all these things together, unless you remember that fundamentally we are great lovers of darkness, and the struggle against it is what the Gospel is all about. Followers of Jesus know the world is arranged this way, predator and prey, light and dark, but the message of Jesus and of the Kingdom is that it does not have to remain this way. The Kingdom of God does come!
We need to unpack that first part a bit, the story of Moses and the serpent on the pole. If you listened to the reading from Numbers 21:4-9 today you were reminded of the story. The people are complaining in the wilderness, and in response to their “poisonous words” against God and Moses, serpents are sent to afflict them. When the people come to Moses with a heart of contrition asking for the serpents to be taken away, the solution God prescribes is for Moses to make a serpent of bronze and set it on a pole and lift it up, and if you are bitten by these “poisonous snakes”, then you are to look at the serpent and you will live.
In other words, face the venom you have brought upon yourselves, and you will find healing.
Face your own darkness! Acknowledge it, don’t pretend it isn’t there, but repent of it and find life again! That’s the lesson in the story from Numbers. You may be lovers of complaining, (you stiff necked people in the wilderness,) but that does not mean that you cannot confront it, see it, acknowledge it and ultimately live!
In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Jesus says. What could Jesus mean by that?
This is a prediction of the Cross, and what will we see in the events of Jesus’ crucifixion.
We will see just how much we love darkness in what the world does to Jesus!
We will see what we are capable of doing to the very love that came to save us.
We are capable of arresting the innocent.
We are capable of torturing the blameless.
We are capable of killing the very Savior of the world, because that Savior will not just let us alone. Jesus will not let us retreat into our own darkness and our love of it and stay there.
From the cross Jesus will invite us to face the darkness that is within us, and to acknowledge it. This is what we are capable of doing as human beings because we love the darkness!
We know this to be true.
You cannot turn on the television or read the newspaper without being reminded once again of our love of darkness.
Wars continue to rage, sides are drawn that make no sense, posturing and accusing and blaming and pointing of the finger.
Injustices continue to persist.
Racism persists, it rears its ugly head and even finds a refuge in the powerful, the intelligent.
Fascism returns, and masks itself in populist thoughts, and justifies itself in the overturning of those who are different, the elites.
Inequality of gender and race continue, and are even promulgated as virtues, “the way things used to be”, a utopian existence for those in power and privilege to be hearkened back to, returned to.
Inequity of opportunity, oppression of privilege, divisions of ideologies swirl all around.
We might be tempted to say, “that’s just the way it is, predator and prey, so better to eat than be eaten.”
But Jesus has something else to say about that. “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
The very things that Jesus came to proclaim an end to are clung to all the more because it is so hard and complicated to let go of such things for us.
John’s Gospel becomes an exploration of how light and dark interplay in our lives. We get to see how Jesus challenges and changes people, and how that will play out in the lives of these characters whom we will meet. By watching them, we get clues about our own “love of darkness”, how it works and how Jesus overcomes it.
We meet Nicodemus, who acknowledges that Jesus is indeed a teacher sent by God, but still comes by night, unwilling to be seen making further inquiries.
Nicodemus may long to understand the draw of the light he sees in Jesus, but not so much that he is willing to risk his stature or position in the community. He chooses darkness as his cover, the night as his ally. He will lurk in the shadows until the end of the story when he comes with Joseph of Arimithea to claim the body and publicly at last bear witness to Jesus.
Is Nicodemus my story, your story? Are you drawn to Jesus but not quite willing to commit? Do you inquire in the dark, but hide out in the light?
The Samaritan woman at the well is drawn by Jesus’ light. She is wary at first, talking with a stranger to her in the heat of the day, breaking the boundaries. But when Jesus probes too close to her secrets, she retreats to the presumed safety of the darkness. She asks of him questions as deep as the well water that she knows are safe, conundrums that have been argued over for centuries about where the proper place to worship should be? She is hoping to hide in the safety of long dark questions that are unanswerable.
But Jesus shines, and the questions dissipate, and in the end, it is way Jesus dispels the darkness, eliminating all her “hiding places” that captures her. “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Is the Samaritan woman my story, your story? Afraid to engage Jesus too much lest he find out what we’re hiding that he may not approve of? Able to finally proclaim him when our last secret is stripped away, and we can tell others it’s all right to have him strip away theirs as well?
As much as we love darkness, try to hide in it, are fascinated by it or see it as our last safe retreat, it does not stand against Jesus.
“The light shines in the darkness,” John affirms, “and the darkness does not prevail against it.”
We cling to this promise, but not without the sudden realization that what is true for Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well is true for us.
We do love our darkness, and we will try our best to stay in the shadows if we can, resign ourselves to thinking this is just the way things are, and they will never change.
So it is, that Jesus says he must be lifted up, so that we can face what we are capable of doing, even to him, see it, repent of it and find life.
We must face the darkness inside so that the light of Jesus can shine in and heal us.
We must acknowledge what we are capable of doing before we can repent of it, see it as the poisonous thing that it is in our lives, in our community, in our world.
Such work is not easy.
John’s Gospel reminds us of this, for John fleshes out these characters so completely exactly so that we can face the darkness and our own fascination with it in our own lives.
We feel the shame of the woman caught in Adultery, and the powerful release of Jesus’ non-judgment of her.
We feel the bitter betrayal of a Peter thrice denies Jesus, even shouting, “I do not know him!” in the darkness, and the sweet power of forgiveness as Jesus invites him three times to “feed my sheep.”
Our mouths go dry at recognizing that our bitter words spoken against our neighbor are slanders thrown at the Savior who loves the world.
Every bitter cry for the illegal alien to go back home where they belong is a cry against Jesus, who is the ultimate alien in our midst.
Every crowd incited to yell “lock her up!” or “lock him up!” is little more than a repetition of the words of the angry mob in Jerusalem who once cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
In Jesus lifted on the cross we witness what we are capable of doing, all of us, any of us, when our love of darkness takes over, and we do evil in the sight of God.
And in Jesus lifted on the cross, we also witness what God is capable of doing. Silencing the shouts and restoring care for one another.
We are lovers of darkness, it is true, but just beyond this lifting up of Jesus is another lifting up that is promised.
When we face what we are capable of doing, and repent of it, then the door is opened for us to receive what God is capable of doing.
God is capable of healing, forgiving, and ultimately — resurrecting.