After Dark

(A sermon for Lent 4B — March 18, 2012 — Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; John 3:14-21)

From Boston.com

After Bible Study on Tuesday night I looked at my phone and saw a missed call and voice mail from my son, Peter. His voice mail said, roughly, “If you see something on the news about an explosion in Boston, well, I’m fine, obviously. But my whole neighborhood lost power. I’ll talk to you later!”

I called back right away, but his phone was off or dead.

And I had a moment of wondering whether Boston would degenerate into riots. I wanted to tell him, “Stay inside, away from the (possibly toxic) smoke!”

And: “Don’t loot stores!”

Well, I didn’t really think I needed to say that. I suppose even the deepest need for new reeds for the clarinet could wait for a time when the stores were really open again.

So, maybe something more like: “Keep away from people who might loot stores!”

I never did hear about looting, but things were clearly not good in Boston. Peter’s phone was, indeed, dead. I kept tuning into NECN to get the local perspective, or looking at boston.com on my computer. I knew it must be bad if both the T stops near his school, Prudential and Symphony Hall, remained closed.

Neither of us expected his neighborhood to be the last in the city where power was restored.

We take a lot of things for granted in this year 2012, and that is even truer in a big city, where electricity not only keeps the refrigerator on and the hot water flowing, it also keeps the trains running and the traffic lights coordinated and the out-of-town communication instant.

After dark, in a city, we expect the electrical glow that shows us the way.

Christ Instructing Nicodemus, Crijn Hendricksz (1604)

But it was after dark, on purpose, that Nicodemus, a leader in the Jewish community, went to visit Jesus. He went under cover of darkness to keep himself safe. He did not want to be seen by anyone who knew him, and it’s likely anyone who mattered would have recognized him. He wanted to question the man who dared to challenge the system in Jerusalem, the one who, as we read last week, accused the priests and elders of turning HIS Father’s house into a marketplace.

After dark was the only time Nicodemus could slip through the city unnoticed to ask his questions. He must have had a sense that this man was right about something. He wanted to know more.

So, after dark, in the night, they talked. But Nicodemus remained in the dark, not understanding what Jesus said to him. He spoke of being born again, from above, and Nicodemus wondered how an old person could crawl back into his mother’s womb. He told Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom of God we must be born of Water and Spirit, and still Nicodemus did not grasp what he was saying.

I’m not sure we do either, without handy footnotes reminding us that Jesus must mean spiritual rebirth and baptism, respectively.

Then Jesus goes on to make reference to a story Nicodemus would surely have recognized, that old tale from Numbers about the snakes in the wilderness biting the cranky Israelites. But he names it in a strange way, saying that the Son of Man must be lifted up, just like the serpent on the pole.
I wonder how Nicodemus felt when he heard all this? He found Jesus compelling, or he wouldn’t have taken the risk of coming. But what did he think of this long, philosophical riddle?
We tend to read this the way Nicodemus heard it, as if it makes only a smattering of sense; then we take away with us the verse that we like and we leave the rest.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSV)

Do you suppose it stood out to Nicodemus the way it stands out to us now? We’re used to hearing it and seeing it, John 3:16, or just the numbers, on license plates or signs at sports events or the eye black worn by a famous young quarterback. What started as a statement of the way God kept faith with us has become a claim some people make to privilege their relationship with God, a way of saying, “if we believe this verse, we are in the club.”

The verse itself doesn’t seem so exclusive. It’s quite invitational. No wonder we stop there! Because the next few verses make it clear that we have to actually accept the invitation.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:17-18, NRSV)

On some level I resist getting into this passage from John. I feel it’s been taken away from most Christians by other Christians, because its literal application leaves us feeling that unless we believe things in a certain, perfectly right way, we are in trouble.  I don’t like to think of God that way.

Think of the Psalm we read, telling us of a God who calls us from all directions.

But…

It also tells us that the people who were sick with sin turned toward God.

We’re getting an invitation to believe, to be reborn, to become engaged, to have a relationship with Jesus, with God. It’s an open invitation, but we actually need to respond to it.

It’s two-way communication.

When Peter managed to get power and Internet at a friend’s apartment on Wednesday he posted updates on Facebook, including the very strange story about the exploding manhole covers and a link to the Boston Fire Department’s Twitter account.  This was a big relief to his mother, as was his eventual text message saying he was okay.

Still, the lights were not on. The food in his freezer was getting just a little warmer. And for a second night it was very dark in the city.

“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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19-21, NRSV)

Imagine that it was still dark when Nicodemus made his way home. The words Jesus spoke to him ran through his mind as he slipped through the streets, checking over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching. Hurrying and worried, perhaps he just remembered snatches: a serpent lifted up, being born from above, something about light and dark…oh, and God SO loved the world! Yes, that!

We can remember that.

When I left here after Council on Thursday night, the sky was bright with stars, many more of them visible than I can see even in the smaller city of Portland. Marsha and I stood in the parking lot talking, remarking on how well we could see Venus and Jupiter. But in Peter’s neighborhood in Boston, it was still dark.

Again, I checked the news, relieved that no one reported any human misbehavior. There were complaints about the age of the transformers and stories about the loss of seafood and other restaurant inventory. The power finally came on again around 2 a.m. Friday and before he came home later that day, Peter had to clean out the refrigerator and freezer.In his last Facebook update, he linked to an answer to the question, “What is the lifespan of a transformer?”

For the ultimate transformer, the lifespan was shockingly short. Jesus knew he would be lifted up, and he did not mean he would be honored. He would be lifted on a cross, to show God’s commitment to loving humanity. He would live through the experience right to the end, into the complete dark of Good Friday.

He would die and be buried in the cool dark of a tomb.

But after dark, there would be light again.

After death, there would be resurrection.

And for each of us, there is hope in both the cross and the empty tomb. There is hope in both a sunless Friday and the sunrise of Easter. We can accept the invitation, and leave the darkness behind and live in the light of Christ Jesus.

After dark, there is light. In the name of the One whose light transcends our power and transforms our lives. Amen.

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3 thoughts on “After Dark

  1. This works quite well, flows well, and unpacks the text, engaging. (And, what an ordeal – your son has been through a lot!) (well, and so have you as his mother, living far away from him)

    Like

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