This is one of those passages that has about a dozen different sermons in it. Jesus starts off by talking about Moses lifting up a bronze serpent on a pole in the wilderness. That story is in Numbers 21:4-9. You could talk about how just as Moses lifted up the serpent to provide healing and freedom from death to the people of Israel, God lifted up Jesus among humans to provide healing and save us from death. You could do another sermon comparing the serpent on the pole to Jesus on the cross.
John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in the Bible, is in this passage. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” There’s all kinds of different sermons just in that one verse. There’s a lot to choose from.
What caught my eye when I was getting ready for this Sunday is in verse 19: “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.” When the light is there, why do we choose the darkness? Why do people love darkness more than they love the light?
Sometimes we literally love the darkness. There’s nothing wrong with that. I work nights, so most of the time I sleep during the day. When it comes to sleep, I love the darkness. We have shades on the window that make it darker, and sometimes I wear a little mask over my eyes to make it darker yet. It’s easier to sleep in the dark than it is in the light. The rest of you are hoping for and looking forward to sunny days, but for me an overcast or even a rainy day means it’s good sleeping weather – less light, more darkness!
Maybe you love the darkness sometimes because you’re doing something that you don’t want anyone else to see. Whatever it is you’re doing could be something wrong or sinful, but it could be something innocent too. Maybe your spouse is asleep, and you’re trying to change your clothes in the bedroom without waking them up. Maybe you’re looking at slides or a film; that kind of stuff shows up better in the dark. If you’re a kid maybe you have some kind of glow in the dark toy that you want to see in the dark.
Perhaps you love the darkness for health reasons. Maybe you have Photophobia. Photophobia is the technical term for light sensitivity. Sunlight, fluorescent light, incandescent light – it can all cause squinting and discomfort and headaches. Sometimes it’s only natural light that folks with Photophobia respond to and sometimes it’s all kinds of light, indoor and outdoor. Sometimes it’s a free-standing condition and sometimes it’s associated with meningitis or retinal problems.
There are a lot of real-life reasons why someone may prefer the darkness, even why someone may love the darkness. We can be pretty sure that’s not what Jesus is talking about. If one of these is your reason for loving the darkness, you’re probably fine. Keep on enjoying life in the dark.
Sometimes we associate darkness with ignorance. We’ll say that someone is “in the dark” about what’s going on, or if we want to keep a secret we’ll say we’re keeping someone else “in the dark.” I don’t really think that fits what Jesus is talking about here, though. “In the dark” in this sense means not knowing. Jesus is talking more about people who are choosing the dark over the light, not people who are in the dark because they don’t realize there’s light. This isn’t a matter of ignorance, of unawareness; it’s a matter of choice.
You may not have noticed, but I could stand to lose a few pounds. It’s okay, no need to apologize, not everyone recognizes that at first. I’m diabetic, I don’t have any stamina, going up the stairs is a hassle, and I don’t fit in airplane seats. I need to lose weight.
I know that I need to lose weight. I even know how to lose weight. There are a lot of different approaches, a lot of different ways to work at it, but in most cases it comes down to keeping your net calorie intake below the amount of calories needed to maintain your weight. If it takes 2,500 calories to be at a certain weight, you have to either eat less than 2.500 calories or exercise enough to burn off calories to get you below 2.500. If you do either one of those things, you will lose weight.
I know that. I know a lot of different ways to do that. I know a lot of different foods and exercises that will help me do that. Am I losing weight? No. I’m not gaining – this suit is the same suit that my grandmother bought me for my ordination 25 years ago. I haven’t gained in the last 25 years, but I haven’t really lost much either.
Sometimes I feel like it’s more fun to just eat what I want and not lose weight. It’s more fun to eat French fries or croissants or fried shrimp than to eat salad or veggies or whatever. It’s more fun to get a chicken breast at Popeye’s and pull the crispy skin off and eat that than it is to eat a chicken breast with no skin on it. So sometimes I feel like it’s more fun to be in the darkness, nutrition-wise.
Is it, though? I used to love to play softball. I used to love to play tennis. No more. I’d have to rest for an hour after I ran out a ground ball, and God forbid I hit it hard enough or far enough for a double or a triple. I’d keel over half way around first. I used to like to walk. I used to like to mow the lawn. I still like to fly but it’s not nearly as comfortable and as much fun as it would be if I didn’t have to wedge myself into the seat and stay there for the whole flight.
So is staying in the darkness really more fun? Or would I have more fun in the long run if I followed the light?
People choose the darkness, Jesus says, because they do not want their deeds exposed. People choose the darkness to keep a part of themselves hidden. Maybe it’s shame that keeps them in hiding. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s doubt. Maybe it’s a combination of these things. I think that one of the main things that people don’t want exposed is their weakness, their powerlessness. I know that I don’t like to appear weak. I don’t like to give up control. But when we embrace the light, when we embrace Jesus, God’s only begotten son, we are embracing unconditional love, and in doing so we expose how weak we really are.
David Lose tells a story about this. “Years ago I preached a sermon about the offensive nature of God’s grace, suggesting that we might add four words to the end of our service of baptism, saying, ‘Child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…like it or not.’ A few weeks later, a friend shared a bedtime encounter he’d had with his then six-year-old son. Upset that his father was putting him to bed earlier than he wanted to go, Benjamin said, ‘Daddy, I hate you.’ Benjamin’s father, exercising the kind of parental wisdom I hope for, replied, ‘Ben, I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you.’ Benjamin’s response to such gracious words surprised his dad: ‘Don’t say that!’ ‘I’m sorry Benjamin, but it’s true. I love you.’ “Don’t,” his son protested, ‘Don’t say that again!’ At which point Ben’s father, remembering the words of the sermon, said, ‘Benjamin, I love you…like it or not!’
“Why was Benjamin protesting his father’s love? Because he realized he could not control his father’s love and twist it to his advantage. Indeed, in the face of such love there is no bargaining and, ultimately, no control whatsoever. If his dad had said that if he ate all his vegetables he could stay up, or agreed that Ben could stay up later this night if he went to bed earlier the next, then Benjamin would have been a player, he would have exercised some measure of control over the situation and, indeed, over his dad. But in the face of unconditional love we are powerless. Yes, perhaps we can choose to accept it or not, perhaps we can run away from it, but we cannot influence it, manipulate it, or control it. In the face of this kind of love, we are powerless. And only when we’ve died to all of our delusions of actually being in control do we realize that such loss of perceived freedom and power is actually life.”
How many of you worry about things? I do. That may be part of why I struggle with my weight – sometimes it’s easier to eat my worries than it is to deal with them. I was watching an interview with Stephen Colbert last week and he was asked his favorite Bible verse. He talked about the gospel of Matthew where several times Jesus tells us not to worry. One of these places is Matthew 6:34: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Embracing the light and leaving the darkness means letting go of worry. It means letting go of fear. It means accepting unconditional love, and letting go of the power to set limits on God. Sometimes it seems like it’s easier to love the darkness than it is to give all that up.
In the natural world, if we chose to live in darkness all the time we would shorten our lives. We would certainly develop softening of the bones, we might get asthma, and over time our immune system would become compromised. We might not die today or tomorrow, but we would die sooner than we otherwise might. Living in the darkness really isn’t a viable long-term alternative.
That’s true spiritually as well. Without the unconditional light and love of God in our lives, we cannot make it. Our weakness, our doubt, and our worry will eat us up. We will be more stressed, less happy.
But living in the light of the Christ, following Jesus who has been raised up, claiming the gift of God’s only Son lets us leave the darkness behind. It lets us do what’s right for ourselves and for others. It lets us live in the light.
There’s an old joke about the guy who is walking down the street but who suddenly falls into this deep hole he did not see. The hole is deep, the walls are steep. It is dark.
A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me here?” The doctor writes a prescription for Lexapro and throws it into the hole. A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down into the hole.
Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the guy says, “Now we’re both stuck.” “Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”
Scott Hoezee tells that joke, and then says, “In this world of sin and evil, there are so many dark and deep pits into which we fall. And for each of us there is finally a six-foot deep hole in the ground waiting for us at some cemetery somewhere. Thanks be to God that Jesus has been down in that hole himself and he knows the way out.
“You’ve probably also heard of the way out. It’s called Easter.”
We’re not to Easter yet, but we will be soon. We’re still in the darkness, but the light is coming. Jesus is with us, and if we allow him to embrace us in his love, we will leave the darkness behind. Amen.