Archive for darkness

Light from Nicodemus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by timtrue

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

John 3:1-17

We’re in Year A this year. Year A’s pretty cool.

Year A is the first of three years in our Revised Common Lectionary.  That is, starting with Advent and continuing through the 29th Proper, aka “Christ the King Sunday,” the passages of scripture we hear read on Sunday mornings all year follow Year A’s outline.

Next year will be Year B.  The following year will be Year C.  And the year after that will be back to Year A.

So, if you’re sitting in this church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2020, you’ll hear the same scripture passages that were read today.

And I for one am glad to be back in Year A.

That’s because in Year A we encounter four very special people, all from the Gospel of John, four weeks in a row, during Lent, who appear nowhere else in the Bible.

Over the next four Sundays, we’ll hear the stories of four wonderful, surprisingly modern saints of God, from whom we can learn much—if we’re willing to take the time and listen to them.

To listen, I said.  This means we’ll have to figure out not what the world has told us we need to learn from them—not what the world tells us John 3:16 means, for instance—but what each has to teach us from his or her own story.

So, who are these people?

Today, John introduces us to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus secretly, by night; and has an image-laden conversation with him about what it means to be born from above, or born again.

Next week it’s the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman—confronting us simultaneously with culturally sensitive issues of race and gender!—who encounters Jesus and quickly runs off to share the good news with her friends and family.

The week after that brings us to an unnamed man blind from birth, whom Jesus heals, and who then confounds the very teachers of Israel.

Finally, in Lent 5, we encounter Lazarus, not to be confused with the blind beggar in the parable from Matthew.  This Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus first weeps over and then raises from the dead.

All four of these characters are found only in John’s Gospel; all four are surprisingly modern; all four encounter Jesus.

And through all four encounters, over the next four weeks, we will encounter Jesus ourselves.

He might even confront us, even challenge us, to think about our place in the world in new ways, an appropriate heart-and-soul exercise for Lent.

So, yeah, Year A’s pretty cool.

Who, then, is this guy, Nicodemus?

The passage begins: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night.”

What can we surmise?

Nicodemus is a Pharisee; and a community leader.  Yet at the same time he seeks Jesus out.

He seeks Jesus, who by this time has already been singled out by both the Pharisees and the Jewish community leaders as someone to steer clear of.

Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers, after all!  Why, he’s uneducated, the son of a carpenter!  Maybe he’s not all there, if you catch my meaning.

Yet Nicodemus doesn’t want to steer clear of him.  Maybe his community is on the right track: maybe there is something not quite right about this man Jesus.  Still, despite what the world around him—his world—is telling him, Nicodemus finds himself actually drawn to Jesus.

So he goes to him.  At night.  Under the cover of darkness.  In secret.

Wearing sunglasses.  And a hat.  To avoid the local Paparazzi.

I wonder, is Nicodemus spiritual but not religious?

It’s as if he wants to know Jesus, to know God through Jesus; but he’s not sure.  On the one hand, his way of approaching God, his religion, hasn’t been entirely satisfactory for him; while at the same time, on the other hand, he’s apparently skeptical that Jesus will be the answer he seeks.

We get locked into our own methods pretty easily, don’t we—our own ways of doing things, our own ways of approaching Jesus?

Mine’s through prayer.  What’s yours?

Oh, well mine’s through nature.  What about you?

Mine’s through praying the sinner’s prayer.  How about you?

Me?  Ah, I find Jesus in the liturgy.

And so on it goes.

But what if we find ourselves becoming spiritually curious?  What if we begin to look over denominational fences?  What then?

Some of you know my own story of how I came to the Episcopal Church from Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

I was a part-time staff member of a small church of a different denomination, working as a worship leader.

Yet I found myself drawn especially to two things about the Episcopal Church: its liturgy and music; and its sacramental theology.  I found myself wanting to attend the local Episcopal parish.  But I couldn’t, since I had obligations at the other place.

Well, what to do?

As it turns out, Holy Week was approaching.  So my family and I decided to attend the local Episcopal parish, St. John’s, for the Triduum, that three-day drama that comes at the end of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil.

By the end of these three days, we were convinced: The Episcopal Church would have to become our new home.

But that first time we donned the doors, on that Maundy Thursday—I couldn’t help but feel a lot like I was playing hooky; like I was doing something very wrong; like I was dishonoring the tradition to which I belonged; like I was somehow being unfaithful or disloyal.

How surprisingly modern Nicodemus’s story is!

So, what is the main lesson we learn from him?

Our world has made a lot of the conversation that takes place in today’s Gospel.

What does it mean to be “born from above” (as the version we heard today puts it; or, to put it in a more popularized outfit, what does it mean to be born again)?

The imagery of rebirth has captured the modern American evangelical imagination.

We’ve all heard the question, or some variation of it: Are you a born-again Christian?

I don’t know about you, but I feel this question has been overused; that the phrase born-again Christian ought to be put on a list of banned Christian lingo.

It’s a polarizing phrase.

To one group of Christians, it’s an identifier, as much as to say, “Yeah, you say you’re a Christian.  But are you really in?  Are you born again?”

Whereas to another group, it’s derogatory or pejorative, as much as to say, “Are you actually one of those fringe wackos: are you born again?”

And because it’s polarizing, we’ve been distracted from the main point here.  The main point is not about individual souls being born again.  John 3:16, that favorite verse of countless people, says that God so loved the world.  It’s not about individual souls here so much as it is about all of creation.

So, let’s put this phrase away, on the list of banned Christian lingo, at least for a while, until it loses its polarizing quality.

Fortunately for us, there’s another image that comes out of this passage.  And I’m convinced that this other image, not the image of rebirth, is in fact the overarching image by which we can understand Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

What is this image?  Light and darkness.

The passage begins with this image (Nicodemus comes to Jesus by cover of darkness); and with this image the passage ends (light exposes people’s deeds, Jesus says).

Light and darkness here, not rebirth, is the governing image: it’s only after one has been reborn that one comes out of darkness into light.

So, what happens when we look at Nicodemus through this lens of light and darkness?

Nicodemus first comes to Jesus in darkness.  He is seeking.  He is curious.  He is probably concerned about what his community will think of him.  He may even be confused.

And isn’t this a lot like us?  Don’t we know a lot about darkness?  Isn’t our faith hard to understand?  Isn’t being a Christian often confusing?  Aren’t we seeing the looking glass only dimly?  Aren’t these all mere shadowlands?

By the way, we face darkness at both the individual and corporate levels.  The corporate Church, throughout its history, has made many errors.  I only have to mention the Crusades to prove that point.

But, this coming to Jesus in darkness isn’t all that we see of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.  He shows up again, later, near the end, with another heretofore secret disciple, a certain man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, who owns a tomb hewn of out rock on his property, the very tomb into which Jesus’ body will be laid.

Do you remember this part of the Easter story?

Nicodemus and Joseph come and carry Jesus’ body away and lay it in the tomb.

And they do this deed in the full light of day!

Despite his convoluted faith, fully aware that his religious and community colleagues would see him, fully aware that his deeds and faith would be exposed in the full light of day, Nicodemus throws caution to the wind and carries Jesus’ body away.

Despite the Church’s mistakes, whether in the Middle Ages or in the modern day; despite how confusing and convoluted our theology can be, the Church has been called to keep throwing caution to the wind, to keep carrying on Jesus’ work in the full light of today.

And what is this work?

Only to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to heal the sick.

Only to care for orphans and widows.

Only to walk across town with food in our backpacks to donate to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Only to love all creation in such a way that it might be born anew.

Smack Dab in the Middle

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 1:1-14

The book of John is one of four Gospels in our New Testament: one of four books in the Bible that specifically proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Yet John begins not by connecting his Gospel to the other three Gospels.

The other three Gospels start with the human person Jesus.

The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke begin with stories of the birth of Jesus—in vivid, nitty-gritty, even messy detail.  A son is to be born of an unmarried maiden.  How scandalous!

Luke goes on to relate that this maiden, Mary, visits her older cousin Elizabeth in some backwater part of the Empire—just two women, laughing and singing—marveling, really—that God should show them such favor at opening their wombs.

The Gospel of Mark—a little different—begins not with Jesus’ birth but with his adult ministry: John the Baptist sets the stage and all at once Jesus is defeating the devil, proclaiming repentance, and healing the broken.

And so, no matter what else is going on in the wide world, these three Evangelists remind us that God is in the nitty-gritty details of our lives.

But the Gospel of John is different: John doesn’t begin with the human person of Jesus; John begins, instead, with Jesus the divine: the logos, the Word.

And in using these words—in the beginning—John connects us not to the other three Gospels but to the very beginning of the Bible, to the creation of all things:

  • In the beginning was the Word;
  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

So, for a little while anyway, let’s set aside what we normally focus on throughout this day—little Jesus, meek and mild; baby Jesus, the Christmas child—and spend some time together contemplating just how these two cosmic events are connected.

Just how is Christmas connected to creation?

Well, for starters, John says, “In the beginning was the Word.”  But in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void; and darkness was everywhere.  So, where does the Word fit into creation?

Just here: God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  God also said, “Let there be dry land”; and there was dry land.  And God also said, “Let the waters teem with life”; and it was so.  And so on.

God spoke.  God used words.  And through God’s words—through God’s Word—all came into being that has come into being.

Most of you know by now that I’m a fan of C. S. Lewis’s children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  There are seven books in this series.  The first is called The Magician’s Nephew.  In this book, two children fantastically end up in a faraway world, Narnia, on the very day of its birth.  What they witness—C. S. Lewis’s description of creation—is creation through song.

At first all is darkness and silence.  The children become aware of an almost inaudible music all around them.  It’s nothing like any music we’ve ever heard on earth; but there’s no other way to describe it.  It’s music.

Almost immediately stars begin to appear in the sky.  As more and more appear, the children realize that the music and the appearance of the stars are connected: the music reaches a sustained note for a time just before a star appears; then it changes pitch, sustains, and another star appears.

Abruptly the music grows loud and strong.  The children now realize that this isn’t just any old music, but song: these are words they are hearing, sung words; in some language—some beautiful language—they don’t know.

All at once, in response to the loud and strong song, a moon appears in the sky; followed by a still louder and stronger song for a time and the sudden appearance of the sun.

Now, dazzled by the sudden appearance of such a bright, young sun, the children look into the distance and see a figure approaching.  It is the singer of this wonderful song: a lion, Aslan (they will soon learn his name).  Aslan is singing all things into existence.  And Aslan, if you know anything about the story at all, is an allegory of Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word.  And God said—or, maybe, and the Word sang—Let there be light.  And there was.

This is how C. S. Lewis imagined it.  But why not?  John’s Gospel is highly poetic.  Why not build on John’s image of poetry by imagining all things being sung into existence?

The Word was with God.  And the Word was God.  And the Word—spoken, written, sung, it doesn’t matter—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

Another connection between creation and Christmas: in Genesis we read that God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light; and in John we read, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

What did light do at creation?

Before light was spoken into existence, the earth was formless and void; and darkness covered everything.

Darkness covering everything shows up in another book from The Chronicles of Narnia: in The Last Battle, the seventh and final book.  Here the reader witnesses the final day of Narnia, as it is snuffed out forever.  And, of course, this book relates the final judgment.

All creation is summoned to Aslan.  And by all I mean all: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, plants, even mythical beasts who have long lain dormant awaiting this final day.  All creation came into being by the Word of God; now all creation must answer to its Creator.

At last, after days or weeks or maybe somehow only a few minutes, all of creation has passed by Aslan and looked into his face; all creation has gone on either to Aslan’s left or his right.  And the reader gets one last glimpse through a doorway of the old Narnia.

But the reader sees nothing, only blackness.  For through the doorway there is only absolute darkness—no more sun, no more moon, no more stars, no more life of any sort whatsoever—can you imagine?  And with absolute darkness comes absolute zero.  The world of Narnia that once thrived is now dead.  There is no source of heat, no source of light, no source of life.

At creation, light did away with darkness.  It provided heat.  It provided life.

At Christmas a new light has shone forth.  Christmas has brought new life to this old creation.

One more connection between creation and Christmas: the Word of God, this new source of life, has become flesh and dwells among us.

Think back to creation.  Where was God’s dwelling place?  Where did God dwell among us?  Wasn’t it in the Garden of Eden, right alongside the Tree of Life?

And where does Jesus dwell among us today?

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan shows up in every book.  And it’s not always as people expect—it’s not always in the flesh.  Occasionally he shows up on the page of a book; or a person thinks she sees him briefly out of the corner of her eye; or he shows up in another person’s dream.  He’s not a tame lion, you know.

But that’s just John’s point.  Jesus shows up where we would expect him too, right here in church—the Garden of Eden for the new age.  But he also shows up when and where we don’t expect him—in a conversation with a stranger, or at the dinner table when we’re simply laughing with friends.  He is the Word, after all.

On the flip side, sometimes he doesn’t show up when we expect him too; or he shows up in a different way than we ever expected, and only later we realize we missed him.  We can’t put a box around Jesus.  Aslan’s not a tame lion.

Christmas, then, is not just the story of God coming into the world in some backwater part of the Roman Empire.  Today we don’t just remember that God is involved in the intimate details of each of our lives.  Looking at Christmas through the eyes of St. John the Evangelist—and with some help from that modern evangelist, C. S. Lewis—today we see that Christmas is much more.  Today, we see clearly that Christmas is smack dab in the middle of the grand sweep of salvation history.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  And thus we’ve crossed the great threshold of time.  The old is passing away; the new is here!

Merry Christmas!