- Parish House
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B – John 3:14-21
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Just for fun the other day, I did an online search for a list of the most annoying platitudes. They are kind of a pet peeve of mine, especially when you hear something like, “Everything happens for a reason,” when something really awful has just happened. We mean well when we say such things, but it’s usually because we don’t know what else to say. In my online search, I found a great list of platitudes, like: time heals all wounds; good things come to those who wait; and, what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. I enjoyed a good scoff.
But there was one on the list that I’ve used more often that I care to admit: “it will all look better in the morning.” Maybe you’ve used that one, too. In fact, I’m going to wager that everyone here has woken up in the middle of the night and worried about something. Fears and anxieties have a way of amplifying in the quiet dark. And despite the cliche, sometimes a little self-talk about things looking better in the morning is needed.
If this ever happens to you at night, you’re not alone. Google tracks data of what people search for by time of day. For example, “the weather” is highest in the morning as people begin their day. But the word “symptoms” is highest late at night, with worrisome Google searches seeking information on heart attacks, cancers, and other diseases. I imagine there is a lot of self-diagnosing in the middle of the night. Of course, it’s no surprise that sites with adult content are also popular as the night progresses. But even more interesting, Google reports that, “in the U.S., searches between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. are key times for humans’ most vast inquiries: What is the meaning of consciousness? Does free will exist? Is there life on other planets?” (CBS Sacramento) It seems that our biggest questions and existential angst loom largest in the middle of the night.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is a window into such nighttime worries. Nicodemus, a religious leader of the Jews, has come to Jesus under the cover of night when no one would see him. He’s worried about the big questions. He’s worried about his soul. And he’s worried because as a Pharisee he’s supposed to have more figured out than he does. Fears of inadequacy, after all, are common for all of us in the middle of the night. So he seeks out Jesus. There in the dark, they have the familiar and cryptic conversation about needing to be born again from above, and the wind blowing where it will. Their conversation continues in today’s passage.
Jesus begins with an old reference to Moses making a snake statue and raising it up on a pole. Those who looked upon the bronze snake would be healed of poisonous snake bites. Jesus seems to be comparing his own impending crucifixion to being lifted up on Moses’ pole. But he takes it a step further and explains that those who believe in him will not only live, like those ancient Hebrews with snake bites; they will now have eternal life. Whether or not Nicodemus understands Jesus at this point is unclear. For that matter, whether we understand him at this point is unclear. And their exchange seems to get more mysterious from there.
Jesus talks about who is condemned for their unbelief and who isn’t, who has rejected the light and who has believed in the light. Jesus, we know, was prone to speeches that divided the world into two kinds of people. There are lovers of darkness, and lovers of light. The wheat and the chaff. The sheep and the goats. But none of us is ever so clearly defined. Aren’t we a mix of both? I wonder whether this strange talk of light and darkness could comfort Nicodemus in his nighttime anxiety.
As they talk that night about eternal life, Jesus takes Nicodemus to the darkest of places, to Jesus’ own death on the cross. That is the bleakest moment of human sin, the epitome of violence and cruelty. We are familiar with that violence and cruelty, both in the world and in our own hearts, in the news and in our lives. Yet, it is in that very moment of the cross, in the depth of the darkness, that God’s light shines the brightest in what will be triumph over human sin. Resurrection is right around the corner. The gospel of John opens with those powerful and mysterious words, that the darkness cannot overcome the light. Abundant life, eternal life is not the absence of violence or anxiety, but that which is greater than any darkness we know. God sent the Son so that we might know this. That was the answer to Nicodemus’ nighttime question.
It’s not reported how their conversation ended that night. We do know that Nicodemus remained devoted in some way to Jesus, appearing at the crucifixion and assisting with his burial. Something must have moved him that night. He must have glimpsed a truth, a light brighter than whatever kept him up at night. Because of that, Nicodemus is a guide for us. We come to Jesus, usually in the dark when our fears and worries are at their strongest. We ask for God’s light to shine in those dark places. The Gospel promises that there is nothing in us that we need to hide. And even if we have shied away from the light for fear of what it might expose, we don’t need to be afraid. Because even in our darkest places, even in the darkness of the cross, we find a story of light. God so loved the world that God sent the Son, who lived and died all the way to the end, to the cross, to prove the depth of that love and to show that light really does overcome the darkness.
I think Jesus uses those black and white images of evil and goodness, of darkness and light not to condemn us but to wake us up. It is not enough to be complacent in the light, and it is not acceptable to ignore the darkness of sin. We are all a mix of both. Like that night with Nicodemus, he urges us to take our own nighttime journey and to seek his light in all of the corners of our soul.
Perhaps the season of Lent is the time for us to be nocturnal Christians, seeking out Jesus in order to explore worlds of sin and grace we would not otherwise discover. This is the season for looking at all those things that keep us up at night, to look at our biggest questions, and to seek God’s presence there. And when we do spend some time exploring the darkest places within us and within our world, it is there that we will find the greatest love and the brightest light. God’s love for this world is stronger than our sin. Easter comes after Good Friday. Things really do look better in the morning.