Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 15, 2015
God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, be with us today moving grace closer than we have ever dreamed. Amen.
I have to confess. I hate the darkness. At the very first warning of a potential power outage during a winter storm, my anxiety level increases. I begin to collect the flashlights, other battery-powered sources that might provide any illumination and candles and wait in apprehension. There is something about the darkness that is disconcerting and unsettling.
Because this passage begins in midair, so to speak, what we miss in the Gospel today is the important piece about where this dialogue with Nicodemus took place. It’s in tact when we hear the story told on the Second Sunday of Lent in Year A, but today we need the preacher to fill in the blanks.
Nicodemus, whom Jesus is addressing in this short passage, is not only a Pharisee, but a Sanhedrin, one who sits on the high court or tribunal. He practices good works, attends to his prayers, studies and debates scriptures with his fellows and ponders the greatness of his God.
Still Nicodemus is restless and wrestling with his conscience, with his beliefs, and with everything he knows to be true about the God of his understanding. So, he takes a risk. In the darkness of night time, Nicodemus leaves his home and seeks out the Rabbi Jesus. He has seen Jesus heal the sick, chase away demons, teach, inspire, and love the unlovable, and gather a following like Nicodemus has never seen in his life.
What we hear today is the second half of the conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus. Preachers typically gravitate to the famous slogan of John 3:16—“For God so loved the world…” That’s not where I’m headed this morning but I want to suggest one perspective about it. At its best, this familiar verse can be the impetus for gathering a radically welcoming community in which all are included—the lost, the forgotten, the disenfranchised—bringing them healing and compassion and a new life in God.
At its worst, these words in Scripture have been used as a bludgeon to divide the “saved” from the “unsaved,” setting a standard of religious supremacy and an ethos of intimidation for those who do not share the belief in Jesus as the Son of God. That list includes millions such Buddhists, Jews, agnostics and atheists. “God so loved the world…” That world includes everyone who in the eyes of their Creator is a beloved child of God. Period.
I was speaking with a friend this week who has adopted an interesting twist on the use of Scripture as his personal Lenten practice. Rather than trying to unpack deep theological meaning from the Gospel, he is simply searching for life lessons. Life lessons.
For example, as he read the story in Matthew of how an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph and warned him to flee Bethlehem because Herod was out to murder his son Jesus, my friend reflected on the times, or places, or even people from whom he needed to take flight, to escape, and, when it is safe perhaps to return.
It’s a simple practice and I think it has great merit. Isn’t the extracting of life lessons from the Scriptures one of the reasons we read it? And aren’t many of them deeply theological, that is, the means by which we connect with and relate to God and one another?
So, having set aside the portion of this Gospel on which many readers descend, where might we go to find a life lesson that speaks to us? I know where I’m drawn. I’m right alongside Nicodemus in his nocturnal visit. I wonder what the dark places were in his life. What secrets haunted him? What hidden fears preoccupied his mind? Where in his nature was he so vulnerable as to need the protection of the night to face Jesus?
It speaks to me because, like most of us, I recognize that there are dark places in all our lives. Frederick Buechner says it plainly: “If there is a terror about darkness because we cannot see, there is also a terror about light because we can see. There is a terror about light because much of what we see in the light we would rather not see, would rather not be seen.”
Until we are ready to acknowledge our darkness, we will not find our way to the light. I’m not talking about sin or guilt or shame—especially not shame which is a real assassin of our emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. What I’m suggesting is our need to be open and honest with ourselves about our brokenness—the dark places where in the cavern of our hearts we ache, we grieve, we hunger, we regret, we worry, we doubt, we desire, we weep, we just plain hurt.
One of my favorite verses from the Psalms is simply this truth about many of us much of the time: “Have mercy on me, O God, for I am in trouble; my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and belly.”
Once we can face the darkness, we can begin to find our way into the light, the place where God meets us as we are, warts and all, heals us, liberates us, and embraces us. God meets us there as sure as Jesus met Nicodemus—not in the daylight but in the shadows of the night.
When we insist on pretending that we’re just fine, that we have no “stuff” to deal with, we sabotage ourselves. We enmesh ourselves in the darkness. The tunnel of our nightfall becomes too extended for us to see what lies at its end. That’s not what God wants for us. God wants us to know the immeasurable riches of God’s grace. God wants us to live in the light of God’s unconditional love.
Theologian Paul Tillich preached a classic sermon that brings that truth to us in a rather profound way: “Grace strikes us,” said Tillich, “when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.
“It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure has become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything. Simply accept the fact that you…are…accepted!
For God so loved the world…