Sunday, March 22, 2009

On the Road to the Cross: Blinking in the Light

(A sermon based on John 3:14-21 for the Fourth Sunday in Lent)

[Image: Visit of Nicodemus to Christ, John La Farge, 1880]

My promising baseball career ended after my one season in Babe Ruth (ages 13-15) ball, mainly because I decided that I’d rather work after school and on Saturdays at a local grocery store so that I could save money to buy a car, which I did. I had already, though, during that season been confronted with a problematic limitation that made me wonder about my future in the game.

It was a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon and that was the problem. I was one of the youngest players on the team and I didn’t play much, but on that particular afternoon the coach decided to play me in left field and another reserve player in right field. During warm-ups I realized that I had a problem. So I went to one of the coaches and said, “I really think it would be best if you switched Frank and me—left field is the sun field and I don’t think I can handle it.” They made no change. And sure enough, in the top of the first inning, a batter hit a long drive into left field and, when I looked up, all I saw was the sun. Friends, that was thirty-seven years ago and I haven’t seen that ball yet!

Everybody is sensitive to the light but I was hyper-sensitive. When I looked up into that blazing sun, my impulse was to screw my eyes shut or to turn my back on the offending sun. The light revealed one of my shortcomings, which was that I couldn’t stand the light—and so I missed the ball.

Everybody has some sensitivity to the light; the question is, how sensitive to the light are you?

Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, “I am the Light of the World.” In this morning’s text, John says, “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” (vv. 19-21).

Now, we should remember that John offered those words as part of his follow-up to the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews (3:1), had come to Jesus “by night” (3:2), which in John’s symbolic world indicates that he was at least potentially on the move from the darkness into the light. Haltingly, probingly, Nicodemus approached Jesus with a question, a question that indicated some openness, some hope—and some hesitation.

In other words, as Nicodemus came toward the light, he was blinking already. What was he to make of this Jesus? You know how sometimes a person’s eyes will blink when she is nervous or anxious—that’s the kind of blinking that I imagine Nicodemus doing as he first came to Jesus. He wanted to approach Jesus—he did approach Jesus—but as he did the light made him blink in nervousness, because he knew that this Jesus just might be the real deal and he knew that meeting this Jesus just might make the difference for him but he also knew that the implications for his life were staggering.

What was there in this light, in this Jesus, that drew him to Jesus? What was there in him that drew him to this light, to this Jesus? What in his life made it necessary for him to go to Jesus? What was there in his life that kept him from coming whole-heartedly to Jesus?

After Nicodemus asked his question Jesus answered him with words about being born again or born from above and with more words about the Spirit acting like the wind in that it goes where it will and does what it will all of which led Nicodemus to exclaim, “How can these things be?” (3:9). He’s blinking again, isn’t he? But this time he’s blinking in confusion and consternation because you know how it is with us—we like to be in control or at least to think we’re in control and there was Nicodemus, a smart and important and powerful man, listening to this beguiling rabbi say some very confusing things but things that sure seemed to imply that if he or anyone else was going to be in the kingdom of God it was going to have to be God’s doing and that God’s doing was from beyond Nicodemus and was mysterious and was gracious. That’s what the light of Jesus revealed—and it’s no surprise that Nicodemus blinked.

We blink in consternation and confusion when we realize that a situation is out of our hands, when the light shines on us in such a way that we see ourselves in a situation out of which there is no way unless somebody rescues us and when the light shines on us in such a way that we understand that we can’t understand. It takes quite an adjustment, doesn’t it, when you come out of darkness into light? Perhaps we can imagine Nicodemus now blinking as he tries desperately to adjust to the bright light of Jesus—how much can he stand to let in? How much can we stand to let in?

And that’s when Jesus dared Nicodemus and everybody else who was standing around and everyone who has heard his words ever since to look directly into the light: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life” (vv. 14-15). The reference is to a story in Numbers 11 in which, because of the people’s sin, God sent serpents into the camp to bite them and then Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole so that, when those who had bitten looked upon it, they would be healed. Jesus draws two comparisons in this saying; the first comparison is between the lifting up of the serpent and the lifting up of the Son of Man while the second more implicit comparison is between the effect of looking upon the serpent (the stricken are healed) and the effect of looking upon the crucified Son of man (the dying receive eternal life).

“If you’ll look at the crucified Son of man—if you’ll see him and believe in him—then you will have the life with God that God wants you to have,” Jesus was in effect saying to Nicodemus and the others who were listening and so he is saying to us.

Looking into that light is hard and when we do it we will blink again—but now we may blink in wonder and amazement or we may blink in denial and stubbornness.

We might blink in wonder and amazement because we are so astounded that such grace and love and mercy, grace and love and mercy that down deep we just knew had to exist, are available to us. We might blink in wonder and amazement because that hope for life with God that had been a flickering ember within us bursts into a wondrous flame. We might blink in wonder and amazement because we have craved forgiveness and in Christ on the cross we see that we can be forgiven.

But still—we may also blink in fear and anxiety and confusion and consternation because, well, even though we are so gratified to see Christ on the cross and even though something clicks in us that says “Yes!” there are still those things that we’ve done or that doubt that we feel or that pride that we have. It’s ok—a little doubtful and fearful and hesitant blinking is always going to be the case for us; we can’t let that stop us from coming to the light.

But we also might blink in denial or stubbornness. We may not like what the light reveals about salvation—that it is free and gracious and not something that we can earn—and such light might probe into the nooks and crannies where our pride is hiding. We may not like what the light reveals about us—that we are sinners who do sinful things—and such light might focus on our failings and our flaws in such a way that causes us to get our backs up and cause us to say, “Who does this Jesus think he is? I’m no worse than anyone else. I can take care of my own problems my own way. Who needs this?” And so we can turn away from the light, our eyes screwed up and our hearts shut down.

But still—if you’ll just turn around and look again, if you’ll just let yourself blink—we all know how hard, maybe how impossible, it is to look at such light straight on—then the light just might still get into your life so that you will see that God does in fact love you and that God did in fact give God’s only Son for you and that if you will come to the light—albeit blinkingly and haltingly—you will find grace and forgiveness and life.

So come to the light—blinking all the way!

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