How can these things be? In today’s gospel, Jesus answers a question from Nicodemus, the discerning Pharisee who came to him by night. Jesus and Nicodemus have been having this complicated conversation about being reborn by the Spirit and the Spirit blowing where it will. Jesus is partly talking to Nicodemus, and partly talking to a bunch of other people listening in, including us. How can these things be? Jesus answers with this gospel that we heard today, laying out a complex dance of condemnation, judgment, light, darkness, evil, love, salvation, and good deeds.
In this dance—and let me remind you all right now that I am not a dancer—God sends Jesus to transform the suffering of the world by restoring the relationship between the people of Israel and their God. Suffering and brokenness has been with us since the beginning of time, but this doesn’t mean that this is what God wants for us. Condemnation is not something God lays upon is. It’s what happens to us whenever we let our hearts be ruled by the world rather than by God.
We see this in the story from Numbers. This story is a backdrop to today’s gospel, but it is a backdrop in Technicolor. The people of Israel wandering around in the desert are suffering. They suffer from their own resistance to the new relationship into which God has called them. They are having trouble leaning in, if you will. So instead, they complain about the food. “There’s no food. And we hate the food.” (That sound like some teenagers I’ve known.) They complain about not being in Egypt anymore, they mistrust their leaders, they probably are fighting with each other, and it is a miserable time. But God is not doing this to them.
Until God decides to get their attention by unleashing a bunch of poisonous snakes. I can tell you, based on recent research, that forty-three percent of the human population is afraid of snakes. Let’s say that God is a God who gets our attention by allowing us to face that thing that terrifies us. So God showers the people in the desert with what they fear the most, and then gets their attention by healing them. God tells Moses, make a snake out of bronze and lift it up on a pole in the desert, and all who look upon it will live. They might still experience suffering, but they will see a way through. Suffering will no longer define them.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has come into the world for judgment. The judgment that Jesus speaks of is not still more condemnation. If we are dancing, it is like changing partners, or changing direction. Or changing dances. Judgment is a tipping point, a decision point. Imagine scales—the judgment may be the invisible weight that tips the scale one way or another. Jesus’ judgment is to turn us into the light, the light by which we, like the Israelites in the desert, can look brokenness and suffering in the eye, and live. And this is the judgment, he says, not the suffering and condemnation of alienated people, but the presence of light in the world. Jesus’ presence, his whole ministry, is an invitation to come into the light.
Our response to this judgment, to this invitation, is to be light for the world.
We know from the story of the Israelites in the desert and from our own experience that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. It is not our own goodness that makes us light for the world. God does this for us, in us, and through us.
Sometimes this happens in darkness. It is tempting to talk about light and darkness as a binary thing, all or nothing. Light good; darkness bad. What God does in Jesus is send a light into darkness that darkness cannot overcome. In real life, the two coexist, and this is where many of us live. It is not binary, and it is also not grey. The world we navigate is a world rich in light and darkness, suffering and healing, condemnation and freedom.
This is all very abstract, so let me offer a couple of examples:
I saw a tiny microcosm of light and darkness together in the labyrinth yesterday. It was a gorgeous day and if you walked through it this morning you saw the fruits of half a dozen people’s good work. When I was there yesterday, they were working—all enjoying themselves thoroughly, and there were piles of weeds and trimming from all the grasses and shrubs. It was lovely to see the transformation taking place. There were also neat piles here and there of used hypodermic needles, empty Thunderbird bottles, fast food wrappers, and worse. When we clean it, we are making it nice for spring and for Easter, but we are also making it a light, a sign of God’s grace for all of our neighbors. Who knows whether some of our neighbors don’t see it as a corner of the Kingdom of God? This doesn’t go away when all of that gets mixed, as it will again, with the detritus of suffering and poverty.
I’m sure some of you have seen the film “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It’s a dark, sad film, and a shining example of darkness and light coexisting in a way that I believe pulls back the curtain on the Kingdom of God. As many of you know, the story is of a woman dealing with unspeakable grief and anger, and about her relationships with her family and others in the small world she inhabits. It is hard to watch, painful in spots. In small ways every single character finds some small way to show forth the light that is in them. It is a dark movie filled with light. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great movie for Lent.
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I came across a line in a poem by Scott Cairns (which I have not been able to find again so this is not verbatim) but he wrote: When we are making our way in the dark, a flashlight is of more help than a star. (I don’t think he said flashlight.) Think about how we become light by the simple good works that by some miracle you and I are able to do every day, or most days, as a resultof light coming into the world. Decisions we might not even notice: shall I get up and pray the Office? Shall I get up, period? Shall I do something that will make me more active and loving? Shall I treat someone with dignity and respect? Shall I call someone to remind them that they are not alone but are part of a community? Shall I pray for someone with whom I struggle? Shall I dream about what crazy thing God might want me to do next?
How can these things be? This is the judgment: that the light has come into the world.