The Light shines in the darkness…

lighttOne of our deacons asked her 97-year old grandmother what she thought was the most important change in culture over the last century.  Her grandmother said electric lighting.

That got our deacon–and us, her Sunday school class–to think about what life was like before electric lights.

Sure, there were candles and lanterns in the old days.  Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves were also a mainstay in many a home.  Yet, none of those items really brighten up an indoor space like electric lighting.

I also mentioned how nice it might be, however, if we didn’t have bright lights everywhere.  For one, people wouldn’t see all the dust in the corners of my house.

Candle-lit dinners are romantic too.  Reading by a fireside is cozy.  But, I wouldn’t give up electricity for all  of that.

In the gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as the light of the world.  “I am the light…whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” (8:12).

We see this as a positive attribute of having a relationship with God: In Christ, we do not stumble in the dark and darkness does not overwhelm us.  We enjoy being in the light, especially in the light of God’s love.

But the light also discloses that which is hidden.  Like my preference for people not seeing the dust in the corners of my room, I do not want God’s light to shine everywhere in my life because I’m afraid of what I–and God–might see.

We find this concept in Luke’s gospel: “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to the light” (8:17).  Some of us avoid God just so this doesn’t happen!

When we experience the light of Christ it can be scary to face all of who we are, but it can be very liberating.  Only when we confess our sins do we experience the fullness of God’s grace and be “cleansed from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Those of us who have yet to admit that we are sinners have yet to walk in God’s light.

One time, when my family and I went camping, I went to the showers at night.  I had my cell phone, which has a flashlight app.  When I was walking back to the camp site, I noticed that the phone battery was dying.  I saw it blink down to 2 percent, then 1 percent.  Then it turned off.

I tried to turn it back on, but as soon as I switched the flashlight function on, it immediately went dead.

The weather on that particular night was overcast, absent of moonlight or stars.  The phone went dead in a bend on the road afar from other camp sights.  I couldn’t see anything at all, not even the road.

I stood there for a moment and thought of what to do.  It was getting late, and no one would be walking at that time of night.  I was stuck.

I figured that if I walked slowly, my feet would eventually hit gravel and I could simply follow the side of the road back to the camper.  Thankfully, that worked, and I made it back safe and sound.

I knew instinctively that I was not in trouble.  Even if I had to stay there for an hour, my wife would eventually come for me (I think!).   But it was scary.  All I wanted was light to show me where I had to go.

So with Christ.  Sure, that blinding light of God can be scary sometimes and forces us to face up to the things that displease him, but a life without any light at all–Christ’s light especially–keeps us lost and wandering through a life unfulfilled and absent of salvation and sanctification.

God’s Gift of Grace (John 8:2-12)

anxiety

Text: John 8:2-12
Title: “God’s Gift of Grace”

I.

She tried to leave before sunrise as conspicuously as possible.  She even wore those big sunglasses that the famous celebrities wear when they try to avoid the media.  But it was as if they were trying to trap her, as if they had known.  She felt like Lindsey Lohan, and she imagined that the Pharisees and scribes were the Paparazzi.  They seemed to be everywhere, and they caught her leaving the home of her lover no sooner than she had locked the front door.

Perhaps she wanted to get caught.  There’s a saying that those who sin do so boldly because the guilt is so hard to bear, and it is sin that garners attention.  Some say sin is merely a cry for help.

By now, the sun was inching over the horizon and they began to pull her towards town.  She knew that this was going to be a scandal, although the Pharisees couldn’t stone her like Moses’ law commanded.  The Romans outlawed that long ago.

No stoning for her today, only humiliation and excommunication.  If she was lucky perhaps she could head north to Samaria, find a good job and make ends meet.

II.

As they went along, she heard them talking about some Jesus fellow.  He must have been quite a character for all of the conversation they made about him.  Last week was the Festival of Booths, and Jesus and his followers had apparently come to Jerusalem.  He accused the Pharisees and the scribes of not knowing the law.

“What learned man was this,” she heard one Pharisee ask another, “One who comes from Galilee and claims to be a prophet?”

She realized something at that moment.  The Paparazzi had little interest in her affair.  It was Jesus they wanted, it was Jesus all along.  She had become an object for their ruse, a mere pawn in their game.  She was the bait.

III.

The sun rose higher in the sky now.  People started to recognize her in the midst of the entourage, sunglasses not withstanding.   She cursed herself more: She should have left in the middle of the night.   What person in her right mind would leave when even a hint of light is there to shine upon the sinfulness of one’s deeds.   We all run from the light, but eventually the light catches up with us.

And it wasn’t enough for them to bring her to the town!  Straight to the temple they went, throwing her up the stairs and through the portico like a rag doll!   What humiliation!  Surely, she would get stoned, never mind Roman law!

They pushed her in front of Jesus, interrupting him while he was teaching a small group of disciples.

“Teacher,” they said, “This woman was caught in adultery [she cringed…], caught in the very act itself [tears started to well up in her eyes].  Now in the law of Moses, it says to stone such a woman—(see, Jesus, we know our law after all!)—so what do you propose we do with her?”

A tear ran down her eyes as she tried to look to this stranger from Galilee.  Would Jesus rouse the crowds and have her stoned like they suggested?  It would happen only at great risk to himself—the Romans would find out one way or another.

Or would he appear to be too submissive, or worse, break Moses’ law—a divine law she was all too familiar with?  They would have grounds to arrest him either way!

She closed her eyes and held her breath and waited for the poisonous conviction to come upon her like the executioner’s sword.

A minute passed; nothing happened.  The Pharisees and scribes were losing their patience.  They questioned Jesus again, but he seemed to be ignoring them.  He was doodling in the dirt at her feet.

She couldn’t tell what he had been doodling beyond the blur of her tears.  They may have been words—envy, lust, greed—she couldn’t tell.  Perhaps it was the proverbial line in the sand.  She imagined that it was, and she imagined that the line he drew put both of them—she and Jesus—on one side and the Pharisees on the other.    But as quickly as she rubbed her tears away, Jesus wiped out the doodling in the dirt with his sandal.

Then she heard his voice for the first time.  It was humble, but authoritative; Galilean in dialect, but confident in tone.  She didn’t realize that her hands were at her own mouth as she watched him begin to form words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Curious words, and certainly not what the Pharisees and scribes expected.  It wasn’t what she expected, and it certainly wasn’t an adequate answer to all of the questions they had asked.  It wasn’t an answer at all.

IV.

She looked to the Pharisees and scribes now.  It was their turn to be on the receiving end of her tears and quiet whimper.  But they began to leave.  First this one, the one who grabbed her at the house; and then that one, the one who kept cursing Jesus all the way to Jerusalem.  The others left one by one too, each one with shoulders slumped and eyes as downcast as hers.

“Woman,” Jesus said, startling her from her stupor, “Where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir.”

“Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on, do not sin again.”

It was light out by now, and a breath of life filled her with hope.  Here was a teacher who had every right to accuse her and give a conviction, to send her to her death or at least excommunicate her from among her neighbors, but he simply gave her a pass and a challenge.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The sun was out, but it was as if she was seeing that light for the first time in her life.  It was a gift, and it was liberation, and it was an act of forgiveness and it was permission to break off her affair without repercussions.

Go, and sin no more.  It was as if the sunrise was a metaphor for something else: the light had just turned on and cleansed her for no good reason other than the fact that Jesus said it was so—no condemnation, no conviction.  Grace and freedom all in one swoop.

Then he continued to talk,  “I am the light of the world,” he said,  “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

V.

It was like that story about Moses that she learned as a child—the one in which Moses went up on a mountain and asked to see God.  God said that no one could look at Him and live, so God decided to place Moses in the cleft of a rock, hide Moses’ eyes as He passed, and let Moses look at the glory of the Lord from behind.

The glory had been so breathtaking, so vibrant, that when Moses came down from that mountain, the people couldn’t go near him.  His face was shining like the sun.

Were the Israelites afraid of him because he was so blinding and bright, or were they afraid like she had been because that divine light would reveal the sins and failures, the guilt and struggles they all shared?

She remembered the promise God told Moses during that divine interaction:  “I am a God full of mercy and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and forgiveness.”

Just as Moses hid from God’s light, the Israelites ran from that glory of God.  She too—the adulterer that she was—ran  from the light; but, now, here she was with Jesus—all exposed and vulnerable, fully in the light.

This light, the “Light of the world!”, redeemed her and liberated her with new life, a second chance, a clean start.  The sun rose in her heart, and she felt alive like never before.

She recalled a song she heard on the radio earlier that week,

“The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning;
It’s time to sing your song again.”

It was grace—God’s grace. ..the single word that best describes God’s relationship to humans, that best describes how much God wants to restore people and be in communion with them, not because of what they do or even because of who they are, but simply because that’s God’s way of expressing God’s love for us.

She had one final thought: What was more scandalous than her act of adultery?  Was it her affair, or was it the act of God’s forgiveness of her adultery with no questions asked and no debts to pay?

It wasn’t a stoning she received; it was salvation.

VI.

A late professor of mine, Dr. Daniel Goodman, once asked in a sermon similar to this one: How do you run a church on grace?   When we practice grace, as scandalous as it is, are we called to be permissive, or are we called to bring people’s sins out into the light so that we can tell them to “Go, and sin no more”?

I think it’s neither. I think that when a church practices grace, we don’t do God’s job of revealing and judging sin; nor do we downplay the repercussions and consequences that all our decisions have on our life.

Instead, I think that the church is called to practice grace by forgiving people of their sins, opening their eyes to Christ’s love, and walking with them through the consequences of actions and decisions that are often too complex for us to understand in the first place.

That is why Jesus said that we are to visit people in prison—we don’t visit prisoners to free them–that’s God’s job and God does that in His timing—rather, we are called to be present with prisoners—all prisoners, not just the ones behind bars, but those who are imprisoned in sin and circumstance—in order to share the grace of God even if we think that others are undeserving of it.

We share grace because we are all beneficiaries of it, and we all are in need of that sunrise in our hearts time and again, the kind of sunrise that reminds us just how amazing God’s grace really is.

“So Send I You”: An Easter Sermon

(Sermon preached on March 31, 2013.  Text: John 20:1, 19-23.)

staircaseOn the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary went to the tomb and found it empty. (John 20:1)

I.

Preaching on Easter Sunday is difficult for us pastors.  Sure, we’re excited about the occasion; we like to see the sanctuary swelling with great attendance, and we like to see family and friends visiting from out of town.  But the Scripture text is always the same.  Every year.  There is not much room for diversion and we can’t very well preach on anything we want.  People dress in their Easter best to hear a good Easter sermon.

Martin Copenhaven, a veteran pastor and popular author, is one of the few lucky pastors who still finds something new to preach even after pastoring the same church for over 18 years.  John Buchanon, another pastor and editor of the The Christian Century, is not so hopeful and positive.  Ethicist Reinhold Neibhur once confessed that he visited a church on Easter Sunday that had the least amount of preaching because no pastor, he argued, was up to the task of speaking to such weighty matters.

I must admit that I too feel that I’m not up to the task.  I feel that I am still in the dark many an Easter Sunday.  I have trouble finding new things to talk about.  But, then again, it’s in the dark where a lot of things take place:

  • It was in the dark of wilderness that Jesus was tempted and learned that no one lives by bread alone, but by the very words of God.
  • It was in the dark that Jesus gave his final breath: “From noon on,” Matthew wrote in his gospel, “darkness came over the whole land.”
  • The resurrection occurs in darkness.  Those of us who gathered in the wee hours of the mourning for sunrise service were too late.  Jesus already came like–you guessed it–“a thief in the night.”

II.

But, you know, I’m not the only one in the dark around here.  I have a feeling that many of you are in the dark too.  In fact, many people come here every week precisely because they’re in the dark.  It’s like when I hear people complain that churches are full of hypocrites.  Of course there are hypocrites in the church, dummy!  Why else go to church than to know that the only way to be saved from hypocrisy is found right here in this place, at the foot of this cross?

It’s because we’re in the dark that we come like King Zedekiah coming to Jeremiah at night, wondering, “Is there a word from the Lord?”  Or the Reverend Nicodemus sneaking away to visit Jesus in the cover of darkness to ask how he can be saved.  Or like Pharaoh, who comes to Moses after nightfall to ask for a blessing.

By being in the dark and owning up to our sin or our regrets or our hypocrisy, we become just like Jesus’ disciples on Easter day: We are nowhere to be found, locked in some room scared to death.  We fear the darkness and emptiness; but, we start in darkness before we move towards the light!

III.

John’s Easter story in chapter 20 is appropriate for those of us stumbling in the dark because the story doesn’t begin in glory or in the midst of Alleluias or hosannas.  Rather, according to verse 1, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb “while it was still dark” to finish the burial rituals left undone from two days ago.

She came, according to local pastor Bill Self, like a sorry intern sent to clean up campaign headquarters after her boss lost the big election the night before.

So, here we have Mary at the tomb while it was dark and, upon finding the tomb empty, expected the worst.  She went to get Peter and another disciple, and they come to the tomb.  Same thing: They expected the worst and they headed back home, shoulders slumped ever lower, and went back to bed.

Mary remained there, however, and she wept.  Unlike Peter, she was not afraid of the dark or emptiness.  As a person who once had 7 demons in her, she knew a thing or two about darkness.

Finally, angels appeared and asked, “Why are you weeping?”  Then Jesus appeared and repeated the question.  Mary, still enshrouded in darkness, didn’t recognize him and mistook him as the gardener.

Jesus called her name–light pierced the darkness!–and she recognized him.  They embrace, and he told her not to hold on, that his work was far from finished.  She ran and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”

Interesting, this scripture is:  It’s not until nightfall–darkness–that Jesus appeared to the disciples for the first time on Easter with “peace” and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is in the midst of this dark that we are reminded how John’s Gospel begins in the first place:  “The light pierces the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

The Easter story moves quickly from here like a good action movie:  Next, we get the story of Thomas, himself in the dark and wanting proof.  Then Jesus disappeared for a while.  He left the disciples clueless, and the disciples went back to doing what’s familiar–they go fishing.

They fished all day long, and scripture tells us: “But that night, they caught nothing.”  Then: daybreak! (John 21:4)  Jesus appeared to them a third time, the disciples caught fish, Jesus made breakfast, they shared communion and–boom!– light pierced the darkness yet again, they recognized Jesus.

Jesus asked Peter over breakfast (three times): “Do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter responded, “You know I love you.”

“Then feed my sheep.”  To the rest of the disciples, Jesus added, “Follow me.”

It was a second commissioning because it was back on Easter that Jesus commanded them:  “Just as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

IV.

Once again, with a “feed my sheep!” Jesus pierces the darkness, and our own darkness too.  Will Willimon, in the devotional Disciplines 2013, puts it this way:

“Here in the darkness, we are witnessing the birth of the church, a group of half-understanding, often cowardly, people trying but not always succeeding to follow Jesus…down a path few of us really want to go.”

The difficulty of coming up with an Easter sermon simply reminds us that even after all these thousands of years–even after Jesus has appeared in our lives so many times–that we, too, still get stuck in the dark.

And darkness surrounds us.  There is…

  • Exploitation and mass consumerism consuming us in its slick blackness.
  • Broken tax codes that leave too many in the darkness of inequality and injustice.
  • War and violence that brings its deathly shadow to too many lands.
  • Poverty and hunger that creates dark in the pit of the stomach.
  • Cancer and grief and illness–a darkness that lingers and lingers and lingers…

We, like the disciples, continue to stumble in darkness, and we need Jesus’ light yet again to pierce it, to war against it, to remind us that we are not in the dark and empty space all alone.  We need bread broken, the taste of juice whetting our lips to awaken us from our slumber.

And we still have Jesus asking us–not once, not three times, but over and over and over again:  “Do you love me?”

“Yes, Jesus, we do!”

“Then feed my sheep!  Just as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

“But how Jesus?  It’s too dark?  We can’t see in front of our very eyes!”

V.

By walking through the Easter story, we walk with Mary and the disciples through these three movements:

  1. We start in the grief and sorrow and dark of Good Friday.
  2. We move to discovery and experience of Easter morning.
  3. And, after that, we repeat communion and get Jesus’ repetitive but never redundant commissioning.

It’s a movement we do continually because we will always stumble, but even in the darkest hour, light pierces our darkness yet again!

VI.

In a recent article in Desert Spirituality, occupational therapist, Mary Gilligan, tells a story of a time she was hospitalized for a serious illness.  She couldn’t eat for days other than those lousy ice chips–you know what I’m talking about.  Between her hunger and the medication, she experienced hallucinations and bad dreams.

She tried to pray, but no words–not even the “Hail Marys” she knew as a Catholic–brought her comfort.  She drifted in and out of consciousness, the pain was excruciating.  Then, one day, she had a vision:

She found herself at the bottom of a spiral staircase in darkness.  With just enough strength to take it one step at a time, she began to ascend.  Each step brought her closer to the light until, finally–like a child with a father–she saw herself crawling in Jesus’ lap.*

She held her hand.  She rubbed her head.  She spoke words of comfort to her:

“There will be a long journey ahead, but I will be with you every step of the way.”

Reminds me of the hymn we sang this morning, “Because He Lives”:

“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.  Because He lives, all fear is gone..”

It was in a similar place of darkness–in fear, behind locked doors–that Jesus gave the disciples strength to take their first step towards the light.  That is the same strength Jesus gives us today.  It’s not much–only a “Peace be with you”–but it’s enough for today…and tomorrow.

“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus tells us as he pierces our darkness, “So send I you.”

It’s when we see and experience the light that we find ourselves running like Mary with a simple message, “I have seen the Lord!”

Amen and amen.