Belief and Relief
My Granddad was a weather watcher of the highest order. Well before the days of the Weather Channel and Weather Bug and all that stuff, he could sit on the back porch in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and watch the sky and tell with great accuracy what was coming. My Grandmother always figured he was right—well, about the weather!
One summer while we were at their house, Granddad came through the house, turning off all the lights, the TV, anything electric. He said, “Come to the dining room—now!” My cousins, brother, and I scurried into the dining room, which was in the middle of the house, wondering what was going on.
We didn’t notice how dark it was getting outside, and how still. Granddad pulled out an oil lamp and lit it, and set it on the counter and told us that a big storm was coming, and we would wait it out here. Sure enough within a few minutes, a huge storm hit—lightning like I had never seen, howling window, drenching rain. We heard a huge crash down the block, and wondered what was going on. The storm raged for about 20 minutes, and then it moved on. Sirens could be heard in the area. Just as quickly, the sunlight returned, and we all hurried outside to see what was left of the neighborhood! Sure enough, a house not far away was on fire, hit by lightning. As I looked out the window, I saw the darkness receding, and the bold sunlight taking over once again. It was a moment that has stayed with me all these years—darkness never wins.
That is the word from John’s gospel on this day. God loves us so much that darkness will never have the upper hand. We have to be able to appreciate the difference—to see the way shadow often enhances our love of light. You see, the most familiar verse of scripture in the world is part of a dialogue Jesus has with a Pharisee, Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come to Jesus under cover of darkness, because it just wouldn’t be right for a Pharisee to be seen in the company of such a troublemaker as this man Jesus. So, he comes in darkness to see the Light! It’s nice that people seem so familiar with John 3:16, but the story is so much more than just that nice and neat verse. God gave-we receive. It goes so much farther into the territory of our battle with darkness and all that it hides. A police officer friend once told me, “Nothing good happens outside after midnight.” And maybe that is true—so, we want to look for the light instead—we want to know what the Light of the world can teach us.
This episode in the gospel of John is a way for Jesus to help Nicodemus and every one of us to understand a little more about love and judgment. John says that God didn’t send the son to condemn the world, but out of love, God shows the way to wholeness of life. Judgment happens because of love; love involves fair and even judgment. We have a narrow human view that judgment is condemnation. If that is the case, then it is a long way back from that sense of failure or wrongdoing. We only understand what we are able to know as humans what God is about. Judgment in God’s hands is fairer and most just than we could ever pronounce among ourselves.
About the best we can muster, on occasion, is the idea of “constructive criticism.” You may have had that done to you during an evaluation process or at grading time when a teacher offers such advice. There is also a fine line—between just downright criticism and a directive to change or the path like literary criticism which involves looking at all actions and pieces to see if everything is in line. God’s judgment comes from love and seeks to set us on the right pathway once again. It’s not petty or mean-spirited or uncaring. That is what John 3:16 helps us to see. God loves us so much, that God was willing to send a beloved only child into the world to show us how to live---to bring darkness-dwellers back into the light. We are so relieved to hear that God loves us no matter what that we want to follow the way that Jesus sets before us.
Scholar Craig Koester says, “The interplay between light and darkness is a fundamental feature of human existence. Day and night, brightness and shadow, establish the contours of the world we see with an evocative potency that has prompted people everywhere to ascribe religious significance to them.” In this same book, Philip Wheelwright calls light and darkness an “archetypal
symbol.” (1) In other words, light and darkness help us visualize the reality of good and evil.
A wonderful example of seeing this archetype or symbol of light and dark is to look at the paintings of Rembrandt. His use of chiaroscuro, or shadow was brilliant. Others used this “light dark” technique earlier, but Rembrandt perfected it. (2) Even at first glance, your eye will be drawn to what is important. His painting, “Descent from the Cross,” is cloaked in dark, dense browns and background figures. Jesus, as his body is taken from the cross is painted in light colors, gold, that which reflects the light. Nothing else is a clearly visible as Jesus. Light wins—it draws your heart to truth. You can see this painting and lots of others at the Web Gallery of Art <www.wga.hu> if you
wish. (3) Our eyes and our hearts want to be drawn toward the light. It is a struggle to see clearly in the dark.
That, my friends, is the wonderful message of John. This gospel writer has given us the truth that Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. We are so loved by God that Jesus was sent among us to show the way by light and love and clear pathways. What a relief to know that we have such a Creator and Redeemer and a loving, caring guide on the way!
And what about you? You may be in need of this message today. Life is not always as neat and purposeful as we wish it to be. There may be something which you have tried to lay down for a long time—something that has kept you walking in darkness or at least in twilight. There may be something that has troubled you for a while, and by yourself, you see no way clear. The relief of this message may come to you in knowing that you have only to ask Jesus to be with you---that is belief! You have only to ask and invite Jesus to be the savior you need. No one else can tell you how that relationship will play out in your life. God has sent Jesus into this world to help us understand that judgment is always tempered with love---that is God’s way.
May you be encouraged to notice the light, wherever and whenever it comes your way. Take a trip to the Des Moines Art Center this week—it’s free—and look for light amongst the darkness in paintings from many artists. Listen for light in music—it will be among times of silence. In every way possible, God comes to us, God loves us, and God has given us Jesus to walk alongside us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Craig Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community. Fortress Press, 2003.
(2) Alyce M. McKenzie, “Walking in the Light: Reflections on John 3;14-21.” Edgy Exegesis, March 11, 2012.
A note of interest: The reference to the snakes in this passage is from Numbers 21:4-9.