Second Sunday in Lent

PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION

God of great love,
you alone can take away the sting of sin
and remove the venom of death.
Show us a sign of your saving power in Jesus Christ, so that we may believe in him
and receive the gift of eternal life;
through Christ, our healer and redeemer.

 

SCRIPTURE: Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[g] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[h] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[i]

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Emily Dickinson proclaimed:

We grow accustomed to the Dark – When Light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp – To witness her Good bye –

A Moment – We Uncertain step – For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark – And meet the Road – erect –

And so of larger – Darknesses – Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign – Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little – And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead – But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters – Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight – And Life steps almost straight.

A beautiful poem, but I am not sure that adjusting to the darkness is what God intended for Emily, for us or for Jesus’ nighttime visitor.  Nicodemus has stepped into the nighttime of his life. He wants to know, “How can these things be?” In the darkness nothing makes sense and he’s looking for answers and understanding. He’s not, however, the first or the only one to step into the darkness.

Thomas asks a similar question on the night of the last supper. “How can we know the way” (John 14:5)?

Before Thomas it was Mary’s question to Gabriel announcing that she would give birth to the Son of God. “How can this be, since I am a virgin” (Luke 1:34)?

And before Mary it was Zechariah wanting assurance from Gabriel about the son he and Elizabeth would have. “How will I know that this is so” (Luke 1:18)?

And I am sure Abram must have wondered, “How can I leave my country, my kindred, and my father’s house” (Genesis 12:1)?

These are more than just biblical stories about other people in a different place and time. They are also our stories. There comes a time in each of our lives when understanding and knowing give way to the darkness of not knowing and not understanding. The journey of faith, it seems, is a journey through the darkness. Maybe we all come “to Jesus by night.”

Whether it’s through a call from God, a crisis of faith, or the circumstances of our lives, at some point we all step into the nighttime of our lives. They are those times and places in our lives when we feel isolated and alone, when the stability and predictability of life are disrupted, when our confidence shrivels and we have more questions than answers. They are the times when we are afraid, when we are powerless, or when we feel unprepared for and overwhelmed by what lies ahead. They are the times we feel untethered, and there is no stability, no anchor, and nothing to hold on to. They are the times when we try to figure it all out but nothing makes sense, and we just don’t know what to do. They are the times when we feel like strangers in a foreign land. They are the times when we face the unknown. They are the times when we don’t know and can’t see the way forward.

I’ve been there. I know what that’s like and I’ll bet you do too. I’ll bet each of you could tell a story about the nighttime of your life. I know some of you are in the nighttime of life today. What is your nighttime of life story? When have you stepped out into the darkness? What did that feel like?

The nighttime of life is a difficult place for most of us. Sometimes we might it experience it as an absence, an ending, or some kind of loss or death. Others times we might experience it as an overwhelming presence of confusion, not knowing, a sense of being lost, a vertigo that disorients. It’s a place of struggle and discomfort. We want answers instead of questions, certainty instead of ambiguity, and light instead of shadows. We want understanding and explanations. We want to see the way forward. We want to know where we are going, what will happen, and what lies ahead.

In the nighttime of life there are, however, no answers. There are only the promises of God. Do you remember God’s promises to Abram? “I will,” God says. God acts in the darkness of our lives. If Abram will step into the mystery of the unknown, the nighttime of his life, God will do the rest. “I will show you,” “I will make of you,” “I will bless you,” God tells Abram (Genesis 12:1-2).

The nighttime of life is not a time for us to gather more data, try harder, do more, or make sense of what is happening. It is a time of surrendering to God and opening ourselves to God’s dreaming for our lives. It is a time of trusting that there is more hidden in the darkness than we can see. It is a time of letting the wind of God blow where it will and change our lives. It’s a time for letting ourselves be born anew.

In the nighttime of life, the problem is not the darkness but our fear and confusion about what the darkness means. What if new life and light lie on the other side of the darkness? What if the darkness is the border between us and a fuller life? What if the darkness is the means by which God transforms our lives and calls us into our truer and more authentic selves? What if we experienced the darkness as an invitation into God rather than something to be feared? What if we understood and trusted that new life and light are born of the darkness? That’s what it was for Nicodemus, Thomas, Mary, Zechariah, Abram and Sarai. Why would we think it is anything less for us?

A seed planted in the darkness of the earth sprouts, rises, and reaches for the sun’s light. A child in the darkness of his or her mother’s womb is born into the light of day. Christ burst forth from the darkness of the tomb “giving light to those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death.” And let’s not forget that God’s “Let there be light” was spoken in the darkness, and continues to be spoken in the darkness of every time, place, and life.

In the nighttime of life, we must give our eyes time to adjust to the darkness. It’s not so much looking for light around us as it is discovering the light within us, the light of Christ. “There is a light in us that only the darkness can illuminate” (Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight, 19). The author Og Mandino puts it like this, “I will love the darkness because it shows me the stars” (The Greatest Salesman in the World, 59). St. Gregory of Nysa called this darkness “the luminous darkness” (The Life of Moses, 95).

The luminous darkness shines in the nighttime of life. It did for Nicodemus, Thomas, Mary, Zechariah, Abram and Sarai. And it does for us as well. In the nighttime of life, the luminous darkness says we are not alone even when we don’t see another soul around. It shows the way forward when it’s so dark we can’t see our own hands. It holds the dawn of a new day after a long night. The luminous darkness is God’s “I will” for you and me.

How does all this happen? I don’t know. I only know that it does. I can’t tell you how it happens. But I can tell you why it happens. For God so loves the world.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

For God so loves you and me. For God so loves.

Commentary provided by Michael K Marsh, David Lose, Bob Stuhlmann, Janet Hunt, and Beth Neel.