John’s gospel loves to talk about the light and the dark. The gospel reading which we just heard begins in the dark.
We are now deep into the season of Lent, the time of year when we slow down and take stock of our lives, the time of year when we seek to tell the truth about ourselves and our human condition. And the truth about ourselves which is found in today’s readings is this: we are perishing.
We began our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are perishing. We are beings who crave eternity, but in truth we are mortal. But perishing is more than just biological death. We are people who crave significance, but all we are is dust in the wind. We crave meaning in our lives, but we are nothing but a drop of water in an endless sea. We crave purpose. But all we do crumbles to the ground.
The image of humanity that Jesus uses in today’s gospel, at the tail end of his encounter with Nicodemus in the dark of the night, is that of a people who have been bitten by snakes: the poison is already in our bodies, and we are dying. Ouch! There is a bleakness to the human condition, and a mismatch between what we yearn for and who we are. We fight against our perishing state by trying to create meaning and significance for ourselves. We accumulate possessions and we strive for accomplishments. But often it’s our poets who point out the futility of it all. At the very moment that Macbeth achieves the goal he’s been working and scheming for all his life, the crown of Scotland, Shakespeare pens the following soliloquy for Macbeth to speak:
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But ours is not just a crisis of significance.
There is also brokenness. Relationships gone bad, wounds inflicted and received.
Sometimes, too often, brokenness begets more brokenness
And we become subject to the darkness, prone to tit for tat exchanges and downward spirals, spirals of pettiness and indifference, spirals of violence and hatred.
I watched a dark movie this week, 3 Billboards in Ebbing Missouri. Maybe some of you have seen it. Frances Mcdormand won the academy award for her portrayal of a woman consumed by hate and anger in a fictional small town in Missouri. It’s the story of a woman, Mildred, whose daughter was raped and murdered, and so she rents three billboards and puts up a message intended to shame the police and specifically the police chief into finding the murderer. The whole town explodes with anger towards Mildred, especially the police officer Dixon who is dealing with his own demons. In this movie, hatred begets hatred, and the town descends into a spiral of hate-induced violence. It is dark. It is unnerving. But sadly, it is entirely believable.
John is right. There is darkness. We are perishing. “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes”, we cry out. And to this and to all of our cries, God hears and responds:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
God’s light comes into our darkness.
To a people who are perishing, God offers the gift of life. Significance, meaning, purpose. Forgiveness and healing to those who are broken. An escape from downward spirals. God cares about us, in fact God loves us so much that he gave us his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
So what does it mean to believe in him? That seems to be the crux of it, after all. What does it mean to believe in Jesus?
Does it simply mean that when we hear this, we say, yup, that’s true? Often when we use the word believe, that’s what we mean, to give assent to the truth of a proposition. But intellectual assent isn’t going to get us very far. We may well give our assent to the fact that Jesus lived on this earth and that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. We may well assent to many other teachings or doctrines. But that intellectual assent won’t do much for our existential crisis. It won’t do much to heal our brokenness. It won’t do much to break the logic of hatred.
To illustrate what it means to believe in Jesus, John takes us back once more to the language of light and darkness. Jesus is the true light which has come into the world. To believe in Jesus is to love the light rather than the darkness, and to come to the light.
But coming to the light is hard.
The light makes it hard to hide. The light exposes our brokenness. Light makes us vulnerable. Coming to the light means leaving the darkness behind, letting go of the patterns and coping strategies that we relied on in the darkness. Coming to the light means acknowledging our need for forgiveness. Coming to the light means forgiving others. Coming to the light means loving our enemies. Coming to the light means loving ourselves.
Coming to the light is hard. But it’s worth it. Because when we come to the light, something new is born. In fact, you might say that we are born anew.
There is a turning point in the movie 3 Billboards in Ebbing Missouri. It is a dark movie, but the movie turns when light enters the darkness. It happens in a hospital room. The angry cop Dixon has beaten Red, the man who rented the billboards to Mildred, and thrown him out a second story window. But then Dixon is badly burned when Mildred sets fire to the police station in the middle of the night, not realizing that anyone is inside. Red and Dixon meet in the local hospital, Red limping with multiple fractures and Dixon completely bandaged and unrecognizable. When Dixon identifies himself to Red, Red goes into a rage. He pours a glass of orange juice and walks towards Dixon. I was sure he was going to throw the acidic drink right at Dixon’s burned face. But instead he takes a straw, and puts it in the drink and offers it to the cop.
And it is that small act of forgiveness, that small gesture of kindness that breaks the cycle of violence. The light enters the darkness, and one by one, hesitatingly, nervously, slowly, people start coming to the light.
God wants us to come to the light. To believe in his only Son. To receive the gift that is offered. That’s why the Son came into our darkness. He came to offer us a way from hatred to love, from brokenness to healing, from death to life, from darkness into the light.
For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
Come to the light.
Homily: Yr B Lent 4, March 11 201, St. Paul’s Fort Garry (Winnipeg)
Readings: Num 21.4-9; Jn 3.14-21
Image by Aleph.oto (Creative Commons)