The Sunday Sermon: Out of Darkness into Light

Watch this sermon on our YouTube channel (Click Here)

March 5, 2023, the Second Sunday in Lent
Penelope Bridges

The story that St. John relates about Nicodemus and Jesus is the first in a series of four stories from John’s Gospel that steadily build dramatic tension towards the Passion and death of Jesus. This year we hear them in sequence, appropriately on the four Sundays in Lent leading up to Palm Sunday. These stories relate a series of encounters between Jesus and a diverse group of individuals; each one tells us something about who Jesus is in this Gospel, and at the same time moves the narrative inevitably towards the Cross.

Today we hear of a secret, night-time encounter with Nicodemus, a community leader who is curious about discipleship, but unwilling to be seen in public with Jesus. Next week we’ll hear about the conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, a member of a community that is at enmity with the Jews, a woman with a scandalous past, but who becomes the unlikely first evangelist outside the Jewish community of the good news.

In  two weeks we will enjoy the long and quite humorous story of the healing of the man born blind, a healing that roils the community and hardens divisions. Finally, the week before Palm Sunday, we read about the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the reactions of Lazarus’s sisters and the community to Jesus’s intervention. In each case Jesus offers some kind of new life to someone in need. But he is continually misunderstood by the people he meets, and every conversation is full of confusion.

In each of these episodes an individual’s life is turned around and upside down, and the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish establishment deepens. Nicodemus learns that for all his experience and knowledge as a teacher of Israel, he has understood nothing about the Kingdom of God. Jesus even mocks him for his lack of understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand?” In an ironic twist the Samaritan woman, a disreputable outsider to the Jewish community and the antithesis of the Pharisee Nicodemus, is the one who believes in Jesus, becomes an evangelist and attracts many of her own people to follow him. The man born blind gains his sight – both physical and spiritual – but those around him remain spiritually blind as they banish him from the community and leave him nowhere to go but to follow Jesus. And Lazarus, returned sensationally from the dead, becomes a local celebrity, and is considered such a threat by the Jewish authorities that they plan to kill him alongside Jesus.

Certain themes show up again and again in John’s Gospel. Themes of light and darkness, of spiritual blindness, of the inability of Jesus’ own people to understand who he is. And John develops these themes skillfully, inviting us over and over to make our choice: stay in the dark, on the outside and remain blind, or follow Jesus into the light and learn to see and experience eternal life with him.

The anti-Jewish slant of John’s Gospel is well known, and it troubles many of us. The author seems to have been writing from the context of a beleaguered Christian community that had separated completely from Judaism and needed to reinforce that separation in its portrayal of Jesus. Many of the stories in this Gospel stress the gap between Jesus and his community of origin. Like any minority faith trying to flourish in the midst of a culture dominated by a different faith or denomination, John’s community defines itself in part by how it differs from the dominant culture.

We see this throughout history, starting with the ways the ancient Jews insisted on their separate identity among the indigenous people in the promised land. In our own time I think of the Church of Ireland, where I grew up, defining itself as very much not Catholic in a largely Catholic country, or the Scottish Episcopal Church, a tiny denomination maintaining its catholicity in a Presbyterian establishment. Knowing the historical context of John’s community may help us understand his hostility to “the Jews”.

When we, as followers of Jesus, read John’s Gospel, we are reading simultaneously on two levels. On the surface, it’s a straightforward story told in everyday language and short sentences. We accept that Jesus, as the Word made flesh, is the light of the world, the bread that comes down from heaven. Even so, there’s a pervasive sense that there is always more depth to what we are reading than we can grasp. For the people in the story who encounter Jesus for the first time, there’s a real language barrier. Jesus speaks of being born again, of being the living water, of coming from God, and they get hung up on trying to interpret him literally. Jesus says “you must be born again,” and Nicodemus thinks of the process of childbirth. No wonder he’s confused. It’s almost like learning a new language.

As many of you know, I study Spanish. In a recent class we were practicing our powers of description. The teacher would secretly give a student a word or phrase. The student would then attempt to describe whatever it was, and the rest of us would try to come up with the thing they were describing.  OK. It’s one thing to hear a description of a physical object – say, a bus or a tree or an argument – and search your vocabulary, but when the answer is an idiom or metaphor, it can be almost impossible.

Imagine it in English. I’m thinking of a phrase that describes when someone jokingly deceives you or pretends that something is true when it isn’t, but it’s always meant in a light-hearted teasing way. How would someone learning English make the leap from that description to the idiom of “Pulling your leg”? Similarly, in this Gospel it’s as if Jesus is speaking a foreign language to Nicodemus. To be born again has one meaning for the Pharisee, another for Jesus. And we too hear “Born again” and are likely flooded with a whole raft of associations, many of them descriptive of a theology that most Episcopalians don’t espouse.

Each of the people in these stories brings their own filters, preconceptions, and limitations to the conversation with Jesus. What assumptions do we bring to our encounter with Jesus? We will never completely understand Jesus, precisely because he is God made flesh. But he calls us to enter into relationship with him, to be born again in the Spirit, to embrace Jesus as the one sent from God, to grow in spiritual vision and in fullness of life.

And this brings us at last to the critical verse, the one that everyone knows: “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.” By the time we get to this verse, Jesus is no longer talking to Nicodemus, but to all of us. This is the core of the Gospel. Way back in Genesis, God called Abram and Sarai to leave their home and set out for an unknown destination, and wrapped up in that call is an incredible promise. God says, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” All the families of the earth. Because of that first faithful response, the whole world is blessed. And why? Because God loves the world. The blessing is offered to everyone. And how much does God love the world? Enough to give us Jesus, who offers us life in the Kingdom.

If we accept the invitation to follow Jesus, we can step out of the darkness and into the light; like a baby being born we can move from the narrow, confined life we had to a new, expanded kind of life, eternal life, Kingdom life, life abundant meant for all. That’s good news. And there’s more: the invitation doesn’t expire. Every year Lent provides the ideal time to start over, to say yes, as Abram and Sarai said yes, to the one who has promised to bless us and be with us always. Nicodemus doesn’t accept the invitation: he fades back into the darkness. But we can make the better choice and follow the light of the world.

Like this post? Share it with your friends and family...


Leave a Comment


Because of you, we can continue to serve as a center of transformative love, faith and service!

Have questions or need to make changes?
Feel free to contact us, and we will be more than happy to answer all of your questions.