Carlos Wilton, March 18, 2012, 4th Sunday in Lent, Year B, John 3:14-21
“But those who do what is true come to the light…”
– John 3:21
Sometimes there’s no way to understand a passage from the Bible unless you first put yourselves in the shoes – or the sandals, as the case may be – of the people who wrote down those words. This is certainly true for the Gospel lesson I just read for you, from John Chapter 3.
“The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
Seems straightforward enough, on first glance. John’s setting up a contrast between light and darkness. Light good, darkness bad. Anybody can relate to that.
Or can we? I’m not so sure, in this highly technological age, that any of us have a proper appreciation – a lived understanding – of what darkness is all about.
That lack of appreciation is pretty new, in historical terms. In 1882 – coincidentally, the year this church was founded – something else was founded in the city of New York. On Pearl Street, in Lower Manhattan, the Edison Illuminating Company established the Pearl Street Station, the first central electrical power plant in the United States. Its coal-fired steam engines turned the dynamos that generated electrical current. Initially, Pearl Street Station powered 400 lamps in 85 households. It did so using Direct Current, or DC, which at the time was Thomas Edison’s preference. Eventually, Alternating Current, or AC, would win out as the standard, because it could be transported by wire over larger distances.
The city, at the time – its homes as well as its streets – was lit at night by gas lamps. It soon became apparent that this was the technology of the past. Once a power plant had been built and insulated copper wires run throughout the neighborhood, a virtually unlimited supply of electricity could be provided cheaply and relatively cleanly. The new electric lights burned more brightly than the sputtering, flickering gas lights of generations past.
Over the next decades, electrification – what we now know as the power grid – was one of the great technological projects of the age. Starting in the urban centers, commercial electrical power spread to smaller and smaller communities. By 1930, 70% of the households in the country had been electrified. It took greater effort – and some government intervention during the New Deal – to bring electric power to farms and rural communities, but by the time of the Second World War, the greater part of this work had been completed. In the space of a generation or two, the human experience of light and darkness had been changed forever.
To us today, the setting of the sun provides little or no impediment to anything we want to do. When it grows too dark to read, reach over and turn on the lamp. It’s that easy. Even activities like high-school sports are no longer restricted to daylight hours. Athletic fields are illuminated by banks of powerful lights. They can turn night into day in an instant.
Not so very long ago, it would have been unimaginable for a store to stay open past sunset – the customers couldn’t see the merchandise, nor could the clerks count out the change. Today, as we know, there are businesses that stay open 24 hours a day. No one thinks twice about it.
Darkness meant something very different to people of earlier generations. You just can’t experience the sort of total darkness unless you travel far away from an urban area, and its light pollution. Our family experiences that sort of darkness, or something very much like it, every time we travel to our cabin in the Adirondacks. There are no streetlights, and cars passing on the road are few and far between. Walk down to the lake, turn off your flashlight, and you know what “the dark of night” is all about. Incidentally, you can also see the stars as you never see them down here.
I think, too, of an experience I had on one of the mission trips I took to Cuba, some years back. The Cuban government, in desperate financial straits, has for many years allowed the country’s infrastructure to crumble. The electrical power grid is in especially sorry shape. Rolling blackouts in the evening are common. Everybody’s very used to them.
On one particular evening, our Cuban hosts were driving us from a church meeting back to the national church camp, where we were staying. The streets of the larger town through which we were driving were thronged with people. That’s common in a tropical country – the cool of the evening is prime time for getting out and visiting your neighbors.
Suddenly, without warning, everything went dark. It was, our host explained, one of those infamous rolling blackouts. The only lights of any kind were coming from our car headlights. Yet, the crowds of Cubans were still out there in the streets: walking around, talking and visiting with one another. Blackouts were a nightly occurrence. You just shrugged your shoulders and went on with life, as best you could. As we traveled along, our headlights would pick out one group of pedestrians after another. They’d look back at us with what could only be called a deer-in-the-headlights look. It felt kind of creepy – like we’d been thrown back a couple hundred years in time, to those days when darkness really was darkness.
In Colonial America, one of the most important household industries was manufacturing tallow candles – the only source of light after the sun went down. Tallow is animal fat, and the process of rendering fat into candles was dirty, smelly and time-consuming. Beeswax candles burned cleaner and more reliably, but only the rich could afford them. Whether tallow or beeswax, candles of any kind were among the most costly items in a Colonial household. Our ancestors used them sparingly: carrying them from room to room, extinguishing them when they were no longer needed, hoarding the candle-stubs to use on other occasions.
The candles would allow you to sit up for an hour or two beside the fire to read a book, or – for the women – perhaps to do some embroidery. Apart from that, the only other thing to do after sundown was to go to bed.
As for going out and about in the night, it was a rare thing. Some of the people you might encounter in the streets after nightfall were returning from visiting friends. Others were rowdy tavern-goers – not a very respectable bunch, but mostly harmless. Apart from those folks, most anyone else you were likely to encounter in the shadowy streets was up to no good. Most communities employed a night watch to keep that element under control. Their job was to keep the streets free of evildoers, even knocking a few heads if necessary.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by Roger Ekirch (Norton, 2006). After studying historical records of everyday life in pre-industrial times, Ekirch has concluded that most people back then didn’t sleep straight through the night. Typically, they would sleep for several hours, then awaken around midnight. They would endure a period of wakefulness for an hour or two, after which they would fall asleep again until morning. Writers and diarists of that period sometimes refer to “the first sleep” and “the second sleep.” Some people would rise during that time to do a bit of reading or writing by candle-light. Others would simply lie awake in their beds, listening to the howl of wolves, or the scuttling-about of mice or rats – fearing whatever terrors might be lurking out there in the darkness.
Those inclined to criminal activity would take advantage of this interval, slipping out of their houses at the midnight hour to perform burglaries, or pursue whatever other mischief they were up to. The darkness would provide them with cover.
According to legend, midnight was “the witching hour,” when supernatural forces of evil might emerge to do their worst. Washington Irving mentions the witching hour a couple of times in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. That’s when the Headless Horseman typically shows up. Whenever Shakespeare, in one of his plays, has a ghost appear – as in Hamlet or Julius Caesar – it’s on or around the stroke of midnight. This is no accident. It corresponds with that period of midnight wakefulness.
It was such a common experience that everyone was aware of it. Ever since the advent of electric lights, though, the interval of midnight wakefulness has all but disappeared from the human experience. Somehow, our well-lit evenings have changed our physiology.
Sleep scientists have experimented with volunteers who go without artificial lights for an extended period of time. What they’ve discovered is that, without electric lights, most of us revert to this pattern of first and second sleep. Very likely, it’s hard-wired into our brains, waiting to reassert itself if ever our lighting systems should fail.
What was true of night in early America was even more true of night in the Roman world. Candles hadn’t been invented yet. They only had torches and oil lamps, and these produced even less light. Venture out at night into the streets of a Greek or Roman town such as John knew, and you’d encounter shadowy figures. You wouldn’t know if they were friend or foe, until they drew near enough for you to hold your sputtering oil lamp up to their face.
When John says, “people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil,” he’s recalling this sort of total darkness – and he’s reflecting the common understanding of his era that people who ventured out at night were up to no good. The works of darkness were literally the things you didn’t want others to see you doing, things you’d be ashamed of if you were so bold as to do them in the light of day. Darkness was the realm of evil spirits and demons. In the popular imagination, they influenced those who ventured out at night, encouraging them towards criminality.
This passage from John 3 is the tail-end of a larger narrative: Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. John begins that story by informing us how Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night.” Very likely, that was because Nicodemus wanted his visit to be secret.
Now, why the secrecy? Because he was a Pharisee and Jesus was a controversial figure. Scholarly debates have always been big in the Jewish tradition. Surely it would have been easy for Nicodemus to just drop in on one of Jesus’ teaching sessions in a local synagogue.
But that would give Jesus more credibility than Nicodemus is willing to accord him just yet. He’s got to check him out first, to match his scholarly wit against his. And so he chooses the hours of darkness so come to him. The Pharisee slips out of his house into the darkened streets. Should he encounter anyone else along the way, he can simply nod, and keep his distance. Very likely, the other person will be no more eager to engage in small-talk than he.
Jesus, of course, teaches Nicodemus he must be “born from above” – or, as some have translated it, “born again.” The Nazarene rabbi is talking a strange, new language here that’s unknown to Nicodemus. It baffles him. The spiritual path Jesus is laying out is nothing like the one he’s been taught to follow all his life. It’s founded not on generations of scholarly commentary and debate over fine points of the law, but rather on the work of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus assures him, this Spirit rushes into a human life like the wind, unpredictable and free. The life of faith is all about trusting God’s Spirit, turning one’s life over to God so spiritual rebirth can begin to take place.
It’s at this point that Jesus shares what, in the eyes of some, is the greatest verse in all the Bible, John 3:16: “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.” That verse has been called “the gospel in miniature.” At its heart is the decision to follow Christ that is at the heart of salvation. Believe in him and you will not perish. Trust in him, and God will give you the gift of eternal life.
But Jesus doesn’t end there. First, he makes sure Nicodemus understands that this is good news. The Son has come into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it. “Go so loved the world,” the verse begins – and the outcome of that love is eternal life for those who believe.
Next, Jesus goes on to make a pointed reference to the way Nicodemus has come there that night: in the darkness, in secret. Even though a new and glorious light has come into the world, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
See that you do not number yourself in the company of evildoers, Jesus is saying. This new kind of faith in God will cause your life to be transformed. Yet, in order for that to happen, you must leave behind all those patterns of thinking that might cause you to slip back into the darkness. It has to happen through a fresh beginning, a change so radical it can be likened to rebirth. Such is the path from darkness into light.
You need not remake your life yourself, Nicodemus. Who could do such a thing? It would be like lighting an oil lamp and expecting it to triumph over night itself. The best any of us can do, in this life – even at our best moments – is to kindle such a flame and hold that feeble light high. But then, we need to do something else. We need to wait. We await the coming of the one force in the universe powerful enough to vanquish darkness, and that is the dawn.
See, the soft streaks of light are already starting to appear in the eastern sky. Come to the light. Let your small light become lost in the greater light of God’s glory. Come to the light, and be saved.
These days of Lent are an excellent time to examine our lives, to discern the ways in which we are still preferring darkness over light. May we all turn to the light, and be saved!
Let us pray:
Visit then this soul of mine;
Pierce the gloom of sin and grief.
Fill me, radiancy divine;
Scatter all my unbelief;
More and more thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.