(a sermon for March 29, 2020, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 12:20-36)
As one who has spent some time camping out in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire, I can personally vouch for the importance of being properly prepared; and being properly prepared means having one of these – a Coleman Lantern – on the trip with you; as far as I’m concerned it’s the one thing that really cuts through a dark, enveloping night in the middle of nowhere! Now, the purists among us will argue that it’s the light of a campfire that truly does the job, but firelight is fleeting and can’t be moved; likewise, the beam of a flashlight is narrow and limited, not to mention the fact that it exists at the mercy of a battery! But a lantern; well, it can illuminate the entire campsite and draw hordes of blackflies all at the same time!
That said, even the mighty Coleman Lantern can run out of fuel; and if you’ve been out in the woods at night when that’s happened, it’s actually pretty interesting. At first, the change is almost imperceptible: the light of the lantern starts to fade, but it doesn’t seem all that different; a little less brilliant, perhaps, and a tad more subdued. But after a few moments the light does start to dim considerably, and things you could once see clearly start to lose their detail and focus; whereas before you might have been able to read a book or write a letter or play cards (!), you can’t see to do that anymore. Even the campsite begins to feel like it’s closing in around you, because the light that was once flooding all around now just exists in a tiny glow surrounded by this vast darkness. And you sit there and you watch the light of the lantern’s mantle until it finally just… goes out… and now it’s very, very dark indeed.
One of the prevailing images of the Christian faith, one that’s found throughout scripture, is that of light. And in the church it’s an image we carry with us as we make our way through the seasons of our faith and the gospel story: for instance, during Advent, we tell of the prophets’ promise of a light that is to come; at Christmas, we celebrate that light’s coming in Jesus, who is the light of the world; and during Epiphany, we rejoice in discovering the meaning and great expanse of that light.
But now we’re deep into the season of Lent, in which scripturally and spiritually we’re drawing ever closer to the cross… and it’s different. As the days pass and Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, we begin to see that the light is slowly growing dim; and that the walls of darkness are starting to close in around Jesus and his disciples. Jesus himself confirms this in our text for this morning as he tells the crowd at Jerusalem that “just as a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” (12:24) for it to bear fruit, so also is he moving inexorably toward his death. There’s no avoiding the darkness that’s to come; indeed, very soon now in the Gospel story this brilliant light will be extinguished through acts of betrayal, desertion, humiliation and finally, an excruciating death on a wooden cross.
Speaking both pastorally and personally, this growing and inevitable darkness is one of the most difficult aspects of our shared journey through Lent and into Holy Week, most especially this year; and yet, it’s precisely in the midst of this encroaching darkness that we discover what God’s plan has been all along. As Jesus proclaims it, “the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified;” (v. 23) understanding that this is a glory of another kind: not glory in the sense of worldly patterns of power or popularity, but divine glory that is revealed in suffering and death. Truly, in what the world regarded as unabashed tragedy and the triumph of evil – the very Son of God crucified at the hands of a sinful humanity – our God was in fact proven victorious over sin and death forever, and in the process true and lasting light was revealed to the whole world, never to be extinguished again!
And if all of this sounds like contradiction on a cosmic scale, you’re right: it’s in fact the one glorious paradox that lies at the heart of our Christian faith: that our life, our true life, comes about through death. Now, by our human way of thinking, that makes very little sense: we recognize that a seed that falls to the ground will likely die forever; yet by God’s intent, it’s the seed dying that’s required for it to bear fruit. Likewise, the execution of one man on a cross would almost certainly signal for us not only the end of a life, but also the end of a movement and the end of hope; because our logic says that whatever it was the man stood for would be dead and gone along with the man.
But you see, that’s not how God views it; in fact, it’s ever and always been God’s plan that the death of this man, his very incarnation on earth, would serve as the ultimate act of grace and love. This was God’s means to conquer death forever, and the way God would assure his closeness to you and to me both in this life and in the life to come.
What we’re talking about here is the difference between what the Greeks described as chronos becoming kairos, which simply put, is what happens when our time (chronos) becomes God’s time (kairos). It’s what happens when God comes to work a blessing even into our worst moments of suffering; it’s what happens when God enters into our places of pain and fear and anger and regret and sin, so to bring us closer to him and make us a place in his kingdom; it’s what happens when God comes even into our deep and encroaching darkness to bring light.
For you see, the good news is that however intently that darkness seeks to overtake us… this light will prevail.
This is an important truth for us to remember, not only in these Lenten days of reflection, but also in all of our days as we make our way through life’s myriad and difficult challenges, most especially the ones we’re facing right about now.
You know, one of the things over the past couple of weeks that has felt strange, and a bit ironic, is that even though that with the coming of spring our days are finally (!) getting longer, what with all the bad news surrounding the Coronavirus, in some ways it actually feels darker somehow! In fact, I dare say that for many of us right now our anxieties and fears are such that we really do feel as though the light that has illumined our way seems as diminished as a failing lantern.
That’s why it’s good news indeed that even in the moments when it feels like this darkness is going to overwhelm us we discover that there’s a greater light shining, a light that will prevail; if only we’ll let it in. Ours, you see, is the God of light who is relentless in coming to us even amidst the deepest of this world’s darkness and, it should be noted, is determined to shine forth that light amidst our own capacity for darkness as well. Ours is a divine and graceful love that is determined to transform these days of difficulty and uncertainty into moments of victory and wonder and insight, bringing us unending light that will prevail for the way now and forever, and in the process, making each one of us “children of light” (v. 36)
At the very center of our Christian faith is this truth that in Jesus Christ, God was willing to enter into our suffering; and now as in our Lenten journey we draw ever closer now with Jesus to that “hill far away,” bearing the crosses of our own lives and living as we do, it’s important for us to remember that his light does prevail… as will ours. As difficult and as overwhelming as these days have been for all of us, we can find our comfort and our hope in the fact that our time is God’s time, and even now God is seeking to work a blessing in and through our lives… as persons and as a people; as families and friends; as communities, as nations and as a world; and yes, as the church of Jesus Christ. His is the light that prevails, beloved; so let each one of us let that light shine in!
And as we do, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.