Sermons That Work

Fear of the Dark, Lent 4 (B) – 2012

March 18, 2012


When you were a child, were you ever afraid of the dark? Did you imagine all sorts of scary things living in the dark of your closet or under your bed? Did a night-light give you that little bit of reassurance and comfort so that you could go to sleep safely? Most of us grow out of that fear rather quickly. Some of us adults might get impatient with our children who call us out of a deep sleep because there’s a monster lurking in the shadows. As children, we rarely make a friend of our imagined nemesis.

Most adults no longer fear the dark. But listening to our readings from Numbers and John today, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to put that fear of the dark behind us. Certainly, we no longer imagine monsters hiding in closets, but as adults, maybe we ought to look at darkness in an adult way. The Israelites in the desert actually did have a sort of real-life monster to contend with: poisonous snakes! Anyone with any sense will stay away from them, but these people were suddenly set upon by snakes that bit them, so many of them died. Yes, indeed, a real-life type of monster. We hear that this happened because the Israelites were grumbling against not just Moses, but God. Big mistake! But we can’t really blame them – they were wandering in the desert, hungry, hot, thirsty. They may have been desperate. They may have feared a death of another kind before the snakes came upon them. Of course, we know that God heard their cry – like a child waking a parent out of fear – and God had Moses set up the bronze serpent on a pole and those who would look on it would live. Our passage from Numbers talks about a real fear of bodily harm – a fear of death in a natural way. Yet, underneath that natural fear was the darkness brought on them by cursing God. It was their sin of not believing that God would keep the promise of bringing them to a land of milk and honey.

Children are usually much more trusting than adults. What happens to us as we grow to adulthood and suddenly begin ignoring the true darkness of sin? This is what Jesus is talking about in John. As he does so often in scripture, Jesus refers to the Old Testament, and he tells his hearers that he is the new caduceus – the new serpent wound around the pole that doctors today use as a symbol of their ministry as healers. He tells them that when the Son of Man is lifted up, whoever believes in him will have eternal life. God did not send Jesus into the world like the snakes to kill the people. God sent Jesus into the world to show how much God loves us.

Jesus goes on to bring out the importance of understanding light and dark as adults. There is something very frightening about living in the dark, especially if it is an interior darkness – a despair or hate. Jesus talks about evil deeds hating the light. Many of us might feel we could sit back right now and breathe a sigh of relief, because surely none of us are evil. None of us hate the light. If we did, we might be living in a situation that we see in so many thriller movies – skulking down dark, wet streets of a city with guns in our pockets and drugs to sell. We’ve read about people in the news or seen them on TV who have no conscience, no way to keep them from killing people for money or revenge.

But we can’t just ignore that darkness. We are all sinners. We all have a place where our darkness hides so others might not see it. It comes in many forms. We need to ask ourselves how we feel about discrimination. We might have family members that we no longer bother with. It might be their fault, but have we given reconciliation one more try? How do we feel about ourselves? Darkness could be our self-loathing for whatever reason. God does not want that of us. Each of is a child of God and glorious in God’s sight.

Maryanne Williamson, a spiritual activist and author, wrote a wonderful description of how we should look at ourselves. In it she said, “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”

Yes, indeed, that is what God expects of us, and if we throw that back in God’s face, couldn’t that be a type of darkness – a type of sin? Remember, the second great commandment is that we love our neighbors as ourselves. If we don’t love ourselves, we are giving our neighbors less than they deserve.

To do this, we must live in the light. John’s gospel is full of images of light and dark. If we go right back to the beginning of the Gospel of John, we hear those wonderful words: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” Hear those words: “to everyone.” That means us. We are fools if we choose to live in the darkness, especially if it’s a darkness of our making.

Unfortunately, we know that we adults do choose to live in the darkness. One of the most tragic verses in John’s gospel, maybe in all of scripture, follows that verse: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Here’s the crux of the matter. Jesus came to us. God took on the flesh of a human so that God could live among us and show us firsthand how much we are loved – and yet we chose not to recognize him. Not only that, we also chose not to receive him. That is darkness of a tragic type.

Lent is a time to consider our darkness – to see if we have been so grown-up in a foolish way that we no longer believe that sin can surround us with darkness. God so loved the world, God so loved you and me, that he came into the world, died for our sins, and rose again.

The light of that Resurrection is the light that can transfigure us all every day of our lives.

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