In the name of God whose glory shines in both darkness and light, Amen.
Good morning, everybody, and…congratulations! Since you’ve made it here today that means you’ve remembered to “spring forward”- and survived losing an hour of sleep in the process. This time of year we accept rising and beginning our day in the pre-dawn hours as the trade-off for longer evenings of light, embracing how the sun slips below the horizon later with each unfolding day. Here in central Pennsylvania, where we are nourished through living in an agrarian society, the effects of springing forward will soon be clearly seen- tractors and mule-drawn plows tilling the rich brown soil well into the evening hours, the golden rays of the setting sun falling over silos and barns and newly-greening fields, the whole earth oriented towards the life-giving sunlight as it shines its blessings on our world.
It still feels like a compromise in the early days of daylight savings time that our bodies are forced, often with a fair amount of grumbling, to rise in darkness at the same time that it used to be light outside our windows. I can clearly recall being a middle-schooler, in an era when my method of awakening was my groovy new clock radio, deeply resenting the blast of loud music that yanked me from my warm cozy bed into the dark chilly morning of a long day. Even the song playing on my radio felt appropriate: Steve Winwood’s “While you see a chance”, which begins “Stand up in a clear blue morning, until you see what can be alone in a cold day dawning, are you still free? Can you be?” I’m not sure at that moment that I felt free at all, but even then I understood that darkness and light mean different things to each of us, that we are wired as human beings to structure our lives around where we find light and how we turn towards its appearing.
Daylight savings time is, of course, a human construct, a heritage from the World War 1 era when it was an attempt to conserve the fuel needed to produce electric power, as well as to shift the pattern of increased daylight towards the afternoon hours for the greater productivity of farms and their desperately needed food supply. Despite the opinion of many that it is no longer useful or necessary, it’s still around- affecting us twice a year as we reset our bodies to spring forward or fall back. As faithful people we know that this is only a feeble attempt at human control, that it is God alone who orchestrates the delicate and always-shifting balance of light and darkness and fills us with the longing to seek God’s presence in both the shadows and the bright places.
The narrative of our salvation history begins with the story of how God created both light and darkness, immediately and before anything else: darkness covered the face of the deep and fully present in this defining moment of creation is God’s Spirit blowing over the waters, setting up the awareness of the Spirit’s presence in this time and place of raw beginnings. God speaks light into existence, light that is good, and God separated the light from the darkness, forever claiming them as God’s own by giving them names: day and night. For all the rest of time, because of this moment, there will be evening and morning, light dawning and then fading back into darkness, this day and every day as long as the world exists. To be sure, we have mornings that look and feel like night, as when the haze of a terrible wildfire darkens the sky, and nights lit as bright as any morning in the perpetual neon daytime of our cities, but again, those are our failures at controlling what we have always known belongs to God.
On this newly sunlit morning we heard about our friend Nicodemus, a character found only in John’s Gospel and who, like Peter two weeks ago, we find it all too easy to shake our heads over and wonder what is he actually thinking. Even considering the vast array of characters who cross paths with Jesus and allow themselves to be forever changed, Nicodemus is unusual. A respected and popular holy man, influential in his own right, a Pharisee and a member of the elite legal and judicial governing body known as the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus seems on the surface to have everything going for him. However, in spite of the immense knowledge of scripture he would have gained as a Pharisee, knowledge Jesus evidently expects him to put to good use, Nicodemus begins a conversation that reveals instead his soul-deep longing for greater understanding, both about himself and about Jesus. Nicodemus listens with amazement to Jesus and then says “How can these things be?”, to which Jesus answers “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” We’re left wondering if after this Nicodemus fades from the scene or sticks around and just wisely refuses to say anything else, for Jesus continues on in this incredible teaching mode, claiming his authority as the only one able to speak of heavenly things, foreshadowing the redemptive nature of his resurrection and offering here one of the most powerful statements in all Scripture: John 3:16, that great declaration of God’s love so freely offered for humanity that all who believe may have eternal life. We are given a clue, however, as to why Nicodemus fails to immediately get this life-changing message of Jesus: we are told, in the very beginning, that “he came to Jesus by night.”
Light and darkness, day and night imagery are significant in John’s Gospel, functioning in such a way that they offer a very specific kind of information every time they appear. The Prologue establishes that the incarnated Word- Jesus- is the Light that brings life to all people, shining in the darkness, with the darkness unable to overcome it. To be in light, walking in light, is to have invited the light of Christ to conquer the darkness of our world and of our own hearts, the same light called “good” since the beginning of creation. Night is the time when people may fall, unable to see for the overspreading darkness, when things may happen that are outside of God’s will for humanity and thus not in the light. It is not difficult for us to accept these statements as true. In music, in art, in patterns of thought that describe us at our most basic level, darkness has (somewhat unfairly) come to be associated with evil and with those things in our lives we would rather not know about ourselves, things that cannot bear the light even as they most deeply long for it.
And yet, our foundation for a true understanding of light and darkness is the beginning of Genesis we discussed earlier, and we must remember that God’s separation of light and darkness there is purposely done, claiming them as having equal and important roles in the scheme of creation. Renamed as evening and morning, both have been established by God as part of our days from that time forth for evermore. There is no doubt that we have a conflicted relationship with the dark. Sometimes we stumble there because we are unable to see, unable to escape the darkness of our own lives. We long to flee from it by turning on the lights, springing forward, falling back, frightened by our lack of control. We are vulnerable in the darkness, unwrapped and revealed, the very core of our being exposed and afraid. But being in darkness can truly be a gift, for it is in the dark that we rest and are restored, where new life and energy are born. I believe it is no accident that Nicodemus came searching for Jesus in the dark, despite the fact we may never know for sure what led him there, what fears of himself or others allowed him to see the night hours as friend rather than foe. If darkness is the place where we cannot rely on those things we already know about ourselves to guide us, where we need to let go of our former selves in order to be transformed and changed, it is also the place where, like Nicodemus, we can go to be in the presence of God. The mystics have long known that the dark night of the soul is not a place of hopelessness or despair but a spiritual pathway that leads to our experience of the Divine, our heart’s longing all we truly need as we allow ourselves to be guided ever closer to the living God. Because there is nowhere God is not, we know God is with us in the darkness as well.
Although Nicodemus is often criticized in this story for his inability to immediately embrace the healing truth Jesus offers, it should matter more to us that he deliberately sought out Jesus, understood the fundamental truth that Light shines most deeply in the darkness. 17th century poet Henry Vaughn goes so far as to praise Nicodemus in his poem “The Night”, calling him wise for this nighttime seeking, a blest believer who allowed his longing to overcome his fear of the midnight hours and seek the company of the One that he knows has come from God. It is a call for us to not be afraid as well, for if we always flee from the darkness we will miss our chance for communion with God, held securely in the light of Christ’s presence there.
I believe the words of Henry Vaughn say it best:
There is in God (some say)
A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!