I can’t imagine living in Alaska, particularly northern Alaska. I don’t know how I would deal with those winter days with no sunlight. I can manage the winter days we have, and I don’t mind cloudy, rainy days here and there, especially since we depend on well water at our house. But in Barrow, Alaska, way up north, they go for sixty-seven days without seeing the sun. Granted, they make up for it in the summer when the sun never sets for eighty days, but still. I’d want to move to South America for those sixty-seven days.
I’ve discovered I’m not the only person my age who has been told by their doctor to take lots of vitamin D. Apparently, as one gets older, the body does not absorb or process or whatever vitamin D the way it used to, even if we spend time in the sun, which is one source of vitamin D. We know that too much sun is not good, but some sun is good. I suppose the pharmacies in Barrow stock lots of vitamin D for the winter.
Light and darkness has been an issue for human beings as far back as anyone can tell. It is even thought by some who study such things that one reason humans made it to the top of the world’s food chain is that we seem to be one of the only animals that is attracted to fire. Early humans discovered that fire was useful for things like warmth, cooking, keeping away other animals, and light. We know the role light and darkness plays in our lives. We know that along about when children become teenagers they turn into vampires, preferring to stay up at night and sleep well into the day. I’m sure there’s some significance about that in terms of our evolution as a species, but I have no idea what.
Light and darkness are themes in the Bible. The very first act of creation is God saying, “Let there be light.” The Hebrew people were led through the wilderness toward the promised land by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, both of which are signs of God’s presence with them. Every year during Advent we hear a reading from the prophet Isaiah saying, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.” Isaiah is referring to the coming of a Messiah, a Messiah we believe arrived in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.
Today we’re hearing from the gospel of John. John’s story of Jesus begins with these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not over come it.”
John likes the idea that Jesus is the light of God. He calls Jesus the “true light, which enlightens everyone.” And in today’s passage, in chapter three, Jesus says, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil….But those who do what is true come to the light.” The context of what Jesus says is the visit of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to see Jesus “by night.” Lots of talk about light and darkness.
Today’s reading from John is both familiar and comforting, and a bit unsettling, at the same time. It includes what is perhaps the most famous words in the Bible, “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.” John 3.16. The great reformer Martin Luther called this verse “the gospel in miniature.” In a slightly different form it is all that we Disciples of Christ say one needs to confess, as a preface to baptism, in order to be called a Christian.
For John, to believe is to come to the light, Jesus the Christ. And as one commentator has said, in John’s gospel “believe is always an action verb.” So it is more than what we think about Jesus. That commentator says, “To believe…is to obey.” To believe in Jesus is to be his follower, to try and do what he did – proclaim the coming of God’s reign, and do the things which help bring about God’s reign – heal the sick, teach people about God’s love, feed the hungry. To believe is to carry on his work, in his name, so that the world may know that the light has come.
John 3.16 is so comforting, so reassuring. “God so loved the world.” Not just some people. Not just this group or that group. “The world.” All of us. Verse seventeen goes on, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Again, how comforting. How reassuring. Obviously God’s intention, God’s purpose in sending Jesus is to have everyone everywhere understand and realize that they are invited and welcome and wanted in God’s reign on earth. God wants all of us to be in relationship with our creator through Jesus our redeemer .
But when we read on to verse eighteen we find, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.” We have already heard part of verse nineteen, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John says there is light; Jesus is the light, and the light is available to everyone. But there is also darkness, and some people live in darkness.
So how does this work? Isn’t it true that we are saved by God’s grace, and not by what we do? In Ephesians Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works.” But do not all of us, at least from time to time, choose darkness? Do our good deeds need to outweigh our bad deeds? Does what we do, our actions, our decisions, make that much difference? Or any difference?
The answer, of course, is yes. To all of those questions. We are saved by God’s grace. Jesus is a gift, and therefore to be in right relationship with God, to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness, is a matter of our willingness to accept that gift. Last week I said that’s one of those things that sounds too good to be true. But it is true.
Still, it is something of a mystery. I think, dare I say I believe, what John is saying is that yes, we are saved, we have new life, we live in the light, simply because God has given us Jesus the Christ. But the flip side of the coin is that what we do, the choices and decisions we make, do matter. They are evidence of whether or not we have decided to follow Jesus. They indicate whether or not we love the light rather than the darkness.
We can choose light over darkness. And we do not choose just once, when we make our confession of faith. We choose light over darkness every day. So it is important that we choose light over darkness. Not that it’s always easy.
John presents the choice as a stark contrast. Either we live in the light or we live in the darkness. Sometimes the difference is easy to see. People who seek to kill other people at random live in the dark. People who abuse others live in the dark. The Mother Teresas of the world live in the light. Most of us are probably sometimes light, sometimes darkness.
We can choose to live in the light. We can choose to believe, to obey Jesus and do our best to live as he taught us to live. We can practice random acts of kindness. I love the custom of paying for the person in line behind you at the McDonald’s or wherever drive through. We can visit shut ins. We can pick up litter when we see it. We can contribute generously to the charity or charities of our choice. We can volunteer our time at the hospital or the humane society or Habitat or wherever our passion to help leads us.
There are always things we can do here at church. We can pay attention to visitors and introduce ourselves and help them feel welcome. We can paint. We can mow grass or help keep the flower beds looking good or prepare a youth supper or help with vacation Bible School. We can take snacks to the Pearson Cancer Center. Day after tomorrow, in fact. It would be great if we had a technology team and a welcome team and a generosity team, or some other new mission team to which you feel called.
We received an invitation in the mail the other day to join in the “faithfully Bold Movement,” a local organization which sends free care packages to people who are battling cancer, or have experienced the loss of a child, or teens wrestling with thoughts of suicide. What a great idea! It certainly sounds like an organization trying to bring light out of darkness. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll put you in touch with them. Likewise for the Red Truck ministry, which takes a food truck into neighborhoods where people struggle to get the food they need.
Choose light over darkness. Yes, we are saved by God’s grace. And yes, we can choose to live in the light and not in the darkness. We can choose to believe, to obey, to follow Jesus into the light. We can believe, and tell others, by word and deed, that “God so loved the world…” We can choose light over darkness. Amen.