Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light
Photo by Dewang Gupta / Unsplash

God loves each and every one of us. God’s fervent desire is for us to have life and to have it abundantly; God wants to see us thrive and to share in every blessing that crosses our paths. To do that, we have to learn to leave some things behind. The things that keep us from full, abundant, thriving life. We are often very fond of things that, all told, are not very good for us. Sometimes we can be very difficult to persuade, even if the cause of our illness seems obvious. Fortunately for us, God has ways of helping us discern these things.

Today’s passage from the letter to the church in Ephesus is a wonderful introduction to the themes in Numbers and the passage from John’s gospel. St Paul reminds us that, left to our own devices, we will hurt ourselves. Not because we’re stupid or horrible people, but because we are susceptible to sin, which works its way into our decisions through our free will, the same way the common cold virus floats through the air and gets into us through our breath. Breath and free will are both gifts from God, central to what it means to be a living, healthy human. Those gifts are precious and they’re places where we’re vulnerable. By grace, God has saved us from our vulnerability and given us a means to achieve the lives of faith and good works for which we were made.

Which brings us to the readings from Numbers and John’s gospel. The people of Israel, led by Moses from slavery into freedom by the grace of God, are growing tired of God’s largesse and begin to complain and neglect their promises to God. Quickly, they find themselves in the midst of venomous serpents and many among them are sick and dying. The people realize the serpents are related to their sin and, when they admit as much, Moses intercedes. A bronze serpent on a pole is erected and the venom is no longer a serious threat.

When the people are ill and dying, they must confront the source of their illness. Those who are bitten by serpents must turn their attention to the serpent on the pole, seeing the symbol of their pain, before they are healed. When the people fall into sin, they repent and return to God. They must admit their sin, confront it and gaze upon it to be healed. Only in naming the source of their trouble can they find a remedy.

In today’s portion from John’s telling of the gospel, we drop in half-way through the conversation that Jesus and Nicodemus are having. Nicodemus is a Pharisee who is greatly intrigued by what Jesus has to say, but fearful of reprisal from his colleagues and the Temple leadership if he is openly seen to be having conversations with the scandalous Galilean. So, the two meet under cover of night to discuss the good news Jesus brings.

In this part of their conversation, Nicodemus and Jesus are talking about the problem of sin. What is to be done about people who, in Nicodemus’s world, do not live according to the law and, in Jesus’s world, do not live in the light? Jesus makes clear that he is to be lifted up in a similar way to that of Moses’s serpent, to be seen by many and to be a medicine for their ills. This lifting will not be a condemnation or a judgement, but an act of love and salvation. Jesus is the light of the world, a light that reveals the truth of all that it touches. In being lifted up, he will reveal the source of the illness plaguing the world and, at the same time, offer its remedy.

This lifting has long been understood by Christians as a prophecy about the crucifixion. For those who believed that Jesus was truly the Messiah, when he was killed they were terrified at what might follow. Surely God’s wrath and judgement would descend upon them and there would be no hope. Cities had been punished for defying God’s prophets in the past; what would happen now that they had killed God’s very son? Jesus, in this quiet conversation with Nicodemus, addresses this by promising that his lifting up—his death—will not be an act of judgement, but one of salvation. 

Having preached a new teaching and a new covenant, healed many, done countless miracles, and opened hearts and minds throughout Judea, Jesus will finally, openly confront the powers of oppression and greed. When he does so, rather than stepping into the light and seeing what truth is revealed, those powers will crave the safety of the darkness and try to extinguish the light. Rather than meeting this good news of God’s love with open ears, eyes, and hearts, humanity will bring fear, anger, and violence born of sin. In bringing the worst of ourselves to Jesus this way, just like Moses with the serpent, the source of our trouble is revealed alongside the remedy: sin is the problem, thriving in darkness. Jesus, the light, can cast it out, if we are willing to be healed from it.

When we’ve been in a dark room for a long time and step outside, we may be blinded by the light. It may not even be very bright, but it is enough to straining eyes to be uncomfortable and it is tempting to step back into the darkness rather than deal with the discomfort. Lent, and other periods like it in our lives, can be uncomfortable. We look at our lives and consciously take steps into the light, seeing what is revealed, confronting what makes us ill—what is of sin—and turning to God to help us overcome it.

It is easy to avoid doing this. To come up with reasons that it’s a bad time, or more work than we have energy for, or that our illness really isn’t so bad as to need all of that attention just now. But, just like a small cut that gets infected or a small cough that turns to pneumonia, persistent little sins can become much bigger if we let them grow. There are lots of comparisons that work, here. Lent is like your annual physical, but for your spirit. It’s like a personal trainer, getting ready for a big athletic event. Like intense study before a major exam. Like unpleasant medicine for an illness. Lent is our opportunity to nip problems in the bud, to catch our sins while they’re small and before they do too much serious damage to us.

Lent is our chance to step into the light, leave the darkness behind and, even while we are squinting and blinking, to meet Jesus and be healed.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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