Sunday, April 26, 2009

In him there is no darkness at all...

sermon on 1 John 1:1-2:2

I spent much of Thursday trying to replace the wireless router at home with a new one. A procedure that should have been very simple, and was, the last time I did it, somehow went awry. Before my internet service was restored and I could sit in my recliner and play with the computer, I had to call not only my internet provider but also the manufacturer of the router. My problems were solved by resetting both my cable modem and the router. After that, it was a matter of moments before everything worked as it should.
I have concluded that life would be easier if it came with a reset button. So many things already do; when you get into some menu on the TV that you can’t escape from, you turn it off and back on again—reset it—to see if that solves the problem. It usually does. When the computer starts to act up a little, we restart it, or if things are really bad, we hit the magic combination of control-alt-delete, and that usually solves the problem. Most electronic devices have somewhere a little button that’s hard to find and even harder to push—a reset button, that lets you scrap what you’ve done wrong and make a fresh start.
Remember the Staples commercials with the “Easy Buttons”? When you had a dilemma in the office, according to the commercial, you could just press the big red easy button and your problem would be solved. I had an easy button in my stocking that year at Christmas, but mine must have been defective, because no matter how many times I pressed that button, no matter how often the little recorded voice said, “that was easy,” my problems never got solved. But I like the idea that when we get ourselves into a jam, when things go wrong, when we make a mistake, that there might be an easy button we could push, to reset or restart whatever situation we found ourselves in, and then everything would be okay.
Life, sadly, is not so easy. For most of us, much of the time, life is work. Not just the employment that provides for our homes and families, but life demands some effort from us. For some, just moving about is work. For others, we have someone at home we must help care for. As much as we may love them, that’s also work. Getting along with other people is sometimes work, especially when those other people are people we love and care for and know well, perhaps even too well. There are bills to pay, homes to care for, cars to service, children and parents to look after, cleaning up to do, and for most of us, at least some of those things don’t come easy. Life doesn’t come easy.
This is the dilemma the early church faced after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He ascended to Heaven with the promise that he would be back…and life got a lot easier for people when they thought he’d be back any minute. No need to keep saving for a “rainy day” or retirement: Jesus was coming right back. No need to plant a crop, when Jesus would be back and you wouldn’t be there to harvest it. Why start a long project, when Jesus’ return will keep you from finishing? As the weeks became months and months became years and decades, Christians began to realize that a life of following Christ might not be as easy as they thought.
The epistles of the New Testament give us some testimony about the work of figuring out how to live in a post-Resurrection world. Last week, Eric reminded us that we are called to do, not to hide ourselves away. This week, our text from 1 John demonstrates some of the work of being a church: determining what we do and don’t believe, and what we do about it.
The writer of this letter, whom we’ll call John, was writing to a community struggling to understand who Jesus was. Was he a great teacher? Was he God? Was he something else…a pure soul in an earthly body, one so pure it could not be tainted by sin? These are difficult questions, questions people of faith still struggle with…and wouldn’t it be nice if we could get them answered to our satisfaction just by pushing a big red button? “Wow, that was easy.”
And it’s still not. Language is not enough to express who God is, what Jesus accomplished, how the Holy Spirit lives within us. I could talk up here all morning and still manage not to communicate who God is. But we do have some tools we can use: we use our experiences and the stories we tell about those moments in which we sense that God is near. We use our hearts that tell us that we’re not alone, that move us to love people with a love that is not our own. And we do use some tools of language, like similes and metaphors. Remember grammar lessons as a child? Metaphors help us to describe something by comparing it to something else that it is not related to literally…they broaden the boundaries of our understanding and invite us to think creatively and evocatively, something the church has been doing for centuries. Think about our hymns, for example. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne.”
John uses metaphor to talk about what Jesus was about, who God is: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. God is not literally light…but what a wonderful metaphor for expressing who God is. And John uses metaphor to help us understand what it means to have a relationship with God: “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.”
Here’s the thing about light: it is measurable. There are all kinds of ways to measure light: wavelengths that produce light of different colors; lumens measure output of visible light; physicists can count photons, the substance of light. Light exists, and can be proven to exist. What doesn’t exist, technically, is darkness. Darkness is the absence of light, and darkness cannot exist where light is.
Several years ago on vacation, Ben and I went to Linville Caverns. Deep under the ground, many twists and turns from the entrance, our guide turned off the lights…and we were surrounded by darkness that was so absolute that not only could we not see our hands in front of our faces, we felt like the darkness had weight, substance to it.
That weight, though, was only an illusion. After a minute or two in the darkness, our guide turned on a flashlight…and that little flashlight beam lit up the whole cavern, chased away the darkness, and reduced it to pale shadows. In that moment, I developed a new appreciation for the sense that God is light, and that darkness cannot survive the light.
Understanding that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine is a mystery. It’s a difficult concept; our Tuesday morning Bible study spent part of our Lenten study wrestling with it. Ultimately, it’s something we accept because we cannot understand how Jesus could be any other way and still be who he is and do for us what he has done, and continues to do. Mystery is inherent to our faith: the mystery of a death that brings life, of blood that shapes a new covenant, of the power of a small meal juice and bread that can transform hearts and lives. Come to think of it, those things also smack of metaphor…the poetry of our faith that gives meaning to those mysteries we can’t explain with ordinary words.
Anyway, back to our scripture lesson.
John was facing a church that was trying to understand who Jesus was—God, man?—and what it meant to believe in Jesus Christ, to follow him, in a world that just kept on going. How should they live? As you’ll remember from Eric’s sermon, this is a question that Jesus’ followers started asking right after the Resurrection…and we’ve never really stopped asking it. How do we go on in a world where Christ was once in the flesh, where his death and resurrection makes possible our resurrection, and yet where we still have to live day by day, to deal with all the many and varied temptations and opportunities to sin that surround us? How is it possible to receive the Holy Spirit and yet still sin? And when we sin, does that mean that the Spirit has left us, that God abandons us, that we must try again to be worthy of God’s love?
Difficult questions, but honest ones. We still ask these questions, still struggle with the answers. What happens when we, despite our best efforts and honorable intentions, hurt ourselves or someone else with our actions? What happens when we fail to treat others like fellow children of God? When we lose track of the light, and darkness overcomes us?
John’s church wrestled with these same issues, shared the same struggles we often do in our own faith lives. Where is God? When we hurt, when we struggle, when life is simply too hard, when terrible things happen to our loved ones, when the world seems to be harsh and unfair, when there is illness and when people do terrible things to one another, what then? When everything seems so dark, where is the light?
God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
There is darkness in this world. We have only to read the newspaper or turn on the news to see it. War in Iraq, and a lack of unity at home about whether it’s worth fighting or not. Swine flu. Genocide in Africa. Break-ins and broken down cars. Cancer. Economic struggle. And there is darkness in our own lives. I know mine, and I know some of yours. And sometimes it seems too much. Sometimes it is too much. You’ve heard the saying, “God won’t give me more than I can handle.” I don’t like this saying on two levels: first, I don’t believe that God chooses to make our lives difficult, to put adversity in our way. Life is hard enough without thinking that God is out there making it harder on purpose. Secondly, I suspect that we need to be reminded that it’s not about what I can handle or what you can handle…sometimes perhaps we need to remember that God is with us, and helps us to handle our burdens and struggles. And God’s strength is inexhaustible.
God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
When we have sinned, when the darkness is in us, in our thoughts and especially in our actions, that is when we most need to remember the light of God. And remember the reset button I wish we had in our own lives? Confession is never easy, but when we look honestly at ourselves, see our failures and confess to God our wrongdoing, when we do this earnestly and faithfully, John tells us there is an answer to the question of how sin separates us from God: it can’t. Not permanently. Not if we continue to live after the example of Jesus Christ. Not if we invite God’s light into us, to chase out our own darkness. And God will do it again, and again, each time we need it, if we will only ask with faith and integrity.
God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
How then should we live? As best we can, knowing that God is with us, that God’s love is so great that Jesus Christ lived, died, and was resurrected for us, so that we could share in God’s eternal life, in the light of God’s love for us. And in the knowledge that in that light, darkness cannot flourish. In our own lives, darkness cannot flourish when we know Christ. And we can share that light with other people, can bring it to other places where darkness seems to grow and have power and substance.
This, I think, is why Jesus died: not so I could have eternal life. Not so you could have it. Not so Ann Street members or Methodists or Protestants or even Christians could have eternal life, although we do. But hopefully, that’s a ways off for us…so what do we do now, between Jesus’ resurrection and our own? Who are we called to be in this world?
We are the light-bearers, who bring the light of God into the darkness of the world. We are not meant to sit at home and protect our own salvation but to look for ways to bring light into others’ lives. Through prayer, through study, through conversation, through giving of our time, our talents, our money, and our service…in large ways and small ones we bring the light of God into the darkness, knowing that in God, there is no darkness at all. We do this best when we do it with the graciousness of God that we have received in Christ, when we do it not only with our words, but with our hearts and our actions.
Our last hymn this morning is not one we sing very often, and less-familiar hymns often seem harder to sing than our familiar favorites. But I invite you to let the words of this hymn sink into you, and to leave today with the last line of the chorus as your prayer: In him there is no darkness at all; the night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.
Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus.

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