John 3:14-21 Lent 4 2009
I was seven years old.
Mom was in the kitchen and dad was in the garage. My sisters were busy, too. And so
I crept up the stairs and quietly opened the door to the attic and then shut it behind me.
It all began with light. Before I had taken the first step onto the stairs, I had turned on the light. Light bathed the attic in a warm and inviting glow from three 60 watt bulbs, one at each corner. In the light I could see where the plywood floor covered the braces. I could see exactly where the plywood began and where it ended. On the uncovered areas of the attic, I could see the insulation and I knew that below the insulation was the sheetrock that formed our ceiling. I also knew how weak that sheetrock was – for I had witnessed my father fall through the ceiling and into the garage one day when he had slipped and lost his footing. A small square of new sheetrock memorialized the spot – I looked up at it each time that I walked into the garage. It served as a warning. And that particular afternoon, there I was, a small and curious child alone in the attic, in the land of plywood, sheetrock, and ceilings that could give way like quicksand with one misstep.
If my father could fall through the ceiling then I knew that the attic could be a dangerous place – but it was also a place of wonder. And in the light, I could see the wonder before me. There were countless boxes and trunks belonging to my parents and stuff from Grandma and Grandpa’s house. In several boxes, wrapped in yellowing newspaper awaited dad’s old Lionel trains. In another corner past an old dresser and under a layer of old sheets, several wooden boxes held photos that my grandfather had taken during world War II of battleships, old fighter aircraft, and France. It was truly a place of wonder!
Soon I came across one of my favorite boxes – the one with my parent’s things from high school: the newspaper article with a picture of my father, smiling and 18, in his Southside High school football uniform, waiting for the ball to snap; my parent’s report cards – always good to know how the folks did - memorizing their grades for possible future arguments…Gee Dad, geometry was tough for you, too! In the next layer I found their yearbooks with so many polite comments written in the margins. Like a seven year old archeologist, I carefully lifted out item after item dusting them off before noting its features and placing each in their proper pile. Then the lights went out.
Now there are two windows in our attic so it was not utter darkness, but to my seven year old eyes it was dark enough. Too dark. And then just as I felt the panic rise in my chest and my eyes go wide I heard the sound of the latch being re-inserted in the eye hook that served as a lock. I was locked in! There was no emergency exit – no hidden passage. My instinct to cry out was muffled by the realization that I was in a place that I was not supposed to be, without permission to be, and opening boxes that I was not supposed to be messing with. I remained silent taken in the punishment that might await me if I called out. In the darkness, fear began to course through my seven year old veins like the fear that Santa Claus that had actually kept track of the number of times I had teased my older sister.
In the darkness everything seemed different. I dumped the things that I had removed from the box back in it and began to stumble in the direction of the door, but then I remembered the sheetrock. I froze not knowing what to do next. If I moved towards the door I risked falling through the ceiling like my dad had done. He had s[rained his ankle in the process, who knows what would happen to my seven year old body. The floor of the garage was a long way down. If I stayed in the dark who knew what might happen. Everywhere there were shadows. Everything looked different, frightful, menacing. I was lost in the dark. All at once I rolled myself tightly into a ball and began to cry out for help. The fear of being punished had been overcome by the fear of being alone in such a frightful place. I longed for the light to push back the darkness. For a flashlight. A candle. The penlight from dad’s keychain. Anything.
Then as I rocked and cried and let he fear have full sway, the light came on, like an answered prayer, like an unexpected gift.
In our gospel today, John reminds us that in Christ Jesus, light has come into the world. Not just any light, but THE LIGHT. The Light through whom God would save the world. The light of hope, of truth, of salvation. The Light to whom we cling to when all other things fade and fail us. The light that will not be dimmed by cloud or storm or cataclysm in our life, economic, physical or spiritual. That light, the light, unbelievably shines on. Shines on for us because it came into the world for us, it suffered for us, it died for us and death itself could not extinguish its glow.
While a student at seminary, I served a parish and one Sunday service had ended and folks were all downstairs at coffee hour. I had just finished locking up the office and putting things away so that I could head downstairs and join them when I noticed someone in one of the pews, sitting alone in the darkness. I recognized him – a man who had grown up in the church and whose father and grandfather had been two of its strongest pillars over the years. It was dark, but the light of the early afternoon illuminated the stained glass windows that filled every wall. Up above the ornately carved altar was a stained glass rosette of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. I noticed that he was kneeling and looking up at Jesus kneeling in the garden. “You ok Richard?” I’ve changed the name, of course. I called out to him in the darkness. His eyes never turned from Jesus: “I just need to pray here for awhile. I’ll lock up.” The pain of some great burden was evident on his face. “Want some company?” I asked as I got down on my knees beside him and stared up Jesus. “Sure,” he replied. Both of stayed there for awhile bathed in the light that poured out from the glass.
But sometimes darkness presses in – on us and on people that we love. Marriages struggle and sometimes break. Illnesses and disease sap our strength, rob us of our health, and can leave us less than we were before. Loved ones suffer from the afflictions of growing older and our own mortality stares starkly back at us leaving us bewildered. Raising children in what seems at times a hostile and complicated world gets harder and harder. Sometimes hurricanes destroy what we have taken years to build. Sometimes overheated housing markets and crippling economic conditions leave our future habitation in doubt. Sometimes our employment seems tenuous. So many decisions. So great the fear of making a mistake. The darkness seems to swallow every ray of the light of hope.
Richard spoke softly, never moving his eyes off Jesus: “It’s work,” he said. “It’s killing me. I’m under so much stress. I can’t afford to leave, though. I really need the benefits.” “So what are you going to do?” I asked him. “I am just going to pray here for awhile,” he answered. “It will be ok.” And in the darkness of a nearly empty church, we prayed on with a praying Jesus keeping us company.
We sing “I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus.” We declare that in Christ there is no darkness at all. That in Christ, the true light has come into the world and that the darkness could not overcome it.
Where is that promise born?
Listen to the words of the Gospel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
To those burdened with any suffering – to those afflicted with doubt – those surrounded by the wispy tendrils of darkness and despair, to those paralyzed by fear, Christ speaks a word of hope. Listen!
“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. “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.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not cannot overcome it. Not now. Not ever.
God did not give Richard a new job or change his boss or alter his work schedule. But there in the soft glow given off by the light that illuminated Christ’s most difficult moment in the cold night of Gethsemane, together, both Richard and Jesus found the assurance that they needed. And the darkness gave way to the dawn. The light of hope burned. The light of promise. The light of Grace. It burns for me and it burns for you and it burns for all. Amen.