Walking in the Dark: John 12:20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
When I was a college student, I always sat in one of the last few rows of the church I attended. And, most Sundays, I sat next to the same couple, Lois and Jim. They were kind, and liked to check in on me each week. Years later, after I had finished both college and seminary and had returned to that church as an ministry intern, they were some of the first people to welcome me back. They often had me over for dinner or lunch and were happy to catch up after several years of not seeing one another. They were also gracious congregants who transitioned easily from seeing me as a young college student to seeing me as their new minister, as one who would help tend to them through Jim's last living weeks and through the early months of Lois' widowhood. During our visits we would talk about many things: their long marriage and loving family, Jim's career in the military and fascination with Civil War history, Lois' early efforts to learn how to use email. On one occasion, Jim told me an amazing story about how he first saw the light.
Jim grew up in a community called Summer Shade in central Kentucky, not too far from the Tennessee border. He grew up among farmers, and, from a young age, rose early to work the land with his father. He was usually up before daybreak. His mom would have prepared a good, hardy breakfast for him and his dad so they could have enough energy to do the heavy work that they morning would call for. They would eat, and then they would head out to the fields for a morning full of plowing, planting, tending, or harvesting. It was a good life, but a hard life, made harder by the fact that they lived in a home with no electricity. At that time, during the late 1930's and early 1940's, large swaths of Southern Appalachia and the surrounding areas were without electricity. People made do largely in the same manner as their parents and grandparents... they heated their homes with wood or coal-burning stoves. They brought light into their homes with kerosene lamps and sometimes candles. During the long, steamy Kentucky summers, they opened the doors and windows and prayed for a cool wind to come by. After a long morning of farm work, they could not even count on having a box fan to sit by to cool off. But, they could count on Jim's mom having lunch ready when they got back up to the house. She always had food ready when they made their way out of the fields... well, almost always.
One day, Jim and his dad came back up to the house to see his mom just standing there. There were no biscuits. No bowls of soup beans or collard greens to dig into. No thick pieces of salty ham waiting to be cut up and be devoured by these hungry farmers. There was not even one single square of cornbread on the table to split between them. Jim's dad looked and his mom and asked what was going on. They were so hungry and had been working so hard. Where is the lunch? Now, the next bit of Jim's story is a little hazy to me. What I think I remember him saying is that his mother didn't say a word. She simply walked towards the wall, a wall that had a newly installed switch, and flipped the switch. Well, maybe she pushed a button. Sometimes they were buttons and not switches. Either way, she pushed a button and the room flooded with light. Jim and his dad whooped with joy. While they had been away working, the linemen of the Tennessee Valley Authority had come, and brought with them the electricity that would change the lives of people all across the Tennessee Valley. Jim's mom could now push a button, and fill their home with light. Who cares if lunch isn't ready? Look, just look at that light!
I thought of Jim's story when I read the last few sentences of this week's Gospel lesson. Jim's story is one of the few stories I know where someone can speak of what it is like at the literal moment when they see a new kind of light. Jim could tell me the exact moment when so many things became easier for his family. They no longer had to rely on kerosene and candles to light their homes. They could eventually warm and cool their homes with the very same electricity. Cooking would become so much easier with a refrigerator, a deep freeze, and an electric oven replacing the spring house and wood cook stove. While I take for granted the existence of light bulbs and cheap electricity, Jim never would. He remembered what it was like to be in the darkness. He rejoiced when he came into the light.
At the beginning of our scripture reading for today, we hear about a few people who could use a little light. Some Greek people, probably God-fearers, that is non-Jews who followed some Jewish teachings and regularly traveled to Jerusalem for religious festivals, came to the disciple Philip and said, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." We wish to see Jesus. Many a Christian's journey through the darkness has begun with these very same words. I wish to see Jesus. How can I see his light? How can I feel his warmth? When was the last time you asked to I the crowd? Were you surprised by what you saw? I think these folks were.
I'm not sure what the Greeks were expecting when they went looking for Jesus. I have a feeling that they hoped to hear his wise and strange parables or receive healing. That's what many people looked for when they came to see Jesus. I'm not sure that they or the disciples were prepared for Jesus to speak of his death or of his troubled soul. I'm not sure that they expected to hear God's voice like thunder or to be told that they must be hate their life in this world in order to keep it eternally. I bet they didn't expect to hear that the Messiah would have to leave them and they probably didn't know what he meant when he said the Son of Man would be lifted up. While they were still trying to figure out just exactly what he meant, he said to them simply, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light."
We have all walked in the darkness. We may know that we can get by without the light. We can adapt to many kinds of situations, even the dark. In fact, sometimes, good things happen in the dark. After all, when we look at the creation stories at the beginning of the Bible, God shaped creation out of the dark. And, plants, which need light to grow, begin their lives as seeds, buried in the dark, pushing roots ever deeper, to find the nutrients they need to survive. But, even though we may be able to survive in the dark, though we may even need the dark at certain times in our lives, we, like Jim, know that something changes when we finally see the light. We know, even as we shield our eyes from the brightness, that the light and heat will do new things in our lives, maybe things we could not have imagined. The disciples certainly couldn't have imagined that they would have ended up following a Messiah like Jesus.
I was once told that someone like me could not be a minister. In fact, I spent my whole childhood in a church that did not believe women or people in same-gender relationships were able to be pastors of churches. Women, as long as they are straight, might be able to be director's of Christian education, but certainly not preachers, and definitely not have to serve communion. For a long time, I didn't think much about this prohibition. I muddled through, participating in the church in ways that they deemed appropriate to one of my station. I survived. In fact, there were even many ways that this church was a loving and caring religious home to me. But, there came a point where I realized that I needed more light than they could give. I had seen Jesus in a new way and felt a new kind of light on my face. I knew that I had to grow beyond the soil in which I had been planted. It was not easy to leave that church. New growth is often a struggle. But, I had had seen the light. I could no longer stay in the darkness of sexism and homophobia that had enshrouded the church of my youth. Now, this isn't exactly the life I expected to be living. But, Jesus had a habit of re-setting people's expectations for a long time before I came along. That's part of the bargain. You get the light, but you must also be willing to be changed by it.
There's one more thing that Jesus said will happen when you walk in the light. If you are willing to be changed by this light, you will become a child of the light. You will carry his light with you. You will become a mirror that reflects his love and compassion. You will become a light bulb that shines hope in hopeless places. You will be the bonfire that warms a cold heart. You will become an embodiment, an extension of the light that Jesus brought into this world. And, the darkness can't defeat that light, even though we walk through shadows sometimes. I think a major way that Jesus' light continues to make it into this world is through the reflections of the people who follow him. My prayer today is that you will continue to ask to see Jesus, and that you member that his light can shine through all you do. So, be the light. Carry his hope and love to the world.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Karoline Lewis, "A Vision Checkup": https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3566
Karonline Lewis, Commentary on John 12:20-33:
Johnathan Merritt, "Barbara Brown Taylor Tells Christians to Embrace the Darkness": http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/04/14/barbara-brown-taylor-encourages-christians-embrace-darkness/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.