John 3:14-21 – Christ Goes First

Have you ever been in the dark?

I know you’ve probably had the power go out during a thunderstorm, or stumbled into the kitchen for a midnight snack without turning the lights on.  But I’m talking about real darkness.  I’m talking about the kind of darkness that the Psalmist describes as “darkness and gloom”, a prison of misery.  It’s the kind of darkness that blots out hope, blows it out like a candle.  It’s the darkness where pain or doubt, or maybe even death is all that you can see, and you find yourself wondering where God is.  I think we’ve all spent time in the darkness, and found ourselves straining to pray anything, or to see even the faintest glimmer of hope.  Darkness and gloom – that’s what it is.  A prison of misery.

In Bill Clinton’s memoirs, he describes in great detail his turbulent and violent upbringing.  He writes about his alcoholic father, who frequently threatened and endangered the family.  He writes about the fear he felt on a day-to-day basis, not knowing what his father would do next, and not really knowing whether any of them would live to see the next day.  It’s not surprising that Clinton wrote very personally about growing up with an ongoing fear that he could be destroyed, either politically or physically.  He describes his deep-seeded fears in great detail, and then finishes his description of his upbringing simply by confessing, “It was really dark down there.”  I think we all know what he means.  Maybe your dark times were due to different things, like illness, or an experience of death.  Maybe it was just a time when you couldn’t find hope, and the presence of God was seriously in question, or a time when you were incredibly afraid, and it was so very hard to keep the faith.  We all have times in our lives that we look back on and say, “It was really dark down there.”  Those are the times that frighten us our whole lives long, and most of us don’t even want to remember them.  We don’t want to go there, into that darkness.

You may have heard the story of a man who in the middle of the night was crawling around on his hands and knees under streetlight.  A passerby asked him what he was doing and he replied, “I’m looking for my keys.  I’ve lost them.”  The passerby joins the search on his hands and knees for a while, but after finding nothing he asks, “Are you sure this is where you dropped your keys?”  The man replied, “No, I actually think I dropped them across the street.”  The passerby then asks angrily, “Then why on earth are we spending all this time looking here under this streetlight?”  “Well,” the man says, “It’s dark over there.”  Going into the darkness is scary stuff.

Now I must admit that I am scared of the dark, not just spiritual and emotional darkness, but physical darkness as well.  In seminary, my wife Heather and I lived in a dorm with one of the scariest, most bone-chilling basements that you could imagine.  It had a small doorway with rickety old wooden stairs that just led down into darkness.  It had no windows and cold, crumbling stone walls that I’m sure were thick enough to keep people from hearing you if you screamed.  It was always pitch black down there.  And to make matters worse, there was no light switch at the top of the stairs.  There was no light switch at the bottom of the stairs, either.  The only light was a single light bulb that hung down from the middle of the basement ceiling.  That meant to get down into the basement, you had to walk down the dark stairway into complete darkness, then walk out into the middle of this pitch black room and grope around for the pull chain like a blind beggar.  I never wanted to go down those stairs into that basement.  I hated it.

Now you might be wondering why anyone would ever do down into that basement, and I surely never would have if I had my choice…  but the washer and dryer were down there.  And you can only go so long without clean clothes.

I remember the first time Heather and I had to do laundry.  We stood together at the top of those stairs, staring down into the blackness, neither one of us really wanting to be first.  I wish I could be macho and say that I went first, but I don’t really remember.  One of us went first, and we reached out and took each other’s hands.  Together, we went down into the darkness, knowing that we might never come back.  I’m dramatizing the story just a little bit, but the truth is that either one of us will tell you that going into the darkness is a lot easier when someone else goes first, and you have a hand to hold on to.

You might remember that we started this journey of Lent on a somewhat dark and scary note.  We gathered in the chapel for our Ash Wednesday service, and we were called to reflect on our sinfulness, and our mortality.  Then at the end of the service we observed the imposition of ashes on our foreheads.  I’ll always remember standing at the front of the chapel with my bowl of ashes smearing ashes on one forehead after another, then looking down suddenly to see Ellen Snelson standing in front of me.  At that moment I realized that I had never imposed ashes on a child before.  I almost hesitated, knowing what I was about to say to her.  I knelt down, made a mark of a cross on her forehead, and said the words, “Ellen, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  What a scary thing to say to a child!  Or to anyone for that matter!  It must have been a frightening thing to hear.  And yet… I remember that her mother was there holding her hand.  And I bet hearing those words wasn’t so bad, because she had a hand to hold, and someone was with her to go first.

We begin our Journey through Lent on that very somber and frightening note, and it continues throughout these forty days as we focus on our own sinfulness, our own fears, our own incredible need for salvation.  Today, against this backdrop of that imposing darkness, we hear the familiar words of John 3:16 and 17.  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.  If you need some reassurance in the midst of darkness, this is it.  It’s no wonder that this passage contains what is probably the best-known Bible verse in all of scripture.  It is popular because it is assuring.  It is a reminder that because our God is a loving God, no person need fear death, either spiritual death now or physical death later.  No one needs to grope around in the darkness.

And so it is that today, in the midst of our Lenten sorrow, we anticipate Easter joy and gratitude.  During these forty days we confess our need for salvation, but we also, as Martin Luther once wrote, reach out to God with a beggar’s empty hand to receive the gift of God’s grace.  In our reaching and in our begging for grace, we point toward Holy Week, when we remember that our God became incarnate and suffered the blood-stained face of human existence.  God in Jesus Christ experienced all the darkness that the world could throw at him.  He knew the violence of sin.  He knew the pain of separation.  He knew the agony of death.  And he knew it so that we may not perish in the darkness…  but instead have the gift of peaceful life, grace-filled life… eternal life.  No matter what forms of darkness we might encounter, we have the sure knowledge that Christ has been there…  and still is.  God in Jesus Christ has gone into the darkness before us.

This is the overwhelmingly good news of John 3:16-17.  This passage proclaims that in a world of violence, hatred, sin, and death…  In the face of our world’s oppressive darkness… Christ goes first.  It promises that there will be a hand for you to hold when the darkness comes.

Take it.

Praise be to God alone.  Amen.

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