Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the Second Book of Chronicles. The author recounts the time that the Israelites disobeyed God despite “messenger after messenger” warning them of God’s wrath. Finally they were driven into exile and their Temple was destroyed. But then Cyrus of Persia fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah and restored the Kingdom and allowed the rebuilding of the Temple. John’s Gospel recounts what Jesus told Nicodemus. He told Nicodemus that “the Son of Man must be lifted up” and “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life in him.” He further speaks of how this Son brought light into a world that prefers darkness.
We read readings like Chronicles to remind ourselves of what we sometimes call “salvation history.” Salvation history reminds us that God involves himself in our history and cares what happens to us.
This should go without saying, but for as long as I can remember there have been those who have tried to convince us that we have so strayed from God’s path that God will surely give up on us, that God’s patience in the face of our wickedness has exhausted his mercy. I write this in the days after the death of Rev Billy Graham; several years ago his wife said (and he agreed) that “if God does not judge America, He owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.” If you’re not familiar, the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God in Genesis because of their wickedness. Rev Graham’s statement betrayed a belief that the wickedness in our nation deserved the same result as Sodom and Gomorrah. With all due respect, I think he was wrong.
Anyone who has watched American professional football is familiar with a verse from today’s Gospel: “Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.” If you’re not familiar with the verse, you’re probably at least familiar with the citation: John 3:16.
The imagery of light vs. dark, good vs. evil informs much of our belief, and for good reason. We see nothing in darkness: we can see only in the presence of light. And faith, if it does nothing else, gives us the ability to see ourselves and our reality as God wishes us.
But here’s my question: Is darkness always wickedness? We read this passage almost out of habit and think that those who “have shown they prefer darkness to the light because their deeds were evil” are wicked. They don’t want anyone to believe in God’s plan of salvation through Jesus.
Maybe darkness isn’t always wickedness. Maybe sometimes it’s fear.
I think if we look back over our lives we can see that our worst decisions were not made because we were bad people, but often because we were afraid. Several decades ago I found myself in a job where I administered a religious education program and (frankly) I was probably too young for the job. I had an associate who was older than me and almost certainly wanted my job. I made a decision about First Communion (and if you’re not Catholic you have no idea how important this day is) that was right but angered my associate. She called me at home and demanded that I reverse my decision, and frankly I succumbed to her out of fear. I later had to reverse my decision and was humiliated. As I look back on my life, this was my worst professional moment.
None of us choose darkness in our best moments. And while Lent calls us to embrace darkness, nobody sees darkness as an end but not only a means to a greater light. We journey with Jesus into the desert not because we love the desert but we love the journey out of the desert.
We all live with the understanding that those who love us live with our shadows. Whether they be parents, siblings, children, cousins, coworkers, or neighbors, their care for us is limited. Our actions can (and sometimes do) alienate us from those closest to us. In my work as a hospice chaplain I can tell you that our closest bonds can be betrayed by our actions. A marriage is destroyed by infidelity. A child refuses contact with a parent because of sexual abuse from a step parent that the biological parent refuses to acknowledge. A friendship founders over a betrayed secret.
While we can’t deny the existence of evil, we rarely face it, and I don’t believe that anyone reading this willfully chooses evil. Psychopaths do live among us, but believing they are the sole source of darkness lets us too easily off the hook.
We are a little over the halfway point in Lent. On Ash Wednesday we were reminded of our need to recognize our sinfulness and return to the Gospel. I don’t think it calls us to turn away just from evil, but instead it calls us to turn away from fear and into courage.
Knowing that God will never give up on us because of our fear should encourage us to courage. Our best reminders come to us from the first reading in Chronicles. We find in our salvation history that not all of our chapters were courageous, and our worst moments were pretty bad. But when we plumbed the depths of our fear, when God could have easily pushed us aside, he didn’t. To quote one of our Eucharistic Prayers: “When we were lost and could not find our way to you, you loved us more than ever.”
In any age we have reason to fear. Our 24 hour news cycle often tells us that utter destruction is just around the corner and none of our preparations will save us. But our faith tells us that as long as God won’t abandon us, we have the ability to live with courage and our best lives.
As we continue to journey to Easter, to an event nobody saw coming, let us choose courage.