Jesus today speaks of our love of darkness, how we can perversely prefer it to life-giving light.
Now he is, of course, speaking metaphorically. Darkness is a source of terror for human beings. We’ve developed as a species with an aversion to the dark because of all the dangers that lie unseen within it. In the dark we can stumble and fall and injure ourselves, in the inkiness of it, a vicious predator may be waiting to pounce.
Yet we are also aware that just as dangers can hide in its depths, so too can we hide there. If we can assume our aversion comes from our long history, or rather our long pre-history, that stretches back to our days of making homes in caves, places of darkness. In these we could retreat, douse the fires so that a pursuing enemy could not find us in a dark interior that we knew and they didn’t.
So, there is some good in darkness, as a place of concealment from danger, but if it is a place of secreting away our sins, our shame, those things that we dare not have seen in the clear light of day; then our desire for the dark is self-destructive—the beast we fear in the darkness is then the one we put there; our aversion to the healthiness of the light of truth a sign of possession by evil.
Okay. So, so we get that; but look around us today, and people are far from concerned to hide their shame, their scandal, rather they proudly advertise it. We live in a culture that celebrates full public self-disclosure.
But these public confessions, these disclosures to the world of private things, too often have little to do with truth, an honest desire for healing, reconciliation, restoration. They are more to do with appeasing the wicked powers of this world; in some instances, they are a powerplay, a wielding of privilege ironically to play the victim and so disarm one’s enemies and do an opponent an injury to which they cannot retaliate.
In speaking with Nicodemus, Jesus references an episode from the earliest days of Israel as a nation of people, when the Israelites, grumbling in the desert wilderness were beset by snakes, bitten by poisonous vipers. One can’t help but notice the appropriateness of the creature that attacks them: it is the serpent. Harkening back to the myth of the garden, we know who this is, the deceiver, the liar, the rumour-monger, the cursed serpent of Eden.
While we can speak of the literal poison of the venom, and the real physical death of those bitten, it mirrors the sinfulness of the grumbling Israelites whose gossip, conspiring, and politicking were destroying their community, poisoning the discourse among the tribes and families, setting all against each other. This was far more deadly in real terms to the life of Israel as a nation than the snakes who hid in the dust of the camp, in the dark of the night as the Hebrews sought to rest from their journeying.
Now if you know the story, where we are in that great narrative when the snakes arrive, you’ll know that these Israelites are journeying nowhere.
Because of their sins, the first generation of Israelites, those who had left Egypt as adults, were condemned to never see the Promised Land. They were to sojourn in the desert, have children, grow the nation, but into the Promised Land itself they could not set a foot.
They knew that; and while for a time they were duly penitent, for a while accepting of their lot, eventually the grumbling and sinfulness that got them into their predicament in the first place started again.
You know the old saying, when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging? Well, the Israelites had stopped for a time, but then started digging again.
We should not take our cues from the culture, as heavily influenced as it is by celebrity–for example, those royals who live in luxurious self-imposed exile in California ought not to be emulated . They set a bad example of carrying on a petty family feud in public, making vague, unspecific accusations that have led to wild speculation about racists in the house of Windsor. I’m no fan of the Windsors, but that sort of thing isn’t fair; it certainly isn’t about justice; this is about political positioning, personal branding, securing status, and I imagine, payback for perceived slights and insults.
And if you think that just happens among the elites, don’t fool yourselves. Even among us commoners, we play these games so as to give our lives some sense of importance, validity, what have you, all to justify ourselves in our sins, rather than set aside all the stupid bickering, and the petty rivalries and choosing to simply be good people in whatever our circumstances happen to be, acknowledging our sins, seeking forgiveness and living in humble gratitude for the good things we have in spite of the bad things we’ve done.
The Israelites in the desert are only saved when made to face the evil they’ve brought upon themselves; by looking at the very emblem of sin as they would have known it, the serpent, can they find relief. And there it would be in the midst of the camp. How curious that it was bronzed, why do that? Well, I suppose because that would make it brilliantly visible through the day as the sun glinted off it; but more importantly, in the night, reflecting the light of the campfires, it could still be seen in the blackness above the camp, a sight for those afflicted and suffering in the dark.
We speak of Jesus as the man without sin made to be sin itself and so to be crucified on the cross, a shameful death so as to put to death the power of sin. We are saved by looking upon that horror, and owning up to our sin, sin that is rightfully ours imposed upon Christ and carried onto the cross by Him so as to spare us eternal death.
The gospel tells us that He did not come into the world to condemn, but to save. We as Christians are called to this as well, in our own modest way. To those who wrong us, the goal is not their condemnation, their ruin, their death—we don’t look to “cancel” people, we don’t seek to embarrass others in the media, shame them on twitter and Facebook.
We are all on that journey in the wilderness, but unlike those ancient Hebrew slaves, we live in a real hope of seeing the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. Escaping the wandering exile in the wastelands won’t be accomplished by backbiting, gossip, rumour, character assassination, slander, libel; it won’t come of us playing the victim and then being the judge of others, but rather through looking to Him.
All who do evil hate the light, they do nothing but spread darkness in our world so that we cannot see their evil, their pettiness, their selfishness, their narcissism.
So we are to do what is true, and to live in the light, in humble thanksgiving, so that all may see our good deeds, follow that good example, and know our good Saviour, Christ the Lord.