In the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting longer, thank God! I drive all around the Midwest for the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, and my mornings are now brighter and, therefore, safer. In January and February, I often can’t see where I’m driving without the brights on, especially in snow. But, in the words of one of my favorite hymns: “When morning gilds the sky … may Jesus Christ be praised!”
Being able to see where we are going is safer and, when the view is nice, delightful. But that’s not always our experience, is it? Especially in the wilderness places/experiences of our lives, we may not see where God is leading us. This week’s lectionary passages have a couple examples of God, at least partially, illuminating the path forward.
In Genesis 12, God speaks in verse to Abra[ha]m (see “Note” below), telling him, “Get going!” (the verb “go” is geminated for intensity of the command) to a land that God would show him. There God would make of Abraham a great nation and a source of blessings and curses. Abraham, his wife, nephew and all those in their household set out for a new place. But what did they really know about their destination? What could they see of the road ahead?
This was, of course, not the first time that Abraham had been called to set out for a new land. His father, Terah, had set out for Canaan years prior, bringing his family with him for the journey. They made it as far as Haran, where they settled (Genesis 11:31). So Abraham has had a relatively recent experience in leaving all that he knows and setting out for Canaan. He’s also had some recent experiences of getting sidetracked, which happens again. After a brief sojourn in the land, he, Sarah and their entourage traveled down to Egypt, with disastrous consequences.
The point of Abraham’s journey by steps is that he didn’t clearly see the way forward. Abraham knew he was going to be blessed by God and that he would be taken to a land not his own. But even Abraham had many questions along the way about how that would work out (Genesis 15:2-3; 17:17-18; 21:9-11). God showed him a little bit—a light at the end of the tunnel, if you will—and that was what Abraham pressed toward (Hebrews 11:8-10).
In abiding with Jesus, we will see the true Light and be able to see all other things and people clearly by Jesus’ light.
The writer of John’s Gospel intentionally juxtaposes light and darkness, and their effects on human sight, to signal to the reader/hearer about the dynamics of the scene being described. Here, when Nicodemus meets Jesus, it is night. We are being told, if we have ears to hear, that the narrative which follows will concern hidden and difficult to see things. Later Nicodemus will defend Jesus (John 7:50-51) during the day (37). When Nicodemus came to prepare Jesus’ crucified body for burial, John notes that he first came at night (John 19:39) but now comes during the day (31, 42). But this first meeting occurs in darkness, and it’s difficult for Nicodemus to see the path forward (see “Another word” below).
Jesus points out that a person must be born again of water and of the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus doesn’t see how someone can be born again, much less born of the Spirit. Then Jesus hints at his own death. Just as Moses lifted up the Nehushtan in the wilderness, so the Human One must be lifted up—on a Roman cross. God’s love for the world and desire to save people from our bondage to sin and death, rather than judge folks as we deserve, will accomplish salvation that Nicodemus just can’t see fully, at least not yet.
Just beyond the lectionary reading, Jesus insists that he is the Light that has come to reveal all things (John 3:19-21). This is the main argument of John’s Gospel: That in abiding with Jesus, we will see the true Light and be able to see all other things and people clearly by Jesus’ light. The way forward in this life isn’t always clear. We may never truly know where we are going. But the good news is that God is faithful on the journey, and Jesus himself, as the Word of God, is a lamp to our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105).
Note: When someone undergoes a major life transition, of the sort that Abraham and Sarah face in Genesis 17 and after, they frequently change names to mark their new bodily experience. The text of Genesis 12 uses “Abram” and “Sarai,” but God insists that they will be called Abraham and Sarah, noting explicitly that Sarah “will no longer be called Sarai” (17:4, 15). I want to follow God and use the names that they came to be known by after they experienced embodied miracles that allowed them to be who God called them to be.
Another word: We must resist the racist association/mapping of folks with paler skin with “light” and folks with rich Black and Brown skin with “darkness.” If anything, simple biology and/or a little bit of travel shows that folks who live, or whose ancestors lived, in the presence of more sunlight have more melanin and browner skin tones, and those who live, or whose ancestors lived, in the presence of less sunlight/more darkness have paler skin, hair and eyes. Light and darkness in John have nothing to do with skin color but with perception of truth/relationship to Jesus. We should say so explicitly.