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Light, Darkness, and Discworld - Sermon for 4th Sunday In Lent 2015

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There was darkness and then there was light. And then Sir Terry Pratchett came along at some point after that.

The text notes I preached from are after the sermon audio for convenience, however, I suggest you listen to the sermon audio, because there were numerous changes during the delivery.  It is in the delivery of a sermon in the midst of the people of God which is where he Holy Spirit is doing the strongest work within me; and there will not only be some changes to the notes but also emphasis and intonations that don't occur in the notes. 

Sermon delivered at United Lutheran Church of Oakland

March 15, 2015  - Fourth Sunday in Lent

"Light, Darkness, and Discworld" - Lectionary text from John  3:14-21 with reference to Numbers 21:4-9 and Ephesians 2:1-10

Listen to sermon audio here

Greetings to you this day my sisters and brothers, saints and sinners, children of God.

Nanny Ogg dinner by candlelight.jpg

It's the 4th Sunday in Lent, and the Lenten journey is more than halfway through.  

On Wednesday, the world lost one of my favorite writers, the British fantasy, sci-fi and humor writer, Sir Terry Pratchett, at 66 years old.  He is known for a wide variety of works, but is best known for the extensive series of books generally referred to as the Discworld novels.  A whimsical place, Discworld was created with no apology for its use of mythology, magic and creatures from all walks of fairy tales--a flat planet flying through space on the back of four massive elephants who in turn stand atop the great star turtle, A-Tuin.  If the entire premise sounds ridiculous, indeed, that is not lost on the nature of the novels, which contain often humorous, sometimes poignant stories that are as often as not statements on our world and our society.  

But of particular note in Sir Terry's creation of these wonderful stories, and in the height of his career he published three novels a year, is the fact of the novels he has produced over the last few years.  Because in 2007, Sir Terry was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's, and yet after his diagnosis, he went on to produce five more novels.  Indeed, as sad as the loss of this fantastic author is to the world, is the continued time we had Sir Terry to grace us with his incredible talent. 

In addition to the other fantastical things about Discworld, is the defiance of common laws of Physics. One key thing is the speed at which light travels on Discworld.  Not several hundred thousand miles per second like the light we are familiar with, but due to the magical nature of the planet, light travels no faster than the speed of sound, which gives rise to some very interesting observations about its speed, such as in this quote, from his 1991 novel about death, Reaper Man: 

"Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it." 

That quote might take a bit of thinking about, but it is certainly true for the real world as it is for Sir Terry. Because no matter how you look at it, darkness was always there first, and always exists where the light has not set its way.  And this is as true for science as it is for scripture. Because from the very beginning in Genesis chapter 1: "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep":  And then God said something... 

"Let there be light."   And the light was called day and the darkness night.

But the darkness remained and all throughout the history of the world one found the powers of darkness  driving people to do all sorts of things that are in opposition to their basic goodness, the way that God is calling them to be.  We read different stories again and again about where darkness has caused people to turn away from God and on each other, defying God's commandments and causing despair and discouragement amid mankind.    

But then there was a new light to be found on earth. And as we reach the world in today's gospel reading from John, people are just beginning to learn about that light.  

But our light, Jesus, journey, has already been going on for some time. So in this lent, we've heard about Jesus being driven into the wild immediately following his baptism, and then the misunderstanding by his disciples wherein he says to Peter, get behind me, Satan, and just last week, Jesus is driving the merchants from the temple. So we have had some action-filled and sometimes trouble filled encounters for Jesus. And so it is with some comfort that we can, halfway through Lent, rest on the oh, so familiar verse from John 3:16:

"16For 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." 

But even with these words of hope, we also have some passages whose words an very easily frighten some listeners, particularly if one is worried about their own state of being with regards to their activities, and so we must look at where this particular passage takes place in the gospel as a whole. 

So this famous dialogue happens within a greater dialogue in chapter 3 of John's gospel.  Now, with our minds on light and darkness, it may be helpful to know that John's gospel is written with that in mind. Everything that takes place in the Gospel of John, takes place at a certain hour of day or night.  And things that take place during the day, like in the following chapter, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, are events that bespeak understanding and revelation.  But this chapter, which begins where a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who sought out Jesus to learn from him, takes place at night.  And Nicodemus is confused by Jesus' words that he must be reborn. He takes Jesus literally, how can a person reenter their mother's womb to reemerge?  Nicodemus does not understand the wisdom that Jesus is providing... and before today's gospel reading begins, Jesus asks Nicodemus how, as a teacher of Israel, he cannot understand himself?" 

Jesus tells us that the light has come into the world and that people love darkness, that evil thrives where the light does not shine, because that light exposes the harsh things that people do. He even begins by talking about the children of Israel and their own wickedness, and how Moses rescues them on God's command, by building a staff with a bronze serpent. All they need do is look upon that serpent and they will be healed from the bites of the serpents that plague them.

In that respect, the lessen from Numbers that we started with becomes very telling in Jesus own words, that the Son of Man would be lifted up, and God's children need look to that Son to find relief from the evils that plague them. The light of the earth, the Son of Man and Son of God is raised on the cross, faith in him will drive out the darkness that surrounds us. 

And certainly, Paul reminds us in today's letter from Ephesians that through God's great love for us we are saved to be raised up with Christ.  That it is only through God's grace, and not through any thing that we can ourselves accomplish, that we are saved from condemnation.  Because as Jesus told Nicodemus then, and he is telling us now, that God so loved the world... and God loved the whole world, and he sent his Son not to condemn the world but to save it.  

And the discomfort that we may find ourselves reading some of these passages that we like to gloss over about those who love the darkness and who are afraid of their deeds being exposed to the light, about judgment and condemnation... it's some scary stuff and may, in the wrong hands, be delivered to the people of God in a way that induces fear, but I am here to tell you today sisters and brothers, that Jesus did not come into the world to deliver bad news.  This is the gospel, the evengelion, the Good News that was delivered by him in the flesh 2,000 years ago and is good news delivered by the scripture and holy spirit in our lives today.   

The darkness was there first but the light overcomes it. Darkness is the realm of that which we cannot on our own, control, but with the light of Christ in the world, the darkness is banished from our midst. The light shines from the risen cross and the darkness has no power over us any longer.

And God's wondrous, unconditional gift to us is that grace that enables us via his Holy Spirit to bring that darkness to heel in our world that we may live out our vocation as his disciples in the world.  And even when it seems that we must choose the lesser of evils in order to combat evil, one need only remember the words from Dr. King: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."  

When we place our trust in Jesus Christ, we no longer are subject to the earthly powers and authorities that for all the good intent that may be underlying them, all too often make decisions based on short-sightedness or to correct long-term problems with short-term and often hazardous solutions. When we give our lives to Jesus Christ, we are guided by his loving light and are reminded by his living example that the world must change, and that evil has no place among light, that politics and empire are no match for living a life on the cross.  

And when we find ourselves, on the wrong side of public opinion, and subject to invective and possibly worse, we, as children of our living God, need only look to the light and know that we underly all of our doings with compassion and love.  Darkness can only be overcome by light.  And even as we do God's work in the world, know that we, God's children, are lifted up by his love, in the world beyond.  

And that, my sisters and brothers, is good news. 


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