“This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus would say these words to Nicodemus. who, as the Gospel puts it, came to see him “at night”? [Because of the way our reading is laid out, it may not be evident for you to realize that the words of Jesus we hear today are the conclusion of his dialogue with Nicodemus, but that’s where we are]. Nicodemus was a teacher, a leader of the Jews says the text, and the common explanation for his nocturnal visit to Jesus was that he was trying to be discreet – attracted to Jesus’s teaching and amazed by his miracles, Nicodemus wanted to find out more, yet he also didn’t want to be exposed having a conversation with the one so many of his peers accused of being a blasphemer. And so, I find it quite ironic that Jesus finishes their conversation telling him that people love darkness more than light because they don’t want their deeds to be seen! Nicodemus is attracted to the light that is Jesus, but he cannot bring himself to talk to Jesus during daylight, because he doesn’t want to be seen, judged and rejected by the other religious leaders who hate Jesus so much.
Well, it may be tempting to feel a bit annoyed by Nicodemus’ behavior, but if we think about it, aren’t we all like him really? Unless we have a huge sense of provocation, who among us would bring to daylight what our friends, colleagues, family, gang or tribe would disapprove of? One of the fears the most shared among human being is the fear of being rejected, and most of us want to be seen as a good person, to be loved or admired. I guess there are some people out there who don’t mind being seen as a bad person but only if it brings them attention or respect. I can’t think of anybody who truly wants to be seen as idiot or as a traitor. I can’t think of anybody who truly wants to be mocked, shunned or even condemned by their peers.
And so it is with Nicodemus you see. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he does not want other religious leaders to find out about the admiration he has for Jesus, the questions he has on is mind, the longing he has in his heart. It could look silly, inappropriate or even dangerous for him.
And so of course Jesus picks up on that, with a sense of humor full of compassion and tenderness even as his words cut down to the heart because they speak a truth that is very hard to hear: We don’t always like the light. We don’t always like the light. We like the light when we feel good about ourselves, but we also like the darkness if it helps not being found out. We don’t always love the light for the sake of the light, we love the love the light when it’s convenient. And if it’s true with others, that we will flee the spotlight if we don’t feel good about ourselves, it’s certainly true with God as well. We will flee from God if we aren’t proud of who we are. We will flee from God if we aren’t proud of who we are.
And I find that very interesting because we generally assume that this is what we like, what we believe in that makes us act a certain way: We believe in a good God and so we become good people. Or on the other around, we believe in a judgmental God and so we become judgmental. But here, Jesus seems to say something completely different, something we may want to think about: It’s our behavior that influences our taste, our love, and in the end our belief.
It is not our belief that changes our behavior, it’s our behavior that changes our beliefs.
Practice mercy, justice and goodness, you will look for the light and a God of mercy, justice and goodness. Live a life where you abuse, judge or condemn people, you stay in the darkness and believe in a God who abuses and condemns people.
The reason why religious leaders rejected Jesus is not that they had strong theological beliefs (although they certainly had), the reason they rejected Jesus is thatthey didn’t feel good about themselves around Jesus because of the sins they couldn’t let go of. They lived a life of judging and condemning people, so they couldn’t fathom a God who was would be welcoming to all.
This is the problem some of the Hebrews had in the wilderness, as we read in the Old Testament today. They met a God who judged them and punished them but that’s only because they had already judged and condemned God. They saw God as unreliable and untrustworthy, not because God had let them down but because they were afraid and unable to trust, and in the end they proved themselves unfaithful. You could say that they obtained the God they deserved! They acted like God was their enemy, and so God became their enemy. When they changed their minds and acted as if God was going to have mercy on them, God had mercy on them.
And that’s what Jesus wants to show people, that on top of condemning others, they condemn God and condemn themselves all the time. Only if they repent from their sin they can find who God truly is, the heart of the faith of the Hebrews that is proclaimed in our Psalm today: Give thanks to the Lord for God is good.
God is good. So to meet this God, we don’t have to convince ourselves that God is good, we just have to practice goodness. This is as simple as that. What we believe in or not believe in, even belief in God – it does not have much to do with religion or ideology. It has to do with the way we behave. What we choose to practice or not. If we practice goodness, we will see goodness. If we ourselves do good, wouldn’t it be much easier to believe in goodness, to believe that good is real? But if we practice deception, how can we experience that God can be trusted?
If you want to know God’s goodness, you have to practice goodness – would it be only towards yourself. And the more you practice goodness, the closer you come to God even if you don’t feel it. That’s why charity is a spiritual practice. Grace is there yes, and we can experience God’s mercy in our darkest hours, but in the long run we have to do good to experience goodness and a God of goodness. I haven’t known a truly good and loving person who believed in a God of wrath or vengeance – unless they had been traumatized by the evil done to them – and this is why self care is so important. Be good to you if nobody else. Love yourself if nobody does. Or find friends who truly love you and get away from abusive people. Whatever your circumstances are, if you live a life where you practice love, your God will be a loving God too.
Jesus reminded us in the text last week that we are the Temple of God. Our heart is the place where God happens, where God becomes real. The God we experience depends on the quality of our heart as surely as we can only see through our own eyes, right? If our hearts are darkness, we cannot receive a God of light. Yet it does not depend only on us as individuals, sadly. If you have experienced much darkness from others, if you have been told you are unlovable or evil – it will be hard for you to find a God who is good. And so, we have a responsibility towards one another. God is also a communal experience – the way some Christians behave make it impossible for others to believe in God and to believe in goodness. How can you support the institutions if politicians are untrustworthy? How can you trust the church, if priests are molesters? How can you believe God cares for all if innocents are put to death?
And so maybe the question we could ask ourselves today is the following:
How can we live in a way that makes it possible for others and also for ourselves to believe in goodness and, in John’s words, to give testimony to the light? How can we show in our lives that the God of Psalm 107 and the God of Jesus is real?