In the Nighttime of Life – A Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4 and John 3:1-17

Gregory of Nyssa, Og Mandino, Joan Chittister, Luminous Darkness, Genesis 12:1-4, John 3:1-17, Sermon, Death, Light, Spiritual Journey, Dark Night, Light of Christ

Photograph by Michael J. Bennett – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons, (modified with text).

Lent 2A: Genesis 1:1-4 and John 3:1-17

Nicodemus has stepped into the nighttime of his life. He wants to know, “How can these things be?” In the darkness nothing makes sense and he’s looking for answers and understanding. He’s not, however, the first or the only one to step into the darkness. Thomas asks a similar question on the night of the last supper. “How can we know the way” (John 14:5)? Before Thomas it was Mary’s question to Gabriel announcing that she would give birth to the Son of God. “How can this be, since I am a virgin” (Luke 1:34)? And before Mary it was Zechariah wanting assurance from Gabriel about the son he and Elizabeth would have. “How will I know that this is so” (Luke 1:18)? And I am sure Abram must have wondered, “How can I leave my country, my kindred, and my father’s house” (Genesis 12:1)?

These are more than just biblical stories about other people in a different place and time. They are also our stories. There comes a time in each of our lives when understanding and knowing give way to the darkness of not knowing and not understanding. The journey of faith, it seems, is a journey through the darkness. Maybe we all come “to Jesus by night.”

Whether it’s through a call from God, a crisis of faith, or the circumstances of our lives, at some point we all step into the nighttime of our lives. They are those times and places in our lives when we feel isolated and alone, when the stability and predicability of life are disrupted, when our confidence shrivels and we have more questions than answers. They are the times when we are afraid, when we are powerless, or when we feel unprepared for and overwhelmed by what lies ahead. They are the times we feel untethered, and there is no stability, no anchor, and nothing to hold on to. They are the times when we try to figure it all out but nothing makes sense, and we just don’t know what to do. They are the times when we feel like strangers in a foreign land. They are the times when we face the unknown. They are the times when we don’t know and can’t see the way forward.

I’ve been there. I know what that’s like and I’ll bet you do too. I’ll bet each of you could tell a story about the nighttime of your life. I know some of you are in the nighttime of life today. What is your nighttime of life story? When have you stepped out into the darkness? What did that feel like?

The nighttime of life is a difficult place for most of us. Sometimes we might it experience it as an absence, an ending, or some kind of loss or death. Others times we might experience it as an overwhelming presence of confusion, not knowing, a sense of being lost, a vertigo that disorients. It’s a place of struggle and discomfort. We want answers instead of questions, certainty instead of ambiguity, and light instead of shadows. We want understanding and explanations. We want to see the way forward. We want to know where we are going, what will happen, and what lies ahead.

In the nighttime of life there are, however, no answers. There are only the promises of God. Do you remember God’s promises to Abram? “I will,” God says. God acts in the darkness of our lives. If Abram will step into the mystery of the unknown, the nighttime of his life, God will do the rest. “I will show you,” “I will make of you,” “I will bless you,” God tells Abram (Genesis 12:1-2).

The nighttime of life is not a time for us to gather more data, try harder, do more, or make sense of what is happening. It is a time of surrendering to God and opening ourselves to God’s dreaming for our lives. It is a time of trusting that there is more hidden in the darkness than we can see. It is a time of letting the wind of God blow where it will and change our lives. It’s a time for letting ourselves be born anew.

In the nighttime of life the problem is not the darkness but our fear and confusion about what the darkness means. What if new life and light lie on the other side of the darkness? What if the darkness is the border between us and a fuller life? What if the darkness is the means by which God transforms our lives and calls us into our truer and more authentic selves? What if we experienced the darkness as an invitation into God rather than something to be feared? What if we understood and trusted that new life and light are born of the darkness? That’s what it was for Nicodemus, Thomas, Mary, Zechariah, Abram and Sarai. Why would we think it is anything less for us?

A seed planted in the darkness of the earth sprouts, rises, and reaches for the sun’s light. A child in the darkness of his or her mother’s womb is born into the light of day. Christ burst forth from the darkness of the tomb “giving light to those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Book of Common Prayer, 500). And let’s not forget that God’s “Let there be light” was spoken in the darkness, and continues to be spoken in the darkness of every time, place, and life.

In the nighttime of life we must give our eyes time to adjust to the darkness. It’s not so much looking for light around us as it is discovering the light within us, the light of Christ. “There is a light in us that only the darkness can illuminate” (Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight, 19). The author Og Mandino puts it like this, “I will love the darkness because it shows me the stars” (The Greatest Salesman in the World, 59). St. Gregory of Nysa called this darkness “the luminous darkness” (The Life of Moses, 95).

The luminous darkness shines in the nighttime of life. It did for Nicodemus, Thomas, Mary, Zechariah, Abram and Sarai. And it does for us as well. In the nighttime of life the luminous darkness says we are not alone even when we don’t see another soul around. It shows the way forward when it’s so dark we can’t see our own hands. It holds the dawn of a new day after a long night. The luminous darkness is God’s “I will” for you and me.

How does all this happen? I don’t know. I only know that it does. I can’t tell you how it happens. But I can tell you why it happens. For God so loves the world. For God so loves you and me. For God so loves.

10 thoughts on “In the Nighttime of Life – A Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4 and John 3:1-17

  1. As you have stated so well, all of us walk in darkness at times, perhaps more than we are willing to acknowledge to others. Despite our common walk in the dark, we have not been kind to Nicodemus or to Thomas in the darkness of their doubt. I think we’ve been kinder to Mary and Zachariah and Joseph, maybe because they come through the darkness in the process of the birth narratives. I often am drawn to the poem by the British writer, Minnie Louise Haskins, who was quoted by George VI during the darkness of World War II. We quote her most often at the change of the year. I especially think of the lines, “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” But I so want at least a tiny light!

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    • Lawrence, you are correct we’ve not always been kind to Nicodemus and Thomas. I wonder if they sometimes show us too much of ourselves. Yes, those whose story ends with a birth narrative fare better. Thanks for the Haskins quotation.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  2. Thank you Father Mike. In the darkness of death there is hope born of God’s love. We will strive to live more completely and love more deeply as we move toward the light.

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  3. Thank you. It also reminds me of the beginning of Frost’s “Choose Something Like A Star”:
    O Star (the fairest one in sight),
    We grant your loftiness the right
    To some obscurity of cloud—
    It will not do to say of night,
    Since dark is what brings out your light.

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    • “Since dark is what brings out your light.” Sometime it is the darkness that reveals a light we never saw or knew in the daytime of life. Thank you for sharing this quotation, another witness to the luminous darkness.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

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