I grew up in a tea-totaling environment, so I was never conditioned to hang out it bars. But when Brenda and I were living in California about 20 years ago and the state banned smoking in all restaurants and bars, we discovered that we often preferred to have dinner in the bar or lounge rather than the main dining area of a restaurant. A cocktail lounge is a very … what shall we say? … a very fluid place, is it not? It can be a place of relaxation and enjoyment and camaraderie with friends. And it can also be a place of mystery and … perhaps, mischief. After spending time in a bar, people often end up saying and doing things they later come to regret. And the consistent thing about such places is that the lights are always dim, sometimes so dim that you can barely see what you’re drinking or eating. I don’t know that we can exactly say why, but I don’t know of anybody, myself included, who would enjoy being in a lounge with the lights turned up to what we would consider normal in, say, an office, or a supermarket, or even a living room.
And I can’t help but be reminded of this whenever I read the nineteenth verse of the third chapter of St John’s gospel: “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” I’m not saying that everything that goes on in a bar is evil, but a lot of evil things go on in bars, and it’s really no wonder at all that we like to keep the lights low in such places, because when the lights are low, we can’t quite see what’s going on, and that inability to see enables us to deceive ourselves about ourselves. Darkness can be downright addicting, because it’s a powerful anesthetic; it relieves the pain of what we might see if we looked at ourselves clearly, in the cold light of day. Unfortunately, addiction is a form of bondage, and our attachment to darkness can also prevent us from seeing and knowing our true selves, and from living the lives to which God called us when he made us.
Jesus addresses this precarious human condition in his well-known dialogue with the Jewish leader Nicodemus as recorded for us in the third chapter of St John’s gospel. Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness to pick his brain about some questions that were really bugging him. Jesus says, “You’ve got to be born again,” and Nicodemus says, “Well, how does that work, exactly?” and Jesus goes on about spirit and flesh and water and such things and finally arrives where we pick it up in this morning’s gospel reading:
The antidote to what ails us as human beings is something Jesus calls Eternal Life. Eternal Life is what can lead us out of the darkness to which we have become addicted. Eternal Life is what can free us from our fear of seeing ourselves clearly and knowing ourselves truly. Jesus wants to give us Eternal Life, and he tells Nicodemus that we receive Eternal Life by looking at him specifically as he is “lifted up.” And when he says, “lifted up,” he means something very specific.As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
But before we can go there, we need to make sure we’re up to speed on the Old Testament reference Jesus makes when he says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” Our first reading from the Book of Numbers told us the story. The ancient Hebrews had been freed from slavery in Egypt but were wandering in the Sinai desert for a generation under Moses’ leadership. Their camp was infested by poisonous snakes and people were getting bitten and dying. The Lord told Moses to make an image—a statue, in effect—of the sort of snake that was bothering them, and he told Moses to lift this faux-snake up where people could see it. Moses did just that, and, sure enough, when snake-bite victims looked up at it, they were healed.
So what Jesus is telling Nicodemus, in effect, is that all human beings are snake-bit—snake-bit by the power of Sin and Death. This is why we like the lights turned low in bars; this is why we prefer darkness over light; this is why we are afraid to see ourselves and know ourselves as we really are.
And what, then, do we need to do? We need to look up and live. We need to look on Jesus, lifted up for us as Moses’ serpent statue was lifted up for the people in the wilderness. And how is Jesus lifted up for us? He is lifted up on the cross. He is lifted up in his resurrection. He is lifted up in his ascension back to the right hand of the Father. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Unfortunately, one inference many of us make when we encounter passages of scripture such as this is that “eternal life” is a possession that we own and have stashed away so we can forget about it until we need it. We think of Eternal Life the way we think of a coin collection, or a stamp collection, or a baseball card collection. It’s stuck away in a drawer. We know it’s there, and we’re glad it’s there, but we may go several days without thinking about it. We hope that it will increase in value, and that should the day come that we need to cash it in, we’ll be able to do so at a profit. But eternal Life isn’t something we need now, it’s something we’ll need later. We have it now in order to have it later. Someone might ask us, “Are you saved? Do you have Eternal Life?” and we’ll want to say, “Why sure. I ‘looked up’ at Jesus, so I’m saved. I have Eternal Life. I don’t exactly need it yet, but I have it for when I do need it.”
But I’m here today to tell you something very different than that. I’m here to tell you that looking “up” at Jesus is not simply a one-time move, a mere glance. Rather, it is a matter of gazing at the “lifted up” Jesus and keeping our gaze fixed there until we are completely healed. And what makes this kind of challenging is that when we look up at Jesus, he looks back at us, and his gaze can be quite uncomfortable, because penetrating light emanates from his eyes. We don’t like being looked at by penetrating light. It’s like if somebody all of a sudden kicks up the lights in the cocktail lounge at 11 PM. We might see things we’d prefer not to see. We might feel just a little bit … judged. As Jesus tells Nicodemus,
You see, as long as we think of Eternal Life as a possession that we acquire and then hide away until we need it—that is, as we tend to think of it, when we die—then we are subject to what I might call photophobia—and I’m not talking about fear of having your picture taken(!) but fear of light. Jesus says, “… everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” But when we keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, looking up and persisting in looking up at him “lifted up” for our salvation, then Eternal Life becomes a present reality of our experience, something that we live in and benefit from even now, and not merely a future hope. When we can make this sort of mental move, we then have the resources at our disposal to be able to live fully in the present and fully in freedom: Free from self-deception, free from fear, and free from anxiety.…this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
Somebody get the lights. Amen.