Toorak Uniting Church

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Darkness and Light

John 3: 14 – 21 (especially John 3: 19 – 21)
Rev. Glennis Johnston
18 March 2012

John 3:19-21 New International Version (NIV)

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

John’s gospel was written to strengthen the early followers of Jesus who were being rejected by their families and Jewish friends who felt that they were betraying their faith, their culture and their nation by making Jesus so central.

Being persecuted for your faith makes you see the world differently. When those around you cast you out because of the spiritual experiences you hold most dear in your life it can be a lonely road to walk. It can also make it feel as though the world itself is a dangerous and dark place to be.

Once you enjoyed the support and affirmation of the community around you and now you are unacceptable, but to fit in again, would mean denying that which has become the most real and life-giving for you.

This was the situation in which the people for whom John was writing found themselves. That kind of bitter conflict has the effect of setting up battle lines – of wanting to prove the rightness of what you have come to believe – of seeing the world in very black and white terms.

So when that controversial experience you have had has been in response to Jesus, then the battle lines are drawn around Jesus himself. It is doubtful, from reading the rest of the gospels, that Jesus ever wanted this to happen, but happen it did.

And so, in battle conditions, we get the clear statements like this passage in John where people are talked about as being either right or wrong, as grounded in God and therefore good, or against God and therefore evil. As living in the light or preferring darkness. When persecution and conflict is savage, there’s no sitting on the fence, no room for grey areas.

But do people fall so easily into the categories of those who love light and goodness and those who are evil?

We read about the moral monsters in history – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot Idi Amin, etc. and the daily newspapers chronicle our preference for darkness and death – political corruption, violence as entertainment on tele and u-tube, corporate greed, and, in civil wars, especially, the slaughter of millions of people, each one a precious human soul.

So no, we don’t have trouble calling something evil. But we do have trouble understanding evil. The gospel of John has no hesitation naming the presence of evil, without any definitions. And it posits that because we do evil things, we prefer to live in that realm, ‘cause we don’t want the evil nature of our choices and actions to be shown for what they are. The pull of God is resisted. Jesus’ call to justice, compassion, and transformation is ridiculed so that one is not shamed.

Although I want to preach against the over-simplicity of this text, I do acknowledge that there are those who, knowingly or unknowingly, (and perhaps it doesn’t matter), who cling to the power they have and will sacrifice others to keep their position of dominance. At times there seems no moral conscience evident limiting the consequent suffering.

But is the humanity of these power-drunk individuals any different in essence from my own?
After 10 years of imprisonment and internal exile, then 20 years of banishment to Europe and Vermont after he was stripped of his citizenship for exposing the Soviet penal system, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote,

"When I lay there on rotting prison straw … it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil."

In the 2005 award-winning film of the year, Crash, director Paul Haggis paints a grim picture of human nature. The movie opens with a car wreck that serves as a metaphor for the collisions between ordinary people. This collision releases the rage that normally repressed.

We watch as a Persian shop-keeper, an Hispanic locksmith, two black hoodlums, a wealthy black film director, redneck white trash, an unpleasant suburban white couple and an idealistic young white cop project their insecurities and stereotypes onto each other. Paranoia, bigotry, and mutual misunderstanding darken their lives. In Crash good people are bad and bad people are good and everyone is a mixture of the two.

When he issues a simple traffic citation, Officer Ryan molests a woman in front of her husband, then, in a twist of irony, he later rescues her from a burning vehicle with professionalism, bravery and genuine compassion. "You think you know who you are" Ryan advises his rookie partner, "but just wait a few years."

But we don’t get that complexity of human nature from John’s gospel, at least not on the surface of it. John’s gospel can be comforting for those who experience persecution but dangerous for those of us who try to apply this thinking and rationale to a more complex world.

It has contributed to some of the ghastly hatred between Jews and Christians throughout the centuries.

It also contributes to a simplistic understanding of Christian faith which lacks depth and emphasizes intellectual assent to a belief system over transformation and justice.

But perhaps the major damage of this light and darkness imagery (where there are no shades of grey acceptable) has been psychological. It often leads to the concealment, even from oneself, of those thoughts and feelings that are not socially acceptable.

In some cases what people conceal for social acceptance are precisely those feelings that John would affirm as belonging to the light.

But in a culture influenced by Christianity, it is likely that they will try to conceal such things as jealousy, unacceptable sexual desires and anger. Although most of us agree that on the whole it is better not to act on these, their concealment and even denial are profoundly unhealthy.

Noreen Cannon Au, Ph.D., writes for Human Development, a journal featuring current knowledge from the fields of psychiatry, psychology, medicine, and spirituality. She has written an article called, "Getting to know Your Shadow".

In the psychology of Carl Jung, getting to know one’s "shadow" is considered to be the cornerstone of personal growth. Psychology and spirituality agree that human growth and development depend on one’s willingness to look at and accept the truth of who one is.

Jung used the term shadow to describe the dark and unknown part of the human psyche. It is that part of me that contains all the unwanted and undeveloped aspects of my personality, the things I am unaware of, either because they are incompatible with my known personality or because they are potentials unknown to me; for example, ambition, secret faults, sexual impulses, the desire for control and unused talents.

The shadow is like another person in me. It is likely to be guilt-ridden and seemingly inferior, since it carries all the rejected aspects of my personality.

As children we learn to hide, lie about, or repress those "bad" aspects of ourselves that bring the pain of parental disapproval but these repressed parts do not disappear; rather, they go underground and form part of our personal "shadow"

This part of me is dark and threatening. There is usually a division between what the conscious "I" wants and what the shadow wants. Paul writes of such a division when he says, "I cannot understand my own behaviour. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and find myself doing the very things I hate." (Rom 7:25)

And the New Testament doesn’t hide the fact that Jesus, at critical points of his life, also struggled with his shadow side.

Religious people are particularly vulnerable to difficulties with the shadow side of their personalities. We feel a particular calling to the very highest spiritual values and the more we consciously strive for some good, the more its dark side opposite will be activated.

The tendency in religious life to equate holiness with perfection makes it particularly difficult for religious men and women to recognize and integrate their shadow side. We need to grow in an understanding of holiness and wholeness that makes room for the imperfect in us as well as the perfect.

The reason it is worthwhile to attempt to get to know our shadow side, is not to rid ourselves of it, but to integrate it. Holiness and wholeness are not to be achieved by cutting away an essential part of the self. We cannot get rid of our dark side. It is human to have hateful, lustful and envious thoughts and feelings. If we had no shadow at all, we would be flat and dull, without substance or personality.

The shadow gives us depth and character, and integrating it has the effect of filling out our personality, making us fully human and alive. Confronting the shadow and coming to terms with it has a transforming effect, because when we deal responsibly with our dark side we are freed from its negative power.

When we become conscious of our shadow side we discover that our faults and failings are not as threatening to our self-esteem as they once were. We find that we are able to love and embrace more of ourselves, to reach out in love and compassion to others; we are less likely to be judgmental, because we know who we are.

Even the most shameful thoughts can be redeemed by a God who sometimes chooses to act where it is dark. In Psalm 39 we are told that for God, "even the darkness is not dark ... and the night is as bright as day ... darkness and light are the same."

The shadow - that dark side of us that we avoid and fear – is a place where we can meet God.

As complex human beings, understanding who we are, we can with greater courage and honesty seek the insights and promptings of the Spirit within. As whole and integrated persons, we may find ourselves lured by God towards novel forms of goodness. This is the fullness of our salvation.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Believing is not simply an act of will to give intellectual assent to un-provable statements, but is being opened to a life of perishing-and-rising in creative process with God. It is that life-changing invitation to co-creative transformation in relationship with the divine that is the real meaning of this oft-quoted—and often superficially interpreted—key verse, 3:16, "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."

The difficulty of discerning a systematic consistency in John is less a function of some fundamental confusion in his thought than of his remarkable mirroring of the way in which we all must hold our faith. The poet Robert Frost once observed that "heaven gives its glimpses only to those not in position to look too close," as when one sees a flower from the window of a speeding train. One sees, responds and is profoundly affected. Nevertheless, one cannot answer questions as to the variety of the briefly seen flower; one only knows that one saw its beauty. Like such fleeting visions, God’s revelation cannot be inerrantly recorded, processed or made serviceable. Yet in faith we "see" that it is the most real and abiding thing we possess.

The Christ child was born, came to maturity, was crucified, resurrected and ascended. He did not leave behind a solid body of certainties for us to base our lives on, but what he did give -- memories and promises and his spirit -- is enough. It would be truly horrendous to be in the hands of an all-intrusive God who never left us alone, and who, when it came time to send his messiah, sent one who ruled the earth like some heavenly Mussolini. In the very unobtrusiveness of the light of Christ, God honours our finite freedom..

© Rev. Glennis Johnston, 2012

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