Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
One of my very favorite books – of all time – is A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Did any of you all read that when you were younger? L’Engle was a Christian writer, whose best-known books are still the Wrinkle in Time series – a 5-part science-fantasy story written for young adults. The books have it all: magical creatures, a universe in trouble, time traveling kids, and an uncertain teenage heroine discovering her great capacity for awesomeness who is surely the prototype for every modern-day Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen. If you are one of those people who are into The Hunger Games or the Divergent series – currently popular dystopian fiction for young adults – you should totally be reading the Wrinkle in Time series. It’s just as incredible andfar more theologically grounded.
The movie version, directed by Ava DuVernay, comes out on March 9 and I am contemplating dressing up and attending a show on opening night – I am excited.
A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of a young girl, Meg Murray, whose father has gone missing after working on some kind of secret, serious project called a tesseract. We find out later that Tesseracts have to do with space-time travel, but for the sake of the story, what we know is that Meg’s father is on a super-secret mission, and he’s gone missing. Meg, her odd but gifted little brother Charles Wallace, and and their friend Calvin meet some strange old women living in an abandoned house nearby who turn out to be supernatural beings. Ms. Who, Ms. Which and Ms. Whatsit take Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin on an incredible journey to find and free her father – learning about cosmic battles between good and evil and the power of redemptive love along the way.
It seems that the universe is being attacked by some big, dark Thing. Some planets have succumbed to the darkness, some are fighting it valiantly, and some are what they call “in shadows.” Earth, as Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace learn when they visit another planet and meet someone called the “Happy Medium,” is significantly shadowed. The darkness covers a good portion of the planet. But, the Medium and Mrs. Which assure them, the fight is being waged, and by many:
“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right form your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”
Still, even though the universe is waging such a grand and exciting battle against the darkness – which Meg eventually learns to name as the Powers of Evil – it turns out that her father is trapped on a planet called Camazotz that has given in to the darkness. Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must journey to Camazotz to find and free him.
In the course of their quest, the children encounter all kinds of darkness, pain and evil. It comes in all forms: physical pain, mental injury, despair, loss, bitterness. It seems that the darkness is everywhere, and indeed, on the planet that has succumbed, it IS.
In our text for today, Jesus is offering us another one of his “I am” statements. This time, it’s one that we know: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Often, when we think about the metaphor of light and dark, we think of them as interchangeable with “good” and “evil.” This gets problematic really quickly: if dark = evil, and if that’s how we think of the world, what does that mean for the ways we think about people, particularly people whose skin is dark? It is too easy for us to hear Jesus say “I am the light of the world” and assume that darkness only = evil, that if Jesus is LIGHT then only things that are light-COLORED are good.
This is a modern problem. Jesus wouldn’t have talked about lighter-colored people being more moral or ethical or holy, since he himself was a dark-skinned man. When Jesus calls himself the “light of the world,” he does not mean that light-colored things are good and dark-colored things are bad.
And, if we think about it, we know that, too. We know that darkness is not always evil – the darkness of a womb is where we are created and formed and nurtured before birth. The darkness of the soil is where seeds germinate and sink roots and find strength for growing. The darkness of night is when our bodies relax into rest, and find rejuvenation. Darkness is not evil, it’s just one way of helping us to understand how evil works.
Even in Meg’s story, where The Dark Thing is the name of Evil, darkness also operates as healing. The children do end up finding Meg’s father, though that does not solve all the problems, and he is able to tesser (bend time and space) them away from Camazotz. In order to escape, however, they have to go through the dark shadow that is covering the planet. The journey almost kills Meg. She lands on another planet paralyzed, barely breathing, and in agonizing pain. The inhabitants of this planet are strange creatures, with tentacles and no facial features. In fact, these beings don’t even have eyes. The entire planet is in grayscale – since seeing is not one of the senses of the beings that inhabit it, light and color simply don’t matter. But here, on the gray planet where beings live in what we humans would call utter darkness, but who have no way to even understand what that means, Meg is loved, healed, and nurtured back to health. In darkness, she finds wholeness.
So, if Jesus doesn’t mean that Light = Goodness, what does he mean when he says “I am the light of the world”?
If Jesus is not telling us to run as fast as we can from darkness and live only where things are light, white, and pure, what IS he telling us?
Light doesn’t always mean color. Light also illuminates. Jesus is not giving us a convenient metaphor to justify our racist tendencies – Jesus is inviting us to have all our sinful, evil propensities illuminated, made visible, exposed, brought into the light.
When Jesus makes this I AM statement, he is not talking to his disciples. He’s not talking to the crowd – like last week’s statement about being the bread of life – either. In this passage, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. That is, the people who are hell-bent on having him arrested, tried, and killed. In this passage, Jesus is giving this clue about his own identity to his enemies. The pharisees are gathered around him, questioning him about who he is and where he has come from, declaring that he has no one to vouch for him (even though we already know that people as diverse as Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman have been witnessing on his behalf all along). When Jesus says “I am the light of the world,” he is doing so in the presence of the pharisees, his enemies, who are actively plotting to destroy him.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals himself and offers everyone who encounters him a choice: believe in me, follow me, or don’t. Judgement, in John’s Gospel, is not about punishment or eternal damnation – judgement is about making a choice here and now. Jesus reveals himself – by signs, by confession, by the witness of others – and expects everyone who experiences the revelation to decide whether or not to believe in him.
Here, among the Pharisees who are plotting his destruction, Jesus is offering an alternative. He is revealing himself for who he is – the Son of God, the Light of the World – and inviting them to believe and follow him.
The problem is, in order to believe and follow, these Pharisees have to admit that they are wrong. They have to confess that what they are doing right this minute – testing and plotting against Jesus – is misguided, hateful and full of sin. They have to allow their own darkness to be illuminated, to be honest about who they are and what they need, where they’ve failed and what needs to change.
Jesus is the light of the world – and that means that in him, everything gets revealed, uncovered, illuminated. Dishonesty and hatefulness don’t stand a chance, since they thrive in secret and there is nowhere unknown to Jesus.
Jesus being the light of the world doesn’t mean that the darkness doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t mean that the darkness is bad. It means that in him, the truth of what is is made clear. It means that in him, all our own failings and faults are brought to bear, uncovered for what they are, extricated from the pool of shame and guilt, exposed to the illuminating light of grace, forgiven and transformed.
The Pharisees could not bear the intensity. In the moment of recognition, when they encounter Jesus for who he is, they cannot muster the courage to respond with belief. They can’t overcome their own guilt and shame and anger in order to follow him into the light of vulnerable truth telling.
In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg experiences one of these crisis moments. She discovers the hidden shame and anger in herself and is forced to confront it one way or another. Toward the end of the book, after she and her father and Calvin have tessered off Camazotz, they realize that Charles Wallace has been left behind – and, worse, he is under the spell of the Dark Thing. Meg herself is still in the frozen state from going through the Darkness, and she is so angry she cannot stand it:
“She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn’t able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end. There was nothing left to hope for. She was frozen, and Charles Wallace was being devoured by IT, and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. She teetered on the see-saw of love and hate, and the Dark Thing pushed her down into hate. ‘You don’t even know where we are!’ she cried out at her father. ‘We’ll never see Mother or the twins again! We don’t know where earth is! Or even where Camazotz is! We’re lost out in space! What are you going to DO?!’ She did not realize that she was as much in the power of the Dark Thing as Charles Wallace.”
In the book, Meg manages to come to see her own anger and disappointment for what it is. She acknowledges, eventually, that she is wrong. She apologizes to her father. And she decides to accept that there is more to do and that she is the one who has to do it.
If Jesus is the light of the world, what does that mean for us?
What in our own lives do we need to have illuminated? Where are we screaming and stomping our feet, like Meg, or refusing to confess or admit, like the Pharisees?
What would it be like to allow our whole lives, our whole selves, to be illuminated in the love of Jesus, the light of the world?
And what keeps us from it?
God refuses to be kept out of the dark spaces of our lives. The darkness exists, continues to persist, in our own lives and in the life of the world. But the light shines in the darkness, illuminating all that wants to stay hidden, and the darkness – the secret and the shame – does not overcome it.
(On Sunday, we welcomed guest musicians Chris and Jenna Horgan in worship, and this was the final hymn that they taught and led us in – a perfect response, confession, and offering):