A reprieve

Fourth Sunday in Lent

In the name of the God of light and life.  Amen.

Today is a bit of a different day in the progression of Lent.  It’s designed as a sort of breath in the midst of heaviness.  The readings aren’t quite as heavy as they are during other parts of this season – and certainly not as heavy as they’re about to be as we find ourselves moving rapidly toward Holy Week.

The Psalm is about giving thanks.  The Epistle is about recognizing and embracing the love and grace that we experience through God in Christ – how it is an antidote to the death that had defined our lives.  Then, in the Gospel, it’s about the light that is breaking through the darkness.  As the length of our days increase, we can feel that.  Even though we still know the darkness to be very real.

The First Lesson from the Book of Numbers isn’t quite as rosy…  Sure – we get the grace of God that comes from providing relief for those who’d been bitten by the serpents.  There is that saving grace that God offers.  But that’s only really helpful if you overlook the first part, about how God was the one who sent the serpents in the first place to punish the Hebrew people for their grumbling.

But otherwise – it’s a bit of a day of reprieve.

The church has marked this day in a lot of ways through the years.  In the Church of England this day, along with the third Sunday of Advent, was called “mothering Sunday”.  All the parish churches would close and everyone would come together to worship at the cathedral – the “mother church” of the diocese.  I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard it suggested that this “mothering Sunday” idea is the background from which we get our tradition of celebrating “Mothers’ Day” each spring. 

In some traditions, clergy wear rose vestments – which can be an excellent teaching tool about how this day is a little different, but admittedly, too often becomes just something pretty for the priest to wear, with hardly any grounding in liturgy or formation.  I’m sure my Facebook feed will look like a bed of spring flowers this afternoon as many of my colleagues model their beautiful and rarely used vestments.

But even here in our own congregation – at the end of the service today – we’ll bless Simnel Cakes.  Admittedly, I had never heard of Simnel Cakes until I began serving here and was asked if I would bless them.  I’ll bless just about anything, but I had to do some Googling to figure out what I was doing.  And that process didn’t answer much for me.  There are many, many traditions and legends around Simnel Cakes.  Some say they date to the 16th century, some say the 13th.  There are countless stories of meaning and purpose around them.  But the one thing that remains rather consistent through all the different traditions, is that they are blessed on the Fourth Sunday in Lent.  A day of refreshment.  A day where things seem a little lighter.

This passage from John’s Gospel that we read usually focuses on one verse – 3:16, which says, “For 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 focus is often there because that’s a verse that’s worked its way into American culture as a sort of rallying cry for Evangelical churches.

But this week, my focus went a couple of lines after that.  Verse 19 says, “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…”  On this day when things are meant to be a little lighter for us, we’re reminded that some people love the darkness.  Some people prefer it over the light.

It made me think of that beautiful song from Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence”.  It begins, “Hello darkness, my old friend.  I’ve come to talk with you again.”

The thing is, I understand the importance of darkness.  I even understand its lure.  I understand how, sometimes, it can feel like an old friend.  As much as darkness can be a place of vulnerability, it can be a place of deep beauty.  It can be a place of singular focus.  Distractions might surround you, but they have less power over you in the darkness.  In the light you can’t turn away.

It's only in the night that the beauty of the starlight can pierce the skies.  In the full light of day, there’s too much else going on.  At night, the busyness is stripped away; there’s space and time to turn our eyes heavenward, where we can see that even in deep darkness, light is breaking through.

So, there is a place for darkness.  But it isn’t meant to be where we live.  It can be valuable as a place for retreat, but Christ is calling us into the light.  Life needs light, and Christ is embodied life – life that transcends the conceptual plain and becomes something real for us to feel and to know.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent reminds us of that.  It reminds us that light will pierce the darkness.  Darkness can feel powerful – all encompassing.  But really, it takes so little to break through it.  Just the tiniest light can start to open it up.

As our Lenten journey continues – as we fall deeper into the darkness of these days – let today be a little reminder to you that light is coming.  Today is a tiny light that pierces the darkness just enough to make us remember how weak that darkness truly is.  But Easter is coming.  The brighter light is coming.  The new day that will dawn from on high is coming.  There’s nothing the darkness can do to stop it.  There’s nothing we can do to hasten it and there’s nothing the darkness can do to stop it.  God is driving this train.  And it is God calling us into the light.  Amen.