Walking in the Light: Reflections on John 3:14-21

Lectionary Reflections
March 18, 2012
John 3:14-21

The painter Rembrandt is regarded as "the master of light and shadow." He earned this title by his skillful use of the technique called chiaroscuro, which means, literally "light dark."This techniquewas pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio, but perfected by Rembrandt. Chiaroscuro refers to the juxtaposition of light and shade as a visual effect in art. It lends a dramatic intensity and psychological depth to Rembrandt's paintings. In his portraits, it results in expressive shading around the eyes, cheeks, and mouth. For example, in his 1661 "Self Portrait as St. Paul," the use of chiaroscuro gives the impression of a person whose thoughts are turned inward. Chiaroscuro can also convey a sense of movement, as it does in his 1642 painting "The Nightwatch."

John the Evangelist was a master of chiaroscuro long before Rembrandt.In his gospel,light and dark convey both Jesus' identity and saving mission and the world's opposition to it. This theological, soteriological manifestation of light and dark resonate with daily human experience. Says scholar Craig Koester, "The interplay between light and darkness is a fundamental feature of human existence. Day and night, brightness and shadow, establish the contours of the world we see with an evocative potency that has prompted people everywhere to ascribe religious significance to them." Philip Wheelwright calls light and darkness an "archetypal symbol." (Koester, 123)

Light and darkness call forth a variety of associations, some contradictory. Light can be welcome when the dawn comes or the sun returns after a storm. Light can be harsh and glaring when we are on a long trek at noon and our eyes are squinting, our mouths are dry with thirst and our skin is beginning to burn. Darkness can be a haven for sleep and rest. It can also conceal potential dangers. Both light and darkness can, in the experiences of daily life, be welcome or unwelcome.

Light Shows Our True Self
Just before our passage (3:14-21) we meet Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night. That begs the question, why wasn't he willing to come to Jesus by day? And are we? I wish Rembrandt had painted the scene between Nicodemus and Jesus in John chapter 3. He would have had a heyday with the light and darkness in that scene! Maybe Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he didn't want his deeds exposed to the light. Jesus as the light of the world in John's gospel reveals what a person really is and what are the real values that guide his or her life. The news that Jesus is the light that has come into the world is good news or bad depending on what you're doing when that light shines in your corner.

"Who are you when no one's looking?" has become a common question on church signs and book covers. It's a good question. There are way too many examples of politicians and clergy who behave one way in the dark and hope it never comes to light. But sooner or later we stand before the master of light and shadow and the quality of our thoughts and private behaviors is illuminated with as much unflattering detail as you find if you ever make the mistake of scrutinizing your face in a mirror in an airport bathroom. Jesus' words in John 3:20 could be taken in a literal or theological sense: "All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed." We do well to ask, not just others, but ourselves, "How is that working for you?"

Light Provokes Judgment
Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a person is. Jesus' mission is the focal point of the struggle between light and darkness. "The coming of the light makes apparent people's ultimate allegiance, whether they love darkness or light and puts their whole lives, both words and deeds, under scrutiny." (Lincoln 155)

In John, this judgment is not all future. This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil (3:19). The lifting up of the Son of Man for the salvation of those who believe (3:15) is the supreme demonstration of divine love for a hostile world. It also brings judgment on those who do not believe. The judgment it brings, like the salvation it brings, are experienced now. This is John's realized eschatology of salvation and judgment.

Light Brings Salvation
The archetypal struggle between light and darkness is the cosmic setting for the saving judgment of God on the world. (157) God has sent the Son to both save and judge the world. These are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. "For God to judge righteously is for God to save and for God to save is for God to judge righteously." (Lincoln 155) In the Jewish Scriptures Yahweh's judgment involved acting to establish justice and to restore conditions of well-being and life in place of exploitation and death. (Lincoln 155)

3/11/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.