Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
March 26, 2017
The Passive Dark
We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. (John 9:4-5)
A couple weeks ago we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell that story mostly in the same way, with only minor differences. In all three of those Gospels, what we see is that while Jesus is in the wilderness, he doesn’t do much. The devil shows up and puts on quite a show, but for those forty days, Jesus doesn’t do much of anything. What’s more troubling is that God doesn’t seem to do much either. The wilderness episode is marked by inactivity. No identifiable good is accomplished. The wilderness episode is devoid of any spiritual results. And we’re never given an answer as to why it happens. We only know that it happens, and that for some reason, it’s important.
We might call the wilderness episodes of Matthew, Mark and Luke descriptions of the passive dimension of the Christian faith. I call it the passive dimension for all the reasons listed above: in the wilderness, there isn’t much to be done or to be accomplished; one is simply out there—hungry, abandoned, weak—until it’s finished. We’re not given any explanation; we simply know that something about the experience is profound and important.
The Gospel of John deals with this passive dimension of faith also, but John does it differently. John’s Gospel explores this phenomena through the images of darkness and light, daytime and nighttime, seeing and not seeing. In short, in the daytime, when the sun is high and we see things clearly, we are able to work, to understand, to do with confidence what God would have us do. But when it is night, no one can work—each of us remains passive.
In our Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples see a man blind from birth. Jesus heals the man, gives him back his sight. But what makes this healing so strange is how totally passive the blind man is in this encounter. He’s just minding his business when Jesus and his disciples walk through town. He doesn’t call out to Jesus; he doesn’t ask Jesus to heal him; he doesn’t speak at all until after he is healed. He is simply there, in the darkness to which he has grown accustomed. When Jesus says, “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam,” he doesn’t even say, “Yes, Lord.” He just goes (9:7).
The darkness in which he lives, both literal and metaphorical, is a darkness in which he has little agency. He has little, if any, ability to determine the course of his life. Until there, over the crest of the hill, rises the face of the Son of God—a face the blind man could not have known was approaching. And suddenly things change. He’s given agency, power to effect change in his own life and in the lives of others. He is suddenly a person of importance, someone whose story matters to the people around him. He finds his voice and says again and again, “I am the man.” “I am the man,” as though he’s discovering that he, too, has a role to play (9:9).
Jesus says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5). When it is day, when we see clearly, when the sun is high and the shadows are banished—when we have the light, then yes, we can walk. We can see. We can work. We can move and do and make an impact and participate in the work God is doing in the world. We have seasons like this: we know what our task in life is, we know which relationships need nurturing, we see clearly who around us is in need of support or friendship. We have a confidence in what the Christian faith and the circumstances of our own lives would have us do.
But when it’s night, when it’s blindingly dark, when we are disoriented and surrounded only by voices and fragments of voices, ones which are not always kind, then we can do no work. We can no longer walk. We can no longer move and do or impact much of anything. We are resigned, perhaps, to hunger, abandonment, weakness—to passivity.
“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (9:4). No one, that is, except the Son of God.
We read a good example of this a couple weeks ago when we read the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. John’s Gospel makes a point of letting us know that it’s night time when Nicodemus goes to visit Jesus. We feel Nicodemus’ confusion as he wrestles with what Jesus’ presence means. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God” (9:2). But Jesus’ presence doesn’t chime with what all of Nicodemus’ peers are telling him. Nicodemus is in the dark. He misunderstands Jesus again and again, and finally says, “How can these things be?” (3:9). It’s like his conversation with Jesus has eclipsed all that he thought he knew, as though Jesus has drawn a shade across his mind.
Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel (3:10), and so John is concerned to show us that if Nicodemus is to see the true light of God, which is coming into the world—if he is going to behold that light, he must first pass through his own ignorance, really feel it. Bump into things. Rely on a power outside of himself, rely on someone else for direction. He must, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “go by a way which is the way of ignorance.”
Unlike our blind man today, those of us who naturally assume we see everything clearly must first become blind. Our passage today concludes with Jesus challenging the Pharisees, many of whom were Nicodemus’ peers, by saying “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:41).
No one, especially Pharisees like Nicodemus, can work in the dark—no one except, that is, the Son of God. Nicodemus doesn’t realize it, but he’s changed, through no power of his own, by his encounter with Jesus. In chapter seven, some of the Pharisees want to lay hold of Jesus and arrest him because so many people are claiming he is the Messiah. But Nicodemus raises a question to his peers: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:50).
This is no declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, nor is it a decisive break with the rest of the Pharisees. But there’s something new and unshakeable present in Nicodemus. God has worked some mysterious increment of change in Nicodemus’ soul. There’s a bit more courage there, a bit more justice. It’s a little bit of what we see in Neville Longbottom at the end of the first Harry Potter book, when Neville tries to stop Harry and Ron and Hermione from sneaking out again and getting Gryffindor into more trouble. Like Neville in The Sorcerer’s Stone, Nicodemus isn’t exactly a main character, so we don’t pay much attention to him. But if we look carefully we see that he grows stronger, he sees more clearly, as the story progresses.
When Jesus is crucified, it is Nicodemus who goes with Joseph of Arimathea to collect Jesus’ body, to anoint it with myrrh and aloe, and to prepare Jesus for a proper burial (19:38-42).
The point is this: it is night when Nicodemus meets Jesus. Nicodemus is in the dark literally and figuratively. He is not in control; he is confused; his world is changing; and he can’t tell up from down. Like our blind man in our passage today, he is passive and unaware of the power of God until after the presence of God in Christ acts on him. Neither Nicodemus, nor the blind man today, knows what is happening. Nicodemus hears Jesus’ strange words. The blind man hears Jesus spit on the ground and then feels him spread mud on his eyes. Yet each, in the deepest of midnights, is changed in ways for which he could not have asked.
I call our attention to all of this passive dimension of the Christian life for two reasons. The first is that for us here in a state capital in the most powerful country in the world, we like winners. We like people who succeed. We value action, decisiveness, productivity, the kind of leadership that knows what needs to be done and who can do the job. None of that is bad. It’s just not a full picture. The wilderness of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the darkness of John—these icons of the passive dimension of our faith, they challenge the extent to which we value success, both our own and others. The wilderness, our own experiences of darkness—they keep us from closing our doors to people who aren’t successful, who aren’t movers and shakers, who lack any obvious utility. Folks who are followers and not leaders, folks who are lost, folks who are all out of cards to play, folks without social capital: the folks Matthew calls “the meek” and “the poor in spirit.”
The Church is the community in which these folks are given a safe space in which, like the blind man in our passage today, they may encounter the sudden and surprising presence of the God who returns them to the land of light and peace, of stained glass colors and hot food. The Church is the community in which these folks may, like Nicodemus, slowly and fitfully discover that the light of God has been slowly growing in them all the while, though they knew it not. The Church is the community in which these folks may remain and be treated with dignity, even if in this life, they never leave the dark nights in which they reside.
The second reason I call our attention to this passive dimension of the Christian life is because we are in Lent, and the observance of a holy Lent leads us to questions we cannot satisfyingly answer. Why fast? Why pray? Why must we return to dust? There are no final answers to those questions, at least none we can package into words. We simply give ourselves over to them, fasting and praying anyway, trusting that even our own mortality does not fall beyond the light of God. It’s a bit as though in Lent we’re like small children learning the alphabet: we have only the vaguest idea that this “A is for apple” flashcard is somehow connected with that mysterious power the adults call “reading,” and that if we are ever to attain this power we must accept with humility and repentance the fact that we may never be told why “pterodactyl” begins with the letter “p.”
Like the language we speak, we did not invent the religion we inhabit. We should not expect to know exactly why we worship or why we fast before we do so, but only after. We don’t know what beautiful and shattering vision of God led the saints to live and die as they did. We have only the vaguest idea that this bit of bread and sip of wine is somehow connected with that mysterious oneness with God the Christians call holiness, and that if ever we are to attain that holiness we must accept with humility and repentance the fact that we may never be told why preparation for Easter begins with ashes, prayer and fasting.
In short, like the blind man in our gospel, who hears only the voice of a stranger and then feels the strange sensation of muddy spit smeared on his eyes—we are passive and without understanding until after. And even then, we can only say what happened, not how or why, but only, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes…and [I] received my sight” (9:11). Maybe for you, it sounds like this: “I don’t know how I ever made it through that divorce. But here I am.” Or maybe, “I’ll never know how we survived on so little money. All I know is that even though we lost that beautiful house, we never missed a meal.”
Or how none of us in this room was there when Jesus was crucified. And nobody was with his body in the tomb after the stone was rolled in front of it, sealing it closed. None of us was there, in that particular darkness, the utter pitch-black from which, somehow, he rose, privately and alone, folding his burial clothes and laying them neatly on the corner of the stone slab. None of us knows exactly what happened in that tomb. All we know is that “On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread. And when he had given thanks for it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you.’” We just know that it happened. And so we do this, a little passively, in remembrance of a past we did not create, awaiting a future for whose brightness we could never have dared to hope.