Lent 4A

March 24, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 9:1-41

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    1 Samuel 16:1-13

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 23

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Ephesians 5:8-14

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    As the frightful weather outside in this winter of 2014 turns into a hopefully milder spring, our Lenten meditations take a turn as well.  For the first three Sundays of Lent, we’ve been focusing on the work of Christ.  Readings from Romans, strangely out of order, have helped us think about the benefits of his death and, to a lesser degree, his resurrection.  Now, this reading from Ephesians turns our attention to our response to Christ’s work.  We move here from the indicative of Lent to the imperative.  Because of what Christ has done, here’s what we must do.

    Paul begins with an indicative that poetically summarizes all that Christ has done for us and how that has changed the reality of our lives.  “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”  Those words reminded me of the ancient Easter hymn, “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain.”

    “’Tis the spring of soul’s today; Christ hath burst death’s prison

    And from three days sleep in death, as a sun hath risen.

    All the winter of our sins, long and dark is flying

    From his light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.”

    I know, it’s not Easter yet on the liturgical calendar, but the early Christians lived everyday in the post-Resurrection reality of a changed life.  So do we.  The Son has risen, and that changed everything for us.   “For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”   Now live that way.

                The darkness/light comparison is quite common in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John and in Paul’s letters.  The darkness signifies sin, both its realm and its power.  The natural person loves darkness more than the light.  Those who live in darkness must grope through life without the light of God’s revelation.  Their future will be a continuation of darkness, but to an even greater degree.  Jesus spoke of the outer darkness.  Believers in Christ were formerly held in sway by the dark power of sin and approved of those who practiced sinful deeds of darkness.

    Now, because the Risen Christ is the light of the world, those who follow him not only walk in the light, but are the light.  That is a very striking way of putting it.  In his very next words, Paul will lay a whole series of imperatives on these believers, but he starts with this indicative.  You are different now.  You are light, in the Lord, in Jesus.  As always, the Christian faith roots all of the ethical imperatives of life in the life changing work of Jesus.  Take away the reality of Christ’s work, and the Christian life becomes a forced march filled with duties to perform. Root the Christian life in Christ’s work, and life becomes a delightful walk through God’s garden, bearing fruit.

    Those are exactly the images Paul evokes by his choice of words.  Live is really walk (peripateo in the Greek, walk around).  And walking “as children of the light” amounts to bearing “the fruit of the light.”  Isn’t that an interesting expression!?  Paul might not have known about photosynthesis, but he knew that light is essential to plant growth.  Without light, there will be no fruit on an apple tree.  The light of Christ is essential to bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

    Note the kind of fruit the children of the light are expected to produce: goodness, righteousness, and truth.  Those are general ethical terms, comprehensive virtues, not a list of rules and regulations.  Each of us has to figure out the details of life with the guidance of the Spirit; “and find out what pleases the Lord.”  That’s not easy; indeed, the word find out is dokimadzentes, which has to do with testing, proving, carefully scrutinizing.  A detailed list of admonitions and prohibitions might fit the first century, but the twenty-first century presents a new set of moral challenges.  Paul could never have imagined the choices presented by genetic engineering or the openness of the Internet.  So, we must deliberately and carefully figure out what pleases the Lord in this new day, following the general guidelines of goodness, righteousness, and truth.

    Lest we think that such generic moral advice throws the door open to all kinds of moral laxity, Paul reminds us that we are light, children of light, who must bear the fruit of light.  If that isn’t strong enough, he lays down an absolute prohibition.  “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.”  Paul doesn’t name those shameful secret deeds of darkness here, but in the context (from 4:17-6:9) he is pretty specific about how goodness, righteousness and truth should be lived.  In the verses immediately before our text, he talks explicitly about sexual sins, so it is probable that he had in mind such secret sins committed in the darkness.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless (the Greek connotes corruption and rottenness) works of darkness.

    Instead, we must expose such deeds.  The word “expose” is elengcho, which has the sense of question or cross-examine and then to expose and rebuke.  This word evokes all kinds of negative memories for me.  I see a young unmarried couple forced to stand up in church and confess the sexual sin that had resulted in pregnancy and a shotgun marriage.  I hear my upright Christian neighbors loudly telling their un-churched neighbors that they shouldn’t violate the Sabbath by cutting their lawn on Sunday.   I think of the well-deserved reputation we conservative Christians have for narrow-mindedness, self-righteousness and judgmentalism.

    In this era of tolerance and relativity, how in the world are supposed to expose the deeds of darkness that flourish all around us?  Well, we must understand first of all that Paul is not talking about exposing the deeds of unbelievers.  In I Cor. 5:9-12 Paul could not be clearer.  “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of the world…. In that case you would have to leave this world.  But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother, but is sexually immoral…. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?  Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside.”

    Paul is talking here about dealing with fellow Christians, folks who are light, but who are now walking in the darkness by performing the fruitless deeds of darkness.  In secret these disobedient believers do the same things the unbelievers do.  You must expose them and rebuke them.

    How are we to do that?  By living such lives of goodness, righteousness, and truth that their dark ways are naturally revealed?  That would be nice, and easy.  We would never have to confront anyone or say anything to anyone.  I’ll just live my life the right way and that will help others come to the light.  But that doesn’t seem to be the meaning of elengcho.  Paul is talking here about caring enough to confront, loving a sister or brother so much that you shine your goodness, righteousness, and truth into the dark places in their life.

    Now, of course, we must remember Jesus’ stern words about the speck and the beam, about being judged by the same measure with which we judge, about the one without sin casting the first stone, etc.  But this text calls us to break the code of silence, to violate the vow of secrecy, to bring light into the darkness, because we love our fellow Christians.

    Verses 13 and 14 emphasize that loving motive. Admittedly, these two verses are ferociously difficult to interpret.  In part that’s because they seem to say something so obvious that it doesn’t need saying.  Indeed, they don’t seem to say anything.  “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible….”  Well, duh!  “[for] it is light that makes everything visible.”  No kidding!  But think of it this way.  By being exposed to the light, our deeds become visible to ourselves and we can repent of them.  Without the light of goodness, righteousness, and truth, we don’t know ourselves.  And if we don’t know ourselves, we can’t repent and come (back) to Christ.

    In the Gospel reading for today, we have the story of the man born blind.  He can’t see anything.  He never has.  Then Jesus heals him and he says, “Once I was blind but now I can see.”  That’s us.  The god of this world has blinded us to the truth about ourselves.  We are in the dark about our sins; we don’t see them as sins.  In our text, Paul is calling the church to help disobedient, darkened brothers and sisters come to the point where they can say, “Once I was blind, but now I can see.”

    An alternate interpretation of the first part of verse 14 helps make sense of these difficult words.  Instead of “for it is light that makes everything visible,” read it as “for everything that becomes visible is light.”  If the latter is right, then it means that bringing the light to the darkness of a fellow believer will not only expose his sin, but will also turn him back to the light.  When he sees his sin in the clear light of Christ, he will once again become light, a child of the light bearing fruit of the light.  Your light will transform his darkness.  What a wondrous thing that would be!   As James 5:19, 20 says, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

    No wonder Paul ends this difficult section with an ancient hymn heavily influenced by Isaiah 26:19 and 60:1,2.  “This is why it is said, ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”  These hard words about exposing the dark deeds of the disobedience were not designed to produce a church filled with finger pointing busybodies who are always sticking their noses into other people’s private business.  His words are designed to wake people up from their spiritual slumber, to rise from the dark places into which they have sunk in their laziness, and experience again the light of Christ’s favor.  All of us can change, develop, and grow the fruit of light so that we please God.  But sometimes we’ll have to shine the light into dark places to make that happen.  Calvin summed it up this way:  “The faithful are called light, both because they have the true light in them, which enlightens them, and also because they give light to others, insomuch that their honest conversation reproves the life of wicked men.”

    We’ll have to be very careful how we do that.  We can take a hint from that word dokimadzo.  It suggests that we will have to scrutinize, test, prove, take pains to be sure that we are right.  And we’ll have to engage in profound self-examination, so that we are filled with grace.  That begins with the heartfelt confession, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Talk about a Lenten discipline!

    Illustration Idea

    The story of Hester Prynne painfully demonstrates the danger of obeying our text in the wrong way.  In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the heart-wrenching tale of a young woman in Puritan New England.  Hester Prynne is an unmarried woman who gets pregnant by a man she refuses to identify.  She is exposed, put up for public display in the town square, and forced to wear a big red letter A on her breast for the rest of her life, thus identifying her as an Adulteress.  There is no loving motivation, no attempt to bring her back into the light, just a concerted effort to shame her for her deed of darkness committed in secret.  That is not what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 5.  Hester Prynne could not rise from the dead so that Christ could shine on her again, because the “children of light” were really children of darkness.