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This Dark Night

The Reverend John Leedy

March 8, 2020
John 3:1-17

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This Dark Night Sermon John 3 Lent II March 8 2020

A Reading from the Gospel of John

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘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.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Nicodemus can’t sleep. He lets out a bone deep sigh and rolls onto his back, staring up at the ceiling with wide, restless eyes. For weeks he’s been tossing and turning, unable to wind down – unable to shake the words of that upstart rabbi from Galilee.

Nicodemus gives up. Another sleepless night. His arthritic joints crackle in protest as he heaves up out of bed. He pads to the living room and switches on the TV – some old Nick at Night rerun flares to life. He ignores it. He stares out the window, into this dark night.  He thinks back to the first time he met Jesus, heard him speak, addressing a whole crowd of folks like he was a candidate in the Sanhedrin primaries. His words, familiar yet so totally wrong – like a lullaby sung off key. In one breath he quotes Moses and the prophets; in the next he’s wrapping their sacred words around this “kingdom of God” stuff. And then there’s all this born-again nonsense.

Who would have thought that this good Jewish boy from a hillbilly family in Nazareth would end up as the world’s first Southern Baptist preacher? What was wrong with this guy?

Nicodemus snaps out of it. Forget Jesus for a second, what was wrong with him? What was it about Jesus that kept stirring him up, keeping him awake at night? Nicodemus stares back at his pale reflection in the darkened window. “Fear,” his heart replied to Nicodemus’ unspoken question. “You’re afraid.”

Boy do I get Nicodemus. This guy is the patron saint of John Leedys everywhere. This is totally my M O. I hear something, I see something, something happens during the day, and that something just burrows down in my head and waits there, biding its time until that magical moment – that moment right before I drift off to sleep – when it snaps back out like a rattlesnake.

Bang! Political anxiety!

Bang! Climate Change!

Bang! Cool idea for a sermon on insomnia.

Bang! Coronavirus!

Why do brains do this? And why do they have to do this right as we’re trying to get to sleep?

I think that’s why I love this story of Nicodemus so much. There’s that line in there, right at the beginning. So brief it’s almost a throw away, “He came to Jesus by night.” That’s odd. We don’t get a lot of references to things happening at night in the Bible. Some, but not many.

Last week I asked my friend, Senior Rabbi Alan Freedman about it. “Why does Nicodemus go to Jesus at night? Why include that detail in the story? What’s going on in the world of Nicodemus that necessitates this nighttime conversation with Jesus?” Rabbi Freedman replied, “I think he’s curious. And a little fearful. The things Nicodemus says to Jesus make me think that he heard something Jesus said, and it got under his skin. And I think he goes to Jesus at night because he’s afraid of missing something real.”

What if this life you promise, this eternal life, what if it’s real? What if these things you say about God so loving the world that God’s only son would be sent to save it – what if it’s true? What does it mean that such salvation could be offered to me, in my old age? To be born of water and the Spirit? This fear, this curiosity, this anxiety is keeping me up at night. Help me understand.

I was at a youth ministry conference a few weeks ago where I was introduced to a brief YouTube video posted in 2014 that has over 41 million views. The video is called “How Wolves Change Rivers” and talks about the scientific discovery of something called trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process that starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom. The video goes on to illustrate this concept using the story of when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 after being hunted to extinction in the park lands 70 years earlier. People fear wolves. Wolves kill things – animals, livestock, people. They hunt in packs and howl at the moon. Wolves are apex predators and present a challenge to the ranking members of the food chain, you and me.

So of course people fear wolves. But due to the advancements in ecological and environmental research, the decision was made to reintroduce a small pack of wolves into the Yellowstone Lamar Valley in 1995. The YouTube video goes on to explain how the deer population in Yellowstone had built up over the years due to the lack of natural predators, and had managed to devastate the native vegetation in the Lamar Valley. But as soon as the wolves were reintroduced, even though they were few in number, they began to have the most remarkable effects.

First off, the wolves killed some of the deer. But that’s not the most important thing. The presence of the wolves radically changed the behavior of the deer, the deer started avoiding places where they could easily be trapped, the valleys and the gorges, and immediately those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled over just six years, and as soon as the trees came back, the songbirds and migratory birds came back too. Then, with all these new trees, the number of beavers began to grow. Beavers are ecological engineers, creating niches for all sorts of species. The dams they built created havens for otters and muskrats and ducks and fish and frogs.

The wolves also killed coyotes, which meant the number of rabbits and mice began to grow, which prompted the return of foxes, weasels, badgers, hawks, and eagles. The number of bears began to grow too, feeding off the fish and berries now in abundance.

And here’s where the trophic cascade gets really interesting. The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. The rivers began to meander less, there was less erosion, more pools formed – the rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason is that the regenerating forests stabilized the riverbanks making them run deeper, truer in their courses. So the wolves, though small in number, not only transformed the ecosystem of the park, but also, its physical geography. This is trophic cascade, and I can’t help but think it’s why Nicodemus got out of bed that night.

What is it that keeps you up at night? What is it that haunts the edges of curiosity and fear? And what if, instead of running from it, you flipped the script and introduced it? You, being at the top of the food chain. You, having the most potential to effect change in this world. What if you tipped off a trophic cascade of change that could not only alter the ecosystem of living beings around you, but repaired the breaches, the very streets we live in? What if instead of fighting against your fear, you leaned into fear to make a difference?

Small example. We have a graffiti problem in the back alley of the church and God bless Frank Adkins for heading out there with a can of paint every month to paint over the mess. Frank and I were talking about what to do about the growing problem out there, discussing more security cameras and graffiti resistant paint. I think electric fencing may have been bandied about. Then I remembered the video. “Frank, I think we need to introduce wolves.” I, of course, was speaking metaphorically, and poor Frank, who hadn’t yet seen the video, thought I had finally gone round the bend.

What would happen, if, instead of endlessly fighting a losing battle against graffiti on the church, we leaned into it, welcomed it, introduced it. What if we created a giant blank canvas back there, put up a sign that said “Community Graffiti Wall. Don’t draw dirty stuff or gang signs. Enjoy!” and we set out a box of spray paint and walked away. Sure, we’d probably have to paint over some dirty stuff, but then one day we show up and a homeless street kid has spray painted something beautiful. And beauty calls out to beauty, and someone else adds their art, and another and another. Art begins to overlap art. And art humanizes us. Perhaps the homeless people hanging out on the corner start looking more and more like… people, with stories and needs and hearts just like ours. And perhaps that helps us be better neighbors, coming a peg down on the food chain and meeting them where they are.

In the ten minutes Frank and I talked about this idea, four minutes of which was spent watching a YouTube video to prove I wasn’t really thinking about unleashing wolves in West campus, we came up with about ten different positive impacts that such a small change might introduce in our neighborhood. And again, this is a small example.

There are a million things to fear out there and yes, there are a million great ideas that can speak hope into those fears. But the world will not be saved by great ideas. The world will be saved by great love – a love that starts with you and me actually, physically making a change. Trophic cascades and resistance are complementary forces that have the power to radically reshape our world when fueled by love. There are things we should always resist.

We should always resist evil things. But just because we fear something doesn’t make it evil. Just because we fear wolves doesn’t make them evil. Just because we fear the other, the homeless, the stranger doesn’t make them evil. Just because we fear discomfort and disagreement doesn’t make those things evil. What if the things we fear actually have the power to disrupt ecosystems of evil and restore the balance of justice and peace? Yes, there are times to protest, to stand up, to resist. And then there are times to unleash the wolves.

It’s not just wolves you know. People also fear snakes. Jesus reminds us of this, of an old story in the Hebrew Scriptures where the Israelites wandering in the wilderness were set upon by venomous snakes. Moses crafted a serpent out of bronze and lifted it high on a pole, and all who looked upon that thing they feared, that thing which offered the possibility of death and destruction, all those who looked upon it were healed, were saved.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him, sees him, leans into the pain of the cross and the fear of suffering and the sure and certain death that awaits us all, may have eternal life. Nicodemus can’t sleep. He’s curious and he’s afraid. But instead of tamping down his curiosity and fighting against his fear, he leans into it, introduces it, stares it right in the eye, rather, into his eyes.

What keeps you up at night? And how might that help bring about the restorative work of God in the world?

I want to close with one of my favorite poems called The Wolf at Two A.M. by David Markwardt.

Snapped awake
hail him with a smile and a slap on his frizzled back.
He has come to remind–
anxiety is a favorite cousin of being alive.
Breathe his hot breath till it blends your own.
Ask permission to lick his snout.
Will he cower you into terror?
Will he tear you to shreds?
Escort him to your kitchen.
Whip up a meal,
whatever he wants.
When you can look
unflinching in his piercing eyes,
when so close you see his jagged teeth are your edge, you are close.
Open a bottle of wine.
Toast, clink glasses, laugh.
Belly laugh until dawn’s breaking light.
If not this dark night then another.


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