John 3:1-9 “Questions in the Moonlight”
It always goes the same way for me. The Saturday evening when Day Light Savings time is about to end feels like a luxury. I set the clocks in my house back before heading to bed, reveling in the fact that an extra hour of sleep is heading my way. Then in the morning I am thrilled to see the sky lightning earlier than it was the day before, and coupled with that wonderful feeling of having slept in – that morning and day are a joy. But, inevitably, every year I am startled by how early it gets dark in the afternoon. I realize, too late, that my living room lights, which are on a timer, are keeping me in the dark because I forgot to adjust them. As I sit down for dinner, I have trouble adjusting to the darkness outside – when just a day before there was still some waning light in the sky.
Here in the northern hemisphere, we are in the time of lengthening night. Until the winter solstice passes right before Christmas, our days will get progressively darker, the sun will spend less time shining its light – taking its time rising in the morning and too quickly passing below the horizon each afternoon. And even after the solstice passes and the daylight begins to lengthen, it will do so slowly.
I normally struggle with the darkness of the winter months. I would long for the leisurely days of summer, and I imagine many of you are wondering about what it will mean to head into a long, dark winter in the midst of a pandemic, especially when so many of the traditional gatherings we mark our winter with will be dramatically different. I have been wondering and worrying about that as well. But, a few nights ago while lying in bed, I noticed a shaft of gentle light coming through my window. I was embraced in moonlight, which was soft and comforting. It was a light that didn’t demand action, but rather rest and reflection. Lying in that peaceful light, I began to realize that as 2020 comes to a close, I am eager to end this tumultuous year embraced in the gentle light of the moon, instead of the frantic light of the sun. My Beloved Community, as this year comes to a close, we need to rest – and God’s Creation is encouraging us to do just that.
This year has demanded so much attention, so much energy. Starting with the early days of the pandemic, we didn’t know what to do to keep ourselves and neighbors safe, and it felt like the advice was changing so fast we couldn’t keep up. Parents all of the sudden had children at home, forced to try to find the impossible balance between work and school. Travel plans, concerts, gatherings were cancelled over night – and we had to spend time navigating websites to get information and refunds. We all had to learn how to use new technology to stay connected – and each piece of new tech brought new things to learn and obstacles to overcome. And just when we felt we had the health advice figured out and the technology was cooperating, came the death of George Floyd – and once again we were asking questions, wondering what to do, how to respond. There were calls for action, constant reminders of our own complicity, and a grappling with racism that was far too long in coming. And our summer of unrest rolled right into the height of the most challenging and emotional election of most of our lives.
And on top of the national struggles, we have each had to contend with upheaval in our personal lives. Friends and family dying – sometimes without the ability to gather to grieve. Weddings postponed or drastically pared back. Cultural events cancelled. Vacations changed. Relationships strained because of the political divide.
2020 has been a year of harsh sunlight. It has been too much, too exhausting, too frightening. But it must not be a year that is lost and forgotten. There have been important lessons to be learned and reflected on. 2020 has been a year of harsh sunlight, but now in the increasing moonlight, we can rest our bodies and ask our questions.
That is why I have returned to the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. We have actually heard this scripture before this year – way back on March 8th – which, incidentally, was the 2nd to the last in-person service we had. Things became…hectic…that week as news unfolded and big decisions were made. But, I want to return to this text again because there is something reflective in it. In March I pointed to this text because it calls people to grapple with the hard questions of faith and action. Nicodemus is trying to understand the lessons of Jesus – he keeps asking for clarification, trying to understand what Jesus is teaching. Their conversation doesn’t end in perfect clarity, but it lingers for Nicodemus. And as the Gospel of John continues, Nicodemus appears two more times: confronting the hypocrisy of his fellow Pharisees in their questioning of Jesus, and finally after the crucifixion. It was Nicodemus in who asked for Jesus’ body so it could be properly buried. Their conversation didn’t end in perfect understanding, but it clearly led to deeper thought and reflection for Nicodemus.
It was a middle of the night conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. Some believe, and it is likely true, that Nicodemus had to come to Jesus under the cover of darkness because he could not be seen with him. As a Pharisee, a leader of the Jewish faith, it would have been detrimental to his career and standing amongst other religious leaders to be seen engaged in deep conversation with Jesus – not the hostile questioning others of his order were doing. But – I also think that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night because it is in the night when people so often open themselves up to the big questions.
Back in March I referred to these middle of the night meetings as 2am conversations. These are the conversations that prompt deep and important wondering. The questions that are posed to lovers lying in bed with us. The questions we ask of a dear friend who you have sat up all night talking to. The questions posed to a stranger on red-eye flight. These are the questions and conversations that often don’t work in the harsh light of the sun, but under the protective softness of moonlight – they feel safe and vital.
Nicodemus went to Jesus not in the daylight, but in the moonlight. He was seeking understanding. He was hoping for clarity. He needed to ask his questions, to wonder aloud, to open himself to where God was leading him. “How can these things be?” he asks Jesus.
“How can these things be?” Perhaps, as 2020 comes to a close, as our days become shorter and we spend more time in the protective softness of moonlight – we can ask ourselves, we can ask God this question, and all of the other questions we have been confronted with this year. “How can these things be?” “Where is God in the midst of it?” “How have I changed?” “What have I learned?” “What do I want to remember?” “What must I confront so I can begin to heal?” These are the questions best posed in moonlight.
My Beloved Community, so many of us have agitated spirits. Let us rest our spirits in the moonlight at the close of this year. Let us rest our spirits and turn our attention, not to action, but to reflection. Let us seek God in the darkness, which is not empty, but is filled with points of light that do not hurt our eyes, but rather lead us to wonder.
Let us pray
God of the day and God of the night – your Holy Creation has created rhythms that help us move from work to rest. In the sunlight we can see where our action is required, the path you are calling us to travel to make real your Kingdom here amongst us. We give you great thanks for that sunlight, for we know that you desire to be partners with us in the active work of our faith.
But, you have also created the quiet and gentle moonlight, that softens the edges of this world. In that moonlight you call us to rest, to rest our bodies and rest our spirits. It is in those moments of rest that we can begin to open our minds and hearts to your quiet, still-speaking voice. We can ask our questions and wonder, “How can these things be?” In these days of lengthening moonlight – we give great thanks for the quiet.
As we begin to ask our questions and open ourselves to you, we also turn our hearts to the practice of prayer – lifting aloud and in the silence of our hearts all of those cares we are carrying within us.
We pray for those who are sick and caring for those who are sick.
We pray for those whose lives have once again become increasingly disrupted by the unrelenting pandemic.
We pray for parents and children – navigating work, home, and school.
We pray for our country and its leaders – and ask that you fill their hearts with reminders of grace, love, and justice.
We pray for our neighbors and our strangers – and ask that you hear their prayers.
And we pray for ourselves, trusting that you hear our deepest needs.
We pray always in the name of Jesus Christ – our teacher and guide. The one whom listens to our wonders in the soft moonlight, and who taught us to pray together by saying…Our Father…