March 19, 2023
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Light of the World —Rev. Brent Gundlah

This year’s switch to Daylight Savings Time hit me pretty hard. Truth be told, that whole spring ahead thing has never been easy for me, but it’s been markedly tougher since I became a minister. When that dreaded Sunday morning in March rolls around now, I can’t just hit the snooze button and sleep in like I used to; and I definitely can’t skip church anymore.  

I was so worried about oversleeping last Sunday, in fact, that my circadian rhythms decided to take the morning off, allowing my overanxious internal clock to wake me up extra early. So there I was, eyes wide open, at 5:30am which, of course, was really 4:30am — don’t you just love it when people incessantly remind you of that fact during the first days of Daylight Savings Time?

As I ate my bowl of Cheerios, it was dark outside; as I read the Sunday Tribune, it was dark outside; as I got dressed, it was dark outside; and as I got in the car to drive here, it was still a little dark outside — and this was kind of depressing. But it wasn’t altogether bad — After all, the world can be a quiet and peaceful place in the wee small hours of the morning. And besides, that early darkness made me appreciate the light later that evening even more.

I guess what I’m saying is that this particular first day of Daylight Savings Time helped me to understand better that the light and the dark, even though they may sometimes seem like polar opposites, are actually constantly held in tension; they are always engaged in a curious relationship of give-and-take.

But today’s short passage from the Letter to the Ephesians makes it sound so much simpler. The apostle Paul often gets credit for writing it, but no one’s ever been able to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that he actually did. Whoever wrote it tried awfully hard to sound like Paul, and they did a pretty good job of that, which is what really matters, I suppose.

Paul is constantly encouraging the church communities to which he writes (the Corinthians, the Thessalonians, the Galatians — and some other “ians”) to be more like Christ. In this short passage from this short letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses the contrast between light and dark to make that point efficiently (which is great because in some other letters Paul writes as if he’s getting paid by the word). Here Jesus is described as light: we should live in that light because that light is good, and we shouldn’t dwell in the darkness because darkness is bad.      

The idea of Jesus being the light that we should worship and seek to emulate was widely understood in the early church; it comes up here and in the Gospels too. John tells us that Jesus proclaimed, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Matthew goes in a slightly different direction when he recounts that Jesus once told the crowd, “You are the light of the world.”

Merge these two gospel perspectives together and you get the basic premise of our passage from Ephesians — Jesus is light, and you are too (well, at least you ought to be, and you should try to be). It sounds so straightforward: focus on the light, and disregard the darkness. But, in reality, it’s not that simple because reality rarely is that simple.

Darkness and light, day and night, are integral parts of our daily existence, albeit to varying degrees. On Tuesday, the respective travels of the earth and the sun will give us equal measures of both for the briefest of times, but that relationship between the two will ebb and flow as it always does. And our lives and perspectives are constantly adapting to the interplay between them. 

Do I enjoy taking my dog for a walk on a cold, dark winter’s evening? No. But I don’t exactly relish the idea of doing so when it’s 107 degrees and sunny either. Do I fancy a late afternoon hike around Silver Lake in the dog days of August more than I do shoveling snow? Sure. But I also appreciate the chance to curl up under a blanket on the couch to read a book at 4:30 on a Sunday during the long nights of January instead of having to go outside and mow the lawn.

My feelings about the light and the dark are ambivalent, as things in this life can often be; my track record with each of them isn’t unequivocally good or bad, it’s generally some measure of both. Our experiences of the darkness always relate to, inform and impact our experiences of the light, and vice versa.

I made up my mind a few weeks ago that I would write a reflection this passage from Ephesians today even though I had never done so before. I figured, “What the heck, things are pretty quiet around church during Lent and I’ll probably have ample free time to try something new.” In hindsight, I now realize that this might not have been such a great idea.

So I did what ministers generally do in such a situation: I grabbed my study Bible and a bunch of background materials on Ephesians and got to work. It was pretty early in the morning, though, and I so I eased into the process slowly. Rather than read a dry academic commentary on the passage that was a hundred times longer than the passage itself, I did what people often do in this day and age — I listened to a podcast.

It’s one that I’ve subscribed to for many years now, hosted by two pastors from Illinois who discuss and reflect on the lectionary texts for a given week. But when I went looking for this week’s edition I discovered that it hadn’t been released yet (that’s what I get for trying to get an early start, I suppose). All I could find was the one from this week back in 2020 which, as it just so happens, was recorded during the earliest days of the pandemic. And listening to it sent shivers down my spine.

They talked about the small, but concerning, number of COVID cases that had been identified in and around Chicago over the preceding week (which was less than 100 amongst a population of about ten million); they spoke with guarded optimism about the efforts to stop the spread of the disease before it got completely out of hand (remember that “two weeks to stop the spread” campaign?); they discussed cancelling in-person worship for a few weeks in the hopes of re-opening in time for Easter. They had absolutely no idea what they were in for — what we all were in for. Suffice it to say, we learned a lot over the three years that followed, much of it bad and some of it good.

As we heard every single day about the countless people who were getting sick and the staggering numbers of them who were dying, we witnessed advances in medicine happen at almost unimaginable speed.

As COVID cases increased geometrically across the globe in a matter of weeks, we came to understand just how interconnected our world really is.

As fear and despair (and maybe even a little bit of hope) became common denominators for all humanity, we were reminded just how easily we can fall back into divisive and harmful ways of thinking and speaking and being — “us versus them” and “mine versus yours” and “personal freedom versus collective responsibility” — right when the you-know-what hits the fan and we need each other the most.

As we huddled in our homes — alone or with family — and dealt with the stress of isolation, we found different ways to be in community and developed a new appreciation for actually being in community — an experience that we had often taken for granted (and one that we will hopefully never take for granted again).

As we look back over the past three years, let’s reap something positive from all that we’ve witnessed and endured; let’s consider the ways in which we’ve become individually and collectively enlightened amidst the undeniable darkness of the world; and let’s use what we’ve learned during this three-year long night to make the world a better place.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. He took a loaf of bread and after giving thanks to God, he broke it and gave it to his disciples. He said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

And after supper Jesus took the cup of wine; and after giving thanks, gave it to them and said, “Drink this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, remember me.

Do this in remembrance of me. Remember me. Remember all of me.

Remember the good times and the not-so-good times. Remember the joys and the sorrows. Remember the incredible ministry we did together and the terrible tragedy of the cross. Remember the light and darkness, because they are inseparable — they inform each other and they have much to teach you.

After all, does the light of Easter really hold the same meaning without the long, dark journey of Lent that leads us to it? And what would Lent be like without Easter to look forward to?