Most of us see things every day, from the moment we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night. We look at everything around us using light. We appreciate kids' crayon drawings, fine oil paintings, swirling computer graphics, gorgeous sunsets, a blue sky, shooting stars and rainbows. We rely on our reflection in mirrors to make ourselves look presentable. Turn to someone next to you and ask them, “Do I look presentable this morning?” Yes…you certainly all look quite presentable today! Now turn back to them and say, “You look marvelous!”
Okay…so here’s the question. Have you ever stopped to think that when we see any of these things, even the person next to us, that we are not actually seeing them directly? We are, in fact, seeing light—light that has reflected from objects far or near to us and reached our eyes. Light is actually all that our eyes can see.
Now I am no scientist, and I certainly don’t completely comprehend the phenomenon that is light. But there are some interesting insights into light that can shed some “light” on the subject. So here’s your very short science lesson. Light is actually electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength that is sometimes visible to the eye. Although there are many dimensions of light, we only see a fraction of its spectrum. The fraction of its spectrum we can see with the naked eye is called visible light, and is seen in the colors of our prism this morning.
There are three basic dimensions of light. They are: Intensity, which is how we perceive the brightness of light, Frequency (or wavelength), which we perceive as the colors and Polarization (or angle of vibration), which is not perceivable by humans under ordinary circumstances.
We perceive the brightness, colors and the vibration of light through its properties of both particles and waves. From the time of the ancient Greeks, people have thought of light as a stream of tiny particles called photons. We don’t normally see these photons, but that is because they are too small or moving too fast. If we could see them with the naked eye, they probably look like something from Star Trek. If you are a Trekkie you might know what a photon torpedo is! It’s easier to understand the experience of light through its second property called waves. It’s helpful to think of light as a wave that we can see in the water. One key point to keep in mind about the water wave is that it is not made up of water: it is made up of energy traveling through the water. If a wave moves across a pool from left to right, this does not mean that the water on the left side of the pool is moving to the right side of the pool. The water has actually stayed about where it was. It is the wave that has moved. When you dive into a pool you make a wave, because you are putting your energy into the water. The energy travels through the water in the form of the wave.
All waves are traveling energy, and they are usually moving through some medium, such as water. Light waves are a little more complicated, for they don’t need a medium to travel through. They can even travel through a vacuum. A light wave consists of energy in the form of electric and magnetic fields. Light waves are waves of energy. The amount of energy in a light wave is related to its frequency: High frequency light has high energy; low frequency light has low energy. Thus gamma rays have the most energy, and radio waves have the least.
Of visible light, violet has the most energy and red the least. Any light that you see is made up of a collection of one or more of these photons circulating through space as electromagnetic waves. If you look around you right now, there is a light source in the room producing photons, and all the objects in the room reflect those photons. Your eyes absorb some of the photons flowing through the room, and that is how you see. (science.howstuffworks.com/light.htm)
Whew! I feel like I am back in science class. So what does this all have to do with our Gospel text this morning? I thought by talking about the scientific properties of light, we might be able to make sense of the theological aspects of light in scripture. Is it possible? Is there a connection? If we believe that God is the creator of all things, then the presumption is, yes. We can begin to understand God when we embrace science, and the reality of our cosmos. So let me set the context for enlightening our scripture with science.
This week's text is at the tail end of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. You might remember the character of Nicodemus. He is presented to us as a leading member of the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, something like a professor of theology or a religious judge who has come to see Jesus in the middle of the night to discuss things. Now many of us know the story of Nicodemus quite well. And it’s from this dialogue that we get a quote from Jesus that has become the very core, the crux, if you will, of the Christian experience. Of course I’m referring to John 3:16. I put it on the screen for you in the translation of the Message so we can refer to it. Why did Jesus say this? What exactly did he mean?
Nicodemus apparently comes to Jesus because he appears to be troubled by what Jesus has been saying and doing. He invites Jesus to come to his home in the middle of the night, out of view from his religious colleagues, so he could question him, get into a debate. Nicodemus wants some sign that Jesus really is from God and that the things he is saying and doing are true. Yet nothing Jesus seems to say is getting through to Nicodemus. And Jesus continues to frame his discussion in metaphors that perhaps Nicodemus might understand. He likens the Spirit of God to the wind. That in order to make sense of God you must be born from above, reborn into a spiritual consciousness. Jesus tells him, you're going to have to decide whether or not you want to debate what I am about or start living the way I lived. The people who live life like I am do so in the light, where everything they do and are can be understood, is authentic if you will, to their real self. The people who don't are the people who stick to the shadows. It is the way it is, says Jesus. Those who love the light are not afraid of being seen for who and what they are. Those who live in darkness resist being their authentic selves. They are imprisoned by their inauthenticity.
Now we know from other passages in this gospel that John was writing to a Jewish Christian sect that still maintained its primary identity within larger Judaism. At the time John wrote these words, these Jewish followers of Christ were being persecuted and expelled from the only religious home they had ever known, the synagogue. The message that John was conveying through Jesus was not about Jew versus Christian. It was about the kind of discrimination and persecution that goes on within religious communities. He's talking about the kind of evil that gets perpetrated by religious people against their own kind. In fact, even today we know what kinds of cruel things religious people are capable of doing to each other. The story of Jesus and Nicodemus is not a story about a private religious experience. It's about the radical protestor that Christ was and is against the evil we do to one another in the name of religion. Jesus is saying if you are going to trust God, then you have to be prepared to step fully into the light. You must embrace the light of God who loves the whole world—especially those who don’t believe the same as you do. Neither Jesus nor John was interested in establishing a belief system to be the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. They were more concerned about how we might recognize the spectrum of God’s love and embrace for all humanity? What are God’s true colors?
And now, perhaps our scientific understanding of light can inform us. Remember the three dimensions of light—intensity, frequency and polarization—so too is our experience of God multi-dimensional.
The first dimension is intensity; or how we see the brightness of God. And the best place to experience it is in a community of faith. Nicodemus comes to Jesus as one whose experience of God has been nurtured and supported by a community of believers. One of the unfortunate consequences of reading John 3:16 rigidly has been an excessive, almost exclusive focus on individual salvation. The central question becomes am I saved? Have I experienced personal salvation? Do I know Jesus as my Lord and Savior? But, for people like Nicodemus, whose faith was formed by the Hebrew Scriptures, the role of a community of believers was primary to his faith development. The songs we sing together on Sunday morning, the prayers we offer, the support we give and receive, the study and reflection of our sacred texts; all reflect the importance of our faith community in our spiritual formation. When we miss out on community, we cut ourselves off from one of God's primary tools for inviting us into a deeper and more intimate encounter with God.
We also understand that light is the dimension of frequency—or that which we see as vibration—the visible light of God’s love. Service and caring for and about others, is the second dimension of faith when we encounter God. Nicodemus is quite clear the reason he comes knocking on Jesus door at night is that through Jesus healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and caring for those in need, they have experienced the presence of God. "No one can do the things you do apart from the presence of God", says Nicodemus. When we participate in the work of justice, caring for others, providing education to our community, and witnessing to God’s inclusive welcome we are shining the light of God’s grace to our world. For Nicodemus it was the acts of caring and compassion of Jesus, which further opened his heart to God's presence.
And finally our faith has a dimension of polarization—not in the divisive sense, but in the way that our light vibrates energy into the dark places through our openness to the guiding of God's Spirit. The question faced by Nicodemus and anyone seeking to grow in faith is, are you willing to let go of your certainties about who God is? Are you willing to experience God in new ways? Are you ready to step out on a journey with God without the comfort of knowing exactly where it will lead you? Jesus is inviting Nicodemus; and Jesus is inviting you and me to let the Light of God be our guide, to be reborn as waves and particles in God’s kingdom of light. Are we prepared to trust God enough to live without absolute certainty about whom God is? Are you willing to let go, and let God? When Jesus comes knocking on our door, it is an invitation to grow in faith through the guidance of the Spirit. It is the way in which we come to experience God’s true colors—the rainbow of God’s love shining..even in dark places.
In your bulletin is an activity for you to consider…what are the things that keep you from experiencing God’s true colors? What limits the rainbow of God’s love from shining in the dark places of your life? And what keeps you from shining your true colors to the world? How will you live a whole and lasting life grounded in God’s love? That friends, is the crux of our faith. That is our journey of salvation. Let your light shine. Let the true colors of God’s love rain down on you. Amen!
(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Stepping Into the Light” for March 30, 2003 – www.fernstone.org).