The first time I ever walked into a liquor store, I was a little surprised by what I saw. See, I had been steeped in a culture that described drinking alcohol as a sin, and anyone who did it was a sinner. For some reason, I had always imagined that the sinfulness of liquor meant that the liquor store would be a dark, shrouded kind of place—low lights to make sure no one could recognize your face; high, dark aisles where you could discretely select your vice; and a general air of transgression. So it was surprising when I opened the door for the first time and saw a brightly lit, cheery place with chest-high aisles and a clear line of sight where no one could hide. Which, in hindsight, makes perfect sense. That idea that people hide their evil deeds in darkness had a strong grip on me.
Because hiding misdeeds makes sense. There’s a reason why people rob houses when no one is around to see it. There’s a reason why teenagers sneak out rather than go out the front door. There’s a reason why the family collectively never talks about how great-uncle Joe was in the Klan. There’s a reason companies pay big bucks for PR to hide every scandal. Whether we hide it because of guilt—knowing what we did was wrong—or shame—fearing how others will see us differently if they knew—hiding the things we don’t like is as old as time. We’d rather that unpleasantness be hidden in shadows.
But this is the crossroads: that the Light came into the world, and the world loved the shadows rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
Jesus comes into the world to throw light onto those things we don’t want to address. Jesus lights up the darkness where we’ve been hiding our brokenness, our shame, our insecurity, our guilt, our vulnerability. We’ve hidden these things because as long as they are unseen, we don’t have to deal with the fallout. We don’t have to spend the energy unpacking the sin and loss. We don’t have to do the hard work of confronting that brokenness. But the thing about sin, the thing about brokenness, is that it doesn’t fade; it festers. And the only way to heal it is to expose it.
Last May Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, until he died. It wasn’t unprecedented and it wasn’t new; but it did spark a national conversation about racism with a renewed focus that we are still dealing with today. We have been forced to have this conversation again, because light has been thrown onto this unpleasantness. And we still work to shove the conversation of systemic racism back into the shadows with insistence on “a few bad apples.” Racism must be an issue of individuals over there, that way we don’t have to be dragged into the conversation or reckon with our part in it.
Remember that sin and brokenness do not fade; they fester. And the ill effects of the longstanding systemic sin of racism have festered in the dark, right where sin always wants to be. The foundations were laid from the time that slavers justified enslaving Black Christians by entrenching into public consciousness Black people’s God-ordained subservient status as children of Ham. Then with the end of slavery in 1865 the focus was changed to the inherent criminality of Black people, who needed strict laws to be kept in line—an opinion not limited to the South, I should add. This was bolstered by the pseudoscience of race theory, that supposed Black people were “naturally inferior” to White people. It became common knowledge that Black people were criminals who required extra policing, that they drove down home values and so were redlined out of certain neighborhoods, that they were prone to violence and were lazy. Then, with the end of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, outright racism was eventually driven underground, but the stereotypes remained.
Long denied economic opportunities afforded to White people, from the GI Bill to home loans to even investment in their neighborhoods, Black communities were rife with poverty and the associated social ills of drug use, criminality, illness, and social dislocation that were and are all conveniently used to reinforce existing stereotypes of the Black community. And to this day the festering sin of systemic racism prospers best by denying it exists. If we live in a post-racial society, it always insists, then how can racism possibly exist?
We don’t have to learn the history of a community and discover the depths of racism’s roots, because people are a product of their own individual choices, not the community they came from. There’s no need to address the way many White criminals have sunny smiling family photos on the news, but Black criminals always have their angry mugshot, since racism isn’t real. We don’t need to talk about how John and Kate are 36% more likely to get a call for a job interview than Tyrone and Lakesha, despite their resumes being exactly the same, because we see people, not color.
So this is the crossroads: that the Light came into the world, and the world loved the shadows rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
But that’s not the only thing that Light that is coming into the world does. Jesus used this cryptic example of the serpent in the wilderness being lifted up; and in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up. The bronze serpent, as we heard in Numbers, was a response to the plague of poisonous serpents sent as a result of the sin of the Israelites. See, it was only by looking directly at the effects of their sin, looking upon that bronze serpent, that the Israelites could be healed. In the same way, Jesus would be lifted up, drawing our eyes to the fullness of the sin that separates us from God—our brokenness that we want to hide in the shadows. But by looking at it, by facing the things we have done and left undone, the things known and unknown, then we can be healed.
Because God so loved the world, that God sent the one and only Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Indeed—God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
Facing the ugliness of our sin, the brokenness of systemic racism, is our calling as Christians. We know that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sin God who is faithful and just will forgive our sin and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We, before anyone else, should be ready to confess our sin and step into the light. We are called to lead the way in repenting from the systemic effects of racism, addressing it head-on even though it’s uncomfortable, because we Christians know more than anyone else that the coming of the Son, the Light of the World, means that rather than being left to be consumed by the festering power of sin, God has sent the Son to save us from sin.
So look up at the fiery serpent of systemic racism. See the brokenness that sin wants us to hide away in the shadows. Confess the pain, the heartache, the indignity that pushing the reality of racism into the shadows has caused. Reject the stereotypes that have dehumanized our Black siblings and robbed us of our empathy for them. Speak for justice to correct the ways history has bent us against them. Learn the history to understand how racism continues to secretly infiltrate our society today. And more than anything, trust that God sent the Son into the world to save it, to show us the way out of sin and death, to rescue us from the festering power of unseen sin by exposing it to the brilliant dawn from on high that is making all things new.
For “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.