2. I Am the light of the world
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O God, who gave light to the world at creation, and who made light victorious over the darkness when you raised Jesus from the dead, we pray that you will cause the light of your good news to shine in our lives today giving the guidance we need for a life of faithfulness and hope. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
To be a city dweller in the 21st century is to live in a world that is almost always filled with light. As is often the case then we need a little help in understanding the image that Jesus uses and why there is such power in that image both for the day in which it was first spoken by our Lord and for today.
Hopefully you will take my word for it that John wants us to look back into chapter seven for a detail that he wants us to carry with us over to chapter eight. According to 7:2 Jesus is in Jerusalem for the celebration of one of the three great feasts of the year, The Feast of Tabernacles. This was an observance that recognized both history and present reality. The tabernacles or booths were what cubs and scouts call a “lean to.” Branches, twigs and leaves are arranged in a way to provide a temporary covering from the weather. Town-dwellers would erect them in their courtyards or on their flat roofs. This is a harvest festival so if you are travelling in the autumn on Bayview Avenue, south of the 401 and north of York Mills you can see a tabernacle in the parking lot of the Kehillat Shaarei Torah Synagogue on the east side of Bayview at Fifeshire Road.
The temporary nature of the booth looks back to the time of the wilderness wandering after the exodus from Egypt. But the event is celebrated in the fall in order to give thanks for the harvest, which, of course, is something that is part what of happens in a settled, permanent community. There was something else going on in this celebration that sets the particular context of Jesus telling us that he is the light of the world. During this festival such huge lamps were filled with oil and lit that many of the rabbis claimed that the whole of the city was illuminated. That might be an exaggeration; however most of the time when the sun set in the western sky the city would fall into darkness. The only contrast that I can think of from my life time is the great blackout of August 2003 and the number of people who were found outside on that first night gazing at the sky as if they had never seen it before; the reality is that there is normally such a great quantity of light in the GTA that many people had never seen the sky as they did that night.
As we begin to explore this second of the I AM statements of Jesus, it will be helpful for us to think of the associations that might be made in the minds of those who hear Jesus make this claim.
For example, when you and I hear the gospel read and the claim of Jesus that he is the light of the world, where do our minds go? I suppose seeing that this is the middle of the summer in our part of the world, you might think that Jesus is comparing himself to the sun. Or perhaps you think of the reading lamp beside your favourite chair. But I think the scholars are right who tell us the minds of those who first heard Jesus would immediately go in a different direction.
They would think of Psalm 27:1. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? Or they might think of Isaiah 49:6. The prophet is speaking of the Servant of the Lord and of what God says about this person—I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
There is another text that is perhaps the most vital for our discussion. The prophet Zechariah proclaims that the day of the Lord is coming, a day in which the Lord will become king over all the earth (14:9). Does anyone want to hazard a guess as to the other characteristic of this day according to the prophet? Verse seven tells us: And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the Lord), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light.
As I suggested, let’s try to get this image into our minds. In the middle of a celebration that is marked by the Temple precincts being illuminated day and night, Jesus makes a claim that in the Hebrew Scriptures is reserved either for God himself or the Servant of God who comes as God’s messenger. Is it any wonder the Pharisees immediately denied the validity of what Jesus says? “You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.”
Those who were the enemies of Jesus are pointing out to him a basic premise of Jewish legal proceedings: to establish the validity of any claim there needed to be two witnesses. For example, a few years ago my wife Chris was driving north on Markham Road south of Stouffville Road. A driver in a Jeep tried to pass her (in a no passing zone I should add) but then realized a couple of things: the road was narrowing and there was oncoming traffic. His solution, cut in fast. In the process he clipped Chris’ front fender with his back bumper. He didn’t stop. When Chris was able to contact the police, they said there was little they could do unless there was a witness who could back up the story that Chris told. Without a witness they claimed it would be a case of “she said…he said.” Two witnesses are needed to establish the validity of any claim.
It is fascinating to me what Jesus does at this point. He offers two arguments in favour of the truth of the claim he has made to be the light of the world. The first argument Jesus offers has to do with his awareness of his identity. I know where I have come from and where I am going. Let me offer to you one of the most valuable things to keep in mind when you are trying to figure out what the Bible is saying. Ask this question: is there another place in Scripture where the Bible interprets itself? For this part of our text, we ask, is there another place where Jesus speaks of where he has come from and where he is going? The answer is yes. There is in John 13 what at first appears to be a trip from the sublime to the ridiculous. We are told that Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and going to God. In other words Jesus had an incredible sense of who he was as God’s chosen servant. Then we are told that because Jesus had this ironclad sense of his identity he put a towel around himself and began to do the job that would usually be done by the slave who had the lowest rank of all. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
Feet are practical but not pretty. In fact they can get down right ugly. We squeeze our feet into shoes that are too tight and as a result we get corns and bunions and ingrown toenails and a whole host of disgusting foot-specific afflictions. As if that wasn’t enough our feet get both filthy and sweaty.
I can remember discovering that our Mennonite sisters and brothers observe the ritual of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday evening. But among the Mennonite friends with whom I lived during my days at Waterloo Lutheran University, everyone made sure their feet were clean and presentable before going out to that service. It was a dirty business to which Jesus gave himself on that night before he was crucified. The Bible says he was able to do that because he knew exactly who he was and who God wanted him to be. We can trust such people.
The second argument offered by Jesus concerns the presence in his life of a second witness who validates the truth of his claim. “I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” Friends I want to suggest a particular way in which we can understand this idea. You see this must be spiritual reality with which we are dealing because on the face of it, we are tempted to agree with Jesus’ enemies. As a second witness God seems to make himself annoyingly scarce. Except, I believe, our experience proves otherwise. Let me explain.
Look again at the beginning of our text and at the entire statement made by Jesus. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” As he so often does that great Scottish commentator, William Barclay, helps us understand what is being said. He says there are five ways in which this word follows is used in the world of the early church. It is used of a soldier following the lead of his captain, of a slave accompanying his master, of someone following the counsel of a wise advisor, of the obedience that a citizen gives to the laws of the community and of a student who follows a teacher’s line of argument.
Here then is the logic of what Jesus says. Keep in mind two things: in this first century world there was normally a stark difference between day and night, between light and dark. And what is it that happens in the autumn in the northern hemisphere? That’s right— there is more dark and less light. Jesus tells us that if we follow him, that is obey his leading, recognize him as our Lord, listen to the wise counsel of his words, commit to being citizens of the Kingdom of God, and put what he teaches into practice, our spiritual lives will be constantly illuminated. We will have the light of life. Or to put it another way…“I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” The truth of what Jesus says is validated by the divine testimony that gives us light as we follow the Lord’s words and example.
Life is not for cowards! A friend of mine at Temple Church in Windsor related a story from the middle of one night. My friend and his wife had just had a baby who was not allowing much opportunity for sleep during the night. The cry started up again and my friend was greeted by a poke from his wife as she informed him that it was his turn. She pulled the covers up and attempted to go back to sleep. My friend put his legs over the side of the bed and in the dark walked towards the crying child. He cut the corner of the bed a little sharply which was unfortunate because they had recently redecorated their bedroom with a colonial look including a four poster bed. The next thing he remembers is waking up to the sound of his wife’s voice who, at the same time, was wondering where he had gotten to and why the baby was still screaming. Not much fun trying to negotiate life in the dark.
Friends, I cannot think of any other way to conclude this morning than this simple word of witness. Life is not for cowards. As my captain, my master, my advisor, my leader, my teacher, Jesus has been for me light in darkness, comfort in grief, courage in fear, wisdom in perplexity, faith in doubt. You can trust Jesus. He is the light of your world.