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It’s one of my favourite parts of Christmas. At the end of our candlelight service, right before we sing “Silent Night.” We turn off all the lights in the sanctuary. Full candlelight. We take a candle and light it from the Christ Candle in the middle of the Advent wreath – the candle we’ve been waiting for. We pass the light on to one another, lighting each other’s candles until we’re all holding the light. The Christ we have been waiting for. We sing “Silent Night” together. Christ, the Saviour is born. The Light of the World. We hear the news at the beginning of John – his Christmas story. The Word became flesh and lived among us. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (1:3b-4) “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (1:9)
We have the pronouncement by Jesus(“I am the light of the world”) and then we have the promise (“Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but have the light of life”). We heard a pronouncement and a promise last week with the first of the “I AM” statements as they appear in John’s Gospel. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We remember that these words came after more than 5,000 people were miraculously fed. Bread as life. Today’s passage comes in the middle of chapters 7 and 8, in which Jesus is in Jerusalem. It’s the Festival of Booths – one of three pilgrimage festivals – at which the Israelites’ time in the desert is remembered. God’s provision. God’s protection. Water in the desert. Food in the desert. Light in the desert in the form of a pillar of fire to guide.
- It’s a rich symbol and hardly needs explaining as a source of illumination. I must say, though, in our light-polluted cities, we might miss the significance or importance of a light shining in the darkness. It’s good to have a chance to get up north or somewhere we can reacquaint ourselves with the importance of light in darkness. Isaiah 9:2 - “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.” Isaiah 49:6 - “he says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” Psalm 119:105 - “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Now we have the Word speaking these words. Water and fire played a big part in the Festival of Booths. At one point, priests from the Temple would fill a golden bowl with water and pour it over the altar. At another point, the Temple would be illuminated by 4 giant lamps. It was said that there was not a courtyard in the city that was not illuminated by these lamps. We have these parallel invitations being made around water and light
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me” 7:37
“I am the light of the world” 8:12
“Let the one who believes in me drink” 7:38
“Whoever follows me ” 8:12
“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” 7:39
“will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” 8:12
Jesus is speaking to crowds in the Temple. Reaction is mixed. The religious authorities are particularly against him. Nicodemus reappears (we first meet him in John 3 when he visits Jesus at night so he won’t be seen by his religious colleagues), and he will reappear after Jesus’ death when he helps Joseph from Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial. “Give this man a chance to speak!” Nicodemus tells them. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what are doing, does it?” (7:51) The Pharisees scoff at him. “Are you from Galilee too?” they say. “Search, and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” Ironically, in 8:12, we find his fellow Pharisees doing exactly what Nicodemus had suggested. Hear Jesus out. See what Jesus is doing. Hear what Jesus is saying. It’s good advice for anyone, no matter where we stand on Jesus.
Perhaps, though, the more important matter is where Jesus stands on us. What Jesus says to us.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We sometimes think of light and dark in terms of good and evil, but what Jesus is saying here is going beyond good and evil, or beyond how we act. We are talking about life here. Jesus is not simply a light. Jesus is not someone who is simply bringing wise words or enlightening words. We’re saying throughout these weeks that we’re examining the deepest questions of our lives. Someone has said that the deepest longing of every person is to live and to live in the fullest and most authentic way possible. Second-century church father St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Fullness of life is what we’re talking about, living in the light of Christ, who is the light of the world! He is the real thing, over and above any of a number of things that make this claim – things that claim to be life-giving but sap the life and humanity right out of us. “Follow me,” says Jesus. “I am the light of the world,” says Jesus, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” There is the good news, and there is our invitation.
These words of Jesus precede a story in chapter 9 about a man who is born blind being given sight by Jesus. “Lord, help me to see,” is another worthy prayer (along with “You are my shepherd, Lord, I lack nothing” and “Lord, give me this bread always”). To walk in the light of the Christ (the Messiah – this one who was promised as a light to the nations of whom Jesus is saying “It’s me”) is to come to see everything in a whole new way. In an essay called “Is Theology Poetry?”, C.S. Lewis put it this way – “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” You followers of Christ, have you known this? I have. I know coming to see people, creation, issues of the day, worries, concerns in a whole new way. I say “coming to see” because I don’t fully see yet. We don’t fully see it yet. God grant that we’re coming to see as we follow Jesus. God grant that we’re coming to see as we sit with Jesus’ words on life and death and grace and money and justice and nature and relationships and enemies and hope and sorrow and joy and all the things which comprise our lives. God grant that in following Christ, we’re coming to see everything in the light and love of Christ - who is the light of the world.
The invitation to us remains the same. Follow. Note that there is movement in the imagery that Jesus is using here. Our light is on the move. We’re used to more stationary images of light from Jesus, like the ones in the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14) “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to the whole house.” (Matt 5:15). Stationary images of ourselves as light. Here in Jesus’ self-description, we have light that is on the move. To walk in the light of life is to have light for our journey and the assurance of life lived in communion with God – now and always. A few years ago, a sister in the faith gave me this verse. It belonged to her father, who was a pastor. It’s a quote from a speech that King George gave, and I usually only consider it around January 1st. It’s good for any time though, as it seems like we’re often at the gate of something new or the precipice of something unknown: “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘ Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘God out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’” M. Louise Haskins wrote that. Let us put our hand into the hand of the one who is the light of the world and follow wherever He may lead us. In the middle of unknowns, we know the one with whom we go. The one who calls us by name. The one who knows us like a shepherd knows his sheep, and calls us by name.
To close, I want us to consider what this story and what this imagery around Jesus asks of us. There’s a lot of opposition to Jesus in chapters 7 and 8 of John, and I don’t believe that episodes of opposition are there for us just to shake our heads and say, “How could they not see?” There will be opposition to the light most definitely. I think scenes like this one are also there to ask us the question, “What are we not seeing in our own hearts?” This is another thing about light. It can expose things that we’d rather be left in the dark. The “cold light of day” can be shocking. Following Jesus, walking in the light of life is meant to illuminate every aspect of our lives. In what ways are we compartmentalizing Jesus, saying, “You can be in this part of my life, but not that part.” Perhaps we theoretically agree that Jesus is the light of the world, but we can hardly say we’re following him. Perhaps we’re just not paying much attention to Jesus these days. Each of these “I AM” statements of Jesus is an invitation to follow him – whether for the first time or a re-commitment of ourselves, or a reaffirmation of our desire to walk with our hand in the hand of the light of life.
The good news is that the invitation is before us. The good news is that the light of the world, the light of life, has come, comes on our day-to-day lives, and one day will come. We follow as a community of faith, and so let us mark our desire to follow by lighting a candle. As you light one another’s candles I invite you to do so with the words “The light of the world, the light of life.” This is our I AM. This is Christ Jesus. Amen