Saturday, March 28, 2015

I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life





John 14:1-7
March 29, 2015, Palm Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry



Our scripture reading this morning, for this sixth in our series on the I AM statements of Jesus, comes to us once again from what is known as the “farewell discourse” of Jesus. This conversation between Jesus and his disciples takes place when he is in Jerusalem, after the entry into Jerusalem but before he goes to the cross. It is a crucial moment in Jesus’ relationship with the disciples, in which he once again tries to reassure them and help them truly understand who he is. Once again, however, the disciples misunderstand his message.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in John 14:1-7.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”



This lovely scripture may be very familiar to you. It is often read at funeral services, as a loving reminder of the life that is to come, the life that awaits us in Jesus Christ, who has gone to prepare a place for us. In that context, these words are words of comfort and hope.

For some of us, these words conjure up memories –not of funeral services but of Sunday School and children’s choir. Some of us memorized verses from John 14: “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” In that context, these words were directions on how to get to heaven. Or how to get your own mansion, not in this world, but the next.

My sister Lisa and I used to sing a song about it – “I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop.”
Apparently Elvis covered this song, but he changed the words of my favorite verse:

Tho' often tempted, tormented and tested
And, like the prophet, my pillow a stone,
And tho' I find here no permanent dwelling,
I know He'll give me a mansion my own.

Parts of this text are also often quoted in religious arguments, usually among Christians who differ on their understanding of scripture. In those cases, the words are not comforting, but confronting: “I am the way, the truth and the life; NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT THROUGH ME!” In that context, this text brings more conflict than consolation.

Once again, Jesus’ choice of metaphor is complicated.
Once again, Jesus’ choice of image is bold.
You can see why.

He is with his disciples, near the end. They have shared their last supper together. Judas has left to betray him. Jesus has given them the great commandment to love one another. And he has predicted that Peter would deny him three times. It is almost time for him to be taken away, to go to the cross.

And so he tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Neither let them be afraid.”
He tells them that he is going on ahead of them, to prepare a place for them, where they will be together again. He tells them that they know the way, because they know him. There is nothing to fear.

The way is there, right in front of them.
The truth is there, right in front of them.
The life is there, right in front of them.
And they still can’t see it!

How much harder it is for us to see him, our way, truth and life! So we create other ways, other truths, other lives, apart from him and outside of his great commandment. We draw maps to mansions for ourselves and everyone else. And all too often we imagine that there is only one possible route to God, and that we alone know what it is.

And like the disciples, we lack understanding, so we overlay our own interpretations on what Jesus said. Then, once we’ve pooled our ignorance, we try to fix our interpretations in stone. You may remember that a few years ago, we Presbyterians had yet another of our internal struggles about the Bible. This particular passage was central to that discussion.

The question was, “Is Jesus the only way?”
Is Jesus the only way to God?
Is Jesus the only way to heaven?
Is Jesus the only way to truth?
Is Jesus the only way to life?

Although some might tell you otherwise, our answer as a denomination was a resounding YES! The document the church published was called “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.” It said, in part:
No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ.
Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.[1]

On this day, as we gathered for worship, we recalled that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, that holy city, on the back of a donkey. He rode in to shouts of “Hosanna!” but the shouts would die away, and be replaced with shouts of “Crucify!” His parade, which we like to call the “Triumphal Entry” was hardly a blip on the screen of the rest of the world. But in the days that would come, Jesus would be taken before the authorities, whipped, tormented, and hung on a cross to die.

You know the next chapter, but for now, for Holy Week, we leave that part of the story unspoken. Meanwhile, here is Jesus, right in front of us. Jesus, in whom we have all our hope. He is our rock and redeemer, the bread, the light, the shepherd, the vine. He is way, truth and life. He is the path we follow to reach those mansions.

St. Teresa of Avila imagined those mansions as chambers of our souls, in which we find union with God. The mansions, as she describes them, are stages of prayer, humility, contemplation, and charitable works which we move through as if we were walking through a series of rooms that lead us closer and closer to God until we eventually find full union with God through Jesus Christ.

St. Teresa’s poetic meditations capture the heart of this text. The word for dwelling places, also translated as “mansions” is the noun form of the verb “abide,” from chapter 15. Here, we have that abiding - you remember that old saying, “you abide in your abode?” That’s the mansion. That’s the dwelling place. That’s where we abide.

Last week, when we looked at Jesus’ saying “I am the vine,” we recalled the importance of his words “abide in me, and I will abide in you.” It is a relational statement, a truth that goes beyond belief or propositional statements. To abide in Jesus far surpasses any simplistic avowal that he is the ONLY way. To abide in Jesus, and have Jesus abiding in us, is a way of living, a way of praying, a way of truth that demands everything of us.

It isn’t enough to repeatedly shout John 14:6, as if it were some incantation of salvation.
Belief is not the way; Jesus himself is the way. Our words about God are not the whole truth; Jesus himself is truth. The world to come is not the life; Jesus himself is life.

Today we stand on the side of that dusty road that leads into Jerusalem, as we wave our palms and shout Hosanna! By the end of this week, we will be standing at Golgotha, standing at the foot of the cross, where this Jesus, the I AM, hangs suffering, bleeding, dying.

But do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid. He came to us, all of us. He came to be the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the true vine. He is way, truth and life, and he makes a place for us. He is the house in which we abide, and we are the house in which he abides. May we be open to his way, truth and life, and may this church, and each heart, be an open house.

May God grant that through our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, each wandering pilgrim may find here a way; each hopeful seeker find here a truth, and each weary soul find here a life.

Amen.












[1] PC(USA) “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” 2002; p. 11.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

I AM the Vine



John 15:1-8
March 22, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

John 15:1-8
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don't produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can't produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can't produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can't do anything. If you don't remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.



Have you ever met an enologist?

It’s not a medical specialty, in case you wondered. It’s a wine maker. I’m always curious about how and why people have the occupations they do. But I’ve never met an enologist, so I’ve not been able to ask about it. Sound pretty cool, though, hangin out at the vineyard, all the pretty grapes, and all the, ya know, all the wine.

I looked up job postings for the wine business. Right here is where I would suggest that certain people not listen, in case they up and quite their jobs here and go off to work in a vineyard, but Nan won’t move that far way so we are safe. This posting, for a job in California, includes a lot of requirements: operations director and managing production schedules, safety, cleanliness and production within the cellar; paperwork and accurate accounting on bonded storage and transfers; assisting marketing department with wine packaging development; tracking inventory, orders and usages of chemicals; overseeing upkeep and maintenance of equipment; managing the tasting room and giving tours of the vineyard; managing production and contracts for buying and selling grapes…

Wait…where’s the part where you get to drink the wine? Oh – here it is: “Evaluates and purchases bulk wine.” Also, you should be able to speak Spanish. Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than the tasting part. Growing grapes for wine is very involved, but it all starts with vines.

This image of the vine in John 15 is a richly layered metaphor, more complex than other agricultural imagery in the Bible. Jesus did not simply choose a random plant to discuss – he chose the vine because of the importance of that image in Israel’s history. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, when the vine and vineyard appear, they are a symbol of Israel itself, God’s chosen people. God, as planter and vinedresser, has tended the people of the covenant, guiding, feeding, watering them, shaping their life so that they could be strong and fruitful.

Once again, Jesus is daring in his choice of metaphor –how can he be the vine?
Israel is the vine!
God is the keeper of the vineyard, but the vine has always been Israel.
Now he has the temerity to say he is the vine!

Jesus has said he is the bread of life, comparing himself to manna; he has said that he is the light of the world – the world, mind you! He called himself the good shepherd, a term reserved for the king. Now, he is going too far.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper.”
Really! He can’t be all those things unless he is something more than they had imagined.

Jesus proceeds with the metaphor, with the pruning and the cutting, and the production of fruit. There have some pretty simplistic sermons on this text. I might even have preached one once. Some of those sermons come at the image with chain saws, easily chopping off branches – good Christians stay on the vine and grow fruit; bad Christians, who are really not Christians at all, get cut off and burned up in a fire, which is, you know, eternal.

Every time I run across one of these sermons or Bible studies, the kind that stride through the vineyard and bark out the meaning of each and every symbol, making every text into allegory with a tidy one-to-one correspondence with every symbol and word, every time I see something like that, I want to call the writer in for an English lesson. About metaphors. Well, actually, I want to scream. God’s relationship with us in Christ can’t be reduced to slash and burn!

Jesus uses powerful metaphors to keep us from oversimplifying everything. He’s always speaking in riddles and parables, and they are rich, layered, nuanced statements. Besides, we know he wasn’t talking about good Christians and bad Christians, because there weren’t any Christians. There were lots of vineyards, though.

So instead of trotting through the grapevines with our pruning shears, cutting off all the people who don’t measure up, instead of clipping off all the edges, making this all neat and tidy and easy to understand, let’s stand for a moment out in the vineyard in the morning sun. The vines are strong and thick as tree trunks, and the branches so lush that they arch up over our heads. Light from the rising sun filters through the leaves, dappling our shoulders. In the distance, a pair of mourning doves murmur.

As the sun heats the rich soil, a mist rises from the ground, enveloping our feet, carrying with it the fragrance of earth, of leaves, of grapes. The grapes hang heavy from the vines, rich and round, succulent. Awakening birds rustle in the branches, tuning their morning songs. The vines are well tended and neat – you can see the places where tendrils and suckers have been pruned away. And at the end of the row, an untended branch has escaped the watchful eye of the vinedresser, and puts out a bunch of stunted leaves and fruit, small and bitter.

Soon the workers will come to their toil, the sun will rise in the sky and the heat will become oppressive. We’ll leave the vineyard and seek a cool place in the shade, where we can sit for a moment and taste the grapes, taste the wine.

When you stand out there in a vineyard, even in imagination, it is easy to see the importance of trimming branches of carefully pruning a vine. The grapes are so much sweeter, and healthier, when branches are well tended and stay securely connected to the vine. The branches have no future if they go it alone; the quest for independence leaves them dried up and withering; a move for self-sufficiency means death. Submitting to the pruner’s knife may cause some pain, but it results in greater strength and health, and sweeter fruit.

And the only way the branch can live, the only hope it has for a fruitful life, is in abiding in the vine. Jesus calls us to this mutual connection – abide in me and I will abide in you. That asks something of us – something more than just a nod and the occasional drop-in to a worship service. Such connection and mutuality require time, attention, and closeness. The vinedresser comes near to us, to prune away that which drains us, approaches with affection, not anger, with devotion, not discipline.

When we let God prune away our selfishness, our ridiculous notions of self-sufficiency, our prideful certainty, our fear and our shame, we flourish. Though it may be painful, at first, to give up the layers of false self that obscure our true selves, in the end it is freeing, life-giving, invigorating. It brings joy to us and glory to God.

Back in the early 1800s, a South African preacher wrote a lovely devotional on this text. The language is dated, but the thoughts are timeless. Here is what Andrew Murray said about “abiding in Christ.”

“When a new graft is placed in a vine and it abides there, there is a twofold process that takes place. The first is in the wood. The graft shoots its little roots and fibers down into the stem, and the stem grows up into the graft, and what has been called the structural union is effected. The graft abides and becomes one with the vine, and even though the vine were to die, would still be one wood with it.

Then there is the second process, in which the sap of the vine enters the new structure, and uses it as a passage through which sap can flow up to show itself in young shoots and leaves and fruit. Here is the vital union. Into the graft which abides in the stock, the stock enters with sap to abide in it. When our Lord says: "Abide in me, and I in you," He points to something analogous to this.

"Abide in me": that refers more to that which we have to do. We have to trust and obey, to detach ourselves from all else, to reach out after Him and cling to Him, to sink ourselves into Him. As we do this, through the grace He gives, a character is formed, and a heart prepared for the fuller experience: "I in you," God strengthens us with might by the Spirit in the inner man, and Christ dwells in the heart by faith.

… The work enjoined on us: "Abide in me," will prepare us for the work undertaken by Him: "I in you." … We are in Christ. Christ is in us: our life taken up into His; His life received into ours; in a divine reality that words cannot express, we are in Him and He in us. And the words, "Abide in me and I in you," just tell us to believe it, …to make it divinely true.

No thinking or teaching or praying can grasp it; it is a divine mystery of love. …
Let us just look upon this infinite, divine, omnipotent Vine loving us, holding us, working in us. Let us in the faith of His working abide and rest in Him, ever turning heart and hope to Him alone.”[1]

For a faith that is rooted in Christ, growing in grace, and producing the fruits of loving kindness, mercy and generosity, we need to stay connected, vine and branches, joined to one another and to God, letting Christ’s power flow into us and mercy flow out of us, letting the sacrificial love of Jesus course through us and the joy of service go to our heads like new wine.

Amen.






[1] The True Vine, by Rev. Andrew Murray

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I AM…the Good Shepherd, and the Gate




John 10: 7-18
March 15, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry



John 10: 7-18

So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."




As we’ve looked at these “I AM” sayings of Jesus in John’s gospel, I expect it has become apparent that Jesus is making some pretty bold claims. First he said he was the bread of life, more satisfying than the manna God gave in the wilderness. Then he said he was the light of the world, shining brighter than the temple lamps in Jerusalem.

Now he calls himself the good shepherd, laying claim to the title that had been traditionally reserved for God, the shepherd of Israel or for kings or leaders appointed by God. King David was a shepherd of God’s people, for example. And Jesus has the audacity to call himself the good shepherd.

I suppose it should come as no surprise to any of us that the imagery of sheep and shepherds comes up so often in the Bible. Given the time frame and the context, shepherds were common. The image of the shepherd appears about sixty times in the Bible. It should also come as no surprise, then, that gallons of ink and millions of words have been poured out on the subject.

I looked back through some of my own sermons, to see what I had already said about shepherds and sheep. Like a lot of preachers, I have described first century shepherding and the behavior of sheep; I've even tried to find contemporary occupations that are parallel to the low status and high devotion required of shepherds. I have discussed the notion that we sheep are not terribly bright and in need of watching, in need of constant care and feeding, pretty much all the time.

It feels like I’ve asked every question about this text except two.
First, if Jesus is the good shepherd, what’s a bad shepherd?
Second, who are those other sheep Jesus is talking about?

The first question is something Jesus kind of answers. The bad shepherd is a hired hand – the one who is only in it for personal gain, not for the sheep. The bad shepherd leads the sheep astray, does not protect them, abuses them, is not steadfast. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with some modern examples of bad shepherds. The pope himself recently referred to certain clergy as bad shepherds.

With so many bad shepherds calling to us, it’s fairly easy to see why following the good shepherd is sometimes a challenge. Unfortunately, we are prone to wander, and to listen to other voices. We tend to think that if a large number of others are going a certain way, that perhaps it is a better path. We tend to think that perhaps if we stick with others who are in agreement with us we will be safe and strong and comfortable.

We struggle with the challenge of thinking for ourselves, balancing our free will and autonomy with obedience to God. Then we start to think that those who disagree with us are not so independent as we are. We may even begin to think that they are, as the popular insult says, “sheeple.”

Yes, sheeple.

That term gets applied to whole huge swaths of folks, mostly to those who are in whatever the opposite political camp is. In other words, I am rational, and thoughtful, and my opinions, or my convictions, are correct. And those who disagree with me are irrational, idiotic, and wrong. They are sheeple.

Republicans say that Democrats are socialist, mush-brained, cowardly sheep.
Democrats say that Republicans are fascist, fundamentalist, warmongering sheep.
See how it goes?

Interestingly, if we are following the Good Shepherd, those distinctions blur rather quickly.
When we are gathered together and led by Jesus, our political leanings and other orientations are difficult to determine. When we are gathered together and led by Jesus, our individual personal experiences become less significant.

When we are gathered together and led by Jesus, it readily becomes apparent that this text is not about sheep; it is about the shepherd – the good shepherd. As is always the case, the gospel is not about us and who we are so much as it is about Jesus and who he is. He is the good shepherd, and we are his sheep.

We need a shepherd! Sheep don’t do well on their own; they need a shepherd to guide and protect them, to feed them. Old bellwether sheep can lead other sheep, but they have to be guided by the shepherd.

If you are wondering how to tell the voice of Jesus from the voice of other kinds of shepherds, the best way I know is to hear it, and hear it often. We can hear it when we engage in diligent prayer, in the faithful and regular reading of scripture, and by walking alongside Jesus as we seek to do the work he calls us to. We can distinguish the voice of Jesus when we hear ourselves being called to peace, to unity, and to obedience. And often, we can discern the voice of the shepherd in the voices of one another.

When we call one another to mercy, to forgiveness, to love, and to ministries of mercy, forgiveness, and love, we can pretty well be sure that we’ve heard correctly. And if the voice we are hearing calls us to hatred, to exclusion, to criticism and judgment and anger, we may need to take a deep breath and ask ourselves whose voice we are hearing.

As Anne Lamott puts it, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” In fact, that’s an easy call, because God doesn’t hate people. God loves all the sheep, not just us.

That brings us to the second question: what about those other sheep?
Who does Jesus mean?
What other sheep, exactly?

Some Mormon missionaries told me once that Jesus was referring to the people of the Americas, when he talked about those other sheep. Just between you and me, I don’t think it is quite that simple. The obvious, and most likely correct answer, is that Jesus was referring to all of the non-Jewish people of the world. He was saying that he brought his care and guidance and love to all of the people of the world, not just certain ones. And he will bring them in, and they will know his voice, and they will follow him, too. They will come into the fold, and we will all be one flock.

Hear that? He will do this. Not us. Because he himself is the gate. Not us. We’re not the gate. And we’re not the gatekeepers. Jesus has that job, and in spite of the fact that there are many, many self-appointed candidates for gatekeeper, there is only one gate: Jesus. Through him we come in and go out, and when he goes out to seek his sheep, he will stop at nothing to bring them home. As near as I can tell, he doesn’t need me to officiate that activity. As near as I can tell, Jesus doesn’t need to submit his activity to a referendum. So it seems reasonable to conclude that this flock we are a part of, this church which the Good Shepherd has gathered, is something different from everything else of which we are a member.

It is interesting, and telling, I think, that in New England, the signs on the oldest churches that give their beginning dates say the church was “gathered” on such and such a date. They do not say the churches were "founded” but that they were “gathered,” as a flock is gathered by a shepherd. “The notion is that of sheep being gathered into the sheepfold.”[1]

This flock – it isn’t a voluntary association! Churches are not our invention; denominations, bylaws, polity – we created those, but the church is not something we form. This congregation, this flock, was gathered by God. This flock belongs to Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He alone is the head of the church.

Yes, I know, we were not coerced into joining and each one of us has the personal freedom to leave at any time. There may be people in the membership who seem to have gone off on their own. But in a deeper sense, in a spiritual sense, we are not free. We are not our own – we were bought with a price. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, and he does it voluntarily.

He gathers us into the fold, and lays his body across the entryway, so that he is the gate – not to keep us prisoner, but to keep us safe. He is the door, not to keep out the other sheep, but to fight off the predators that would come and destroy us. He is the shepherd of the sheep, of all the sheep, and he is willing to lay down his life on our behalf, and on behalf of the world.

Jesus echoes the words of God in the book of Ezekiel: As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. (Ezekiel 34:12-13)

Jesus now makes the audacious claim that HE is the good shepherd.
It is he who gathers us, and carries us, like lambs in his arms.
It is he who leads us beside the still waters and feeds us in green pastures.
It is he who guides us with his rod and comforts us with his staff.
It is he who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies
It is he who anoints us with oil.

It is he who lays down his life, for us, that we might have life, and have it abundantly. 
There will be one flock, for there is one shepherd, to whom we belong, forever.

Amen.














[1] Gomes, Peter. “Good Shepherd, Good Sheep.” Currents in Theology and Mission, 30 no 4 Ag 2003, p 294-296. Accessed 031515

Sunday, March 8, 2015

I AM...the Light of the World


John 1:5-9; John 8: 12
March 8, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

John 1:5-9

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

John 8: 12

12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."



It was the festival of Succot, and people came to the city from all over. Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, was a weeklong celebration. It takes place in the fall, and it is one of the three festivals that called for Israelites to come to Jerusalem, to the temple. The festival commemorates God’s deliverance in the wilderness during the escape from slavery in Egypt.

The first day, people would erect their temporary shelters, or booths, to recall how God had sheltered them in the wilderness. After that, four large lampstands were lit. They illuminated the entire city, and they represented the light of God, the pillar of fire that guided the people through the desert to freedom. There were daily sacrifices, processions, and singing praise. In one, the people marched and sang carrying branches. In another, the priests led the people from the Temple to the pool of Siloam, where they drew water which they carried back through the Water Gate to the temple, where they poured it out on the altar as a libation. For the third procession, the priests would again light the giant lamps, and the party would last into the night, with dancing, singing, eating and general merriment.

Years ago when I was doing consulting work, I traveled to Western Maryland for a conference. You couldn’t easily get to that little town by air, so I flew into Baltimore and drove across the state into Cumberland. It was a beautiful drive to a charming place – right on the Potomac River, surrounded by the Appalachian Mountain range. Cumberland is the biggest city in the area, with about 20,000 people. It has a Walmart, and a community college.

When our conference activity was done, we asked the locals what was available for entertainment. “Well,” they answered, “on most weekend nights, we go out to dinner. Then we go to Walmart and watch the hillbillies.”

It seems the mountain folk would come down out of the mountains to town and do their shopping at Walmart on Saturday nights. Hillbilly watching provided cheap entertainment for the townsfolk.

It might have been similar for the city folks in first century Jerusalem. There were Jews from everywhere, including a bunch of hicks from Nazareth. Jesus has come to town with his band of followers – misfits, all of them – tax collectors and prostitutes, rural nobodies, fisherfolk, liberated women. The hillbillies come to town, not for Walmart, but for Succot. It might have been like a weekend night in Cumberland, Maryland.

It might have been, but these small-town hicks were different. These country bumpkins were led by an unexpected teacher, who kept disrupting gatherings.

He walked past John the Baptist and John called out, “Look! It’s the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Andrew met Jesus and said “You are the Messiah!”

Philip said, “We have found the one Moses spoke about?”

Nathanael was skeptical. He knew about Nazareth. “What good can come out of Nazareth?”
But then he met Jesus and said, “Teacher, you are the son of God!”

Jesus had been to a wedding at Cana and turned water into wine. He visited the temple in Jerusalem and threw the moneychangers out. Then he sat and chatted with a Samaritan woman at a well, and she ran back to town shouting for everyone to come and see. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and gathered food on the Sabbath; he called God “father” and even “daddy.” He fed 5000 people and then said he himself was the bread of life. When he taught at the temple, the officials got so mad they wanted to arrest him. But they couldn’t trump up enough charges. So they seethed.

Now, here he is back at the temple, on a festival day, creating problems, stirring up trouble.
He couldn’t possibly be what they said he was, could he? He couldn’t possibly be the son of God, the Messiah! They argued with him, after he claimed to be the light of the world.
How could some rube from Hicksville walk into the temple and make these claims?

It was a celebration of liberation. The lampstands were lit, illuminating the entire city.
They recalled the pillar of fire that led the people through the night, the light that led them to freedom. And now this Jesus claims to be the light of the world. The light of the world!

What a claim! How could he? 
They picked up stones to throw at him, but he hid himself, and left the temple.

What do you suppose you’d have done, had you been there? If we could all be transported back to Jerusalem in the first century, you think we’d be with the disciples, or with those who picked up the stones? Of course, we’d have been on team Jesus, right?

We’d be able to see right away that Jesus was truly the light of the world, brighter than any of those lampstands in the city for Succot. Before we get too comfortable with ourselves, being on the right side of this narrative, let’s pause a moment and think about how we really, actually deal with darkness.

We claim to follow Jesus, the light of the world. But we’d rather go down on the street, into the night, with the crowds. We’d rather rely on the lampstands, really. We like these pretty images of Jesus, the light of the world. We like hearing “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We like how all those candles flicker and shine in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve. We hold them up high, on that last verse of Silent Night. But come January, that’s all forgotten. Take down the Christmas lights, put away the candles, back to the real world.

Then night falls, and in the darkness, restless, afraid, we wonder: if Jesus really is the light of the world, why doesn’t he dispel the darkness? Look around us! Even in broad daylight, the world is filled with shadows.

Terrorism, war, famine.
Violence, global and domestic.
Children go hungry.
People lack basic necessities.
The specter of heroin hovers over our community; addiction claims friends and neighbors.
In our own households, we struggle with grief and sadness.
In our own hearts, we glimpse the darkness that is never dispelled.

It’s easy to chirp optimistic maxims:
“There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”
But the shadows answer, “What if it is a train?”
“Look for the silver lining!”
And the gloom answers, “It is too dark to see that.”

So we try to dispel the darkness ourselves – we try to stave it off with busy-ness, or material things, or work. We ignore injustice and racism, blame it on other people, claim our own innocence. We refuse the look at our own shadow side, and we stuff our fears and sorrow away, we eat our feelings, and drink our desperation. But we don’t have to do that.

We don’t have to do that!

God is present in the night as well as the day. Jesus loves every part of us – he does not love the sinner and hate the sin. He simply loves us, and loves us and loves us. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. There is a pillar of fire by night, and a cloud by day, to guide us through the wilderness.

That’s what is so powerful about this image and this promise: “I AM the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Jesus is the light of the world.
Jesus is the light of the world.
Jesus is the light of the world.

At the beginning of time and humanity, God spoke and said “Let there be light.”
And God separated the light from the darkness. When the plague of darkness fell over all of Egypt, the people of Israel had light where they lived. God sent light through the prophets, saying, I have given you, Israel, as a light to the nations.” The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. In Jesus Christ, God became that light, the light of life.

His light illumines all the shadows;
helps us find our way in the dark;
shines on our paths;
helps us find what we have lost.

The light that shines in the darkness means we will never walk in darkness. There are plenty of dark and shadowed places that we are called to go in our lives, plenty of miles of wilderness, countless bleak nights. But we have this light that we carry, inside us, the light that never goes out, that may sometimes flicker, but shines eternally.

We have the light of life!
May we always walk in that light.

Amen.