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.


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