Monday, May 15, 2006

'I am the Light of the World' - A Sermon preached (in various forms) in Dollingstown, Magheralin and Dromore on 14th May 2006. John 8:12

This Friday, the Da Vinci Code will be released in the cinemas here. After the hype of the book, more people will again be asking just who Jesus was. Over the coming days, we will no doubt hear many opinions about him, most, probably wide of the mark. There will be no shortage of views. But this morning, let’s turn again to hear what Jesus says about himself.

In our reading this morning, Jesus says ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (8:12). So what does this mean? When Jesus says he is the light of the world, what does it mean for us?

In John’s Gospel, we find a series of ‘I am’ statements, where Jesus speaks about himself. So we find that Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life’ (6:35), ‘I am the gate for the sheep’ (10:7), ‘I am the good shepherd’ (10:11), ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (11:25), ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ (14:6), and ‘I am the true vine’ (15:1).

These ‘I AM’ statements talk about the functions and roles Jesus plays. But even more, they are an echo of the divine name, the covenant name of God, which was revealed to Moses at the burning bush: ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Exodus 3:14). We find this occurrence again at Jesus’ arrest, later in John’s Gospel. ‘When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.’ (John 18:6). The soldiers fell before his divinity.

Some of these ‘I am’ statements are directly connected to the ‘signs’ in John’s Gospel, as a way of explaining the sign. So, for example, we find that after Jesus feeds the five thousand, he tells the people that ‘I am the bread of life.’ And just before he raises Lazarus from the dead, he tells Martha, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

As with the raising of Lazarus, and the feeding of the five thousand, this statement is linked to the sign. In chapter nine, we find that Jesus heals the man born blind, at the same time, saying again that ‘I am the light of the world’ (9:5). So again, something physical and real for the individual is a sign of something spiritual, of universal importance. Just as the man born blind was released from his darkness to be able to see, so we can be released from our darkness, and live in the light of the gospel, the light of Jesus.

In order for us to understand just what this means, and to see how it applies to us, we’re going to go on a quick tour of John’s Gospel, looking at his use of light. So first, let’s turn to the beginning of John’s Gospel, to the Christmas Gospel. This passage is probably so familiar, that sometimes we can miss things in it. In effect, verses 1 – 18 are the manifesto for the whole gospel, the teaser trailer before the details are explored. We find the key themes that John will return to time and again in his gospel.

‘In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it’ (1:4-5). Verses four and five clearly flag the importance of light, and of life. We’ll consider these later on, but for now, we notice that ‘the light shines in the darkness.’

You see, the world was full of darkness. This darkness takes many forms, and points to a variety of things, none too pleasant. As we find in Psalm 88, darkness is a symbol of mourning and grief, as we read ‘Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend’ (Ps 88:16-18).

But the main image of darkness is that of sin. This is the darkness that covered the earth (oppression, injustice and pain). But rather than being ashamed of this sin, and wanting to do something about it, people got used to the darkness, they got used to going their own way. But, as you might have experienced during a power cut, it isn’t easy to walk about in the dark – you stumble and fall – even in your own house, where you think you know where the table is, and that unit…

But into this darkness, ‘the light shines.’ While the people around him were stumbling in the darkness of sin, Jesus, the sinless one was a light. He was different to those around him, shining brightly. And yet, as he shone brightly, the darkness ‘has not understood it.’

When we move to chapter three, we find that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, and he tells him a startling thing: ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it might be plainly seen that what he has done has been through God’ (3:19-21).

‘Men loved darkness instead of light.’ How true this is. Because as we sin, we get used to being far away from God, and being in darkness, and we start to prefer the darkness, where no one can see what we’re really like. The light can be blinding, and bring fear.

In my room in college, I have big thick curtains. They’re great, because they close out all the light, which means I can sleep. But come morning, it means that when I open them, the light can be rather blinding if the sun is shining. And it almost seems preferable to keep the curtains closed, to sit in darkness, rather than have the bright light shining in.

‘Men loved darkness instead of light.’ We see this in the life of Jesus, as the Pharisees and scribes and teachers of the law become more infuriated with him. They just cannot understand what he is saying – or perhaps, maybe more accurately, they understand what he’s saying, but don’t like it. And what did they do? They plotted against him, had him arrested, and crucified him. The darkness has not understood the light. In the margin of my Bible, though, it suggests that another way of saying it in the original language is that ‘the darkness has not overcome it.’

The hymn ‘In Christ alone’ speaks of his crucifixion like this: ‘Light of the world by darkness slain.’ But the darkness did not overcome the light. Jesus rose again from the dead, and is alive for ever more, and his light shines brightly. Just think of a dark room – it seems that darkness is in control. But light one candle, and what happens? The light of the candle banishes the darkness – light is stronger than darkness. And in the same way, the light which Jesus brings is stronger than the darkest situation you find yourself in – no matter how dark.

Jesus is the light of the world. The Jew would have been instructed and known that God was their light. We find that Psalm 27 opens with the words ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ (Ps 27:1). The background to chapters 7 – 10 of John Gospel is that Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles (7:14 cf 7:2). The Feast was all about remembering the time that Israel spent living in tents coming out of Egypt and moving to the Promised Land. One of the things that happened, then, was that four huge lamps were lit in the temple courts, which provided light for the whole of Jerusalem.

This action recalled the ‘pillar of fire’ in Exodus 13, which provided light for the Israelites to travel at night, and demonstrated God’s presence with them as they travelled. But the promise of the prophets was that the Messiah would not just be a light for Israel, as we read in Isaiah: ‘I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth’ (Isaiah 49:6). So we find that Jesus is indeed the light of the world, not just of Israel.

It’s the light that we need, in order to see and to walk. We find this stated both negatively, and then positively in the verse we’re especially focusing on. Jesus says ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (8:12).

‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.’ As Jesus then says in chapter 12, ‘The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going’ (12:35). Is that you today? Are you looking to the future, not knowing what is going to happen? Have you been walking in the dark up to now, not knowing what was happening? Have you been stumbling and falling, as you walk in the dark?

I remember one summer, maybe about ten years ago. Me and my friend used to go for long walks in the summer, out on the country roads round Dromore. One sunny summer’s night, we decided we would go for a walk out round by where my family used to live, where my grandparents had lived, and my dad grew up. I knew it was a couple of miles out of town, and so we set off. Eventually we got there, and passed the house. Being young, and enthusiastic, we decided we would walk on, and do a loop, coming back into Dromore a different route. And so we walked, and walked, and walked. The route home was much longer. But it was also getting dark. Eventually, we couldn’t see too far in front of us, and by the time we got back to the town, the streetlights were on. That certainly taught me a lesson about needing lights to see where we were going, and I haven’t tried that walk again in the evening!

We needed a light for the journey, to see where we were going, to pick out the road. Jesus comes to us today, and says, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.’ So will you follow him? Will you come to walk with him in his light?

Jesus does more than just say the negative. He also gives us the positive promise. ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ When we follow Jesus, when we come to believe in him, he brings the light of life.

Earlier we noted the connection of darkness with sin, and with sin comes death. But when Jesus, the light of the world comes, he promises the light of life. As the commentator Bruce points out, ‘In the first creation, “darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Gen 1:2) until God called light into being, so the new creation involves the banishing of spiritual darkness by the light which shines in the Word’ (i.e. Jesus. Bruce, The Gospel of John, p. 33).

Remember, Jesus said these words at the Feast of Tabernacles, as the Jews recalled the pillar of fire taking them out of the land of Egypt. Earlier we thought of God’s presence with them. But that light was also their salvation – taking them from the darkness of Egypt (where one of the ten plagues had been darkness), to the light of life in their own land. In the same way, Jesus, the light of the world, has shone into the darkness, bringing salvation to those who will see his light and trust in him. It is as we trust in him, that we have the light of life, walking with him, and enjoying eternal life with him.

If we move to the book of Revelation, we find the new Jerusalem, our dwelling place for eternity. And we find these words: ‘The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the nations will bring their splendour into it’ (Rev 21:23-24), and ‘There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light’ (Rev 22:5). The light of the world shines in glory forever, being the only light we need.

But what about the meantime? Jesus is the light of the world, but he is now in heaven. Does the world now have no light? In 9:5, Jesus says that ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ So is the world in darkness now that Jesus is in heaven? Has he left us without a light? By no means! As we read in Matthew 5:14, he tells his disciples, ‘You are the light of the world.’ Just as Jesus was the light of the world, so he sends us also to be light of the world, as we witness in our workplaces, and homes, and schools to him.

Jesus said: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ Are you in darkness today? Come to Jesus, the light of the world. Are you stumbling in the darkness of sin, or confusion, distress? Come to Jesus, and you will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. And as you follow him, shine for him, pointing the way for others who are still in darkness.

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