The Light of the World
One of the most interesting and challenging things about the gospel of John is how much the stories connect to each other. John leans heavily on everyday words like life, love, light, dark, see, know, truth, word, son, eat, drink, bread, water, wine, world, and peace. Although they are short, these words carry realms of meaning that build up over the course of the book and get deeper the more you think about them. In the gospel of John these small powerful words are both literal things and often metaphors. John uses them over and over again so that when we hear a word or a phrase we connect it to the other times that it is used.
During Lent we are considering together the times when Jesus uses these simple words as very deep metaphors to describe who he is and what he has come to do in the world. Most of these metaphors have become very famous, including the one we are going to hear this morning. This morning’s passage is pretty short, which means I have time to give you some context.
This morning’s story happens right after a celebration known as the Feast of Tabernacles, which commemorates God’s care for the ancient Hebrews as they journeyed in the wilderness and also encapsulates their hopes for a good harvest. The two main symbols in this festival are water and light. On the first day of the festival, the Jewish people would like four absolutely massive lamps in the courtyard of the temple, gigantic bowls filled with oil and thousands of wicks up on pillars. Writings from this time say that the lamps lit the whole city of Jerusalem, and since the temple is on a hill this light was visible for miles. It was incredibly rare for anything to be lit up like that in the ancient world. The other thing I want you to know is that during the Feast of Tablernacles, which lasts for eight days, Jesus had increasing conflict with some of the Jewish religious leaders. The laypeople were divided about who he was and whether they trusted him. But most of the people who had power were very threatened by his words and signs and this is where we see their intensifying desire to arrest him and eventually get rid of him permanently.
So with those two things in mind, a temple and a city lit up and intensifying resistance to Jesus, here’s this morning’s story from John, chapter 8, verses 12 through 20.
Jesus spoke to the people again, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Then the Pharisees said to him, “Because you are testifying about yourself, your testimony isn’t valid.”
Jesus replied, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, since I know where I came from and where I’m going. You don’t know where I come from or where I’m going. You judge according to human standards, but I judge no one.
Even if I do judge, my judgment is truthful, because I’m not alone. My judgments come from me and from the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the witness of two people is true. I am one witness concerning myself, and the Father who sent me is the other.”
They asked him, “Where is your Father?”
Jesus answered, “You don’t know me and you don’t know my Father. If you knew me, you would also know my Father.” He spoke these words while he was teaching in the temple area known as the treasury. No one arrested him, because his time hadn’t yet come.John 8:12-20
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
If you were here last week you might remember that I said John has a lot of long passages. I fully admit that we are taking a small chunk this week. It’s pretty clear where this passage starts, but it’s not so clear where it ends, although we have stopped at a point where Jesus is about to pivot to a new subject, as natural conversations do. I encourage you keep reading on your own.
For this morning’s consideration, Jesus is the Light of the World. Whoever follows him will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life. Our worship this morning culminates in a celebration of Communion, but I want to say a little about this passage before we get to the table.
This image of light shows up many times in John’s gospel and I want us to make two connections. There are two other places where the ideas of light and testimony are brought together in this gospel. The first is all the way back at the beginning in chapter 1, verses 1 through 9 which says, “In the beginning was the Word and Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light. The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.” Light and testimony.
The other place it shows up is in a story that we read several weeks ago, where Jesus heals a man using mud made from his spit. In that story, which is in chapter 9, Jesus also says that he is the Light of the World, and then the rest of the story is about how people don’t accept the man’s testimony.
So I’ve been pondering what light and testimony have to do with each other. And I think they are both about how we grow in our knowledge of the truth. A little while later in chapter 8 Jesus says that if we continue in his word, we are truly his disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. And that if the Son makes us free, we are free indeed. So knowing the truth of Jesus makes us free. But how do we know the truth?
One way is that we allow Jesus to light up our world. We allow him to shine (it’s metaphor, remember?) we allow Jesus to shine in places that are dark, in us and around us. When the light comes on, we are able to see what’s really there, instead of what we assumed was there or what we were afraid was there. Jesus as the light of the world banishes darkness everywhere so we can see what’s really truly there. Father Richard Rohr says, “We can only build on the truth.” So Jesus shines to make visible what is real, and then it’s up to us to adjust our perception of the world based on what we see.
We’re all familiar with the phrase, “I don’t believe my eyes.” It is possible for us to see something that doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions of the world and because we don’t want to change, we find ways to not believe our eyes. This is what the religious leaders do to the man who got healed by spit mud. They can’t imagine how anyone could be healed of blindness and so they look for some other explanation. In order to be set free by truth, we have to be willing to see. We have to be willing to trust in new possibilities, to ask good questions not straw man questions that just make other people look stupid. We have to admit that maybe we were wrong in the past. When the light of Jesus illuminates something we haven’t seen before, we have to be willing to believe our eyes, to trust what we see.
But seeing for ourselves isn’t the only way to be set free by the truth. We can also be set free by the truth if we accept someone else’s testimony. Which means we trust their eyes. The fact that I’ve never seen a miraculous healing doesn’t mean miraculous healings aren’t real. The fact that I’ve never been discriminated against because of my race when looking for an apartment doesn’t mean that housing discrimination doesn’t happen to anyone. The fact that my friends and I don’t use this gospel’s statements about “the Jews” as a rationale for anti-Semitism doesn’t mean that no one ever has. Around here we have a goal of walking humbly, and it is supremely arrogant for us to assume that just because our eyes haven’t seen something, that thing isn’t real. These three sections in John, chapter 1, chapter 8, and chapter 9, remind us that Jesus wants us to be free, that it is truth which makes us free, and that we know truth by seeing it for ourselves and by accepting the testimony of others.
Which makes a lot of sense as we come to the Communion table this morning. As we discussed last week and on Ash Wednesday, we find transcendent life when we take in the Word Made Flesh. This not a celebration of death, but of life. Let’s receive the imagery this morning NOT that we are taking the dead body of Jesus but that we are taking in the Living Word so that we may more fully live. At this table, we receive what we need to live for something greater than our own glory. We are fed and satisfied and gathered with others who share our goals but not our exact same beliefs and experiences. And Jesus is here, not dead bread Jesus, but the living Jesus, the word made flesh, the bread of life, the Light of the World. That’s uplifting, isn’t it? That’s good news. Which is why for hundreds of years all around the globe our Christian siblings have insisted that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races and sexes— people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east and west and gather around Christ’s table in this space and where Christ is the host at every table as we worship in our homes this morning. Amen.