I Am the Light of the World
I Am... • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 25:20
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When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” Then they asked him, “Where is your father?” “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.
This passage contains the second out of the eight ‘I Am’ sayings of Jesus in the gospel of John. The setting of this one is very particular, and we could better understand these words of Jesus if we get a little better feel for what else is happening in this passage.
In the beginning of chapter seven, the disciples are all planning to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles. Jesus says that he will not go with them because his time has not yet come. But after the disciples go, Jesus makes his way on his own sort of undercover to Jerusalem for the feast. About halfway through the time of the festival, Jesus begins teaching in the area of the temple, and his teaching begins attracting some attention. It’s not the first time that Jesus went to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. In fact, John tells us back in chapter five that Jesus has already been in Jerusalem for a festival and has already gotten into some trouble with the Jewish leaders for his controversial teachings. But this time is a little different. Only John includes these stories in his gospel, and there is something unique going on in these chapters that draw a deeper meaning from this second “I Am” statement about light.
The Feast of Tabernacles
The Feast of Tabernacles
First of all then, let’s get a picture of what was happening in Jerusalem around Jesus during this festival. The celebration of the tabernacle was a time for the people of Israel to remember the stories of their ancestors who traveled in the wilderness for forty years with Moses. Perhaps that is why references to Moses figures so prominently in the exchanges that Jesus has with the religious leaders in chapters seven and eight. Specifically, this festival commemorated the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the big tent that the Israelites would set up at the center of their nomadic camp. It served as their movable temple during the years of those wilderness travels. We read in Exodus that God’s presence went before Israel in two forms. During the day, God’s presence was visible as a cloud. During the night, it was a glowing pillar of smoke. In Exodus we learn that whenever the presence of God would move, the people would move along with it. Wherever the presence of God stopped, the people would make camp there and set up the tabernacle right in the place where God’s presence was visible in the daytime cloud and nighttime glowing fire.
Fast forward to the time of Jesus and the celebration of the feast of tabernacles. The temple in Jerusalem replaced the tabernacle tent. So now the temple was the place where the Israelites would go to be near the presence of God. During this particular festival, the people would commemorate the way in which God’s presence was first revealed to the Jewish people in the time of the original tabernacle.
Presence of God displayed over the Tabernacle: cloud by day, glowing fire by night
This festival takes place in the autumn. It is a celebration coincided with the harvest of all the produce that becomes ripe to pick at the end of the growing season—fruit trees and that sort of thing. It also meant that daylight was getting shorter and darkness came sooner as the season was approaching the winter solstice. And so it is said that one of the feature of the feast of Tabernacles took place in the outer courtyards of the temple. The priests would set up sixteen enormous brass bowls on high stands. The bowls would be filled with oil and then soaked with the old priestly garments that the Levites used for the past season, which served as the wicks. As sundown approached, a priest would climb a ladder and use a torch to light each of these sixteen caldron-style lanterns. As darkness fell, the light coming from the temple court upon the hill would be visible to the entire city of Jerusalem.
16 caldrons lit in temple court
Remember that this is a time long before electricity or lightbulbs. When the sun went down, it was dark—completely dark. Imagine, then, that during this one particular festival, all the people in Jerusalem would see this great light coming from the temple court and be reminded that this is how God revealed his presence at night to their ancestors so long ago in the wilderness—through the light that shone above the tabernacle.
Jesus is beneath these festival torches when he says, “I am the light of the world”
The last verse we read today in chapter eight tells us that Jesus spoke these words while teaching in the temple court where the offerings would be received—the outer court where these sixteen giant lamps would be set up during this festival time. It is right beneath these lights that symbolized God’s presence that Jesus spoke the words, “I am the light of the world.” The connection seems so very obvious. This festival of God’s presence seen symbolically in these lights right here…that’s Jesus! The presence of God is right there among them in the person of Jesus. The story right after this scene beginning in chapter nine is the healing of a man who had been blind his whole life. Again, Jesus brings light to someone who had only ever known darkness.
But all the people there miss the connection. They completely miss it.
Living in Darkness
Living in Darkness
People respond to Jesus with confusion & skepticism
All through John chapter seven and eight there are people who hear the teachings of Jesus and don’t understand what he is saying about himself. The Pharisees and religious leaders are offended and respond in adamant opposition to Jesus. But the great crowd of general population in town for the festival all seem to respond with something more like confusion and skepticism. They simply don’t get it. They do not understand. They are in the dark—a cliché metaphor that is perfect for this instance.
Years ago when my kids were younger we would take road trips all together as a family in the minivan. This was before the day of everyone having portable electronic devices. But we did have a dvd player in the van. Ion a long trip we would pack some movies and the kids could pass the time that way. But sometimes we had to take turns when not everyone could agree on which movie to watch. And one of my kids would complain about the movie. And Laura would say, be patient and wait for your turn; we all have to share this one space together. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to get us there as quickly as possible, inevitably having to deal with some traffic and put up with that slow guy who just hangs out in the left lane and won’t get back over while I’m trying to pass. And then I would say, yes kids, listen to your mother, be patient and wait your turn, we all share this space together; and why won’t this guy get over and get out of my lane? Can’t he see I’m trying to pass? …oh wait, maybe that comment was meant for me too.
Often we want to think that only non-believers are living in darkness
Here is where the story hits hard. You see, I believe everyone here wants to take the benefit of the doubt—myself included. We all want to be the ones who read this story and hear these words and react with some sort of righteous indignation towards those who oppose Jesus and stand opposed to the gospel. We all want to breathe a sigh of relief that we get it, that we know Jesus, that we see Jesus, that we are not the ones living in darkness. We all want to quickly jump to a conclusion that the ones living in darkness today are the people who don’t know Jesus, don’t belong to a church, don’t read the Bible.
It seems like a pretty quick and easy answer for us to close the book here and say thank you to Jesus that we are not the ones living in darkness. It seems like a pretty tidy answer and application to wrap this up with a mission to go and share the light of Jesus with all those unbelievers out there in our community and around the world. There are plenty of other places in the New Testament which call for exactly that. The apostle Paul especially advocated for sharing the gospel of Jesus with an unbelieving world.
Jesus is calling out the insiders as missing the real light
But this story here in John eight doesn’t bend that way. It is not only the people outside away from Jesus who are living in darkness. It is the people right there among him who are confused and cannot see the light of Jesus even though he is right there. It would be a mistake for us to walk away from this story without placing ourselves into the shoes of those many other people in Jerusalem who hear Jesus, and yet struggle to understand and apply the full truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus is teaching and why he has come. We need to place ourselves into this story as those who desperately need to hear those words of Jesus even again today. We are the people who still need every day for Jesus to light our hearts and reveal himself among us.
How do we miss the real light of Jesus?
What does this look like? Where are those moment when you and I may think we are in the light, but actually fumble around in darkness? Any time I miss the truth of the gospel of Jesus in my life, I miss the light and I fumble in the dark. Any time I start thinking that I am not good enough and I cannot walk into this place with anything to offer God, then I miss the light of the gospel. Truth: every single one of us is here by God’s grace alone. That’s the light of Jesus for the whole world. Any time I start thinking that I was way too messed up in my younger days and there is just way too much baggage for me to carry that I cannot ever get rid of, then I miss the light of the gospel. Truth: God’s grace covers over all the mistakes and brokenness we have ever committed. That’s the light of Jesus for the whole world today. Any time I start thinking that maybe I do not know enough, I am not smart enough to understand the Bible and to somehow unlock all the secrets of salvation, then I miss the light of the gospel. Truth: The light of salvation comes from Jesus, not from my own wisdom or understanding.
Whenever we conditionally attach the gospel to good works
So, I keep coming to church and I keep hearing messages about Jesus and about his love and about his forgiveness, but maybe I am just not sure that it’s really for me. Sure, there are other people here who get it and have the light of that love and grace, but I just pray and hope against hope that this is a mercy that will somehow be there for me too.
Or maybe it’s completely the other way around. I keep coming to church and keep hearing these messages about Jesus and about his love and think that I’ve got this one nailed; it’s in the bag; it’s all sewn up. I mean, after all, I’m here aren’t I? I come to church. I’ve been to Sunday school. I’ve learned all the right things. I follow all the right rules. I behave in all the right ways. Of course I am in the light of Jesus.
Those Jewish people all gathered around Jesus at the feast of Tabernacles all thought the exact same thing. They saw those torches lighting up all Jerusalem and thought they had it in the bag. Just being born into a Jewish family was enough. Just showing up at the right places and doing the right things was enough.
But Jesus called them out on it. Just showing up on Sunday and behaving by all the right rules is not what it means to live in the light. I can do all of those things and still be lost in dark confusion about who Jesus really is.
Living in Light
Living in Light
So, who is Jesus? What is Jesus really saying about himself to us here today in this passage? What does it truly mean for us to live as people who are living in the light of Jesus—the light of the world?
Jesus is the only light of the world
why do we struggle to show this?
do I put standards and conditions on who is allowed to belong to Jesus?
The light of Jesus shines so brightly in a dark world that everything we do should glow with the light of the gospel. This is not always easy for us. Sometimes we struggle to fully accept the ways in which the grace of God completely wraps itself around my entire life. I wonder why that is so difficult for us to do. The Bible may give us a clue to that. Those people in the day of Jesus who thought that their behavior and their rules were the thing that kept them in the light show us something of why it comes at such a struggle.
You see, when those rules and behaviors become the standard of lightness rather than Jesus, then there are always people we have to keep out because they do not live up to those rules and those behaviors. They have to show the light of ‘getting it right’ before we can let them in.
But Jesus seems pretty clear about this. We saw it last week when we looked at the passage in which Jesus declared that he is the bread of life. The invitation is to all people no matter who they are and no matter what they have done. The invitation to be covered in the light of Jesus is freely given by his grace alone to all who come to him.
Anyone who comes looking for Jesus is welcomed into his light. Anyone. Any time we close the door and tell people by words or actions that they do not belong, then we are the ones living in darkness. But every time we abundantly and extravagantly share the grace of God freely given to all who are open to Jesus, then we live as people in the light of God’s grace and in the light of the gospel of Jesus.
Jesus sits around in our temple courts and looks around at all those other things we set up trying to make our own lights shine before God. And Jesus says, you don’t have to do that. I am the light of the world. Jesus is all the light you and I ever need. His light is abundantly shining his gospel and his grace. And we live in that light.