The Light of the World

This Lent, the folks at Crafton Heights are continuing to look at the “I Am” statements of Jesus.  In Isaiah 42, God says that he is calling his servant to be a light to the world, and in John 8, Jesus says, “I Am the Light of the world.”  Some thoughts about what that means to disciples today…


Ariel and I wait for the “Night Drive” to begin at Kruger Park in August 1998.

Let me tell you about one of the most memorable nights of my life – it must be memorable, because it took place more than 15 years ago when Ariel was only 9, but it seems like it was only last week. Sharon, Ariel and I were staying in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  This is one of the most famous animal refuges in the world – home to every kind of creature imaginable in the African savannah.  It’s a huge park – imagine the State of Massachusetts with a fence around it, filled with all manner of amazing beasts. We had the opportunity to get seats on a “night safari” – a four hour ride in an open jeep through the scrubland. On that ride, I learned at least four things about light.

We got into the truck and took our places near the edge.  Since it was winter, and since we were close to the equator, it was really dark really early.  By 6:15 p.m. it was pitch dark.  The ranger approached the group and told us the ground rules for the trip.  We’d be driving slowly, and the cab and each side of the truck would have a light like thisHandheldSpot. The idea is to sweep the light across the landscape, and when we see something, yell out.  The truck would stop, all lights could focus on what was seen, and we’d be told about whatever it was that we were looking at. She went on to say that if we saw a large animal, we were to be sure to avoid shining the light directly into the animal’s eyes so as not to cause any alarm.  Any questions?  Great! And off we went.

Well, we were about ten minutes into the trip when I learned the first thing about light. I want to be in control. I’d see a shadow move over there, I’d hear a noise over there, and that knucklehead four seats over had the light. “Hey buddy,” I’d whisper. “Over there.”  Did he ever shine the light where I wanted him to? No way.  I wanted to have the light – I wanted to be the one who was directing the beam, seeing what I wanted to see, when I wanted to see it.

African Cape Buffalo at night...a surprising and dangerous sight!

African Cape Buffalo at night…a surprising and dangerous sight!

Not long after that, I discovered the second truth about light that would become important to me that night. We heard a commotion in the distance, and got closer to it.  The lights were sweeping back and forth (of course, I wasn’t holding one) – but all we could see was dust.  Then, in the midst of the cloud, a pair of eyes and a set of horns – it was a herd of African Cape Buffalo. It was cool, because these are some of the biggest, strongest, most majestic beasts alive.  But it was disconcerting, because this herd of the biggest, strongest, most majestic beasts alive was down at the bottom of a gully. If we’d not have had the lights, we’d have driven down into it and not gotten back out.  I learned that light is helpful because it can reveal dangers in our paths.

AFR1 766A couple of hours into our journey, we came upon a couple of beautiful lionesses – right by the side of the road. They were no further away from me than the front row is right now.  There they were, just sitting by the side of the road.  The first light shown on the one who was awake and looked interested. And then the second. And finally the third light came. Right in her eyes. She blinked, and moved. So did the lights. She shook her head. The people holding the lights (all of whom, I might add, were sitting behind me in this open truck), said things like, “wow!” and “isn’t this amazing?”.  She continued to show irritation with the light, and roared.  The people behind me said, “Oh, my!  Wonderful!”  I grabbed my nine-year-old daughter a little closer and said, “Do you remember what she said about not shining it in their eyes?  Let’s not get these lions angry, now.”  At which point the people next to the people holding the lights said something like, “For crying out loud, Bill, don’t you remember? Turn that light away!” And thus, we are still here. But I learned that light can often bring agitation or fear.

GirSunriseAnd most importantly, that night I learned that light can reveal great beauty.  I’d been over those roads in the daytime – but here at night it was like I was in another place.  The animals were different.  The shadows had character.  And time after time, the light revealed some hidden landscape, majestic animal, or curious sight to me.  The lights showed what was there in the midst of the darkness.

So let me tell you why I’m bringing this to you now.  Because in some ways, that trip is for me a parable about light, and a means to understand this passage in John wherein Jesus claims to be the Light of the World. Listen:

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he insists on being the one to define reality.  He calls the shots.  He decides, if you will, where the spotlight will shine.  And the people who hear him in John’s gospel don’t like this any more than you do – because we all want to be in control. We want to call the shots. But we don’t.  And we can’t.

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he reveals danger.  If the people continue to act and believe as they have, they are headed for certain death, he says.  A huge part of what it means to follow Jesus is to be attentive to the things that he says about right living, and truth, and appropriate behavior. I know from personal experience that time after time after time, I could have avoided great pain and suffering simply by doing that to which Christ calls me.

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he brings fear.  His listeners in John were sure that he was possessed by a demon. There’s a fire in his eyes that is alarming –a quality of his speech that can be simply frightening to those who want to keep things the way that they always have been.  In fact, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day insist that if people were to believe Jesus, then they’d be in danger of eternal damnation because, after all, he’s a blasphemer.  That’s why they tried to kill him – because they knew that Jesus was a dangerous man of whom they were deeply afraid.

And lastly, when Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he shows the world for what it is. He reveals those who are genuinely seeking truth and those who are seeking glory from others; he shows the difference between honest questioning and tricky reasoning.

Yes, in the ways that Jesus defines reality, reveals danger, frightens the powerful, and illuminates the hearts of men and women, he truly is the Light of the world. And this is disconcerting to nearly everyone who hears Jesus preach that day, because he is not what they are looking for.

In his study on John, Gerard Sloyan points out that  people were disappointed in Jesus for two closely related reasons.  Either they believed too much or too little about him – in either case, they did not take him at his word.  It was as if everyone that day had a cartoon Jesus to whom they’d rather relate, rather than a living, breathing carpenter from Nazareth.  Some were anxious to make him God in a man-suit; that is, a being that looked to be human, but clearly was not, and could not be. How could God become flesh? Impossible.  But God could seem like a human – and so for some, Jesus was simply God in disguise – God pretending to be human.

For others, though, they believed too little.  They believed that Jesus was the quintessential “nice guy”, a prophet like Moses who would bring them what they needed in a miraculous fashion – but no more than that. Surely not divine.

space-sunriseAnd to these people, and to you and me, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  I am the timeless revealer and Son of God. I am the means by which you can see and experience the fullness of God.  I am the light that illumines your world.

So what does that mean to us?  How relevant is that today? What difference might that make in your life?

For some, it means that we must recognize the fact that there are flaws and blemishes in our own lives. I think that I’m speaking now to those of you who have been Christians for a while.  People sometimes come to see me and they speak of some sin, some error, some evil in their lives as though they are surprised to find it there. New believers don’t have this problem as much – we see sin in our lives and say, “all right, God, there’s another clump of it – get it away from me, please!”  But those who have believed for a while will come to me and say, “I can’t believe I’m struggling with selfishness right now.  It never bothered me before.  Why am I dealing with this now?  Shouldn’t I have moved past this?

Friends, think of the light.  Before you walked in the Light, you were in darkness.  You couldn’t see very far in front of your face, could you?  If there were blemishes or blotches or stains, you sure didn’t notice them, because you were in the dark, and you couldn’t even distinguish them. But as you get closer to the light, the imperfections stand out, don’t they.  What didn’t look so bad from way back there looks pretty rough when Jesus shines the light on it, doesn’t it?  Living with an awareness that Jesus is the light of the world means remembering that each step of your spiritual journey is a step that must be accompanied by forgiveness and reconciliation – because each step we draw closer to the light we discover new scars and blemishes – new places in our lives that don’t quite measure up to God’s best for our lives.

For some of you, living as though Jesus is the Light of the world means that you recognize that you’re not the one holding the spotlight.  You’re not in control, are you?  It would be nice if you could get to where you wanted to get right away; it would be nice if you could choose the path that you were taking.  But the fact of the matter is that there are some seasons in our lives when we’re going to be led someplace that we aren’t all that excited about going.

When you say that Jesus is the light of the world, it means that when you enter into the scary places of your life – the medical diagnoses that frighten you, the relationships that fail, the jobs that let you down – you can be sure that you are not alone in those places.  Is it all right for you to wish that you weren’t there?  Sure, I suppose so.  But the reality is that the only way out of those places is to follow the light one step at a time, trusting that you’ll come to the place where God wants you to be.

And for some of you, living as though Jesus is the light of the world means that you remember that it is he, not you, not me, who truly illumines the landscape around us. It means that we look through the lens of his life and see the beauty and the majesty of our own lives – the ways that God has blessed us time and time again – even when we have been unaware of his walking with us.  Some of us are so worried about moving ahead that we forget to stop and look up every now and then, remembering that he is the one who is in control, not us. Living as though Jesus is the light of the world means that the natural posture for a believer is gratitude and thanksgiving for all of God’s blessings.

Earlier this week, the participants in the Confirmation Class sat with these verses from John and we noticed something else about what Jesus said.  There is a lot of legal language here – Jesus is reminding his hearers that he can be trusted because he will back it up; he’s not just talking to hear himself talk; he is saying the truth that he will demonstrate.

But how do we prove what he said?  How do we know that he is the one who can illuminate the path and direct our steps and define reality appropriately?  The same way that I learned on the jeep in South Africa: we get on and go for a ride. We trust in him. We look where he tells us to look and follow his instructions.  He said that he was the light of the world. Nobody made me get on that jeep fifteen years ago – but it was one of the most magnificent rides of my life. This week, friends, let me invite you to hop onto this ride – the ride of Christian discipleship – and learn to see the world in the light of Jesus.  You won’t regret it.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

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