During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord. On September 25, sat in the Temple Courts during the feast of Sukkot. Our scriptures included John 8:12-20 and Genesis 1:1-5.
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This morning, we continue to explore some of the things that Jesus said about himself in the Gospel of John. Specifically, we are looking at the times when Jesus used the words “I Am” to describe himself. In previous weeks, we’ve considered some of the ways that “I Am” would most certainly bring to mind Moses’ conversation with God in Exodus, wherein God reveals the Divine Name – YHWH, which means “I Am” or something similar – to Moses.
Today we heard Jesus engage in a bit of give-and-take with some of the religious leaders that began with the announcement “I am the light of the world”. As we listen to this statement, and as we join people of faith from all ages in trying to understand it, I think that it is incredibly helpful to take into account where he was when he spoke these words, and also the season of year in which these verses take place.
You heard Julia tell us near the end of the passage from John that Jesus was “teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offering was put.” Our Greek New Testament uses a very specific word for this spot: gazophylakion. It refers to the cluster of offering boxes that were housed in the “Court of the Women” at the Temple in Jerusalem – one of the most accessible places in that structure. The other time that this word shows up in our Bibles is when Jesus and his followers are watching the impoverished widow make her offering. It turns out that the gazophylakion is not far at all from the place where the religious high council – the Sanhedrin – met. Jesus is making this announcement about his identity, then, in full earshot of those who would seek to harm him.
And this is not just any day, either. We know from the previous chapter that Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Sukkot, or the festival of the Tabernacles. This is one of the great feasts that God’s people were commanded to celebrate as they left the bondage of Egypt, and it is a time to remember the fact that God preserved the Israelites for forty years in the desert. During this feast, people are invited to leave their homes and sleep in temporary structures – booths or “tabernacles” – reminiscent of those that housed their ancestors during Moses’ day. The people rejoice in God’s provision, and especially remember that God was with them every single day and night during those years in the wilderness. Perhaps you remember that the people were led through the desert by a cloud of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night.
During Jesus’ day, a central part of the celebration of Sukkot was called the “Illumination of the Temple”. This observance took place in the Court of the Women – the place where Jesus and his disciples were standing on that particular day. Every night for seven nights, the workers at the Temple would set up four giant candelabras. When I say giant, I mean that each of these stands were said to have been fifty cubits tall. For those of you who are rusty on your cubit-to-feet conversion chart, I’ll tell you that means that these candelabras were about seventy-five feet tall! Each had four branches, and at the top of each branch was a large bowl. Each evening every bowl would be filled with ten gallons of oil and then lit. These stands would blaze throughout the night, and as the Temple was on a hill, the entire city would be lit by the flames.
Meanwhile, the faithful would gather beneath the candelabras and sing and dance and celebrate throughout the night. They would give thanks to God for the fact that God had sent the pillar of fire to light the way for the people as they wandered in the desert, and there would be earnest prayer for God to send a new light in their own time and place – to deliver them from the oppression of the Romans – in Jesus’ day.
And so on that particular day, and in that specific place, standing in the shadows of those candelabras, Jesus stood up and said, “I am the light of the world.”
Can you see how that might rattle a few cages, or at least catch the notice of people who were paying attention?
It could be that as this was happening someone remembered the day when Jesus was a baby and had been brought into that same temple for his dedication. On that day, an old man called Simeon took the infant Jesus and prophesied that the child would grow to become “a light for revelation to all the people.”
Or maybe people listening to Jesus remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, who hundreds of years before had said, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (9:2). Of course, Isaiah was only one of the prophets who spoke of the light of God dawning on the people, and the glory that would illuminate the world.
And you know, that sounds pretty good in church. “Jesus, standing in the temple, claimed to be a fulfilment of the prophecies…”
But my hunch is that such language doesn’t mean a whole lot to most of us. I mean, who uses the word “prophecy” much? When’s the last time you turned to a friend and said, “Wow, this is great news! It is as it was written by our forefathers!”? We don’t talk like this.
Can you hear it differently if I tell you that Jesus is in the room saying to the people around him, “I am…I am all that you’ve hoped for…I am your deepest longing…I am your sufficiency…I am your guide.”
And because we all use words differently, I’ll clarify that when I’m saying that Jesus is all that we’ve hoped for, it is at the core level of hope. Sometimes when you’re hungry, you go to the fridge and say, “I hope there’s some leftover chicken in there…” Look, you know this: Jesus isn’t your sandwich – but he is saying that he will meet your needs. Maybe you say, “I hope I get a boyfriend soon.” OK, great. But the deeper need is for you to think that who you are is connected at an intimate level with someone else. You want to know that you matter.
I’m here to tell you that Jesus, standing in the temple during Sukkot, looks up at those 75-foot candelabras and says, essentially, “Yeah, these are pretty cool, aren’t they? I mean, don’t you love the way that they light up the skyline and that hill? All week long? They’re awesome. But as we look at them, I hope you realize that I am the light of the world. I am your deepest hope. I am the hope for all of creation. I am the light that you’ve been dancing about and praying for all week long!”
This morning, I’d like to look a little more deeply at the concept of light, and how it might help us to understand more about who Jesus said that he was and why that matters.
As you heard, in Genesis, we learn that light was the first act of creation. All that is, initially, is chaos, darkness, and the unknown. The Creator speaks “Let there be light!”, and there is! And with the gift of light, that which was dark now becomes seen. That which was mysterious is now knowable.
Light is the first step in bringing order to chaos and a sense of rhythm, meaning, and purpose to God’s world. Light is not only one of the ways, but the first way that God reveals God’s self to the creation.
So how does what happened in Genesis relate to Jesus being the light of the world? What does it mean to us, now?
If light is that which makes chaos discernable and illuminates the paths that are in front of us, then I think that we could say that a relationship with Jesus is a means by which we can find our way in relationship with the world. Do you find yourself facing situations now that are unclear? Perhaps you’re wondering about a vocational direction, or what to do about college. Maybe you’re unsure about what to do or say to get through to your child (or your parent, or both!). I know that you know how it feels to be in the middle of a mess that seems to be really, really deep and incredibly dark.
Genesis tells us that light enters chaos, and somehow makes it more manageable. Jesus tells us that he is the light. Can you ask for light in these situations of your life? Can you ask for the gift of discernment – of knowing which step is the next, best one to take?
It may be hard for you to know how to proceed. Let me encourage you to spend some time in prayer asking God, through Christ, to bring you a little more clarity; to shine a little more light into your situation right now.
And maybe it’s not you who is most affected. Can you pray that the light will become visible in and useful to those who find themselves in a place that seems deeply dark? You know someone, and you love someone, who is struggling this day with the darkness of addiction, or grief, or anxiety, or depression. And yet right now, you are standing in the light of God’s love for you. Maybe you are the one who is called to reflect some shimmer of light into the situations of those who surround you.
But I have to warn you – here’s the thing about standing in the light: the closer that you get to the light, the more likely it is that your own imperfections will be revealed. You know this, practically, right? You know that standing in the light can be uncomfortable. What is easily hidden or overlooked in the twilight of dawn or dusk is suddenly and sometimes annoyingly visible in the harsh glare of noontime.
Years ago a few of us took a boat ride one evening. As the sun set, we found a cherry tree that was laden with fruit. Adam and Lindsay and a few others started picking like crazy, and Henry, who was only four or five at the time, would bring the bucket to us. We picked, and Henry ate. Great! We didn’t think anything of it. Then when we got to my house to disconnect the boat trailer, Henry went in to say hello to Sharon. I heard a scream and she came out of the house yelling, “Dave! What happened to Henry?” In the brightness of the kitchen, she saw the rivulets of cherry juice that had dripped from his mouth all over his chin and thought he was covered in blood – it was juice we didn’t even see as evening had fallen.
That kind of thing happens to us all the time. We think we’re doing all right, and feel good about who we are and where we are. Then somehow, we take a step forward in our life of faith – we start a new pattern of worship, or join a small group. Somehow, we find ourselves growing in our theological understanding or the depths of our own spirits. Sometimes when that happens, we start to feel a surprising and unpleasant sense of dis-ease. We maybe judge ourselves a little more critically, or feel anxious or uncertain, or even develop a case of “imposter syndrome” as we wonder if we really are learning and growing. “Who do I think I am?”, we wonder.
Here’s the deal: the closer we get to the light – even the light that is Jesus – the more our own imperfections become apparent. And in this newfound awareness of our own flaws, we sometimes shrink back from the light. We hold off on going to worship, or shy away from relationships. We don’t want to be phony or fake.
Beloved, there is Good News. It’s not just you! As we grow up, as we grow closer to the light, we may come to learn things about ourselves that are not flattering or pleasant. As this happens, we can ask God to help us to remember that light not only reveals and illuminates, but it also purifies. You know the power of sunlight on a damp and smelly rug, for instance.
Jesus said that he is the light of the world – that he is that which satisfies our deepest hopes. Let us pray for this light to come ever closer to our own hearts. When that prayer is granted, as it will be, let us be wise enough and brave enough to allow the light of Christ to work in us a healing and a purification that we might become better reflections of that light into a world that is crying for it. Let us remember that it is always safe to come out of the shadows, and that God’s promise is to bring order to chaos and light to darkness. Thanks be to God for the light that is Jesus! Amen.