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The light of the world

The contrast between light and darkness has been an idea exercising many minds across the millennia. Consider, for instance, just these three examples: 
1)    “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when adults are afraid of the light.” (Plato, Greek philosopher, 428–348 BC).
2)    “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King Jr., American civil rights activist, 1929–1968).
3)    “We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are.” (J.K. Rowling, author of the ‘Harry Potter’ novels, born 1965).

In all these instances, ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ are being used metaphorically. That is, the people making the statements about light and darkness weren’t just referring to their physical properties but were using the words as symbols for other ideas. Thus, ‘light’ represents notions such as truth, love and wisdom. ‘Darkness’ on the other hand represents ignorance, hatred and evil.

The Bible frequently discusses light and darkness in this metaphorical manner. In all, it contains 238 references to ‘light’ and 219 to ‘darkness’, a total of 457. Here are three from the Old Testament:
•    ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ (Psalm 27:1)
•    ‘The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn’ (Proverbs 4:18) and…
•    ‘Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2)

Jesus himself often referred to light and darkness in his preaching. For example:
•    ‘Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16)
•    ‘Take heed that the light which is within you is not darkness’ (Luke 11:35) and…
•    ‘The light has come into the world, [but] humans have loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19).


    We heard Jesus’s most famous pronouncement about light and darkness in this morning’s scripture reading from John 8, especially in verse 12, where he not only refers to the light and the dark but declares himself to be ‘the light of the world’. “I am the light of the world,” he proclaims; “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but have the light of life”. By calling himself that, he wanted his audience to understand who he was and why he had come to live and work among them.
    Speaking allegorically like this is fine; and we all do it all the time, sometimes when we’re not conscious of doing so. But what was Jesus trying to say by claiming to be the metaphorical ‘Light of the World’?


    I’ll spend the rest of this sermon trying to answer that question’ and I’ll start by saying that in John 8:12 we have the second of the seven famous ‘I Am’ metaphorical statements that Jesus makes about himself in the Gospel of John. As you may recall, ‘the Seven “I Am” Statements in John’ are a series of explanations Jesus makes about himself, trying to tell his disciples and others who he was. “I am the bread of life”; “I am the light of the world”; “I am the gate for the sheep”; “I am the good shepherd”; “I am the resurrection and the life”; “I am the way, the truth and the life”; and “I am the vine, you are the branches”.


    You might notice that each “I am” statement consists of two parts. Each statement is structured so that, first, there’s a metaphorical “I am” declaration — “I am the bread of life”, “I am the light of the world” and so on. Second, there’s an explanation following each declaration, to clarify what each metaphor means. For example “I am the bread of life” is followed by the explanation, “Those who come to me will never go hungry”. In the case of “I am the light of the world” the clarifying sentence is “Those who follow me won’t walk in darkness but have the light of life”.


    Let’s now consider the context in which Jesus makes the second of these “I Am” statements. It occurs one day as he’s teaching a crowd of people in the Temple precinct in Jerusalem. A group of Pharisees is present, listening intently for an opportunity to find fault. They hear him pronounce himself to be the ‘light of the world’ and then claim that his followers won’t walk in darkness because they’ll have ‘the light of life’. That leads to a debate between him and them over the validity of his teaching. Briefly, if translated into modern idiom it would have gone something like this:
Pharisees: “We can’t take your claims about yourself seriously, because you yourself are your only witness. You need an independent authority to substantiate your claims about yourself.”
Jesus: “Yes, I am indeed my own witness; however, what I say about myself is true because I speak with the authority of my Father.”
Pharisees: “Where’s this Father of yours? Let’s hear what he has to say about you!”
Jesus: “You haven’t taken the trouble to understand me or find out who I really am. If knew who I am, you’d recognise my Father; and you’d know that I speak with his authority.”


    It’s an unsatisfactory, inconclusive argument. The Pharisees aren’t convinced he has the authority to make grandiose claims about himself. His allusions to a parent he can’t produce there and then to bear witness on his behalf is hardly a point-scoring argument. He doesn’t say he’s referring to his heavenly Father, so they probably think he means Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth. If anything, the debate probably convinces them that he’s dangerously delusional and should be locked away somewhere.
    Fortunately, however, not all who heard the debate remained as stubbornly resistant to Jesus. If we’d continued reading John 8 for another 12 verses, we’d have seen that the argument ends with Jesus affirming that he comes from God, that God is continually with him and that he is doing God’s will. “He who sent me is with me,” Jesus says in John 8:29. “The Father has not left me alone, for I always do those things that please him.” John then tells us in verse 30 that “as he spoke these words, many believed in him”.


    What the inconclusive debate between Jesus and the Pharisees does do is help us his followers some 2000 years later realise what a great struggle he had in convincing his sceptical contemporaries that he was God’s son. Reading about all the arguments he got into, we can appreciate that more often than not Jesus was under siege by his enemies. Indeed John 8 ends at verse 59 with the angry crowd picking up rocks to stone Jesus. At that point he judiciously retreats into the Temple, where he hides. He’d just upset them greatly by telling them that he and his Father had always lived in union together, and long before the birth of Abraham. The co-existence of Jesus, his Father and the Holy Spirit throughout eternity is a fundamental doctrine in Christian theology. We call it the Trinity — the perpetual three-in-one unity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. During Jesus’s lifetime, however, that was so radically challenging a heresy in respect of Jewish belief that it moved his audience to attempt his murder.


    There’s not much of the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ in John 8! It’s a feisty Jesus in fierce contention with his critics and under attack by enemies seeking to silence him. Indeed, one way of viewing the Gospels is to see them as an extended account of  the conflict between Jesus and his critics over who and what he was — a great drama which for Christians reaches its climax in the Crucifixion and Resurrection and in doing so validates all the claims Jesus ever made about himself.
    And now, having considered the context, let us turn to the question of exactly what Jesus meant by declaring that he is the light of the world; and that whoever follows him will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life. At first sight it seems to be a fairly straightforward, unambiguous metaphor, doesn’t it? Jesus is a light that floods the world, enabling us to see things clearly. Situations, relationships, obligations, codes of conduct, thoughts, actions, attitudes and behaviour — we appreciate them the better in the light that Jesus sheds. He is a great beacon, a lighthouse, showing us the direction he wishes our lives to take. He is the sunshine that brightens up our day and the searchlight that pierces the darkness of our night. If we follow the ‘Jesus light’ we can never go astray, never lose our way, always remain focussed on our right relationship to God and our right relationships with other people.


    So far, so good; but perhaps Jesus meant more than just that. I think that the key to what he meant is the final part of his second “I Am” statement, the phrase saying that his followers will have the ‘light of life’. What did he mean by that?
    In John’s Gospel ‘walking in darkness’ is a phrase used several times. It doesn’t just refer to evil and to wilfully committing acts that are sinful. It also means actively rejecting God’s message of eternal life achieved through faith in Christ. Those who reject Jesus are rejecting the gift of new life and spiritual renewal that he offers; and so they walk off into the darkness that is separation from God. In John, darkness and death go together, whereas ‘light’ and ‘life’ together signify the dynamic relationship with God that a commitment to Christ promises. In their rejection of Jesus, those who don’t believe in his redemptive powers condemn themselves to spiritual death. By saying he was the ‘light of the world’, Jesus was telling his audience that he was bringing them the ‘life of light’ — the spiritual rebirth and connection with God that accompanies belief in him.


    The coupling of ‘life’ and ‘light’ occurs elsewhere in in John’s Gospel. Right near the beginning, in John 1:4, John describes Jesus this way, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” John is telling us that Jesus brought hope and restoration to a world of brokenness. He cured the sick and suffering; he accepted those who were society’s rejects; he gave new confidence to the guilt-ridden by forgiving their sins; he gave people assurance that they could enter God’s kingdom; and he personally displayed all the goodness of God through his care and concern for others.


    In speaking of ‘light’ and ‘darkness’, later in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to the related, contrasting notions of sight and blindness. In John 9, most of which describes his miraculous healing of a congenitally blind man, Jesus repeats his “I Am” statement by saying, “I must work the works of him that sent me….As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world….I have come into the world that those who are blind may see.” ‘Light’, ‘life’ and ‘sight’ are the metaphors he uses to explain that he has come from God to bring to humans both spiritual rebirth and a sharing in God’s kingdom. By contrast, ‘darkness’, ‘blindness’ and ‘death’ are allegories for rejecting Jesus’s promises, for shutting oneself off from a relationship with God through Jesus.
    For us Christians, ‘the light’ is a metaphor that has direct bearing on our own lives. The light that is Jesus reveals to us the truth about ourselves. We don’t fully understand ourselves and our links with other people until we see ourselves and others in relation to Christ. An angry dispute with someone you love in which you’ve said hurtful things? Rudeness and harsh words to other people, either unintended or, worse, intentional? Savouring revenge for some imagined affront to your dignity? In the light of Jesus we see that the damage we do to others is damage we also do to Jesus. Stepping into the light of Jesus to confront the ugly individuals we readily ‘default’ to is a tough experience because it forces us to evaluate our relationships and realise the shocking enormity of our faults.


    There’s another way in which ‘the light of the world’ is immediately relevant to us. This is the way it illuminates the big issues continually confronting us as we make our way through life. Often these are political, requiring us to adopt a stance or position that we take because of our Christian belief. What, for example, did you think about our government’s committing troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to ending the people-smuggling trade into Australia from Indonesia? In making up your mind in these matters did you consider them in the light of your Christian belief?


     Of course, in each of these issues we must acknowledge that many other Christians, equally sincerely, probably believed the opposite to us. Does that mean the ‘light of the world’ for them was false, that they really remained unilluminated? That’s a question I would answer by saying that God gives us freedom of conscience, which in turn allows us to interpret the Gospel and apply it in our lives in accordance with our consciences. The corollary to this is that we must continually and prayerfully examine our consciences in the light that Jesus sheds, so that our understanding is shaped by our perceptions of what he expects from us.


    In this present era there is no shortage of issues in which Christians can ask Jesus for illumination. What light, for instance, does belief in Jesus throw on problems like the tsunami of refugees flooding into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East? Same-sex marriage? Euthanasia? Abortion? Anthropogenic climate change? And how does our consequent understanding determine our action in these matters? I guess that if we surveyed the opinion of Canberra’s Christians on these issues we’d discover the same range of views there is in the wider community. Personally, I have no easy answers in any of these matters; and in some of them I feel conflicted.


    I cannot speak for you, but for me at least the best guide to a response in any such issue is to shine the ‘Jesus light’ on the problem at hand by asking myself the ‘WWJD’ question — ‘What would Jesus do?’; and also, importantly, its converse, ‘What would Jesus NOT do?’— and then be guided by my conscience, which I must continually re-examine. That in turn brings me back to John 8:12 — “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life!” For me as a Christian there’s only one way of seeing things, and that’s in the light of Jesus. Without that light we are blind; we go groping and stumbling in the darkness to find our way through life in all its complexities.


    As we seek to walk in the light of Jesus, may Christ be with us always as our guide! In Matthew 28:20 Jesus promises that he will be. “I am with you always,” he assures us, “even unto the end of the world.” Help us, Lord, always to trust that you will be as we seek to live in your light the lives to which you continually call us! Amen.

Ian Willis Sunday 30 October 2016.

Ian Willis

Dr Ian Willis is a long-term lay preacher at TUC.

Ian has a deep commitment to prayer and regularly gives his time to pray with preachers and worship leaders before worship services each Sunday.

Ian is also a writer and historian.

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About Our Church

Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering and ministry.

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