December 11, 2005

Jesus: The Light of the World
John 1:1-9

Alaska is a beautiful state. The sprawling terrain stirs the adventurous spirit, the rippling brooks and gentle waterfalls calm the soul, and the mountains—the mountains!—virtually overwhelm all of the senses. Yet anyone who visits Alaska for any length of time, steps away from the sights, and walks among the people for even a moment or two, soon learns that among such stunning beauty lies a great deal of pain. Alcohol abuse is well above the national average in Alaska. So is depression. And suicide. Why? The reasons are, of course, complex, but one major contributing factor remains irrefutable. Darkness. Thick and seemingly endless darkness, lasting over twenty-two hours a day during certain times of the year.

Darkness. We’ve all experienced it. We know what it feels like. We stay inside more and, depending on where we live, lock our doors in the darkness. After all, monsters, Bill Cosby reminds us, come out at night. We avoid cemeteries in the darkness. Keep our hands in front of us in the darkness. Pick up the pace if we hear a sound in the darkness. And we often do what people have been doing for centuries and even millennia when we find ourselves in the darkness. We search for light. Those well before us somehow discovered that rubbing sticks together long enough produced light. Later others realized that fat from animals and oil from olives burned and gave off light. And thousands of years later, Thomas Edison, building on the earlier work of an English chemist named Sir Humphry Davy, fiddled around long enough in his laboratory in New Jersey to develop the incandescent light bulb. Today, we turn on night lights and leave music playing in the background, hoping to combat the darkness. Thick, unsettling darkness.

John the evangelist speaks of darkness. The world, in his estimation, is a dark and dreary place. The darkness of which John speaks is all around us, rearing its ugly head in unending crime, corrupt political systems and oppressive social structures. Look either to the right or to the left, in front of you or behind you. Hunger, violence, loneliness, abuse, and, on a more subtle but no less tragic level, a lack of meaning and purpose. Darkness. But that same darkness of which John speaks is also deep within us—everyone of us—rearing again its ugly head in the form of self-centeredness, evil thoughts, slander, envy and hatred. Darkness—that’s what John calls it. And like our ancestors over the centuries trying desperately to overcome the physical darkness that surrounded them, so, too, people seek continually to overcome the spiritual darkness in which they live through any number of strategies and techniques. “This new religious movement will lead you to the light. This charismatic teacher will explain to you the truth. This book will solve all of your problems. This ‘extreme makeover’ will bring you joy and lasting happiness.” So-called lights everywhere, throughout time and space, claiming to offer the solution to the world’s ongoing darkness. You have perhaps tried one or more of those lights yourself.

The “true light,” John quickly counters, has come into the world. The same one who is the eternal word of God, the same one who was with God from the beginning and is himself God in every way, also shines as the light in this dark and needy world. “Jesus,” John assures us, is not just “a” light—one among many—but is in fact the “true” light that enlightens everyone.

John, as even a casual reading of his Gospel indicates, was rather fond of certain images or metaphors, and “light” was among those that he most frequently used. John refers to “light” no less than 22 times in this Gospel, typically with Jesus in mind. There are various parallels between light and Jesus that John notes, but these appear to be the most important.

Light, first of all, enables people to recognize where they are and where they are going. Jesus, John informs us, once commented that “Those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them (11:10).” Jesus, on another occasion, instructed his followers to “walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going (12:35).”

As a child, I traveled a great at night while I slept. My bedroom was in the basement, and there wasn’t a window in sight. Whether at midnight or midday, the room was dark. I slept in a double bed, and I never knew in advance what position I would be in when I woke up. My head often ended up at the foot of the bed, and my feet on the pillow! In confusion, I’d climb out of bed without a clue as to where in the room I was. I’d feel my way around the room, touching the walls in search of a familiar object that would help me regain my orientation. When I’d finally locate the door and turn on the light switch, everything changed. The light broke through the overwhelming darkness and enabled me to see where I was and where I was going.

So it is with Jesus, John assures us. Jesus, the light of the world, enables us to see where we are and where we are going. The light of Christ helps each of us individually to see our current position in life and where our current path will lead us. His light shines—if we let it—on all of our decisions and ambitions, and that same light guides our life together as a community. While others base their journeys on such things as personal happiness, profit margin and earthly security, the light of Christ opens up a different path. A path of love, justice, mercy and godliness. “Even in terrible circumstances and calamities, in matters of life and death,” Kathleen Norris writes, “if I sense that I am in the shadow of God, I find light, so much light that my vision improves dramatically.”

Light, secondly, helps people recognize pitfalls and danger zones. “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,” Jesus said, “so that their deeds may not be exposed (3:20).” In the same way that light brings to our attention the dandruff that had remained undetected on our shirts and sweaters, so does the light expose the evil that is around us and within us.

When I was pastor at Fellowship Chapel in the Bronx, Deb, Tim and I lived in an apartment above the church. It was actually an old, four-story building, and the walls had been removed on the first floor for the congregation to meet. The building had long been infested with roaches, and nothing short of evacuating and fumigating the entire building would help. The main bedroom in our apartment was located at the end of a long hallway, and the kitchen separated our bedroom from the rest of the apartment, including the bathroom. If one of us in that back bedroom needed to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, we had to first walk across the linoleum floor in the kitchen. And you never wanted to do that without turning on the lights! When you turned on the kitchen lights in the middle of the night, roaches would scatter in all directions. If you forgot to turn on the lights—you guessed it—you would trample on the roaches as you made your way through. Light, as I know from experience, exposes evil.

Jesus, the light, does much the same thing. As I get closer and closer to him, I become increasingly aware of the “unChristlike” thoughts that I think and deeds that I perform. During just these last four or five weeks alone, I’ve become aware again of deep-rooted issues in my own life that continue to cry out for God’s healing. It feels as though I am under God’s microscope as he continues to transform the person who I am. But Christ’s light also helps us see the roaches that are all around us. If we continue to walk carelessly through life without sensing an increasing need to confront the evils in the world—to call unjust policies to our local and national leaders’ attention, to mobilize our resources to feed the hungry and care for the disenfranchised, and to share the Gospel with all who live outside of Christ—then we simply are not walking close enough to the light. The light of Christ exposes evil and seeks to redeem it.

And finally, light has a certain transforming or life-giving quality to it. “…believe in the light,” Jesus said to his listeners, “so that you may become children of light (12:36).” When you are in the light, you change and develop in ways that are simply unthinkable for those who remain in darkness. Friends of ours who live in Alaska asked us recently about the safety risks of sun lamps—the darkness had gotten to them and they craved the light. I’ve also learned in just the last few days about SAD—“Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Apparently, people who remain indoors too much during certain seasons and who are not in the sunlight sometimes experience depression and other negative side-effects. Clearly, a deficiency in light not only stifles the growth of plants—and even kills them—but stunts the developments of human beings as well! Light brings with it hope, energy and life. Jesus, the true light who has come into the world, restores our souls, lifts our spirits, and puts a bounce back in our steps.

Alaska, as some of you know, is a truly beautiful place. But if I asked you if you might want to move there, many of you would respond, “It’s too dark. The nights are too long.” The same can be said of the world in which we live. It’s dark, and the night for many people seems long, even unending. But into this darkness—this thick and dreary darkness—came the true light, Jesus Christ. Light to help us see where we are and where we are going. Light to expose the evil within and around us. And light to give us life. May his light shine in our lives today, and may that same light shine through us into this dark and dreary world.