The first three Gospels in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are referred to as the synoptic Gospels, because they provide a synopsis of Jesus’ life. They lay before us the history of Jesus. The fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, is different. John’s Gospel is the most theological; the most mystical; the most poetic. His opening prologue, which is read at Christmas, places Christ before the creation of the world – eternally begotten, not made, as the Creed says. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Those are beautiful words, rich with theological meaning. However you understand these words, it is clearly different from what we find in the other Gospels. We realize early on that something very different is going on; John is approaching things theologically. He’s not just telling us a story.
One of the interesting things we find in John’s Gospel is the “I AM” statements of Jesus. A quick survey gives us the following in Gospel according to John. Jesus is the bread of life (Chapter 6), the light of the world (chapters 8 and 9), both the gate/door of the sheepfold and the good shepherd(chapter 10), the resurrection and the life (chapter 11), the way, the truth and the life (chapter 14), and in Chapter 15, the last of the sayings, I am the vine. All of these things connect the reality of Yahweh – the proper name for God in the Old Testament. The Greek phrase ego eimi, here translated as “I am” is the Greek Old Testament’s way of representing the very name of God. You might remember the story of the burning bush in the book of Exodus: God appears to Moses and gives him his mission. And Moses says, “Who shall I tell them sent me?” And God says, “Tell them I AM sent you.” So in your English Old Testament, when you see LORD (all caps), that is the representation of the divine name. Most scholars believe John used ego eimi in these cases in the same way as it was used in rabbinic Judaism – as a substitute for “Yahweh,” which was not to be spoken aloud. If that is true, then Jesus in the Gospel of John is making the unequivocal claim, “I am God.” So, for the next few Sundays in the season of Lent, we are going to be looking at these I AM statements of Jesus.
The light of day reveals what we cannot always see clearly in the darkness. My maternal grandparents belonged to a private dinner club, which was on the top floor of a bank building in my hometown. From that vantage point, one could see the whole area in a panoramic view. The front of the building was on Lakeshore Drive, and it overlooked Lake Charles. On special occasions, my brother and I would be invited to join my grandparents. A few times a year, the club had a game night for children and grandchildren. At night there is a spectacular view looking southwest over the lake, and you can see all of these distant twinkling lights, which reflected upon the water. It’s really quite lovely at night, like a cityscape rising on the opposite shore. In the daytime, however, in the light of the sun, things look a bit different. When you drive across the bridge to the other side of the lake, you see not the downtown of another city, but a vast industrial complex. Well, they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps it’s beautiful for, say, an engineer. But for this beholder, and I suspect for most of us, it’s a bunch of intricate metal pipe work, smoke stacks, and holding tanks. The bright light of day has a way of revealing things – of showing us that things are not always as they at first appear.
We’ve all been in situations where we’ve discovered that things are not always as they appear. Maybe you’ve had the experience of arriving in a place at night, and you form certain assumptions about what it looks like based on what you can see. But then you wake up the next morning and see things in daylight, and it’s like, “Wow! This place is totally different from what I thought I’d seen last night.” Or maybe as a child you had monsters under the bed or in the closet, so your parents gave you a flashlight. When you thought you saw them and turned on the light, sure enough there was nothing there. It was just the pile of toys or clothes you hadn’t put away. Our minds, our imaginations, have a way of filling in missing details and coming up with a story. But sometimes in the absence of light, the story we tell ourselves is not entirely true.
If you ever took a philosophy class, then you probably studied Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. He describes this group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. And, of course, for Plato the study of philosophy was the process of becoming free of those chains and seeing reality for what it actually is.
Going back 400 years before Plato was the Prophet Isaiah. And the tradition of our faith has described those who do not know God, or who know God but have walked away from God’s ways, as those who dwell in darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” The Bible does not describe our human condition as a lack of philosophical enlightenment; it describes our problem as sin. Literally, we miss the mark of God. We miss God’s best for our lives. When we turn away from God, either individually or collectively, our hearts are darkened. Actions have consequences, and at times we bring suffering upon ourselves. Sometimes the darkness is not of our own doing; it comes upon us because of other people or from nature. Maybe someone mistreated you, or maybe you got sick. We all know these experiences of darkness, when the light of hope seems dim. And in those difficult times, we need to know that the light is still shining somewhere – even when we can’t see it.
And so we have these astounding words of Jesus: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus speaks these words in the Temple during Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles. Jewish people would make these ramshackle tents to remember the story of the Exodus – to remember the hardships of their journey through the wilderness for forty years on the way to the Promised Land. It was also one of the three great pilgrim festivals, and people from all over would travel to the temple in Jerusalem. It was like a big party, and people would gather from far and wide.
There were three important ceremonies that took place in the Temple. The one that’s relevant to our passage is the second one: the temple priests would light four giant candlesticks in a grand ceremony, which symbolized the pillars of fire by which God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt. These large torches would flood the temple area with light, illuminating an elaborate torch dance accompanied by flutes. There was music and dancing and it all lasted until dawn. When it was all over – and the lights had gone out – suddenly there was the voice of Jesus: “I am the light of the world.”
One commentator suggested that we imagine this scene in terms of a sketch and a finished paining. Perhaps you’ve seen an art book of one of the great masters – DaVinci, Rembrandt or Titian. Often these books will include sketches of how the artist planned the painting before he actually painted it. So these prophecies, these feasts, are sketches of God’s redemptive activity. From a Christological standpoint, for Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the finished picture. He is the fulfillment – the filling in – the final picture of God’s saving activity. Jesus is the light of the world, the luminous light that the darkness could not overcome.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Now how can he say such a thing? That’s what the Pharisees want to know. Note what Jesus says at the end of verses 16 & 18: “I stand with the Father, who sent me,” and “my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” Jesus doesn’t stand on his own; he stands with the Father. Remember his baptism? We looked that story a few weeks ago. After he was baptized by John the Baptist, the voice of the Father was heard to say: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” In Jesus’ baptism, we better understand his relationship to the Father. And we heard those words reaffirmed last week in the account of the Transfiguration. The disciples heard the Father say, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Jesus doesn’t stand on his own, because he belongs to the Father. As believers in Jesus Christ, we don’t stand on our own either, because we belong to Jesus. And our belonging to Jesus is signified and sealed in our baptisms. The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” By our faith in him, we belong to Jesus Christ, and in that belonging we have his light of life. It’s not our light; it’s his. We just reflect it.
So here is a hard question for us to think about this week: What would our lives look like if we really walked in the light of life? As Christians, we believe in the impossible possibility: that in Jesus Christ the light does in fact shine in the darkness, that truth will overcome falsehood, that there is hope in the midst of so much hopelessness in our world. We take a leap of faith by trusting God’s true light, and in him we find ourselves embraced by a love that will never, ever let us go.