January 15, 2017, Jesus Is the Light, the Light of the World – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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We’re in the season of Epiphany, which is all about light – dazzling, radiant, blinding light. There was the light of what must have been something like a super-nova that caught the attention of those star-gazers in Persia, a thousand miles or more from little Bethlehem. There was the light of a myriad angels that terrified the shepherds and left them flat on their faces, trembling in the dark pastures. And I can’t even imagine the burst of light that people saw when the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came down like a white bird on Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River.
Light. It’s who Jesus is.
God the Father spoke to God the Son through Isaiah the prophet, saying “I am giving you as a light to the nations.” John wrote of Jesus, “The light has come into the world, and the darkess has not overcome it.” And Jesus proclaimed it to the crowds, “I am the light of the world.” Back when I was a teenager in a charismatic church we used to sing a song, “Jesus is the light, light of the world; he’s ever shining in my soul.” Jesus is the light of the world. We’ve heard it and read it and sung it so many times, that we might forget to stop and think about what we really mean.
There are different kinds of light, and there are different ways that people have understood what the “light of the world” is. Human beings, when they imagine the kind of “light of the world” they’d expect from a god, have tended to go for the showier kind of light – like the very brightest kind of stagelights. A player on a stage is singled out by the glare of the footlights; the spotlight is all for him. Standing alone, in his own little pool of glory, he looks out on the audience and only sees shadowy forms at best – the audience only exists for his encouragemet. People really go in for that kind of divinity: something impressive, the kind of light-of-the-world that demands the spotlight and is pretty much blind to everything around it.
When human beings have invented their own gods, like the Greek and Roman deities, they’ ve tended to prefer that kind of razzle-dazzle-star-power kind of god. But it’s not very much at all like the real Jesus we know from the gospels. One of the reasons people didn’t recognize Jesus when he showed up is that they expected the Messiah to appear as that kind of superpower, with a blinding glory that obliterated everything in its path. But John wrote, “the true light came into the world, the world that was made through him, but his own world didn’t know him.” God gave Jesus as a light to the world – but he wasn’t at all what people expected.
One true thing about light is that it is something essential, something we need. Without light very few living things can thrive, whether they are plants or animals or human beings. In our North Country winters a lot of people suffer from a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, which is a good name for it because the main sympton is that people become depressed. They don’t have much energy. They might get cranky and have a hard time getting along with people. Or they might just feel sad and and sleep the day away. In extreme cases, especially in the really far north where the darkness lasts for weeks or months at a time, some people even begin to feel suicidal. It’s all because the days are so short and there is so little daylight in the winter months that even with electric lights and warm houses our minds and bodies are starving for a bit of sunlight long before winter is over. Light is something we need. Light is so important that the very first thing God did in Creation was to say, “Let there be light.” And that was good.
When Jesus travelled the roads and taught, healing the sick and casting out demons, people flocked to him by the hundreds and by the thousands. Sometimes so many people surrounded him that he was in danger of being trampled. They were desperate to be near enough to reach out and touch him, or even just to be able to hear his voice. The poor and the sick and the outcast, they sought Jesus out like a plant in a dark place will stretch itself out to find the nearest source of light. He had everything they needed; love and kindness, wisdom and the power to overcome the darkness in their own lives. He was light and life to them, and they knew it right away.
It is a modern concept – or rather, misconception – that light and darkness are just two opposing forces, like in the Star Wars movies. It is very popular to think that light and dark are kind of co-dependent – that light isn’t really able to be completely light without a little darkness to set it off. In fact, if you watch too many horror movies you might be tempted to think that even though light is a very good thing, it’s darkness that has the real power. If I am ever tempted to believe that, my favorite picture is to imagine two rooms, one completely dark, with not a glimmer of light shining in it, and one room flooded with light. When you open the door between the rooms, what happens? We know that the light will win every time, pouring in to light up every corner of the dark room – darkness can never pour out to obliterate the light. Darkness is only the absence of light – light is the real substance; light is the only real power; the power of darkness is only in deceiving and hiding and making us afraid. “Light shines in the darkness,” John wrote, “but the darkness has not overcome it.” And it never will.
The third true thing about light is that it is contagious. The other night we were driving home from visiting friends in the early evening, and the full moon was just above the horizon. It looked huge – which Carroll tells me is an optical illusion, but it’s a very convincing one – and it was lovely, and very, very bright. We know that the moon has no power of its own to produce light; the luminous glow of the moon is just a reflection of the sun’s light, shining on it from 93,000,000 miles away. And yet the moon, reflecting that distant glow, is bright enough to cast a shadow on the earth, a quarter of a million miles below it. Light is not only powerful; it is contagious; light enlightens. “Walk as children of light,” Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.”
Knowing what it means that Jesus is the light of the world is more than just having the right concepts. It also means letting his light shine on us so that we become light ourselves. It can be scary, scary in a very different way from the scariness of darkness. Light can be scary because it exposes all that we are, it exposes the good and the bad in us. When we open our hearts to Jesus he exposes the things we’re proud of and the things we would rather forget about or hide away. But when all that we are is exposed to the light it all becomes light – our strengths are not something to be proud of, but just something to be thankful for; our failures are not something to be ashamed of, but something to confess, bring into the open, so that we can finally stop carrying them around and just be rid of them; and our fears lose their power over us. But even more than that, when we become light ourselves, we begin to carry that light to the people around us. Because light is contagious.
When our big kids were little kids they used to love to sing the song about “This little light of mine.” They would hold up one finger – which takes some practice when you have those chubby little baby hands – and they would sing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, all the time, let it shine.” And in all their simplicity they came maybe as close as anyone to understanding the meaning of Jesus being the light of the world. Because if he is our light, then we become light ourselves. And when we become light, we become sharers of his task of shining brightly in a world that is desperately in need of light.