Last Sunday we heard Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then – putting them on the spot a bit - “Who do you say that I am?” Today Jesus answers his own question, in a sense, offering one of several “I am” sayings about his identity in John’s gospel: “I am the light of the world.”
It seems fitting to begin with light, since it features so prominently both in our biblical creation story in Genesis and in the prologue of John’s gospel, which was our first reading today. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… was life… and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5) Since day one, God has been bringing light out of darkness.
If this kind of thing interests you, the word light appears well over 200 times in the Bible, and of course in some cases it’s simply a descriptive reference - to morning’s first light, for instance, or to the light of a lamp. But in a handful of memorable places in the OT, that is, the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus would have known well, biblical talk of light is specifically about divine light.
Our call to worship this morning, for instance, was taken from Psalm 27, a favorite for many, with that beautiful opening line: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” And in Psalm 4 comes the request, “let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord!” (Psalm 4:6)
In Isaiah, we read that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2) Another reference to divine salvation. And the prophet Micah also talks of God’s light: “when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.” (Micah 7:8)
Meanwhile in Old Testament stories God’s light appears in the burning bush through which the Lord speaks to Moses – a conversation incidentally, in which God identifies himself to Moses as “I am who I am,” a phrase which surely lies behind Jesus “I am” sayings in John… but also light in the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through the wilderness on their way out of captivity in Egypt… and light in the shining brilliance of Moses’ face after his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai.
Jesus knew his scriptures well, so I believe we’re invited to call to mind this whole treasury of light imagery for God, when he identifies himself to his disciples here in John’s gospel as “the light of the world.”
In 21st century Seattle we don’t have much experience with physical darkness. Between the lights of our city’s skyline and our respective street lights, lights inside and outside our homes, and the glow of all of the screens in use at any given moment – televisions and laptops and tablets and phones… we are rarely without some kind of light nearby. Those of you who are drawn to the great outdoors, particularly to overnight camping, may find this is part of what draws you – a rare opportunity to experience a sky that’s dark enough to really see the stars.
What we do know well in this area of the country, though, are significant seasonal shifts in the amount of darkness vs. light we experience in a day. After another long winter of dark mornings and dark afternoons, I know I’m embracing every additional minute of light coming our way as we begin to move toward spring. Thanks be to God for the gift of physical light! And that’s by no means the only light for which we long, is it?
It was just about this time last year that we were looking at the NT book of Revelation – a strange book, to be sure, but one of its dominant themes was the cosmic battle that rages between the forces of darkness and the forces of light in our world. We know about forces of darkness. In any given year or any given news cycle they go by different names. But they’re not hard to spot. The forces of darkness hurt and hate, oppress and abuse, kill and destroy. They seem to gain the upper hand all too often, in fact. Which is why we need regular reminders that in God’s story, light always triumphs over darkness, in the end.
We Protestants don’t do as much with candles as our Catholic and Orthodox counterparts, but I sometimes think they are onto something, because even the smallest of flames can bring us a comforting reminder of that light of God that shines in the darkness.
And that will be your invitation this morning. Totally optional, of course. But any of you who wish to will be invited forward in just a moment to light a candle as a reminder of God’s light, and of Jesus as the light of the world.
The ways in which we need reminders of that light today could be as varied as there are people in this room.
So think for just a moment about a part of your life that needs God’s light. It could be an area of hurt in which the light could come as healing balm. It could be a place of exhaustion or stress in which the light could bring with it a comforting peace. It could be a place of fear or loneliness in which the light would be a sign of God’s steady presence on dark days.
Or you might call to mind another person, or another place entirely, that needs God’s gift of light. Who do you know who is stuck in a deep, dark pit? Who most needs God’s light to break through, to shine brightly enough that they can see it? Or where in our world do the forces of darkness seem to be gaining the upper hand? Pray for God’s light there. In, fact, you’re welcome to light a candle for yourself and one for someone else, if you like.
Alternatively, you could thank God, as you light your candle, for the light of Christ you do feel with you. Thank God for particular people who have shared God’s light. Or ask God for an invitation to share the light with others.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1)
“When I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.” (Micah 7:8)
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
“I am the light of the world,” says Jesus (John 8:12)
Come, receive God’s gift of light…
Come, Lord Jesus, light of the world. Amen.