Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
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.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
During the season of Lent this year, the six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, we will be spending time together in the gospel of John, and looking specifically at a number of different ways Jesus identifies himself to his disciples. John’s gospel contains a whole range of important sayings of Jesus that begin with the simple phrase “I am.” “I am the light of the world,” he says. “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the bread of life” and “the true vine.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.”
We’ll be taking each of these important identifications in turn, as we move through Lent this year, and studying that deceptively simple “I am” phrase too, which actually carries with it a great deal of theological weight.
Meanwhile today, poised just before the season of Lent begins, we find Jesus in Matthew’s gospel asking: “Who do people say that I am?” and then “Who do you say that I am?”
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples, and they sum up all the standard replies of the day. “Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other ancient prophets come back to life.” (John the Baptist with his preaching about the kingdom of God and calling sinners to repent, Elijah with his dramatic healing miracles, and all those other prophets of old who delivered messages from God to the people.) All the answers are understandable, in way. You can see why they were confused.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with The Cotton Patch Gospel? It’s a bluegrass musical retelling of the gospel stories, set in rural Georgia, with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin, based on the book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, written by Clarence Jordan. Taproot Theater will be performing it this spring, and judging from the incredible job they did with Godspell last year, I’d highly recommend you see it if you can.
It can be enormously helpful to hear familiar stories told in new ways like this. And the Cotton Patch Gospel’s take on today’s Scripture reading is a great example – one of my favorite interpretations of this particular part of the story, actually.
Again, Jesus had just asked the disciples “who do people say that I am?” and they’d offered that range of answers – “some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “OK, but who do you say I am?” Jesus continues. And of course it’s Peter – good old foot in his mouth, rash, impulsive Peter – who actually gets it right.
The way the Cotton Patch Gospel tells it, he took a while getting there. It’s a great scene - a long dramatic pause after Jesus asks the question, all of the disciples looking down at their feet, up at the sky, shrugging their shoulders, looking at each other, and then they all start looking to Peter, the star student, who was supposed to know. And Peter kind of stumbles along: “Umm….Who do you say that I am? … Who do you say that I am? … Who do you say that I am? … We covered this, didn't we?"
But in the end Peter nails it: “You are the Messiah of God.” Messiah meaning anointed one – it’s the Hebrew word for the Greek word Christ. And with that one word comes the whole weight of ancient Israelite tradition, all of that waiting on the Messiah’s coming. He’s here, guys, Peter is saying. Jesus is the one we’ve been waiting for, the Messiah sent from God.
Have you ever wondered how you might answer the question Jesus asked his disciples? Who do you say Jesus is?
Maybe you’ve seen those bumper stickers and bill boards around town over the last few years, the ones that say “Jesus is…” followed by a blank, inviting you to fill in your own answer?
Or perhaps you’re newer to church yourself but you’ve been impressed by some Christian people you know, and you’re curious to know a little more about this Jesus they are trying to model their lives after.
Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of the question. You may have neighbors, friends, or family members who just can’t figure out why you feel church is so important. Who is this Jesus, they wonder. Why would you bother to follow him?
It may even be that you wonder yourself. Perhaps you’ve heard bits and pieces of the Jesus story over the years, but never quite been able to make sense of it. Or not been sure you’re quite ready to sign on as a follower of Jesus, a Christian. Who is this Jesus anyway?
As we move through the “I Am” sayings in John’s gospel over the next several weeks, we’ll consider metaphorical language that may help us strengthen our answers to that question. Jesus as light of the world, bread of life, good shepherd, and so on. My hope is each of us will find one or more images that really speak to us there, and help us to better articulate a response to the question Jesus asks all of us, really: “Who do you say that I am?”
It turns out our answers really matter. Because a whole lot of people today – whether or not they’d ever consider themselves Christians –find themselves wondering about God. Even if they wouldn’t want anyone think them “religious,” they find themselves longing for a spiritual center of some kind. Some sort of grounding in a higher power or a greater purpose. Some sense of the divine. And answering the question “Who is Jesus?” can help us with that broader quest.
The late Fred Craddock put it this way, in an explanation I’ve shared here before: “Do you want to know what God is like? Jesus is what God is like… You see, it is not enough to say, “I believe in God,” or “I believe there is a God.” [Sadly] people hate in the name of God. People kill in the name of God. People are prejudiced in the name of God. [So] what kind of God do I believe in? This kind: I believe in the God who is presented in Jesus Christ…
“What is God like? [Craddock continues] … Do you remember the time when there was a crowd gathered to hear Jesus and they were a long way from home and hungry, and Jesus fed them? That is what God is like. Do you remember when he took those little children on his lap and blessed them and talked to them and talked to their parents? That is what God is like. Do you remember when the leper came up to Jesus and said, “Please help me,” and he was made clean and healed? That is what God is like.
“Do you remember that time when Jesus was with the disciples and they were arguing about who was the chairman and who was the greatest? Jesus took a towel and a bowl of water, knelt down in front of them, and washed their feet. Do you remember that? That is what God is like.
“Do you remember when he took that old cross on his shoulder and started up the hill to Golgotha? That is what God is like.”
To Craddock’s examples we’ll be adding some of our own over the next several weeks. Can you imagine being trapped in complete darkness and then being given the gift of light? That light is what God is like. Can you imagine what it feels like to be a lost lamb, separated from its flock, terrified and alone, and then to be rescued by a good shepherd? That shepherd is what God is like. Can you imagine being ravenously hungry, starving even, and being given the gift of bread? That bread of life is what God is like.
“There is a lot in the Bible I don’t understand, Craddock concludes [and I’ll add my Amen to that]. But I do believe [with Peter] that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the Son of God. [Jesus shows us what God is like.] And I think today is a very good time to say it.”
 Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons, 39-41