The sun is shining. Brightly. It makes it a little hard to sit here in the study at home and write this. I have to squint a little bit. It’s almost overwhelming, the brightness I mean. Yet, I am reluctant to close the blinds on our big window. Because the light seems rare these days. End of winter, spring trying to shoulder its way onto the calendar, shoving through the cloud and the cold and the nagging suspicion that it’ll never come. That we’re doomed in this current world of crisis and tragedy to a time of darkness.
I saw an internet meme the other day that sums it up. It was a photo of a bookstore, or a library, sign. It read simply, “the post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels are now shelved with non-fiction.” Sums it up, it seems. Our deepest fears. Our darkest suspicions. That sun blazing in my study window is a ruse, a false promise of brighter times. We live in darkness these days. We’re afraid, suspicious, wary of neighbor and stranger both. I was contacted this week by someone with a plea, with a concern on the heart. How, the question went, will we ever trust those Muslims? They seem out to get us, to destroy our way of life, to take over and tear down. How can we live with this? And of course the irony of the question – which many have, I acknowledge, stoked by the rhetoric of fear that surrounds us – is that it came in the week that a gunman entered a mosque in New Zealand and killed almost fifty worshipers in that space. Who should be afraid of whom?
There is, of course, no simple solution, no easy accusation or even diagnosis of the problems that beset us in our world community these days. Except to say that there are many who walk in darkness.
Duh. I’m sorry, you’re thinking, that’s the best you can do? In the face of this international tragedy you fall back on banalities? You trot out cliches that sound marginally pious but don’t say anything other than the obvious. I mean, come on. You can do better than that, can’t you?
Well, no, I don’t think I can do better than that. Except perhaps to say something like there is darkness in the world. And the darkness is really dark. Therefore, it should be our strongest desire, our deepest passion to seek the light. And not just any light. But a light that gives life.
OK, I can hear your eyes rolling from here. Take a look at the text for this week while I consider how to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like something you’d read on a bumper sticker.
John 8:12-19 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." 13 Then the Pharisees said to him, "You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid." 14 Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. 17 In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. 18 I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf." 19 Then they said to him, "Where is your Father?" Jesus answered, "You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also."
I could have simply chosen verse 12 as the text for this second week of Lent. That is where the “I Am” saying is found. So, we could have read one verse and then all nodded our heads and gone home. Yep, Jesus is the light. Got it, thanks.
The purpose of the subsequent verses is to show us that this isn’t as easy as it first seems. This isn’t a throw away that Jesus just tosses out one fine afternoon. This isn’t just one more metaphor being presented to help us wrap our minds around the reality of Jesus. Or rather it isn’t just that. It is, instead, an offer. It is an invitation to enter into a relationship that takes us to whole new reality, a different way of being alive in the world.
To say that there is resistance is a serious understatement. Jesus’s hearers are stunned, shocked, offended by His words. “Who do you think you are?”, they shout red-faced at him. “What gives you the right?” And worst of all, “Who are you to tell us we don’t know God? We are God experts, we are black belt in God, we have PhD’s in God! You, on the other hand are a nothing nobody from nowhere!!”
This was because Jesus poked them with a sharp stick, trying to get their attention, and they don’t like it. They are trying to take Him to court, to follow the legal rules of witness and testimony. He says, I’m not here for that. “I judge no one,” isn’t an abdication of His role as the Lord of Lords, but an indication that He isn’t here for rules right now, but for relationships. It’s not time for rules, it’s not time for courts, for trials and affidavits - if it was you’d be in even more trouble than you are right now.
He gets a little heated, it seems to me. Because they threw in His face the standard line from any who would oppose us, who would stand in our way, who would challenge our word and our faith: “Prove it!” Arghh, I hate that line. Whether I got it from my kids, or the pagan down the street, or the seeker in the pew, or the soul lost in the darkness of his own making, or of her circumstance. Prove it. And what makes this question so doggone frustrating is that I find it on my own lips, in my own heart from time to time. “Prove it, Jesus.” Prove you are who You say You are, prove it to me so that there is no shadow of doubt, no dark corner of suspicion in the worldly part of me, prove it so that I never waver in my allegiance, never stray from your path, never lose my grip on that strong hand folded around mine. Prove it. Please.
If you take out the verses at the beginning of Chapter 8 here in John (a story which many say is in the wrong place and messes up the order of things), and look back to the beginning of this long debate, you’ll discover that Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles. Like all the great festivals, this one is marked by ritual and ceremony, by tradition and celebration. On the first night of the festival, four lamps, or large torches were brought out to the court of the women, one of the outer courts and lit up to chase away the darkness. It was said that when these torches were lit there was no courtyard in Jerusalem that couldn’t see the light. In the light of the these festival lamps, the leaders and the followers, the wise and the foolish, the saints and the sinners, the rich and the poor would dance. It was the very Presence of God that brought them through the darkness of the exodus, so what else could you do but dance? It was an expression of Joy, bubbling forth from the least and the greatest, made equal by the grace of that light.
It was in that light that Jesus said “I Am the light of the world,” the source of true joy, the fullness of life. You can’t prove it, you have to experience it. You can’t prove it, you have to accept it. If He did prove it for us, He would remove from us the opportunity to choose. Or as my daughter Maddie used to show me, He holds out his hand and gives us the grace to accept the invitation to dance. He gives us the opportunity, the joy of saying yes. The only proof He allows for those who still walk in darkness is the dance of those who have said yes. We are the proof, our lives lived out in joy and hope and sometimes terrifying desperation.
Whoever follows me, He says, will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life. A bold claim. An impossible claim, it seems to me. Given that the world is so full of darkness, given that there is darkness within us – the darkness of fear and doubt and brokenness. It seems like no one can follow, no one does follow. Unless He doesn’t really mean that nothing will ever go wrong for and by the ones who follow Him. Unless He means that even when we stumble, even when we let the darkness get the better of us for a time, that we will never choose the darkness, we will never succumb to the darkness and let hate rule in our hearts. Unless He means that in there, in the core of our being, the depths of our souls, the part we once surrendered to Him, dwells a light that makes us alive, and by that light we can live for Him even in the darkest moments. And so prove, to ourselves at least, that He lives, the Light of the world lives. Thanks be to God.