The Light of the World

– contributed by the Rev. Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson, Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio

[A kind of “Lessons & Carols” for Epiphany.]

Texts: Gn. 1:1-4; Ps. 139:11-12; Jn. 1:1-5; Jn. 8:12; Mt. 5:14-15; Is. 42:5-7

Jesus spoke to them saying, “I am the light of the world.” – John 8:12

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” – Matthew 5:14

I have given you as… a light to the nations… – Isaiah 42:6b

Each summer when my son Nathan was 6, 7, and 8 years old, he and I went to “Dad and Me” Camp-a camping program in Cascades Presbytery in Oregon for Dad’s and their young children-daughters or sons. The “me’s” got to experience camp before they were old enough to go all by themselves. And the dads had a special time with their kids for three days and two nights at camp. Nathan and I had gone twice when, as often happens in the church, the Presbytery asked me to lead the camp “since I knew what was going on.” I said, “OK,” and after lots of thought, I decided that the camp theme would be “You Are the Light of the World.” As much as possible I planned crafts and activities that played with images of light and darkness—like making translucent nametags from heat shrink plastic. Light is a particularly suggestive root image throughout scripture-beginning right off “in the beginning…” when God’s first action is the creation of light.

Genesis 1:1-4 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.

Light figures in many of the creation stories from different cultures around the world. Even the modern creation story that scientists call the “Big Bang” includes light as an integral part of the initial moments of creation. In a sense, all matter is a kind of frozen form of light, the equivalence given by Einstein’s famous formula, E=mC2. When I was a student at M.I.T., a favorite T-shirt sported by physics students began, “God said…” Nathan got this one for himself this past fall. “God said…” and then come Maxwell’s four equations electromagnetic radiation (aka “light”), and then the concluding line, “…and there was light.”

According to Genesis 1, God looked on this initial creation and proclaimed it good. God proclaims all succeeding acts of creation good as well. We forget this universal goodness at our peril, as we go through life attaching labels to all kinds of people, places, and things-proclaiming them to be good or bad, useful or useless, godly or ungodly. In God’s eyes, every thing, every place, every person is created good and is loved by God with a love that will not give up or let go. This is true for you… me… everybody!

Let us pause here to sing verse 4 of #267, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

I love pondering the image of light shining in the darkness as a symbol of God’s grace. So I am deeply saddened by the ways this metaphor is misused to divide and exclude certain people. We remember on this Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend how, all to often, our world equates darkness with evil and light with good, and so comes to devalue the lives of people of color. We might contemplate how “white” light, when passed through a prism, reveals itself to include a full rainbow of colors. Or we might reflect on God’s presence within darkness. In Psalm 139, the singer cries out about trying to get away, to escape from God’s presence, to go somewhere out of God’s sight, beyond the reach of God’s hand. Two verses in particular speak of darkness and light-

Psalm 139:11-12 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you [Lord]; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Darkness is as light to God. The singer meets God within the darkness.

Let us sing verses 1 & 5 of Brian Wren’s hymn, “Joyful Is the Dark.”

Darkness is a very strange thing-actually it’s not really a thing at all. God created light, and darkness too, but only as an absence of light. Oh, we may speak of darkness hiding us, or pressing in upon us, or of being afraid of the dark. But darkness is like dryness or hunger. What is real is the food that satisfies hunger, the water that fills a bucket, the light that shines. Darkness is like the answer to an old riddle. What is greater than God, more evil than Satan, the rich lack it, the poor have lots of it, and if you eat it you’ll die? (The answer: nothing.)

Darkness is a kind of nothingness that is powerless against light. Many of you have seen my “box of darkness.” before. This box here is filled with darkness, yet it’s empty. There’s nothing in it. If I open it, does darkness pour out to stain the air or the floor? Of course not. The room doesn’t even get any dimmer. The light fills the box. Open a curtain at night. . Does darkness pour into the room? No! Light floods out, a beacon in the darkness. The Gospel of John opens with a powerful statement of this image of light shining in the darkness.

John 1:1-5 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.

In John, the gift of life is directly connected to light-“and the life was the light to all people.” Right away the light is identified with Jesus, who is described a few verses later as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” [John 1:9]. When I left my career in science to go to seminary eleven years ago, this metaphorical equivalence of light with Jesus proved most helpful as I began wrestling with theological ideas that just didn’t seem to make sense. There’s the doctrine that Jesus both fully human and fully God, which seems awfully contradictory. Yet light is also highly contradictory-being at one and the same time both a particle and a wave. It turns out that what you observe depends on what you’re looking for. Do an experiment to observe light as a particle, and that’s what you see. Look for wave-like behavior, and voilá, there it is. It all seems very strange, but it’s true. I found in theology classes that the same applies to Jesus. What you find, divinity or humanity, depends on what you look for. One point of disagreement between conservative and liberal theology is that conservatives tend to go looking for Jesus’ divinity and liberals for his humanity. What is important to remember is that both are present at one and the same time. Jesus remains our Lord and our light.

Let us sing a couple of Taizé choruses, “The Lord Is My Light.”

John 8:12 Jesus spoke to [the crowds] saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

This statement reverberates with both divinity and humanity. The “I AM” in this declaration is the holy name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Moses wanted to know what he should say when the people asked him the name of this God who was to free them all from Egypt. “Tell them I AM has sent you,” answered God. Yet the divine “I AM” is also Jesus speaking as a human teacher to the crowds and to the Pharisees about the light of life that reveals the common humanity we share with all of God’s children everywhere. This human connection is important. In one of my favorite stories, a Rabbi who asks his students, “How can we know when the night has ended and the day begun?” His eager students offer answers: when you can tell your sheep dog from the sheep, when you can tell a fig tree from a palm, when you can see the lines on the palm of your hand. “Good answers all,” says the Rabbi, But I say that when you look into the eyes of a human being and see a sister or brother you know morning has broken. If you cannot see a sister or brother you will know that it will always be night.”

Let us sing #411, “Arise, Your Light Is Come.”

Given Jesus’ claim that he himself is the light of the world, how remarkable to find Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount saying to the crowds-

Matthew 5:14-15 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This amazing statement-Jesus, the light of the world, saying that we are the light of the world as well-gave me my theme for the “Dad & Me” Camp. Letting your light shine before others is not just so they may see your good works. That’s especially true late at night after campfire when 20 dads and their kids must make their way back to the lodge in the dark. It doesn’t matter who has the flashlights. Letting your light shine before others is a practical matter of some importance.

As part of the camp program, I’d written a skit for the kids about a blind man whose friends lead him to Jesus to be healed. At the closing worship, I reminded everyone of the skit and then had the dads and me’s play out part of that story. First we dads blindfolded our kids. Then each dad guided his daughter or son out to a spot of his choosing. There the dad removed the blindfold to show the child something special or important-whatever the dad wanted his child especially to see. Then when everyone had returned to the worship area, the tables were turned, and the kids blindfolded their dads. For even the youngest of children are also the light of the world and have special things to show to us dads.

Let us sing together “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let It Shine.”

Isaiah 42:5-7 Thus says God, the Lord who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison of those who sit in darkness.

Being a camp dean made me really aware of how important it is to do things-with the emphasis on do. It’s all well and good for you all to sit out there and listen to me go on and on about being the light of the world. But we really ought to be doing something. Since blindfolding everyone and leading you around seems a bit impractical, we’ll do something else instead.

When I titled my sermon, “The Light of the World,” I immediately thought of the various satellite images of the earth at night. But what I hadn’t realized until I located the photo for our bulletin cover on the International Dark-Sky Association web-site was that what they show is light pollution-wasted energy lighting up the sky and shining out into space. It’s amazing how much energy we squander, both outdoors and indoors.

It’s time to open up the brown paper sack you received coming into worship. [Each person received a sack from an usher. Each sack is stapled shut with a note: “Do not open until directed during the sermon. Handle with care. While sacks are being opened, I turn my bulb on.] What you have is a 13-Watt compact fluorescent light having the same light output as a standard 60-Watt incandescent light bulb. Our Presbyterian peacemaking covenant includes a commitment for the care and restoration of creation. So if we are going to be a light to the nations and let our little light shine, we should do so with real concern for the environment. What I want you to do is take your light and use it to replace a 60-Watt bulb, preferably one you use frequently (but not one on a dimmer or in a location that can get wet). Each time you turn your light on will then become a spiritual exercise. Remember that you are the light of the world—AND consider what you are accomplishing.

The standard incandescent light bulb is 125-year-old technology and is an energy hog in the home. In the church we have replaced most of the standard light bulbs. Here in the sanctuary all of the chandeliers and the lights under the side balconies are fluorescent, reducing our power consumption by nearly 15,000 Watts in this room alone. We no longer can heat the sanctuary with the lights like we did during revitalization when the furnace was being replaced. Your light, which cost less than $1.50, will outlast 8-10 standard light bulbs and use less than one-quarter the energy. Over its life, your bulb will save about 400 kWh—more than $40 at the present cost of electricity in Columbus—reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 400+ pounds and lessen, if only a bit, the environmental devastation of coal mining here in Ohio. It will also save energy used for air conditioning in the summer.

Recently Wal-Mart embarked on a campaign to sell over 100 million of these bulbs this year (the light bulb manufacturers aren’t especially happy). One hundred million is a lot. Just the 125 lights you’ve received here will replace more than 1000 standard light bulbs, save 50,000 kWh (enough to power 5-6 homes for a year), save over $5000, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 tons. So take your $40 in savings and buy more light bulbs and save even more energy and dollars… then contribute some of your savings to a food bank… even drop some in the offering plate. It’s all good stewardship.

The “One who is the light of the world” tells each of us that we are to be the light of the world as well. So take your little light, each of you, and let it shine. Each light is important, but hear also the message of the hymn we’re about to sing.

Many are the light beams from the one light. Our one light is Jesus.
Many are the light beams from the one light; we are one in Christ.

Let us now stand and sing verses 1, 3 & 5 of “Many Are the Lightbeams.”

As you sing, glance around you and see in each and every person a sister or brother in Christ-and know that, indeed, “morning has broken.” Amen and amen.

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