A sermon given at Colonial Church on June 30, 2019 for the 4th of July.
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.” Then the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.” 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. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. 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. In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” 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.” He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.
– John 8:12-20
Will you pray with me?
Oh, light of the world, fill our hearts and minds and souls and lives that we might be people who walk in your light. Amen.
Well, good morning. It’s good to see you all on this very lovely week when we celebrate the independence of the United States of America. I’m so glad to be here with you this morning. As I was working on this sermon and sitting with this passage this week, I kept thinking about a lot of different songs. Those of you who know me at all know that music is my jam—meaning that I like it a lot. So it might come as no surprise to you that this love goes way back. One of my memories from growing up is when I was in middle school at a youth retreat and heard a song from a new album by a Christian band called DC Talk. The song went:
“I want to be in the light as you are in the light, like the stars in the heavens.”
I loved that song. I remember listening to the on my Sony Walkman, belting out, “I want to be in that is you are in the light. I want to shine like the stars in the heavens.” I loved the song and with all of my heart I wanted those words to be true of my life.
And the reality is that sometimes those words feel that true, those times when you lift up your hands and say, “I want to be in the light.” And light feels like life, and light feels like the things that make your soul sing, your body dance, or you tap along a little bit if you’re not into dancing.
But sometimes, being in the light is actually really uncomfortable. Sometimes, light is painful, and sometimes light exposes stuff that some of us—myself included—might have spent our lifetime trying to make sure it will never see the light of day. Right?
And so today, in our second week of the “I am” summer series, we come to this passage in the book of John where Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” And today, we’re going to explore what it means when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” in terms of the depth and power of what Jesus is saying and what John is claiming here, and then connect that to our own lives and the beauty and the struggle of what it means to be a people of the light who follow the Jesus who said, “I am the light of the world.”
So, a little bit of context to begin. For some of you, when you’ve heard this passage, it may remind you of some passages in the Jewish scriptures, going back indeed to Genesis 15:1 where we see the first “I AM” statement. “I AM” is said over 300 times throughout the Bible, so much so that the biblical God is often called the “Great I AM.” Indeed, in Hebrew, one of the names for God, YHWH, is connected to the Hebrew verb which means to be or I am. Thus, when Moses encounters God in the burning bush and says, “Who should I say sent me?” God responds, “I AM that I AM.” I am. Paul Tillich, a theologian, excavates this notion of God as the I AM and writes about God as the ground of being, meaning like God is the one who holds and sustains us; the one in whom we breathe and have life. God is I AM. The I AM has sent you, Moses.
So here in John, he is inviting the Christian community into making a deep connection between Jesus and the biblical texts that had preceded Jesus, wherein the Jewish people would know God as the I AM. In so doing, John is arguing that Jesus is God. “The I am has sent you. The I am is now me. Jesus.” This connection would have not been lost on the hearers of this repeating theme of Jesus as the “I AM” throughout the gospel. Historically, the Jewish people had been a people who said, “The Lord, your God, the Lord is one.” Now along comes Christians who were claiming that Jesus was also God. And the Jewish leadership was like, “You’re not monotheistic anymore, folks. You got multiple gods if you claim Jesus is divine and equal with YHWH, the Great I AM.”
So John’s gospel takes the story of the people of God, and connects it to the story of Jesus, claiming that he is the I AM. “Boom. You don’t mess with the I AM. I AM. Those two words are telling us an important thing about who Jesus is and is meant to be both in our lives and in the world and in the church. And in this particular passage that we read for today in John chapter eight it, “I AM the light of the world.”
The theme of light and darkness is also totally present throughout scripture. If we return to Genesis one, there’s light and darkness. There are many texts that name God as light. This makes me think of another song:
“Lord, you’re leading me with a cloud by day. And then in the night, the glow of a burning flame.”
For Israel, God is the flame of light that led them through the desert. The beam of God’s presence is the light that guides them. Or in the Psalms we read, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light for my path.” Thankfully, I don’t know the song for that one. Just kidding, I actually do: as Amy Grant sang…
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”
I might have a problem… or a really wonderful skill, right?
This theme of light is an important symbol throughout scripture, arguing that where there is light, there is the presence of God. For the light shows us that God leads, God is with God’s people, and we indeed are not alone.
Now, way back in the day when I was in seminary I wrote a paper on the theme of light in the book of John, tracing the theme of light through the book:
John 1:4-5, 7-8 “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….He (John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
John 3:2 “(Nicodemus) came to Jesus by night.”
John 3:19-21 “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil for all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done by God.”
John 5:35 “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.”
John 6:16-17 “When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.”
John 8:12 “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.’”
John 9:4-5 “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
John 11:9-10 “Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’”
John 12:35-36 “Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’”
John 12:46 “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”
John 13:30 “So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.”
John 19:39 “Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night…”
John 20:1 “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”
John 20:19 “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…”
John 21:3-4 “They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak…”
One of the beautiful things that John does is in his gospel is he makes a lot of contrasting dualisms in the book: Light and dark, flesh and spirit, and so on. These sorts of themes are present throughout the book of John. So a fun study you could do is pick one of these dualisms such as darkens and light, go through the book of John, and pay attention to where light and dark shows up in the text so as to notice what he is saying about light and darkness.
Beginning of the book of John, we start here where it says, “In him was life.” So the connection of that life and light, the light, the light, the light. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. And then later in that same passage Jesus is called the light of the world. So you see that throughout the book. These are my comments afterwards, you can ignore those. The yellow is all the times that light appears, and it continues to appear repeatedly up until John 12, because John is building the case that Jesus is the light of the world. That keeps going and going and the theme of light is present throughout the entirety of the book of John. And by continually referring to the light, John is making the case that not only is Jesus the I AM, at Jesus is the light of the world. It’s like a double whammy of saying Jesus is, indeed, God and God with us.
Throughout the early days of the church they continued to wrestle with how to make sense of Jesus. At their gatherings and councils up until the Council of Chalcedon, the church wrestled heavily with who Jesus is. And here in the book of John, we have a clear picture of John saying, “Hey folks, Jesus is God. And Jesus is the light of life.” That indeed is another important and beautiful part of the connection in John that light and life go together. When we move out of darkness, as John tells us, a story about Jesus, we move into God’s glorious light. We experience the freedom and the life that is possible in Christ.
So we come to this passage here for today in John chapter eight. It’s on page 104 of your Pew Bibles. Just to give you a little bit more context of what’s going on: the earliest versions of the book of John that we have, many of them exclude the story at the beginning of chapter eight of the woman who was caught in adultery…though that would be interesting, we can talk more about that on another day.
If we go back then to chapter seven and skip to verse 12 which Pete read for us, what’s happening right before this is that they ask and they say to Jesus, this is verse 52 of chapter seven. “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” So what’s happening right now in the book of John and the conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus is that they indeed are saying basically, “Who do you think you are?” And so we come then to John 8:12 and Jesus answers them by saying, “I am the light of the world.” I don’t think they liked that very much, because indeed they were well versed in the scriptures, and by saying this and claiming to be both the I AM and the LIGHT, Jesus is claiming divinity. This continues throughout the entire chapter of chapter eight. This question of who you are, and Jesus has dialoguing back and forth with them throughout the chapter.
As we continue through the chapter, we see Jesus talking about himself as the light of the world, about if you follow my teaching, you are my disciples, and the truth you shall know when it will set you free. And he ends at the very end of this chapter, Jesus says to them, “Very truly I tell you before Abraham was, I AM.” So this entire chapter is making a case for Jesus being connected to YHWH. As Jesus says, “I AM the one who was sent, the one who was to come. I AM the light of the world. And as you walk in that light, the truth will set you free.” Now, the Pharisees can hardly bear this teaching. And I’ll admit that often when I’ve read this passage, I’ve thought to myself, “Man, what’s wrong with them? It’s Jesus. They should totally get it.”
I usually associate myself with the hero line of any story. And as it turns out, I’m not always the hero of the story. And the invitation of the light of Christ is a reminder to walk in the remembrance that none of us have to be heroes who understand or get everything in order to walk into grace and embrace and be embraced by the light. For indeed, some of you and your own lives have known what it has felt like to have light encounter you in a place of shame and darkness. And it has felt glorious and freeing, right? Maybe it was the first moment when you chose to show up at an AA meeting and said, “This is my name…And I have a problem.” Maybe it was at a retreat or an experience where you raised your hands in surrender and said, “I don’t have to hide in shame anymore.” Maybe it was a secret that you had been keeping for years, and you’ve known the beauty of what the freedom has felt like when you finally spoke the truth.
Sometimes light feels like life immediately. But sometimes light doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes I want to talk to owners of clothing shops and say, “Do you want us to not buy your clothing?” Because if you’ve ever been to a shop and tried on clothes you know what I’m talking about—where the light in the dressing rooms is so terrible and you look in the mirror and think, “I don’t look this bad, I think, right?!” It’s because the light is harsh and terrible. And sometimes the light of life is actually like that–sometimes light is really painful in what it exposes about us. Just like sometimes when a beloved friend points out something that hurt them, it’s soul crushing. Sometimes when you feel like all your business got put out on the street you think: “Can I please go find something to hide under?” Sometimes the light of truth is excruciating. Sometimes being in the light means you feel exposed, ashamed, and alone. Sometimes light exposes things that feel like they will destroy us.
It’s normal human psychology and ego protection to want to hide those parts, to want to stay safe. It’s normal to be afraid of the light. But here’s the thing…this news…that Jesus is the light is actually good news. And here, in John the I AM of Jesus is connected to the verb in Greek from which we get “ego.” Jesus is the I AM, the one whose light, in what it exposes, opens up a space for us to not have to live in self-protection, to not have to try to fend off from each other what we’re so sure might destroy us if the light came in. Because if God really is the I AM who holds us and sustains us, which we affirm, right? Right? Would be the right answer. Right? If the I AM is the one who holds and sustains us, if the light of truth is the light of the gospel of grace, then nothing which is exposed cannot be healed and taken up. Walking into the light can sometimes be painful, but it is always the truest moment of life and life everlasting. The exposure of the light is the way to true life where we refuse ego protection, and find ourselves held and sustained by the fire of the GREAT I AM whose light and life doesn’t burn up the bush or destroy it, but calls us to take off our shoes and walk on this sacred ground.
Some of you know that this past week my former church was kicked out of their denomination. It was a painful week for many connected to the Evangelical Covenant Church. And it was a time where people were wrestling with what it means to live in the light and to discern the truth. Sometimes taking that journey can be painful. Sometimes walking into deeper truth means having to admit things that we don’t want to admit.
Last week, Andy and I watched The Heart of Gold, a HBO documentary on the coverup inside of the United States Gymnastic Association related to Larry Nassar’s abuse of over 300 young girls under his care. As I watched it, I didn’t just think about Larry Nassar. I thought about myself…how in my thirst and quest for the USA to win the gold at the Olympics to, back in late eighties and early nineties, to win against the USSR and the Romanians…I never stopped to think about the cost.
I never stopped to ask questions about who might get harmed in the pursuit of gold. And watching that documentary reminded me that sometimes having to walk in the light and telling true stories about who we are, about our families, about our gymnastics teams can be painful.
But the Great I am holds us, and we don’t have to be afraid. For wherever there is light, there is healing, there is acceptance for all of who we are in the light of Christ’s grace and love. And this week as we celebrate Independence Day, it’s a time where the word freedom ought to mean something special to us. And indeed, we proclaim and affirm a gospel of freedom. And when Jesus says, “I AM the light of the world,” he is calling to us to be a people who are free. A people who are healed, a people whose wounds get bound up. A people who sometimes come with our arms open, singing the song, “I want to be in the light!” And sometimes are like, “I want to be in the light, maybe tomorrow.” And sometimes just run away, plugging our ears to the call to walk in the light.
The other gospels that speaks about light is Matthew. You may remember the passage where it says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matthew 5:14 NRSV) And that’s the people we are indeed invited and called to be. A people who, as a church, are a place where light dispels shame, where the Great I AM holds and sustains us. And where the one who is the light of the world through the healing work of God’s Spirit allows us to be the people of the light.
Walking into the light can be scary. And whether you come with open hands, dancing; whether you come with fists clenched; or whether you come unwillingly, may the God of all comfort whose Spirit is a Spirit of truth and life and light breathe on all of us, inviting us to be a people who can sing and with our whole beings proclaim, “I want to be in the light as you are the light. I want to shine like the stars in the heavens. Oh Lord, be my light and be my salvation. All I want is to be in the light.”
Let us walk in the light as he is in the light, and let us shine the light so that even sometimes when our lives feel dark, we remember we are not alone for the light of the Great I AM will lead and guide and heal us now and always.
 DC Talk, “I Wanna Be in the Light,” Jesus Freak (Nashville: ForeFront Records, 1995).
 Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, reprint ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
 Rich Mullins, “I See You,” Songs 2 (Brentwood, TN: Reunion Records, 1999).
 Amy Grant, “Thy Word,” The Collection (Nashville: Myrrh, 1986).
 See, for instance: Yonat Shimron, “Evangelical Denomination Expels Congregation Over LGBT Policy,” Religion News Service (June 28, 2019), accessed online at: https://religionnews.com/2019/06/28/in-a-first-evangelical-covenant-church-expels-minneapolis-congregation/.
 Erin Lee Carr, At the Heart of Gold (New York: HBO, 2019).