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Sermon for 5 Jan 2014

FIRST READING Jeremiah 31:7–14

7 For thus says the LORD:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give
praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.” 8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. 9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. 10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.

PSALM Psalm 147:12–20

12 Worship the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion,
13 who has strengthened the bars of your gates and has blessed your children within you.
14 God has established peace on your borders and satisfies you with the finest wheat.
15 God sends out a command to the earth, a word that runs very swiftly.
16 God gives snow like wool, scattering frost like ashes.
17 God scatters hail like bread crumbs. Who can stand against God’s cold?
18 The LORD sends forth the word and melts them; the wind blows, and the waters flow.
19 God declares the word to Jacob, statutes and judgments to Israel.
20 The LORD has not done so to any other nation; they do not know God’s judgments. Hallelujah!

SECOND READING Ephesians 1:3–14

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

GOSPEL John 1:1-18

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Light of the World
One of the striking features of the Gospel of John is the way it depicts the life and ministry of our Lord. The other three gospels usually tell us stories about Jesus. Then, like the disciples, we’re left to ask, “Who is this, that the wind and sea obey him? Who is this who feeds the multitude with five loaves and a few fish?” And the list goes on. But in the Gospel of John, there’s never a doubt who Jesus is, because John tells us who this man is. Usually John does so with a statement that begins with the words, “I am.” Put Jesus in a situation and He’ll clarify who He is and what He’s come to do.
You can put Jesus in the desert surrounded by people who are chronically unsatisfied, and Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Or, you can put Him in the midst of people who are confused, people who ask, “Who are you, Jesus? What makes you different from all the other gurus, rabbis, and religious leaders?” And Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (10:7, 9). It’s an act of self-definition.
You can put Him at a graveside, in the midst of grief-stricken people, and Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (11:25). Or put Him in the midst of people who feel disconnected by life’s difficulties, and Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in Me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from Me you can do nothing” (15:5).
In the Fourth Gospel, in one situation after another, Jesus defines Himself and says, “This is who I am….” In the eighth chapter, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12). His words echo the opening words of today’s gospel reading, where the writer defines the person and work of Jesus in terms of light. “What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people … The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (1:3-4, 9).
Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” This is the kind of thing we might expect to hear in these days after Christmas. Just a little more than two weeks ago, we gathered on Christmas Eve to hear the prophet Isaiah say, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We don’t know if old Isaiah had any idea who or what he was talking about, yet we celebrate Christmas as a festival of light. We string up twinkle lights on fir trees. We illuminate our houses. We burn candles in the windows and plug in strings of white and colored bulbs on the shrubbery. We consume kilowatts of electricity during the Christmas season because Jesus Christ is born. In the bleak midwinter, why not shine a little light? Our illuminated decorations are reminders that God’s Light has come to this world. But that’s not the end of our remembrances.
In years past in other churches I’ve been a part of, somebody always asked grown adults to dress up as shepherds and ushers to play the part of wise men. A young couple, and if one of them happened to be pregnant, all the better, were asked to take the role of Joseph and Mary. And we can’t leave out the baby Jesus now can we? It’s been tried time and time again to various degrees of success, but it turns out that it was always safer to hide a 100-watt light bulb in the manger than use a newborn, because, after all, Jesus Christ is the light of the world. We’ve heard it said; yet nowhere can we find what exactly He what that means when He refers to Himself as the Light. So for us this morning, it’s good for us to ask, what does it actually mean for Jesus to say, “I am the light of the world”?
Elsewhere Jesus turns to the church and says, “You are the light of the world.” Of course, that’s the Gospel of Matthew, not John. And when Jesus says this, He’s talking specifically about doing good works. “All of you are a thousand points of light,” He says, and then He adds, “Don’t you dare hide your light under a bushel basket.” But here in the Gospel of John, Jesus never says, “You are the light.” Rather He says, “I am the light.” So again, we’re left to ask, what does that mean?
You can sit in physics class and learn a lot of things about light. Ask Stephen Hawking, who holds the Newton chair at Cambridge. He’ll tell you that light is the ultimate constant in the universe, that it always travels at 186,000 miles per second, that light transmits energy, radiation, and information. Or ask a third-grader to put a sunbeam through a prism and you’ll see the spectrum of a rainbow. Physics can tell us a great deal about light. But there’s one thing physics has never explained, namely, what exactly do we mean by that word “light”? What is it? We know it when we see it, but we can’t really explain what it is.
Unlike space or time, light cannot be defined over against anything else. Depending on whom you ask, light will either act like a wave or a particle. According to Christiaan Huygen’s principle of light theory, light acts as a wave. Or you can reference Sir Isaac Newton’s particle theory and he’ll tell you light is a particle. However, as Young’s double-slit experiment will prove, light will act as both a particle and a wave. Yet even with all these brilliant minds providing explanations, the only thing we can say with complete certainty is that light simply exists. So we’re back to the original question, what does it mean for Jesus to say, “I am the light of the world”? Again there can be more than one possible explanation depending on who you ask.
However, despite the arguments that may surround this question, we must keep in mind that this is an important concept for the Gospel of John. Therefore, we need to take the question serious. Two different times, the John depicts Jesus as saying, “I am the light.” On many occasions, the writer affirms that the coming of Jesus into our world is not merely a light shining, but light breaking into the darkness. It’s as if Creation is happening all over again. Again John records for us that, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (1:3). Look around a dark world and you may see it.
The Creator of heaven and earth has come to visit his creation. Read the face of nature and it becomes obvious. See the snowflakes, so wondrously and specifically created. Look at the shadowy clouds, brooding with kindness. Listen to the chipmunk chattering on a tree limb. Watch the trout jumping for joy. “All things came into being through him … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1:3). That is, in Jesus of Nazareth, the very primal energy of the Creator is breaking anew not only in creation, but also in God’s creatures. All of us were created in Jesus Christ. And all of us are re-created in Jesus Christ. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (1:9).
After rereading today’s gospel lesson, I began to rethink those words from of the Christmas carol Hark, the herald Angels Sing that says, “Light and life to all He brings.” See the freckled face of a child, re-created at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning. Or see it in the mischievous smirk of a grandparent. In my family, it seems that every year a grandparent will extract their gleeful revenge on their once-loud child by giving a very noisy toy to their grandchildren. For those who can see it, there’s light and life given on Christmas.
Ask the recovering alcoholic who finally gets through the holidays without needing a drink. Pay attention to the table where a stranger has been invited to fill an empty chair. See it in a sanctuary full of candles, “shepherds quaking at the sight,” and tears streaming down the cheeks of bankers, bakers, and business people. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” At Christmas time, we might not be able to explain completely the fullness of what that means, but we know it when we see it.
It’s a new beginning, a new birth, for “Christ the Savior is born.” And “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,” children re-born not through human means, but through the bright, shining grace of God (1:12). In that sense, Jesus is the light of the world. “Light and life to all he brings”; that’s the promise for all who can believe it and embrace it.
And yet, I also need to warn you: Jesus is the light of the world. His light comes into our darkness. And for some, that’s not good news. Let’s admit, sometimes we don’t want anybody to turn on the lights. There are deeds done in darkness that we don’t want anyone to see. The coming of light means everything is exposed. Light means we have to deal with the truth. And the very thought of that can be very painful.
There was a priest in a Midwestern city who wanted to help inner-city children. He wanted them to see something more than their own situations. So he put them on a bus and took them to see some things of great beauty. They went to the art museum and saw paintings by the masters. They went to a symphony matinee and heard beautiful music. They went for a walk through a row of homes that were done over by a creative team of architects. That young priest showed those children the best and brightest things he knew. Then they climbed back on the bus and went home. That night one of those young boys set his apartment house on fire. They rescued the neighbors and family, but the place burned down. The priest was in tears when he visited the boy in a detention cell. “Why did you do it?” he asked.
“I saw all those beautiful things,” said the boy, “and then I came home and saw how ugly my world was, and I hated the ugliness, so I wanted to burn it down.” Anytime dark places are illuminated, there’s no telling what will happen. When all you’ve ever seen is darkness, that’s all you know. But when light comes, it can change everything. Remaining in darkness is a choice. In fact, it’s possible for light to come into the world, and for someone to say, “Turn out the lights!” It’s possible for the Light of the world to shine on people, and those very people may not accept it. As someone once put it: What is it, to live in such darkness?
When it comes to people living in darkness we deceive ourselves if we think only of primitive people in the dark remote areas of the world, still without digital watches and microwave ovens. We deceive ourselves if we think only of derelicts crawling along the dark alleyways of our cities. It’s self-deception when we sidestep certain sections of town simply to avoid being disturbed by the conditions in which some have to live. It’s deceptive to avoid any book or any speaker who shatters my illusions of innocence in this evil world. It’s deceptive not to ask questions at work, at home, or at church because I prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. We’re simply deceiving ourselves when we persuade ourselves that problems in the schools, in the neighborhood, in society at large are really none of our business. But probably the biggest self-deception is when we tell ourselves that what we do in the shadows will never be seen, so it makes no difference. What’s done in the dark, stays in the dark.
We know the darkness much more than we want to admit. “This is the crisis of the world,” says the Gospel of John. “Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light …” (3:19). And yet, the light of the world has come, and that light is Jesus. He’s not just any light, but the light of the One who “brings grace and truth.” He reveals the truth; the truth of who we are and who we’re not. He also shines forth the grace of a God who gives life and rebirth. His truth is a light that exposes and reveals. But His grace is a light that renews as well as reveals, exposes and yet also forgives. The Light is more than a candle in the night. The Light of the world is Jesus, our Savior.
A friend named Tom tells about a night when he was a teenager. He and his friends were walking around the neighborhood. It was a warm night and very dark. Suddenly one of them saw a police car and shouted. They hadn’t done anything wrong, but they didn’t want to be seen, either. So they began to run. The police car saw them and watched them turn down an alley. Tom tripped and knocked over some trashcans. The police officers got out the car and began to go after them. One of the officers turned on a searchlight. Tom looked around for his friends, but didn’t see them. All he saw was that burning, searing spotlight, looking for him.
Tom jumped behind those trashcans, only to find his friends huddled there. With frantic energy they tried to hide, pulling trash over their heads and hoping to blend in. Then the spotlight fell on Tom. “Come out where we can see you,” said the voice behind the light. Tom stood up where he was, covered in garbage. “What are you doing?” said the voice. Tom stammered, “Nothing.” The voice said, “I can’t hear you. What are you doing?” Tom said, “Officer, I wasn’t doing anything wrong; I saw the light, I ran, I knocked over these garbage cans. I’m sorry about the disturbance.” The spotlight was beaming into his eyes, blinding him. He stood there in the light with nowhere to hide.
Then the voice said, “I think I recognize you. Don’t you live around the corner?” “Yes,” he stammered. His heart was racing, and he thought to himself, “My life is ruined. If I don’t get arrested for disturbing the peace, something worse will happen: this officer is going to tell my parents.” But then the voice behind the light said something unexpected. “Son, I’m not here to punish you; I’m here to protect you.”
As Tom stood before that searchlight, Tom says he caught a glimpse of what it means to stand before Jesus, who is the Light of the World. There he was, fully exposed yet completely protected. He was fully revealed, yet free from unnecessary punishment. He stood hip-deep in garbage, yet cleaner than he had ever felt, somehow cleansed by a light that cast no shadow. In that moment, he saw something of what it means to stand in the presence of Jesus Christ, who is full of truth and full of grace.
“I am the light of the world,” says Jesus. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12). And the church affirms, “The light shines in the darkness, and no darkness shall overcome it” (1:5). With that I can only add one thing more: because God’s Light brings grace and truth, we have no need to be afraid.

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