March 25, 2012
“Walking in Darkness”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
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.” And the readers of John’s gospel can’t help but think of, hear echoes of “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” and “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming in the world” and “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” and “while you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” and “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness.” When Jesus stands up in John’s gospel and says “I am the light of the world” the whole soundtrack starts to play: John’s gospel and the promise that Jesus is the light.
Those highlights from Jesus and the Light are a whole lot easier to listen to than the conversation that follows between Jesus and the Pharisees:
“I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
“You are speaking for yourself so what you say isn’t valid testimony.”
“Even if I testify on my own behalf, what I say is true because I know where I am going. You don’t know where I am going, or where I came from. You judge from a human point of view. I judge no one. But if I do judge, my judgment is truthful because I don’t judge alone. I judge along with the Father who sent me. Your law says that valid testimony needs two witnesses. Here you have two: me and my Father.”
“Your father? Where is your father?”
“You don’t know me and you don’t know my Father. If you knew me, you would know my father.”
Can’t we just listen to I am the light of the world…the light shines in the darkness….believe in the light….children of light…light of the world. Music to the ear and to the heart. That dialogue, too much work!
According to John, Jesus spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury; not just “I am the light of the world” but the whole conversation, it was in the temple treasury. You remember the story of the poor widow and her two copper coins. That was also a treasury scene. Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowds putting their money in, some putting in large sums of money. The widow, Jesus said, had put in more than all the rest because she put in everything, all she had to live on. Two gospel lessons from Jesus in the treasury; one unrelentingly clear, the other a bit lost in conversation. Jesus steps into that place where religion and money meet and he has something to say. There where piety and generosity and obligation and discipleship are all a swirl. There where wealth and power and render unto Caesar and you can’t worship God and mammon, there where it all comes in such focus, there in the temple treasury. The widow’s mite and this? Jesus said “I am the light of the world? They said “you just can’t speak for yourself” He said “What I say is true because I know where I am going” They say “whose your daddy?” He says “if you knew me, you would know my father”
Can’t we just play the highlights; Jesus and the Light?
The puzzling dialogue; it sounds like the beginnings of an argument about the Trinity, or at least two parts of the Trinity. Jesus discussing how he and the Father are one. Or maybe it is just another entry point into the philosophical world of John’s gospel that challenges the reader with a level of abstract thinking different from the synoptic narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” That’s so John.
But before any of that, what’s going on here is an argument about appropriate evidence in terms of Jewish law and classic rhetorical argument. If you’re going to stand up and make a claim about yourself, then you’re going to need another witness to substantiate what you have to say. In the highest form of argument, you just don’t take someone’s word for it, especially if they’re talking about themselves. A speaker, in the tradition of Plato and Cicero, makes an argument with proofs and the proofs have levels of validity. This less than clear response from Jesus about his Father and himself, it’s all because the Pharisees need more proof, more evidence, more support. Jesus tells them he is the light of the world and they tell him that they’re going need a little more to go on than that. What we have here in John is an evidentiary matter.
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.” And they said, “you know we just can’t take your word on this.” Right there smack in the middle of the temple treasury, Jesus said “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” And they said, “you know we just can’t take your word on this.” This is early on in the unfolding drama that portrays the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. It’s early, as in “his hour had not yet come.” So when Jesus makes such an audacious claim, the Pharisees ask for a little help. Jesus said “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” And they said, “you know we just can’t take your word on this.”
To be fair, who among us couldn’t use a bit more evidence from the Lord? Who among us hasn’t asked? Has there ever been a time when the people of God weren’t asking? Asking for a sign, for a reminder, for more evidence. Asking not just for help, or strength, or peace, but for a clear indication of God’s presence, God’s leading, God’s future. At a memorial service, the minister will often pray “give us faith to see, beyond touch and sight, some sure sign of your kingdom”. At a wedding, “make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world.” On Christmas Eve, “As you came that night when all was still, so enter our lives this night. Illumine our paths with the light of Christ’s presence that we may clearly see the Christ Child in the way set before us.” Easter Morning, “Fill your church with power that flows from Christ’s resurrection, that in the midst of the sinful world, it may be signal the beginning of a renewed humanity, risen to new life in Christ.” Prayers. Signs. Evidence. It’s sort of perpetual request of faith, actually. You know we just can’t take your word on this, Lord!
It must have been the “light of the world” part that troubled the Pharisees. Surrounded by all the ritual, candles all around, the symbolic light of religious practice there in the temple, how dare Jesus make the claim to be the light. But it’s the “never walk in darkness” part of the claim, part of the promise, that’s where I find myself needing a little more from the Lord. Jesus announces “I am the Light of the World”, I’m right there with him. Jesus says, “when you follow me, you shall never walk in darkness?” Darkness, never, no darkness. Really? And I want to raise my hand and ask for a bit of help from the Teacher on that on. I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but some days, some weeks, it seems like darkness is doing pretty well. Jesus said “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” And I find myself saying, “you know I just can’t take your word on that.”
Not this week anyway. With all the news reports: a self appointed terrorist killing people in France. An American soldier charged with the murder of 16 Afghan civilians. A 17 year old teenager in Florida shot dead by a man anointed by nothing other than the right to bear arms. That’s just one news cycles worth of the darkness that rages. Tara Woodard-Lehman reminded me this week, “Don’t forget that Presbyterians do hold to the reality of total depravity.” That’s the theological term for the utter and complete sinfulness of humankind. Tara was pointing out that no one should be surprised at the weeks when the darkness seems to be winning. In the world, in the family, in your life and mine, moments when darkness carries the day. And the church asks for a sign, a reminder, a bit more evidence.
I have had several conversations about the current production of “Godspell” that is playing on Broadway. A theological topic to discuss often centers on the portrayal of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Jesus-character. One of the differences in the production from when I first saw it a long time ago comes at the very end at the point of resurrection and the last song. The last song was not part of the original play. As the cast carries the Jesus figure off stage toward a very bright light, some would see in that light the symbolism of resurrection life. Then this last song starts. The title is “Beautiful City”.
Out of the ruins and rubble,
Out of the smoke,
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
Our pale thin ray reaching for the day…
We can build a beautiful city
Yes we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man.
When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build
A Beautiful city
Yes we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels,
But finally, a city of man!
Can I tell you that the concept of “the city of man” holds no sway with me. Humanity’s ability to pull itself up by the bootstraps is hardly the equivalent of resurrection hope and power. Call me a Presbyterian if you like, but humankind, left on its own, will never overcome all the darkness. Don’t get me wrong, of course God is at work in and among us. We are servants of the kingdom and God’s light no doubt shines in the world through folks like us. But some weeks, like just this last week, the darkness is so intense that “this little light of mine” is certainly not going to cut it. Some days I’m just not so sure about “this little light of mine.”And if you will forgive me, some days I’m not so sure about yours either…our little lights that shine. Or to put it another way, “you know, Lord, we just can’t take your word for it.”
That’s why you just can’t listen to the highlights of Jesus and the Light. I am the light of the world…the light shines in the darkness….believe in the light….children of light…light of the world. It may in fact, be music to the ear and to the heart, but the profound and compelling promise of God is there in that puzzling conversation too. That the light, that Jesus and the Light, the “I am the light of the World”, it is the very light of God. As you know me, you know my Father. The Pharisees and their response to Jesus, it was an evidentiary moment. But that response, “we need more on this”, it seems to me, it is our Lenten prayer. You know, Lord, we just can’t take your Word on this…..look around, we need more, more of your Light, more of your presence, some sure and certain sign that the blasted darkness isn’t winning.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” and “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming in the world” and “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” and “while you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” and “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness.” “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
In Advent, we celebrate the coming of the Light.
In Lent, we pray for more of it. Because some days, some weeks, some times in the Lenten season of our lives, we just can’t take your word on this, Lord.
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