This message could have been called World Light. Or Strobe Light. Or Real Light.
It also could have been subtitled: How to ensure you’re never elected to public office or denominational hierarchy.
To see what I mean, read below. It’s a message in which the WHEN and the WHERE has everything to do with the WHAT.
And it’s a message with this almost offensive bottom line:
Jesus isn’t the brightest light. He’s the ONLY light.
Well, you know that phrase “not the brightest bulb in the box,” right? (AV of bulb box) We use it in describing someone who in comparison to others is not all that smart. Someone who has a knack for coming in second in two man races. It’s a companion to phrases like “not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” “not the sharpest pencil in the desk,” or my favorite “a few fries short of a Happy Meal.” So in this one, there’s a box, full of bulbs (either Xmas lights or my favorite, just plain ole light bulbs), possibly of the 30 watt, 60 watt or 100 watt variety (do an ascending light show) and the one under conversation is not the brightest bulb. Which means, of course, someone else IS.
And so, well and good, you know this series is all about The Light At The Beginning Of The Tunnel, and if you’re like me and you figure that at some level all the great religious & philosophical figures of world history are in the box – Confucious, Plato, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, Kim Kardashian – then most of you pretty much want Jesus to be the brightest. The bestest. And so we look today at a story in John 8, a story that involves light, and it is one of those stories in which WHERE and WHEN Jesus says what he says has EVERYTHING to do with WHAT he says. The claims he makes here can never, ever be separated, never well understood, apart from the where and when of his making them.
Here’s the situation. When know from John 7 that Jesus is in Jerusalem during Festival time. And we know it’s not going well for Jesus there — the religious elite keeping lining up against him and against his message. And specifically, what seems to be in the background in John 8 is the Festival of Lights, which meant that the Temple – Jerusalem’s grand religious structure – was adorned with as many as 16 impressive light bowls (AV). In an era before electricity and night lighting, these were like incredibly ornate and impressive candelabras. When all of them were lit up, at night, the locals said that all of Jerusalem could be illuminated by them. This was the Jews’ way of celebrating that God’s first creative words were “Let there be light.” Part of the ceremony with the lights and candelabras was actually dancing before the Lord. Yes! We think we’re taking a big risk, being super expressive, when we lift a hand . . . and yet our Jewish ancestors felt that if you wanted to celebrate the Lord, you danced in his presence. Can I hear an Amen that that’s not a 10C?!
So there is this incredible spectacle of light – you can’t overstate how impressive this was in an era before electricity – and the religious elite of Jerusalem are dancing & celebrating under the candelabras. And we know from John 7 that this crowd of Jerusalem elites are already lined up against Jesus. How does Jesus respond? He walks into this hostile environment, in the midst of his opponents, in the middle of their celebration, and chooses the THERE and the THEN to crash the party. Look at these words:
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.
Oh Lord! When you know the WHERE and the WHEN, you realize just how aggressive this is! How brash! How in your face!
Jesus is saying, “All this? These candelabras? This dancing? Your boasting that the candles illumine all of Jerusalem? It’s all just PRETEND. It’s all just PRELIMINARY. I am the authentic fulfillment of all of it. All this stuff you are seeing and doing will really just swept up in me and by me. This is fake, partial; I am authentic and complete.” What Jesus does here is sort of like . . . going to the Dean Dome on the campus of UNC-CH and planting a DUKE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS banner; it’s like heading down to Tampa Bay and on the 50 yard line putting a sign that says The Panthers Are The Best (Until the Super Bowl); it’s like going to the RNConvention with a big Feel The Bern button; it’s like going to Mecca at the height of the hajj with a shirt that says JESUS IS LORD. It’s bold, defiant, dangerous, and essential.
Which makes the pushback that much more understandable. Look at 12:13:
The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”
Essentially, “we hear you, we don’t believe you, and what give you the right?!” And 8:14 is tremendous, it captures everything about how John pains the picture of Jesus:
Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going.
The whole of John is about knowing where Jesus has come from and where he is headed to. Jesus knows it. A few among his followers know it. The bulk are clueless. But Jesus is like “I know my origins and I know my destiny – where I’ve come from and where I’m going” because 8:16c:
I stand with the Father, who sent me.
In John 10, it’s I and the Father are one. 8:19 removes all doubt about Jesus’ boldness, his brashness, the decisive, dramatic nature of what Jesus is saying:
Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”
“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.”
All before me is preliminary, all around me are pretenders. This is not your flannel graph meek & mild Jesus! I guess you could say this is Jesus unfiltered.
Because surrounded by the religious elite, in the middle of a light ceremony that was the talk of the town, Jesus unleashes a shot across the bow, an in your face comment with unmistakable implications. Here it is: Jesus is not the brightest light. He is the only light. He is not first among equals; he is alone among pretenders.
Because listen: when he says “I am the light of the world,” think of what else he means. He is telling us: the world has no other light. If there is light in the world, it is of Jesus. Because he is THE light and not A light, all other truth claims, all other religious and philosophical wisdom is the definition of darkness. After all, look how he finished 8:12b&c: READ. There is no other alternative. It’s Jesus or darkness. Jesus or nothing. Life or death. Jesus is not the brightest light. He is the only light.
See, here’s what most of us Xns living in the US believe or want when it comes to world religious and competing truth claims. Remember the box? There’s Confucious and Buddha and Mohammaed and Krishna and your horoscope and Gwyneth Paltrow. And we subtly think, “well, Islam is maybe 30 watts (do it?).” “Buddhism? More peaceful, more serenity, it’s probably 60 watts.” “The god of your understanding? Hey – I know a bunch of now sober alcoholics, so that must be 90 watts (do it?).” “Jesus, well, he’s MY Savior so in my box at least, we’ll let him be the 120 watt bulb (do it).” And as nice as those thoughts, even if in your mind Jesus is BETTER than others or wins the comparison, that misses the point of John 8 completely. He’s not in the comparison game because he is beyond compare. He’s not slightly better than other figures and philosophy because he created them in the first place! He’s not brighter than they are; he is the only one shining at all.
Or maybe we think it’s like when you go to the eye doctor? Remember? This. Or this. 1 or 2. This or this. Increasing from blurry to clear. We think ok, maybe that’s a good comparison. All the religions give a blurry picture of God but you put them all together and you give clarity.” Or “Jesus is like the 20/20 while the others are 20/30 or 20/40 or 20/100.” Nope! Jesus is the light of life and all else is darkness. Any light that IS in other religions is somehow a gracious reflection of what originates in Jesus. It’s an act of his grace, not sourced by their wisdom. Jesus is not first among equals on a team of rivals. He is alone among pretenders in a world of evil. Jesus is not the brightest light. He is the only light.
This is hard stuff, I know.
This is the opposite of politically correct, I know.
This is not what they teach in school or in university, I know.
This would not get you elected president of the US or even bishop in the UMC, I know.
But just because something is shocking and inconvenient doesn’t make it any less true.
Because I love how pastor & author Frederick Buechner put it. Now Buechner is a mild mannered Presby pastor & graduate of Princeton (!) hardly a hatemonger or a fundamentalist. Yet listen to what he says:
Lest students of comparative religion be tempted to believe that at their hearts all religions are finally one & that it thus makes little difference which one you choose, you have only to place side by side Christ & Buddha themselves.
Buddha sits enthroned beneath the Bo tree in the lotus position. His lips are faintly parted in the smile of one who has passed beyond every power of earth or heaven to touch him. “He who loves 50 has 50 woes, he who loves 10 has ten woes, he who loves none has no woes. His eyes are closed.
Christ, on the other hand, stands in Gethesemane, angular, beleaguered. His face is lost in shadow so that you can’t even see his lips, and before all the powers in earth or heaven he is powerless. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The difference seems to me this. The suffering that Buddha’s eyes close out is the suffering of the world that Christ’s eyes close in & hallow. It is an extraordinary difference and even in a bare classroom in Exeter NH I think it was as apparent to everyone as it was to me that before you’re done, you have to make a crucial and extraordinary choice.
Whew! See, we who are in Christ are not better people; we just have the only Savior. We’re not specially selected; we’re just his eternal possession. Jesus is not the brightest light. He is the only light.
It’s so important to me that people get this. I don’t want you to fall into a lazy “oh we’re all just taking different paths to the same destination” kind of thinking. Nope. Jesus is the only one who claimed to be God and then proved it by rising from the dead. The only one who accurately diagnosed our problem – sin – and then graciously provided its remedy – the cross. THE. ONLY. ONE. All people are invited to God’s heart through the one way of Jesus. As the only light that exposes our sin, illumines the fact that we are made in the image of God, Jesus does what no one else did because no one else could. NO ONE has those origins and that destiny. You know why it’s pivotal we in the US don’t water that down? Because my dear friends in India are dying for it. Yep. We’re like Oh, all religions are basically the same; don’t cause a ruckus and our Indian pastors – who Western Xns brought Jesus to in the first place! – are before the authorities declaring, No we don’t worship Hindu gods anymore. Jesus alone. To say thank you the authorities empty the church, strip the people and make them watch it burn. Don’t tell me we’re okay minimizing differences in the name of political correctness until you’ve lived through THAT. Jesus is not the brightest light. He is the only light.
The Jesus who says things like I am the Light of the world is anything but meek and mild. He is bold and persistent and provocative. And know this . . . every disclosure he provides like in John 8 pushes for a decision. He discloses, you decide (hey, it works for Fox News). We can accept the message of Jesus or reject it; that is our option. But we do not have the option of modifying it. And the one I want you deciding about today – for both your eternal destiny and the path you walk in your remaining time on earth – is the real Jesus, not a make believe one.
Because know this: everything of value gets counterfeited. Think about it. Does anyone counterfeit these? (AV, $1 bill) Probably not. These? (AV, $20) More likely. These? (AV, $100) Yep! The greater the value, the stronger the temptation to counterfeit. And Jesus has been counterfeited time and again! As flower child Jesus. As best friend Jesus. As NRA Jesus. As Rainbow Jesus. As Hate Sex Jesus. As American Flag Jesus. As Give That Pastor A Jet Jesus. Nope.
He’s light of the world Jesus. Not A light. The light. I want you to love the real Jesus so much I don’t ever ever ever want you to fall for a fake. He’s the only only only only light.