Controversial Jesus #8 - Light
Dr. Kurt Bjorklund looks at John 8:12-30 and the idea of God's light through Jesus and our actions.
So you don't have to, really, read very broadly, or watch news very broadly to hear people bemoan the state of our nation. If you watch a more conservative television programming, like Fox News, or a more liberal programming, like MSNBC, what you'll see is that on either side they'll blame the others and say, "The reason our county's in trouble, the reason we're in peril is because of the views of the other people," and there are things that are happening in our country that are just horrifying. In fact, if you watch any of these networks, or read blogs that are on either side, or articles, or magazines, whatever source you use to get your news, what you'll see is that people are always talking about what's wrong and how it's somebody's fault.
And you don't even have to be in the media to hear this, sometimes you hear it from spiritual leaders, Christian leaders who will bemoan the state of things in our country, who will say things are getting worse and worse. And one of the reasons I think you hear this, and I'm not saying it's not true, but one of the reasons I think you hear this is because sometimes fear sells, and it feels good sometimes to talk about how things are going wrong, horribly wrong in our world.
Yet, I think the words of Charles Dickens in some ways apply to the era in which we live when said, "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times." And I say this because if you look at our economy, certainly as a nation, we are thriving. We've had an extended period of mostly peace. We see that there's lower crime than in past decades in many ways, and there are incredible medical advances happening during our lifetimes. In other words, there are some great things happening. And yet, in many ways we could also say that it isn't great. It is, maybe, in some ways the worst of times. We see the acrimony between the political parties, as I just mentioned. We see racial tension that still exists and hasn't completely subsided. We see moral issues that tend to dominate news and people all over the board in how to understand them.
And to that backdrop I want to come to the text that we're looking at this weekend, and the first is John eight. And I'll come back to the broader text a little later, but in verse 12 Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." And this was at the end of this Festival oF Booths. If you were here a few weeks ago we talked about this. The Festival of Booths, or the Festival of Tents is when the Israelites would descend on Jerusalem and stay in temporary structures for a week to remind them of the faithfulness of God. And one of the things Jesus did was when there was a time in the ceremony, and this is from a few ago, John seven, when the water would start to flow as a symbol of God's grace, he said, "I give you living water. He who drinks this will never thirst."
Now he says, "I'm the light of the world," and this was likely at a moment when the candelabras that had been lit during this ceremony and provided light into the evening were all extinguished toward the end of the festival, and Jesus stands up and says, "I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you'll never be in darkness." This would be a little bit like at the end of a Fourth of July celebration when the fireworks have all gone off, somebody standing up and yelling to the crowd, "I am the real grand finale of fireworks." And what you would you do is you would say, "Really? You? No, no, no, no. That's not who you are. You are not somebody who this is what your world is."
And so, this is what Jesus says. He says, "I'm the light of the world." And then in Matthew chapter five, verses 13 through 16 we see something else. And it's fun, I listened to the message that Ken Carlson gave last week and I didn't know exactly where he was going to go with it, but because we follow the text John eight is about the light of the world, and Ken spoke very beautifully about how Jesus is the light of the world, and then some of the cultural and historical background to that and all that goes with that, and used the same passage.
But here's what we read, John 5:14, it says, "You are the light of the world." Now, Jesus makes this statement to his followers and this is, in the original language, a plural. In our English we don't always see the difference between a plural and a singular verb. And so, this is you all, you plural, are the light of the world. And what Jesus was doing was he was saying, "My people, the people who claim to follow me, you are the light of the world." So when you take these two together, Jesus says, "I am the light of the world, and whoever follows me won't walk in darkness," and then he says to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew five, "You all are the light of the world. Together you will bring light into the world."
And when you take these messages together I think it points to something and it's this, and that is the degree of societal darkness is directly related to the ineffectiveness of the collective witness of the church. Let me say that again. The degree of societal darkness is directly related to the ineffectiveness of the collective witness of the church.
Now, if you're here and you're a person of faith, that may feel like an indictment. If you're here and you're saying, "You know what, I'm not sure where I am in the faith continuum," you may say, "Yeah, I don't see much of that." So let me just ask you, do you think that by and large people in our culture see Christ as the light, or the answer, or that they see the church or Christians as the light or the answer?
My answer to that would be, by and large, no. In fact, the way that our culture generally sees Christianity today is probably more akin to this, and that is they see it as a white-centered faith with a history of racism and a text that supported slavery, as being an anti-intellectual movement that holds things that science has largely disproved, that's homophobic, unloving and oppressive to women. That's how many people in our culture see Christianity today.
Here's the challenge with that, and that is because of that, for many people, they don't see Christians as light, they don't see Jesus as the light. Mahatma Gandhi once said this, he said, "I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." A man named Herb Caen said this, he said, "The trouble with born-again Christians is that they're an even bigger pain the second time around." And Madeleine L'Engle said this, she said, "We draw people to Christ," speaking about Christian people, "not by loudly discrediting what they believe but by ... or by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want it with all their hearts and want to know the source of it."
In other words, this idea of light is a significant idea in the overall interaction of the church and the culture in which we live. And so, the question in many ways is, how does this happen? And I'd like to suggest that there are two things. And again, if you're a person of faith these two things would be things that you could say, "I can dive into this, and this is a way that I can try to be the light that God has called me to be." And if you're a person who says, "I'm not sure. I'm not sure where I fit in this," my hope is that by talking about this you will see, maybe, that there is light in the witness of Christ, and even in the church or in Christians that sometimes seem removed from being a light.
So here's the first thing, and that is I would simply say we need to embrace the light, and experience the light. And what I mean when I say experience it is, I mean have a moment and have an experience that's so rich that it becomes profound for us, because Jesus, in using this analogy of light, is using this idea of saying that there is something that is good, that there's a source of joy, that there's guidance. He uses it as a opposite to talk of salvation and being lost. And so, the idea of light from Jesus is Jesus basically saying, "I am giving you light because this is where good things are found for you."
So when we talk about experiencing it, the trouble is that many times there are people who are followers of Jesus whose lives, in many ways, don't reflect joy, don't reflect guidance, don't have any different values, different sources of joy, don't handle anxiety, difficulty, trouble, don't have different perspectives, in terms of what their priorities are, and how they're living, and what they're all about than people who don't have faith.
And so, what people see a lot of times when they look at people of faith is they say, "Oh, you're a Christ follower, so you aren't any different in the way that you live except you believe you've punched a ticket for Heaven because you think you're better than other people." And to really experience the light, or experience Jesus means that we don't just talk about something, but it's a real experience in our heart. A little bit like this, if people start talking about a restaurant that's new and really great, and how awesome it is, and you start telling people about the restaurant but you've never gone to the restaurant, you can't really speak fully about the restaurant. You can know a lot about it. You can tell about the menu. You can say what's good about it, what people like about it, about the reviews, but there's something about actually experiencing it that let's you speak with greater authenticity.
So when we talk about experiencing the light what we're talking about is coming to a point where it isn't just something that we intellectually affirm, but it marks our emotions, our passions, the very way that we live.
In Ephesians chapter two there's a very succinct statement of, in many ways, the whole of what we would call the gospel message. It says this in verse eight and nine, it says, "For it's by grace that you've been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves. It's gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast." And the clear statement there is that you don't earn it. You don't work for it. You don't achieve it but God gives it by grace. And the reason God does this is so that no one can boast.
And here's what experiencing the light means. It means that that becomes something that so marks those who follow Jesus, that it takes away their competition with people, it takes away their judgment, it takes away superiority because there's no boasting. There's a sense in which they're saying, "I am on even footing."
Here might be a way to think about it. We've just come through the high school graduation season. Imagine a high school graduation where when you go to a high school graduation, if you've been to one, when the valedictorian gets up to give the speech and she says, "I worked really hard and now I'm going to an elite school, and here's what's happening." If then they said, "Well, actually, everyone who graduates from this institution is getting a complete perfect report card," that wouldn't compute for us because part of success in our culture means that we're better than somebody else, and there's actually some research that shows that the whole idea of competitive grades actually is detrimental to people's performance because instead of saying, "I'm doing the best I can," and it's a cooperative effort to all do as well as we can, that there's actually this competition. In order for me to succeed, somebody else has to not do as well as me.
But here's what grace is, here's what Christian faith is, it's like Jesus saying, "I'm going to give you the grade. You're going to get the perfect grade. It has nothing to do with what you've done. It has everything to do with what Jesus has done." And here's why this is a radical experience that changes the entire way that you or I will live and experience our faith, and that is instead of saying, "I perform so that God loves me more, or God accepts me, or I might have a hope of eternity one day," what we do instead is we say, "God has accepted me because of what Jesus has done." And instead of taking away a motivation to achieve or to do, what it does is it fills us with gratitude and a thankfulness that makes it free for us to pursue God and what he wants, and it takes away all comparison, all judgment, all need to feel superior by looking at somebody else and saying, "They don't believe the right things. They don't practice the right things. They don't do the right things. They don't live the way that I live," and instead of any of that, which is a lot of the ugliness of faith, the experience of grace, the experience of the light changes the way that we interact.
And so, we need to experience the light but there's a second thing that I want to highlight. And this comes, again, from both Matthew five and from John eight, and this is, there's a need to shine the light. And what I mean when I say this is what is said here in Matthew chapter five. It says, "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden, neither do people light a lamp and put it under a ball." In other words, when there's a light, it's evident. "Instead, they put it on a stand and it gives light to everyone in the house, in the same way, let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your father in Heaven."
So Matthew chapter five says that part of shining the light is letting people see the way that you live and the good deeds that are a part of your life. And what is being communicated here, very simply, is that if you're a person of faith, part of what this means is that you live in such a way that you're investing in and making the world that we live in a better place.
I like what Scott Sauls wrote about this not long ago. He said this, "History is peppered with these kinds of lives," speaking of people who have invested because of their faith. "For example, Christians have shown groundbreaking leadership in science. Think of Pascal, Copernicus, Newton, Galileo, Francis Collins. They've shown leadership in healthcare. Think of the hospitals that are named after saints. They've shown groundbreaking leadership in literature. Think of Rembrandt, Bach, Dorothy Sayers, Dostoevsky, T.S. Elliot, Flannery O'Connor, Johnny Cash and Bono," not just literature but art and music. "And in the Academy, all the Ivy League universities were founded by Christians. Think of mercy and justice, William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, George Mueller, Martin Luther King Jr."
And then he says this, "The identifying mark of the City of God, or people marked by the light, is when the citizens of the heavenly city become the best citizens of the earthly city." You see, as people of faith, if you're a person of faith, when people say, "Well, Christians don't contribute to the world," it's just flat wrong because over the course of history Christians have made incredible contributions to the thriving of humanity and to the very society in which we live, and that's part of being light in the world.
But there's something else, and this is maybe a little more challenging what's coming next. And this comes from John eight verse 12 and following all the way down to verse 30. I'm going to read a part of this and I'm going to make some comments, and then draw some conclusions from it. Verse 13, "The Pharisees challenged him. 'Here you are appearing as your own witness. Your testimony is not valid.'" So the religious leaders come together and they basically say, "Jesus, you're saying you're the light of the world but you're not valid in what you're saying." We push back Controversial Jesus. In other words, "Jesus, you aren't the light of the world." Sounds familiar.
Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid. For I know where I come from and where I'm going, but you have no idea where I come from or where I'm going. You judge by human standards. I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true because I'm not alone. I stand with the father who sent me. In your own law it's written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. I am one who testifies for myself, and my other witness is the father who sent me." So Jesus says, "I have two witnesses, it's Jewish law, me and the father." To which the religious leaders say, "Where's your father? We don't see him." Jesus says, "You do not know me or my father. If you knew me, you would know my father also."
"He spoke these words while he was teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put, yet no one seized him because his hour had not yet come." So here's the controversy. They're saying, "Jesus, we don't buy it, not at all." Now, listen to what Jesus says next, "Once more Jesus said to them, 'I'm going away and you will look for me and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.' This made the Jews ask, 'Will he kill himself? Is that why he says where I go you cannot home,'" probably mocking at this point. "But he continued, 'You are from below and I am from above. You are of this world. I am not of this world. I told you that I would die ... that you would die in your sins if you do not believe that I am he, you indeed will die in your sins.'"
"Who are you," they asked. "Just what I've been telling you from the beginning," Jesus replied. "I have much to say in judgment of you but he who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world."
"They did not understand that he was telling them about his father, so Jesus said, 'When you have lifted up the son of man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him,' and even as he spoke many believed in him."
Now, here's what Jesus does. When he's confronted with this "you're not the light of the world, we don't buy your testimony", notice that he doesn't ignore the issue. He doesn't plead with them. He doesn't try to convince them, but what he does instead is he draws a very sharp contrast. He says, "You're of the devil and I'm from above. You're from below. I'm from above." He draws this contrast and he speaks to their spiritual blindness. He says, "You're not seeing reality. I get reality," and he draws contrast.
Now, let me bring this back to some of the things that I said earlier. I can't speak to all the issues, in one message, that our culture says there's no light in christian faith because of all these things, so let me just speak to a couple. Because what I think this does is it says, in drawing a contrast, what you're doing is you're shining a light to say the cultural narrative about Jesus not being the light of the world is actually not right. It's wrong. It's rooted in spiritual blindness and not understanding the reality of who Jesus is.
And here's why I say that. Just take the issue of diversity first. If diversity is something where people would look and say, "Well, the church is mostly white, and therefore Christianity's a white religion," well, that's actually a very Western American mindset. Stephan Carter, who's a professor of law at Yale has said this, he said, "This is a difficulty and it's endemic to today's secular left in an all-too-frequent weird refusal to acknowledge the demographics of Christianity." And then he goes on and he says that, in Christianity, that the highest percentage of a group to affirm Christian faith is actually African American women. In other words, of all the demographics, the highest percentage are black women.
And then says this, "Around the globe people that are most likely to be Christian are women of color. When you mock Christians, you are not mocking who you think you are mocking." And in fact, Christianity from its very outset was always for all people. Jesus went into Samaria, across ethical lines, gender lines, racial lines in order to go in and reach out to a Samaritan woman. The story of the good Samaritan is the same kind of story. In Acts we have the story of conversions of people from different races.
And so, what we have is we have, in the past, a God who was interested in all people, all diverse people coming together. In the present, the reality of Christianity globally is that it is for a diverse population. In fact, in China today there are an increasing number of Christians. And by the year 2030, according to sociologists, there will be more Christians in China than in America, even though that country has been an atheistic country for years.
And then at the end Revelation 7:9 paints a picture. It says that before the throne we'll gather this great multitude from every nation, every tongue, every tribe that will gather together to worship the king of kings. In other words, when somebody gives the idea or the notion that Christianity is a religion that is exclusive, or somehow run by a certain ethnic group, they just don't understand what has been, what is or what will be.
And the reason I talk about a contrast is spiritual blindness will hold onto an idea and say, "The reason I don't see Jesus as light is because of these defeater beliefs," rather than saying, "This is the reality that I see."
Now, let me take another one in case I didn't ruffle anything yet. Let's take the charge that Christianity is anti-women, or against women, or for the oppression of women. Now, without a doubt some people have used texts, I would say illegitimately, to foster the idea of racial superiority, some have used it to foster the idea of gender superiority. But the reason many people hold this idea is there's this little passage in Ephesians that talks about marriage, Ephesians five, and it says, "Wives submit to your husbands," and many modern people, especially in the west say, "Oh my goodness, if that's what the bible teaches, it's embarrassing. It's shocking. We could never believe such a thing."
And so, what people do is they try to come to a conclusion where they say, "Well, the bible must not really say what it appears to say." And so, some will appeal to this idea of submission being mutual, rather than it's something that a wife does to a husband, or they'll say that that was that culture. It was then, things have changed.
And here's, again, just drawing a contrast, and again, to be sure, some people have used this passage illegitimately to hold women down, or to try to assert themselves if ways that I don't think are biblical but if you read the passage, Ephesians five, you can read it later, what you'll see is that it actually calls men to a much harder task, because what it says is, "Men, we want you, in a marriage relationship, to love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her." Meaning that you are to give your very life away for everything that she needs. In other words, the command here isn't, "Wives submit to your husbands because your husband's all that." It's, "Husbands give your life away for your wife. And wives, respect and defer to your husbands."
Now, I realize, again, in a modern world some people still hear that and they go, "That just still doesn't sound right. Everybody should be equal. Everything's equal." And our culture wants to level all gender distinction, so that there's no gender distinction, and I get it to a point. But again, part of the beauty of what Christianity teaches is it doesn't teach a leveling of all gender distinction. It actually teaches that, at least in the home, and it's mirrored in the church and some places, that there's this notion that men are called to, with their wives, protect and provide and give some spiritual leadership. This is Ephesians five. Again, read it. You'll see it in there.
And again, I know some people would say, "Oh man, men provide and protect. Is that really God's call?" And what I would say is it's actually a beautiful thing. And even if you don't buy exactly what I've said, I'm going to use an example and I'll admit of ahead of time that it's a little unfair, but there's a piece of you that believes it. And here's why I say this. If you walked out this facility and on your way to your car, out of the Strip District, Butler County, [Wexford 00:26:51], whatever you are today, the chapel, you walk out and you, on your way to the car, had a tiger approach you. It had been let out somewhere. And the tiger was about to attack.
And if you're with a husband and wife together, and if the husband says, "You know what, tough luck, honey. I'm faster," or if he said, "You know what, you've been doing cross-fit, you're really in better shape than me, you take on the tiger," here's what all of you would say regardless of your position on anything else, you'd say, "He's kind of a jerk," because the call is something ingrown and that God put inside to say, "I want you to care for women." And you see, if you level all distinctions, what we teach our boys then is that there's no honor in saying, "I protect, and provide, and I give some spiritual direction," and instead we say, "Just take a backseat."
Now, here's my point. The culture we live in will say, very simply, "Christianity's against women." Christianity is not against women. Jesus lifted up women and fought for their rights, and Christianity helped women not just be property but have honor and dignity in marriage, and allowed there to be advances, and it's still happening today.
And even more, just one more, if you notice who Jesus was having this debate with, it was the Pharisees. Now, when I say that what some of you will hear is you will hear that to be, "Oh no, the Pharisees, boo," they come on the scene. But you know who the Pharisees really were? The Pharisees are the soccer moms who serve in the church nursery every weekend. They're the dads who go to work, who come home, who show up and coach their kids games, and drive their kids everywhere and still find time to serve in the church and do everything right. And they're the ones who are saying, "Jesus, you're not the light. Jesus, you don't get it."
And here's what I think part of shining the light is, is it's showing that Jesus is not ultimately pushing religion, pushing do more, try harder, be better, become a better version of yourself, but Jesus is contrasting that with the reality of the light of the gospel. This is something that somebody wrote some time ago. It says this, and I read this maybe a few months ago but it's so good I want to read it again, it says, "What role is left for religion? None. And I have left none because the gospel of our lord and savior, Jesus Christ, leaves none. Christianity is not a religion. It's an announcement of the end of religion. Religion consists of all things, believing, behaving, worshiping, sacrificing, that the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God. Everything religion has tried and failed to do has been perfectly done once for all by Jesus' death and resurrection."
"For Christians, therefore, the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and never will be, in spite of all of the ecclesiastical turkeys who through 2,000 years has acted as if religion was their stock in trade. The church, instead, is in the gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the whole world the bad news that God will think kindly about us after we've gone through certain credal, liturgical and ethical wickets. It is here to bring the world the good news that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly."
Do you hear the difference? And here's what I just simply want to say, and that is if you're part of the church, you don't need to retreat. You don't need to hunker down and say, "Our culture is going the wrong direction." You're called to be light. You are the light. And the degree to which our society is tumbling into darkness is directly related to the collective ineffective witness of Christian people and Christian churches.
And instead of retreating or apologizing for what the bible says, what we need to do is draw the contrast so that people can see the spiritual blindness and say, "You know what, I thought this but maybe this is true," and then in seeing the good deeds, and the joy and the life start to say, "There's something about the people that I'm experiencing that I want in my own life."
And if you're here and you're saying, "You know what, I'm not sure where I am. I'm not sure I believe," can I just say to you what I've tried to do here today is simply invite you to consider again that maybe Jesus is the light and that the darkness that you sense in the world is actually a contrast pointing you to where the true light is, to where you can have real life and it's an invitation to say, "You can come out of that darkness and experience the light of a god who wants to give you what you can't earn on your own." And if you experience that, then you'll become part of the group of people who are saying, "I am part of the light of the world. I'm helping other people come to experience who Jesus Christ is."
Our world sees Jesus as not being the light, just being a controversial, irrelevant figure, but Jesus' claim is to say, "I am the light of the world. And if you follow me, you are too."
Father, we pray today that you would help each one of us just to encounter your light. Father, for those who've believed it for years, I pray that this would be an encouraging, refreshing word. God, for those who, maybe, today is a time of just coming to see things a little differently, I pray there might even be a moment here, just right now to say, "God, I now come to believe and trust in your son, Jesus Christ, as my savior, my substitute." And we pray it in Jesus' name, amen.