by Daniel Harrell
I’ve told some of you about a lovely visit I paid this past week to one of the oldest church members who unfortunately is unable to attend worship services anymore. Due to her being homebound, we’d never had the chance to meet. She enjoys regular visits from our Deacons, so she was glad to welcome me too and proceeded to regale me with a catalog of hilarious stories from her many years at Colonial Church. She eagerly de-closeted a few skeletons, broadcast a number of well-articulated if trenchant critiques on church politics, and topped it off with a few tasty tidbits about some of our former ministers.
“However,” she eventually added, “I do hear that Harrell is doing OK.”
“Oh?” I replied. “What else have you heard about Harrell?”
Before she could respond, the phone rang. Calling was a neighbor whom I was also to visit. The neighbor asked, “Is Dr. Harrell there?” “No, just one of the deacons.” “Actually,” I interrupted, “I’m Dr. Harrell.” Pause. Cue the surprise. And then…
“OH GOOD LORD!”
When I called later to ask whether I could share this story, she told me that she wasn’t sure she believed me until her neighbor, whom I had met, vouched for my identity. She admitted I didn’t much look like a Senior Minister, which I decided to take as a compliment. For the Pharisees confronting Jesus here in John’s gospel, he didn’t look like much of a Messiah. And it wasn’t enough that he would vouch for himself. “You are testifying on your own behalf;” they said, “your testimony is not valid.” This was especially true given that Jesus outrageously declared himself to be the light of the world.
In a day when we unflinchingly sing about Jesus as light, it may be hard to imagine how utterly sacrilegious he sounded. For first century Jews, light was a realm reserved for God alone. “Let there be light,” he announced at creation, which was practically the same as his saying “let there be me.” As we have observed throughout our series on light in the Bible, light is an apt description for God. Among all the constituents of the physical world, light is the least material. It illumines the objects upon which it falls without suffering loss or change in itself. It spreads throughout space yet remains undivided, conveying the impression of being everywhere at once. It holds the universe together. It is pure and clear, simple and uncorrupt, immediately accessible to us and yet at the same time eluding our grasp. More important, light is dynamic and life-giving, bestowing on us a sense of warmth, hope and beauty. To be the light was nothing short of being God. Whenever God had shown himself to his people of old, he had always brightly shone. Light was his calling card; his brilliance a sure sign of his presence. Yet here stood dull and dingy Jesus without hardly a glimmer. Is it any wonder the clergy of his day were skeptical?
Their skepticism was enhanced by the occasion on which Jesus revealed his identity. These chapters in John occur during the Jewish Thanksgiving-like Feast of Tabernacles. Tabernacles gets its name from the tents or “tabernacles” built to commemorate the ancient Israelites’ desert sojourn on their way to the Promised Land. Jews then as now camped out in these temporary shelters to remind themselves of the transience of earthly life, and to spur their hope for a future Promised Land. Tabernacles coincided with the grape and olive harvests and therefore included rituals geared toward promoting harvest success. Prayers for necessary rainwater and sunlight, both literal and metaphorical, were offered in grand liturgical fashion.
The water ritual invoked God’s provision of seasonal rain but also celebrated God’s faithful provision of miraculous water in the past, specifically the instance of his providing water from a rock during the desert Exodus. An accompanying light ritual likewise called to mind God’s past provision of miraculous luminosity during the Exodus in the form of a fiery pillar of cloud. This pillar of light guided Israel through darkness and guarded them from harm. As for the future, the prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when, “The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.”
The Tabernacles light ritual occurred in an area of the Temple known as The Court of Women, so named for its allowance of women to join the men in worship. In the center of this court were four huge candlesticks, on top of which sat these massive bowls of lamp oil with wicks, made from of all things, the discarded trousers of priests (don’t ask me why). At the commencement of Tabernacles, these four great lamps were lit and reportedly they radiated such intense light that every courtyard in Jerusalem reflected the glare. As the lamps blazed, the reputably wisest and holiest men of Israel danced before God until dawn, praising the Lord with songs of joy with harps and cymbals.
Picture the energy and excitement such worship generated; especially for a people currently oppressed under Roman occupation. If but for a moment, their minds were free to dream of that day when their sorrows would end, their storehouses would be filled, their joy complete, and their prayers answered. Picture yourself amidst all of this celebratory expectation, not unlike jubilant crowds whose candidates won on election night, enraptured with hope, passionate for salvation—a salvation that first century Jews believed would be inaugurated by the return of their King, a superhero Messiah who single-handedly would rescue them from the tyranny of their gloomy oppression and usher them into shining everlasting glory. Whip all of this eagerness up to a fervent pitch only to have some homeless, working-class, ex-carpenter step up and shout: “It’s me! I’m the answer to your prayers! I’m the light of the world! Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
It’s like somebody who’d prayed her whole life for prince charming, who’d packed a hope chest full of baby clothes, wistfully waiting for Mr. Right to appear, only to finally have some homely, unemployed Mama’s boy waltz up and announce, “Hi honey, it’s me. I’m the answer to your prayers.” Or for that same homely vagabond to step up onto the platform during the doxology, grab the mike and after we sang Praise God from whom all blessings flow, hold up his hand and say “You’re welcome.” Who’d ever believe such a person?
It was around Veteran’s Day in 1998 when the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan debuted to much acclaim, especially that opening scene depicting in courageous yet gruesome Technicolor the Normandy D-Day invasion. Marveling at the bloodiness depicted on screen, a bunch of us at work were joined in our conversation by a longtime member of the custodial team, a kindly retired gentleman who never said whole lot. I asked whether he’d seen the movie (he had), and what he thought about it. He said the surf was actually bloodier than Spielberg depicted. I chuckled, what, are you some sort of history buff or something? Not really, he said, but I was on Normandy beach that day. What!?!? What do you mean you were on the beach? He said, I fought in the battle. He went on to describe being 19 years old and riding in the transports trying not to puke, and then storming the beach, being terrified as he clung to an anti-tank barrier in the freezing cold as bullets whizzed by, and then advancing deep into France. He went on to earn Six Battle Stars including one from the Battle of the Bulge. Or so he said. I believed him, but I told him I needed to see those stars.
“Just because you say it doesn’t make it true,” the Pharisees replied to Jesus. “You’re testifying on your own behalf. Your testimony is not verifiable.” It’s easy to empathize with the Pharisees here. People are naturally suspicious of anything that smacks of self-adulation. Unfortunately, Jesus’ response hardly tempered their suspicions. “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid,” he said, “for I know where I came from and where I am going.” This issue of “coming and going” revolved around whether or not Jesus came from Bethlehem, a requirement for any Messiah since Bethlehem was King David’s hometown. Folks mistakenly thought Jesus to be from Galilee. But there’s a double meaning here too. Jesus may have had his earthly origins in Bethlehem, but his actual origins (as well as his destiny) were far above any earthly map. But the Pharisees were too committed to their own earthbound standards for judging Messianic authenticity. Their certainty blinded them to seeing reality.
“You judge by human standards,” Jesus said, a word that literally means flesh, a classic New Testament contrast to spirit, along the lines of the contrast between darkness and light. For Jesus to say “I judge no one” meant that he judged nobody based on appearances like the Pharisees did. Instead, Jesus judged with the wisdom and insight of his heavenly Father. He said to them, “In your own Law (that is, your own interpretation of the Law), it takes two witnesses to verify a fact. Very well, I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”
This only further exasperated the Pharisees who snidely demanded to know, then “Where is your father?” For them, to have Jesus put forward his “Father” as a witness was lame unless he could produce his Father in the flesh. But ironically, producing His Father in the flesh was the very thing Jesus had been doing all along. “If you knew me,” he replied, “you would know my Father too,” meaning, of course, that they would know the God they claimed to serve. Granted, his own disciples had the same trouble making this connection. Philip said, “Lord, just show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” To which Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
It’s easy to empathize with Philip here too. It would be nice to have an observable manifestation of God now and then, some visible proof that God’s really here. This would be especially during times of doubt or when you are trying to explain what you believe to someone who doesn’t believe it. The good news is that the Bible says there is visible proof. You can roll out a observable manifestation of God on demand. Jesus will allude to himself as “the light of the world” again in John 11; but otherwise the designation only shows up one more time in all of Scripture. Jesus uses it in Matthew 5, but not in reference to himself. There, addressing his followers, Jesus said, “you are the light of the world.” Like the light of Tabernacles radiating from the Temple that reflected off every courtyard in Jerusalem, so the light of the world radiating from Christ reflects off of those who call Christ Lord. As Jesus was visible proof of the Father, so are Christians the visible proof of Jesus. The apostle Paul calls us the body of Christ.
“Great,” you’re thinking. “That should go over real well. For folks to believe that Jesus is real, they need to look at Christians? No wonder the church is doomed.”
And yet for most of us, coming to real faith in Jesus when it happened finally came through real relationships with real-live Christians who were connected to real-live Christian communities of Christians where real-live Christianity was practiced. The gospel is more than some abstract compilation of evidence with a simple prayer tacked onto the back. The gospel is more than a well-crafted event or a well-honed speech. The gospel is situated in the concrete things Christians do to, with and for other people. Most of us weren’t talked into faith. We were loved into faith.
I once had the pleasure of speaking at a university where a group of Christian students took Halloween as an opportunity to invite their entire campus to a discussion about Christianity. They wanted to be the light for their whole campus. Theirs was an expansive effort to reach every student, which they did by purchasing 12,000 pieces of candy which they packed into 4000 trick or treat bags along with an invitation to the discussion. They then delivered these bags to every single dorm room at the university. I was impressed, but also curious. So I asked, “how many people were in their rooms when you stopped by?” “I don’t know,” she said, “we never got to talk to anyone, we just dropped off the bags.”
The turnout that night turned out to be nearly all Christians. And we ended up having a good discussion. Yet afterwards, one student came over to express her disappointment. She said she and her friends put so much effort into these outreach events but the people they invited rarely came. “I’m tired of going through all of this work just to have nobody show up,” she said. “Why should we have to keep trying so hard?” I replied with something pastoral about the long haul of obedience and trusting God with the outcomes, about how the search for truth must begin with an interest in finding it, and about how they should probably have had somebody else be their speaker that night. But as I thought about her comments later, I was again reminded how among the reasons we busy ourselves doing all the stuff we do is because the real work of the gospel can be so scary.
The gospel is more than a well-crafted event or a well-honed speech. The gospel is situated in the concrete things people do to, with and for other people. Acting justly, loving mercifully and walking humbly all imply actual interactions with difficult and needy people, not imaginary conceptualizations of how you wish or might wish people should be. Jesus died on the cross to redeem sinners. Redeemed sinners die to ourselves for the sake of others. To share the gospel is to bear witness to Christ who is the paragon and paradigm of new life lived. To witness to Jesus means that others have to witness you. We embody the words we say. Our practice shapes our proclamation. Our lives match our speech. And this is true even when we fail—because when we fail, that’s when we demonstrate what repentance and resurrection look like. We are the light of the world not because we are flawless, but because we strive to be honest and humble and courageous and faithful and hopeful and kind.
“Let your light shine before all people so they can see it,” Jesus said, even on those days when it’s just a flicker. In the final analysis, light proves itself simply by shining.