Turning on the Light
How many of you are willing to admit that you were afraid of the dark when you were young? How many of you are willing to admit that sometimes you’re STILL afraid of the dark, now that you aren’t as young? To be honest with you, sometimes I still get a little antsy in the dark. A friend of ours drove past the house once at about 5 am. Later, when she ran into Becky somewhere, she said, “Was everything ok the other day?” And Becky said, “Yeah, why?” And our friend said, “I drove by your house at 5 am on my way to work and it was lit up like the Fourth of July.” Becky stopped and thought for a minute and said, “Oh, I was out of town and the kids were spending the night at Grandma’s, so Jeff was home alone.” Darn right the lights were on. And the bedroom door was locked too.
Why are we so afraid of the dark? Animals aren’t, and some of them are way more likely to get eaten in the dark than we are. Because we can’t see. And unless we have no other choice, we depend greatly on our sense of sight to protect ourselves from danger. In the darkness, we can’t see, and our imaginations run wild. But some people like being in the darkness. A website called the “Experience Project” describes itself as the place to share “life experiences from people like you.” (As of January 2014 the site has had over 36 million visitors.) Visitors to the site are asked to share their thoughts about life experiences by answering questions like “What does loneliness feel like?” or “Who do you want to spend time with?” or “What is your favorite pastime?” In one post, readers were asked to respond to the following statement: “I prefer darkness over light.” A young woman going by the screen name “Beyond Repair” offered a particularly honest – and insightful – response: “I prefer darkness over light. The darkness allows me to hide who I am and what I truly feel. In the light all things have a chance to be revealed. Darkness makes it easier to hide. In the dark you cannot see what is coming next. The darkness is a place where you can lose yourself. Lost in the dark is a great place to be because then you are free from what you were and can be what you want. The darkness is bliss.” For most of us, darkness is both a blessing and a curse. It hides imagined and real terrors, but it also hides things that we don’t want other people to see.
John 8:12 records the words of Jesus, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” That’s quite a statement. But to really get the impact of that statement, we have to understand where Jesus was when he made it. It was the end of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, the day after an incredible nighttime ceremony known as the Illumination of the Temple. Four huge golden candelabra were set up in the Temple treasury, and those candelabra were topped with massive torches. The candelabra were each 75’ high, and the Levites used their old, worn out clothing as wicks for the torches. Each torch was made up of a massive bowl sitting on top of the 75’ high golden candelabrum that would hold 65 liters of oil for burning. Each candelabrum had a ladder, and as darkness settled in the evening, strong young priests would carry oil up to the bowls, pour it in, and light the wicks. Eyewitnesses said that the huge flames that leapt from the torches illuminated not just the temple, but all of Jerusalem. The Jewish Mishnah tells us that “Men of piety and good works used to dance before the candelabra with burning torches in their hands singing songs of praise and countless Levites played music on harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets and other instruments.” Imagine the smell of the burning oil. The heat from the smoking torches. The shadows of sweating, bearded priests as they whirled and danced before the massive crowd of people. They were celebrating the great pillar of fire of God’s presence that led the Israelites during their journey in the wilderness and settled over the Tabernacle when they stopped.
The following morning, Jesus stood in the spot, right under the charred torches, and proclaimed not just to his disciples but to the crowds who were there as well, “I am the light of the world.” He was saying more than simply, I light up the world like these torches lit up Jerusalem last night. Remember the symbolism of the ceremony. It celebrated the pillar of fire, God’s presence with his people during their time in the wilderness. He was saying, “The pillar of fire that stayed between you and the Egyptians, that guided you through the wilderness by night, that fully enveloped the tabernacle, is me!” Think Jesus never claimed to be God? Think again.
But Jesus also said that we who follow him are, because of his light in us, the light of the world. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14). And in the passage we are looking at today, St. Paul says the very same thing. “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”
Don’t forget that once you too were darkness. Once you too were helpless and without hope. But no longer. Now you have hope, for you live in and are filled with the light of Christ. Now you are light. So don’t act like you’re still in darkness. Now, lots of people misunderstand what St. Paul is saying here. We read the words “do not become partners with them,” which in some translations appears as “do not be partakers with them” or, sadly, “have nothing at all to do with such people,” and we assume that it means that we’re supposed to stay away from people living in darkness; people who are living in sin and who are unrepentant, having no desire to live in the light of Christ. And nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus tells us to be salt and light in the world. Salt preserves and adds flavor. And as we’re going to see in a moment, light illuminates and transforms. We aren’t supposed to avoid anybody. Jesus spent most of his time with prostitutes, cheats, thieves, and unclean people. If that’s his example, and he tells us to be salt and light, both of which indicate that as followers of Jesus we are supposed to penetrate the world with the love and light of Christ, we can’t read this passage as “stay away from dirty, sinful people.” Sadly lots and lots of Christians read this passage just that way. So what IS St. Paul saying here. He’s saying, “Don’t PARTICIPATE with them.” Don’t do what they’re doing. Live differently. Don’t listen to the voice that offers the narrative that popular culture, society in general, is following; don’t be deceived by the empty words of our culture.
Darkness is an interesting thing, because it really isn’t anything. Darkness is simply the absence of light. Darkness can only reign in places where the light has not been turned on. It has no choice but to disappear in the presence of light. Why? Because light is something. Darkness is simply the absence of light. Darkness cannot turn out the light. But the light can be turned off, allowing darkness to be present. If there is darkness around us, it is because there are places where followers of Jesus are afraid to go, people that followers of Jesus are afraid to befriend. And you know what, those dark places are JUST somewhere else in the world. They aren’t just among the drug cartels in Central and South America, or behind the closed doors of atheist regimes, or in places of violence and the active persecution of Christians. In fact, those are usually the places in the world where the church is growing. The dark place might be in the office next to yours, or down the street, or next door, or even inside your own home.
Now, we have to understand that St. Paul isn’t saying that he didn’t see “good” people, or good deeds in the world. What he meant was that compared to the glorious, searing, bright light of the holiness and perfect love of God, the best that this world produces is dark by comparison. And all of it is marred by the darkness of sin. And Jesus himself said that in the darkness is where we want to stay. In John 3:19, he says, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” The world is still covered in darkness. Today 1 billion people are going hungry. This year one million people will commit suicide. That’s one person every 40 seconds. So while I’m preaching today, just while I’m preaching, 20 people in this world will take their own lives. And in spite of our best efforts, there are 120 million slaves in this world, most of them sex slaves. The darkness Jesus was talking about is the darkness of the world in pain, in shame, in fear, in untruth, in isolation.
“Nasifaz,” an Afghan woman, explained to Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Liz Sly the reason some Afghan women continue to wear burqas – the full-body coverings mandated by the Taliban – even though they don’t like them and are no longer forced to wear them: “We have lived in darkness for so long that now we are afraid of the light.” If you’ve been living in the darkness, and your eyes have adjusted to the lack of light so that the darkness seems normal, it hurts to come into the light.
But by ourselves, without Jesus, our light is just as dark as everyone else’s. Without Jesus, we too are still living in the darkness of sin, no matter how many good things we do. The light that we are to shine is the light of Christ himself. Look at V. 8. St. Paul tells us that not only do we walk in darkness apart from Christ, but we actually ARE darkness apart from Christ. And that in a renewed relationship with God through Christ, we actually become light. Now, that doesn’t mean that the light is solely ours. We still shine the light of Christ. But we don’t just reflect that light. The Christ light emanates from within us as light emanates from a lightbulb. How? Through the Holy Spirit of Christ who takes up residence within us when we place our faith in Christ alone. Christ is the filament creating the light within the bulb, and we are the bulb illuminating the darkness of this world with the light of Christ.
Now with all of this talk about letting our light, the light that Christ has given us, shine, can lead us into a kind of rule-following legalism if we aren’t careful. We have a tendency to turn our relationship with Jesus into systems of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. Lists of things you are supposed to do, and things you aren’t supposed to do. But look at V. 10. Followers of Jesus, people who have a relationship with him and have been forgiven in him naturally try to do those things that please him. Why? Because we love him. It may be hard for you to believe this, but Becky doesn’t just love and adore everything about me. In fact, there’s a pretty good list of things that I do that she doesn’t like. And over twenty years of marriage I’ve learned what those things are, and I try not to do them. Why? Because she’s given me a list? No! Because I love her, and life is easier for me when she’s happy with me. A big one right now is walking out of the room in the middle of a conversation. I don’t mean to do it. Sometimes I don’t even realize what I’ve done. It often comes when I misinterpret what she intends to be a more involved conversation to be a passing conversation. And one day this week I had stopped and listened to Becky for a minute and then turned around and walked out into the garage to do something, nothing important, WHILE SHE WAS STILL TALKING! We were talking about one of the kids and all of a sudden I heard her say “What the heck?” See, I’d left the door to the house open. I figured that would be enough. But she didn’t want to talk to an empty room. She wanted to talk to me. I thought she was saying “What the heck” about whatever that child had done and so I came back and stood in the door and nodded. And kept nodding. And finally she stopped and said, “No, I said what the heck about you. You walked right out of the house while I was speaking.” Whoops. It’s only taken me 20 years to figure out that she doesn’t want me to ignore here, and she doesn’t want me to pretend to listen, and she doesn’t want me to start listening and then just walk away. She wants me to orient myself toward her, listen, and respond. I’ve also learned that I should respond by agreeing with her. Is there a list of things that I do that hurt her and anger her? Yes, and I can promise you that it is long and distinguished. Do I focus on the list? No. I focus on my love for her and wanting to please her. Are there lists of things we should do and not do in our relationship with Christ? Of course. Paul has just mentioned sexual immorality, materialistic madness, and course, crude, improper joking that tears people down. But do I focus on the list or do I focus on Christ? I focus on Christ, and handle my sexuality, and my relationship to the stuff in my life, and my speech in ways that please him, because I love him. Am I perfect? No. Am I growing? Yes.
So what does light do? Well, first of all, it illuminates. Look at V. 13. Light reveals things that we couldn’t see before. The light of Christ is no different. It shines on the areas of my own life that are still dark and full of dirt, dust, and cobwebs – like my tendency to just disappear in the middle of a conversation with Becky. It also illuminates the darkness in the lives of others, not because we argue with them and point things out, but simply by the way that we live and our willingness to talk about Jesus when asked about the hope that we have.
But there’s something else that light does. It also transforms. Look at V. 14. Things are only visible when they come into the light, and those things that come into the light are cleaned and transformed by the cleansing work of Christ. That which comes into the light is transformed into light itself. God uses my brokenness, my pain, my struggles, my forgiven failures to bring his hope and grace and light to others. And the truth is, we’re all wounded healers in some way. We all have those places in our lives that have been brought into the light of Christ and cleansed, and God wants to use those areas in our lives to help others who are hurting and struggling too.
An early Christian document known as the Epistle to Diognetus (c. A.D. 120-200) is believed to have been written by a man named Athenagoras. In one important section the author describes how Christians are alike – and different from others: The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, not practice any eccentric way of life. … They pass their lives in whatever township – Greek or foreign – each man’s lot has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organization of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like transients. … Though destiny has placed them here in the flesh, they do not live after the flesh; their days are passed on earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens. They obey the prescribed laws, but in their own private lives they transcend the laws. They show love to all men—and all men persecute them. They are misunderstood, and condemned; yet by suffering death they are quickened into life. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance. … They repay [curses] with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evildoers. “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light … Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Let us pray.