I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. John 8:12
In these times of uncertainty and danger, Jesus stands among us today and says to us, “I am the light of the world.” Our nation is divided into warring factions, each one claiming to offer hope for a better future. But who’s to say even what that better future should be? Whose version of “progress” are we to believe? And what will they demand of us, to realize their dream? So we turn with new urgency and gratitude to the only One who can say to us, “I am the light of the world.” When every other light flickers out and the darkness gathers around us, he will still be the light of the world. But not only is that true of him on a grand scale, he is also inviting every one of us personally to himself: “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Here is his huge claim: “I am the light of the world.” Here is his personal promise: “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Here in John’s Gospel Jesus makes seven audacious “I am” statements. And he knew how people would hear him. When he said, for example, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) – and Abraham lived around 2000 B.C. – Jesus knew people would hear that as his claim to be God. How could they not hear it that way? In the Old Testament God said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Here in the New Testament Jesus is saying, “That’s me. I am God. I am eternal. I’m not going away. I will always be. And I am with you now in your time. You can have me, if you want me. I want you. That’s why I’m declaring these astonishing claims about myself. I want you to be sure of me and take me into your moment. You are limited. I am unlimited. You are in danger. I am your refuge. You are dying. I am living. You will lose everything in time. I am offering you everything in eternity. Will you follow me there?”
Today we come to the second of his seven “I am” sayings. Back in chapter 6 Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48). Now he says, “I am the light of the world.” Let’s press into his claim and his promise.
Claim: I am the light of the world
It’s easier for us to believe that we can generate our own light and wisdom and progress out of our own intelligence. The age of “the Enlightenment,” back in the 1700s, was a brash assertion about how smart we are. But it didn’t work. The Enlightenment was inseparable from the bloodbath of the French Revolution. France went insane with the guillotine – in the name of reason.
It wasn’t just back then. We keep proving how our brilliance – not only our stupidity but also our brilliance – can lead us into darkness. My iPhone proves it to me every day. This brilliant communications mechanism wants to make me stupid. Instead of going deep into thought and prayer, like a scuba diver, I’m skimming along the surface of things on my mental jet ski, as I scroll through tweets upon tweets, sound bite miniaturized thoughts that no one cares about for more than a few seconds, when I could be reading a good book or having a wonderful conversation with you. To go deep, to think well, to make real progress – our very genius is making it harder to become a mature human being, as God made us to be. Here is my point. The human race keeps repeating the same mistake, which is this – we deeply believe we can create our own better future by following our own light. But T. S. Eliot asked us, “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” And if the maps app on our smartphones is leading us into a new dark age, then how deep is our darkness!
Here is what’s even more amazing. It is our darkened world that God loves. Jesus came to us with a light we couldn’t invent, a light we even oppose. But here is all our hope: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Jesus did not say, “I am a light in the world.” He said, “I am the light of the world. There is no other. If you ever want to see beyond your own destructive genius, follow me.” He is not pointing us to light elsewhere and offering himself as our guide into that other light. He is saying he is the light. To follow him is our only path into the luminous and beautiful humaneness we long for. If you do not follow Jesus, here is the rest of your life: you will bump into one self-inflicted injury after another, you will never know why, you will never understand yourself, but you will keep believing you’ll soon get the hang of how life works with some new approach. Are you willing to stake all your happiness and your eternal destiny on your own flawed perceptions? And what about your children? As our nation descends into deeper darkness, how are you going to raise them? How will you prepare them for the future? And what about our city? Is there any credible hope for our city that leaves Jesus out? We are having more Peace in the City events this fall and winter. They will shine with light from Jesus for our city. Let’s get ready. Let’s bring everyone who will come. For our children’s sake, for our city’s sake, the time has come to turn back to the only One who said or could say, “I am the light of the world.”
It’s significant when and where Jesus said this. When he said “I am the light of the world,” we might think he meant, “I am the sun in the sky.” But he had something else in mind. He said this in Jerusalem at the Feast of the Tabernacles (John 7:2). It was an annual, weeklong feast among the Jewish people. But it was more than a party. These great feasts established a narrative framework for the people to understand their past history, their present identity and their future destiny. When we remember something, we re-member it to ourselves. We re-attach it to ourselves. We make it our own in a fresh way. The Feast of Tabernacles drew the people back to their early days with the Lord, even before they entered the Promised Land, back in the days when all they had was him, and he was enough. They remembered how God was with them in the cloud, which glowed with the Shekinah Glory, as they walked through the desert wilderness. The Lord was with them in power and glory and light. And this feast was a happy remembrance of it here in Jerusalem. The Jewish people lit the temple up with the brightest lights they had, and they danced the night away with torches in their hands. It was joyous and meaningful to go back to God and put all their hope in him alone. But at the end of the feast, they took it all down and went back to the dreary normal, until the next year. It was in that setting that Jesus said, “I am not only the light of this temple but the true light of the whole world. My feast never stops. My dance never ends. I burn always, for whoever will have me.”
The Old Testament says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear” (Psalm 27:1). The prophet Isaiah said, “The Lord will be your everlasting light” (Isaiah 60:19). Job said, “By his light I walked through darkness” (Job 29:3). The prophet Micah said, “When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8).
And now Jesus is saying that he is the Shekinah Glory and the only hope of every sinner and sufferer everywhere. He is making an audacious claim. The people hearing him knew it was bold and provocative. That’s why they question him, in verses 13 and following. And Jesus doesn’t back down. He asserts that his claim is backed up by God. He says he has the right to judge us. He claims that he is the only way to know God truly. He doesn’t respond to their challenges by saying, “Oh, I’m sorry. I not really claiming to be the light of the world, I’m not saying that I am the direct line to God and without me you have nothing but your own hunches in this life, I’m not saying that without me you are naked and defenseless before eternity and judgment and hell. Far be it from me to say such things.” He doesn’t say, “My intentions are good.” He says, “My testimony is true” (verse 14). He says, “My judgment is true” (verse 16). That is his claim.
Promise: Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life
There is that wonderful word “whoever” again. There is room inside that inclusive word for every one of us here today. No one needs to be left out. The word “whoever” excludes all qualifications. You can be whoever you are, however disqualified, and you can follow Jesus. But what does his promise mean – that his followers will not walk in darkness?
It doesn’t mean we won’t sin. It doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. Jesus is promising that one thing will never happen to whoever follows him. We will never be abandoned by God, forsaken by God, rejected by God. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for he is with us (Psalm 23:4). Many of us are suffering. But if you are following Jesus, you are not slipping into hell, you are not given over to the devil, you are not being robbed of your future. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord (Romans 8:31-39).
St. John of the Cross made famous the concept of “the dark night of the soul.” We all understand it. We all know what it’s like to be so knocked off-balance by one of life’s many shocks that we fall into a chasm of despair and bewilderment, we suffer catastrophic loss and life stops working, crisis brings down upon us a dark cloud of doubt and sadness, because everything we’d always regarded as normal falls apart, and we have to rethink our lives from the ground up, as we are able. When that happens – not if it happens, but when – Jesus is not breaking his promise; it’s when his promise means more than ever. What biblical character can you think of whose life didn’t fall apart? Abraham was tempted to think God had forsaken him (Genesis 22). Moses had to run for his life (Exodus 2). David lived on the run for years (1 Samuel 16-31). Think of Job, the sufferer. Think of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). All the apostles suffered. Not one of them got “your best life now.” Do you know anyone who is a profound and wise and helpful person who has coasted through life? There is a dark night of the soul for us all, precisely because we are following Jesus. But even then, we are not walking in the darkness which is condemnation. When our lives become a living hell, our pain lies to us. The promise of Jesus is the truth. So now we know how to talk to our pain. We say, “Friend pain, I welcome you into my life, because Jesus sent you. But there are some things you have no right to do. You have no right to define me. You have no right to make me hysterical. You have no right to make me resent Jesus. But I do give you permission to take me deeper with him. That I sincerely invite you to do.” My mom’s life verse, which became more and more precious to her the more frail she became, was this: “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18).
Here is what the Lord is saying to us all this morning: “I am the light of the world, the light of your world. Following me is hard. But I am with you always. I know what you’re going through, and I am not ashamed of you. I am not sorry I got involved with you. I am not thinking of backing out. I am totally committed to you. I will never leave you nor forsake you. Trust me, and take the next step, and I will be there. I will always be there.”
Do you see what this means? It means the pressure’s off. You don’t have to understand him. You don’t have to control him. You don’t have to get him to care about you. He just cares, with all his mighty heart, for you, right now. Whatever you’re going through, your life is crowded with the presence of God. And you can no more walk in darkness than God can cease to exist.
All he’s asking you to do is follow him. We don’t have to deserve him. He died for your sins, so that you can now be fully included within his band of followers. What then does it mean to follow him? This word translated “follow” was used of a student following his teacher’s line of thought, of a soldier following his commander into battle, of a servant attending upon his master, of a questioner receiving counsel from an expert, of a citizen abiding by the laws of his city. So following Jesus is a big concept. It means we hand ourselves over to him and say, “I’m yours in a big way, in my totality.” And he receives us, with all that he is.
Will you accept his claim and move your chips over onto his promise? The best way to judge Jesus is not piecemeal but wholesale, because he never stops making startling claims. So consider him in his total audacity. He made so many claims and performed so many miracles and won so many followers and made so many powerful people angry, that eventually they crucified him. And on the third day – and all his original followers died insisting on this – on the third day the corpse twitched. The eyes opened. The one they found so threatening, so uncontrollable, so scary – he got up and walked out of his grave. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
If you believe that Jesus is the light of the world, but he didn’t rise from the grave, you have a problem. If you don’t believe that Jesus is the light of the world, but he did rise from the grave, you have a problem. So some of us here this morning have a problem. And if Jesus did rise from the grave but you don’t accept him, your problem is, you are walking in darkness.
So here is what you need to do. Look again at that word “whoever.” Jesus loves his enemies. He went to the cross to absorb into himself, in six hours of hell on earth, the wrath you deserve. The hammer fell on him, so that it doesn’t have to fall on you. So God has no problem with you today. You’re the holdout. You can start following Jesus, and you will no longer walk in darkness but you will have the light of life forever, not because of what you have done for him, but because of what he did for you at the cross. Your only part is to open up and say, “Lord, I’ve been wrong about you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Help me to trust you to the full extent of all you are, and help me to follow you.” He welcomes you. He wants you. Will you close the deal with him today?