It’s getting lighter out; walk in the true light

In ancient Jerusalem, Jews celebrated something called the Festival of Booths. It commemorated the 40 years that the people of Israel spent in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. Jerusalem was bathed in light every night during this week-long festival, because the people were to remember how God led them in the wilderness by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day. So every night in the temple grounds, worshippers crowded around four enormous lamp stands, which were filled with oil. Throughout the night, young men kept adding oil to the lamps, while older men sang and danced to certain psalms with as many as eight flaming torches in their hands.

It was a brilliant sight, with all this light dancing off the white marble walls of the temple and parades of torches winding around the temple grounds like giant luminous caterpillars. Then, just before dawn, on the seventh and final night, with the first glimmers of sunlight creeping up over the Mount of Olives, the priests would silence the people, turn their backs to the east and declare their faith in God. This recalled how their ancestors once worshipped sun gods, but now Israel worshipped the true God. Finally, in accord with Psalm 119:105 which says “thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” the priests would go inside the temple and remove the sacred scrolls from the ark of the covenant, which at one time held the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The scrolls would be replaced by a single candle, and the priests would pray this prayer; “O Lord of the universe, you command us to light the lamps to you, yet you are the Light of the World.”

During this seventh and final night of the festival, according to the gospel of John, Jesus Christ made his way into the temple grounds. Jesus was never one to miss a dramatic setting for his teaching and this final night was it. So he climbed the platform near one of the great lamp stands and began to address the crowd, saying; “I am….the light of the world.” Pausing, perhaps to survey the stunned faces of the people, Jesus added “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. I am, Jesus said that night I am all that you commemorate; I am all that you anticipate; I am light and truth.

In John 8:12 Jesus makes two distinct claims. First he is the light of the world. Only the most cynical or atheistic minds today would not accept that Jesus had some pretty good morals and perspectives on life, so granting him “light” status is fine so long as he takes his place alongside all our other acknowledged “enlightened thinkers.”

It’s the second part of his statement that makes the troublesome claim because it is a statement directed not at himself but us. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” This is just another example of Jesus’ many calls for the exclusive loyalty of his followers. It cut the heart out of his listeners because he was replacing all that wonderful, comfortable ritual. But it cuts the same way in us, because the exclusive claim of Jesus on your life would replace just about all of the comfortable practices you have that do have way more influence over you than you’d like to think.

Admit it, we guard our image intensely. Where we live, who we have as friends, what we wear, what we listen to, what we drive, what we belong to, how much we make, who our locker is next to at school, who we sit by once we go through the lunch line, what we eat when we do go through the line, all this is an endless and really vicious cycle of image building. In other words, it’s all an attempt to put ourselves in the best possible light. But Jesus Christ says the only image that matters is his, and the only light worth being seen in is the light of his grace and truth.

I ask you, who really needs short-lived versions of the limelight which are really not so very different from staying up all night under a torchlight, when Jesus Christ offers each of us a chance to walk in the true light? The call of each of us is to bear an image, not build one.

Rev. Ken Nelson is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Minot.