Jesus always has a place or situation specific reason for his “I AM” statements that he makes through out the book of John. Something is happening around him that concretely ties him to who he says he is. Now, as you might recall, John’s gospel doesn’t have Jesus teaching in parables like the other gospels. But I think these I AM statements could be considered parables because of who they say he is and who God is in light of the specific circumstance. If you remember last week, Laura delved into “I Am the bread of life.” Jesus just feed the multitudes on the shores of Galilee by miraculously feeding thousands with just a little bit of bread. After the feeding he says, “I am the bread of life.” We come to a new understanding of who God in Christ is in light of understanding what bread does. To condense it down, bread sustains physically, but God in Christ sustains us spiritually. There is a lot more to it than that, but that give us a little nugget of understanding Jesus.
Today’s I AM statement is similar, but I think harder to comprehend because we are separated by 2000 years. We can’t stand next to Jesus in the temple and see what he is comparing himself to when he says, “I Am the light of the world.” So let’s paint the picture. If you go back to chapter 7, you will see that it is the Jewish festival of booths, or tabernacles, and Jesus is in the temple teaching. This was a time to celebrate the harvest while recalling God’s provision for the people of Israel during their 40 years in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. This festival was so popular that the people just called it “the feast” and it was a week long celebration of merriment and excitement.
During each night of the festival, four giant lamps were positioned in the court of the women, which was also the location of the temple treasury, which we see why this is important when we read the passage. These lamps were huge golden bowls of oil with wicks made from the discarded cloths from priestly garments. These lamps represented the cloudy pillar of fire that went before the people in the desert. People would sing and dance all night long in the light of these lamps and they were so bright that it was rumored that every single courtyard in Jerusalem was touched by its light. And since the temple was basically the highest point in Jerusalem, the lamps could be seen for miles. When the night was over and the light of the lamps were burned out, two priests would come down the steps of the court of the women, turn towards the Temple and say, “Our fathers who were in this place turned their backs to the temple of God and their faces eastward and threw themselves down eastward before the sun; but we direct our eyes to Yahweh.” And remember, Yahweh means, “I Am who I Am.”
I think this is the scene we are witnessing. It is early morning, the sun may not even be over the horizon yet. Jesus has just had this encounter with the woman caught in adultery and her accusers. The lamps have burned out and the priests have made their declaration about following the great I AM…(read the scripture: John 8:2-20)
Now, we all know the power of light. It is spring time and we can see the power of the light from the increased length of days. Things grow, we explore, we enjoy the light. We need the light. We can’t box it in or contain it. We are drawn to it. And there are a lot of references to light in scripture. But in this moment, Jesus’ hearers would have perceived Jesus talking about light in a way that connects directly to their history. Their minds would have went immediately to the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that led Israel during their passage through wilderness after leaving Egypt. That cloud had stood between Israel and Egypt, protecting the people from disaster both day and night, keeping the Egyptian army from attacking while Moses raised his staff and split the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape.
But that same fiery cloud that protected them from the Egyptians also guided them throughout their wilderness wanderings. When the light moved, they moved. When the light stated put, they stayed put. That fiery pillar of burning cloud assured them that Yahweh was with them. His presence was so bright in that cloud that the people could travel by day or by night and it never departed from them.
Sometimes God spoke from the fiery pillar cloud, other times God addressed the sins of the people, and God even fought against Israel’s enemies in and through this fiery pillar. But what was evident to Israel is that they could never forget that God was with them as they were able to see the light.
No wonder the priests attacked him when he said he was the light of the world. Basically Jesus is telling them, “Did you see the light shining from the blaze in this court. Did you see how it pierced the darkness as it lit up all of Jerusalem and the countryside? Now, look to me. I am the light of the entire world, not just of Jerusalem. Do you remember who it represents? I am that light. For the one who follows me there will always be in the light of God’s protection and guidance, not just for one joyful night or week of celebration, but for every step they take throughout their lives. This light in the temple is brilliant, but at last if flickers and dies. I am the light that lasts forever!”
So, what does it mean to follow the one who is the light of the world? First, we have to face the light to follow it. We have to let the light of the world shine into every aspect of our lives. We cannot keep anything hidden in the dark, especially those things that separate us from God and our neighbor. I think that is why the story of the woman caught in adultery is right before Jesus’ proclamation of who he is. Now, there are a lot of contextual issues with this story, but it makes sense that it is right here. In the presence of Jesus, all the sins that had taken place were exposed to the light. Everyone involved in that situation was hiding in the dark of sin. Now, to have an act of adultery, you have to have two actors. Only the woman is brought before Jesus. So there are lots of questions about the scene. But when the one who is the light of the world asks the entire crowd to face their own sins, most cannot face the fact that their sins are being exposed. Only the women can. We have to be realistic in the fact that the light will expose us for who we are, but that light also wants to transform us into his followers. That doesn’t mean we don’t sin anymore, but that we able to ask for forgiveness and grow into the people of God.
Now the other aspect of following the light of the world is as hard as facing the light. You can’t be too hasty and follow too close and you can’t lag too far behind. Here is why, if we follow too closely we can fail to see where the Light is leading. In the book of Joshua, we find that the people were required to follow behind the fiery pillar by about two thirds of a mile. This would keep the people from passing the Lord and going the wrong direction. It takes time to watch where Jesus is going and discern where he is leading us. Alexander Maclaren said that “It is neither reverent nor wise to be treading on the heels of our Guide in our eager confidence that we know where He wants us to go.”
But we cannot lag behind, either, and get lost in the wilderness without his light. Again, Maclaren phrases the issue very well when he writes, “Do not let the warmth by the camp-fire, or the pleasantness of the shady place where your tent is pitched, keep you there when the fiery cloud lifts. Be ready for change, be ready for continuance, because you are in fellowship with your Leader and Commander; and let Him say, Go, and you go; Do this, and you gladly do it, until the hour when He will whisper, Come.” It takes discernment and prayer to follow in the light down the path he is leading.
When Jesus proclaimed, “I Am the light of the world,” he presented himself as the one who saves his people, protects his people, and guides his people through unfamiliar territory. And we do live in a time of unfamiliar territory, both in our lives, our families, and even in the church. It doesn’t mean we always stay put, holding on to the things as they always have been. When the light beckons, we move. Christ, the great I AM, the light of the world, call us as individuals and as a community of faith to come and follow him. May we hear his call today and journey following him, out of the shadows of darkness and into the light that only he can give. Amen.