I Am the Light of the World
July 18, 2021
Have you ever had the experience of thinking you knew a popular phrase only to at some point realize you’ve been saying it wrong your entire life?
For example, when I was a kid, I thought the phrase “we’re all in the same boat,” was actually “we’re all in the same vote” – as if we all got into a voting booth together and decided to all vote the same way.
Or how about this one. Rather than there being “nothing to write home about” I thought the phrase was “nothing to ride home about,” as if we were all going to ride home in the same car together, but chose not to because we had nothing to talk about on the drive home.
And yes, upon further review, when you think about it, I realize my versions really don’t make any sense, and I’m sure I misused these sayings numerous times. And for the sake of my dignity, I’m going to estimate I realized that I had been saying these wrong sometime around 8th grade, although it may have in fact been later. But you can understand the mistake, boat sounds like vote, write sounds like ride, and people say these phrases with such confidence that I just assumed that so long as I said them with confidence I’d be saying the right phrase too.
And please know, I am so very hoping and trusting that you’ll laugh and commiserate with me by sharing some of your or your kids misunderstood phrases with me after the service.
Anyway, the point is this. For all these years, I really truly thought I had a good handle on what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the light of the world,” but this weekend I felt like that 8th grader all over again as it became increasing clear to me that Jesus uses this phrase somewhat differently than I had thought.
This morning we continue on with our summer sermon series, where over the next 8 weeks or so, we’re studying the “I AM” statements of Jesus. Throughout the gospel accounts, so many names were given to Jesus, names that the crowds and disciples and his closest friends and followers knew him by, names that described both who he is and what it was he came to accomplish. Names like Savior and Lord, Messiah and Rabbi, Son of Man and Son of David, all of which help to flesh out and give us a better picture of who this Jesus really was.
And yet, it’s also worth asking, how did Jesus describe himself? What words or phrases or images did he use to describe himself? How Jesus described himself, the names he gives us, who he says he is of the utmost importance. In John’s gospel we find this collection of “I AM” statements, shared through his public ministry. And last week, one of our elders Russ Richardson kicked off this series by preaching on “I am the good shepherd.”
Today we find ourselves with another important “I AM” statement. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
And throughout the years, I thought I had such a good handle on this “I AM” statement. For years, I thought that when Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” I thought he was saying something to the effect of “I am the source of all that is good – all that is true, all that is beautiful, all that is holy, all that is lovely.”
And I think that I implicitly made this connection because I was conflating this “I am” statement with a similar statement Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, which we studied a year and a half ago. When he said, “You are the light of the world.” (meaning us, his followers). Where here he’s effectively saying, that you (again, meaning, we) are his light bearers, his light shining reflectors, called and sent by Jesus to fill the world with his truth, beauty, holiness and love. And all of that is good and true and needs to be preached and has pages upon pages of biblical backing.
But yet, for our purposes today, Jesus uses light in a different, and in fact simpler way. After all, notice the context and conversation surrounding this particular “I am” statement. It has very little if anything to do with being a shining force or a positive example of good in the world. Instead the subsequent conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees seems to be about who exactly this Jesus thinks he is and whether or not he has any credible grounds or basis for claiming to be who he says to be. There’s all this talk about whether his testimony is valid, about what exactly is his relationship with God the Father, and seemingly vague references to eternal life, saying things like “where I am going, you cannot come.”
In the end, when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” he’s not so much using light as a metaphor for things like hope and love, good as those things might be, but rather using light in the way the human race has been using light for thousands upon thousands of years. That is, light helps us see. Whether it be the sun or a light bulb, a street light or a candle, one of light’s primary features, maybe it’s most basic feature is that light helps us see.
Without light, in some way, shape or form, we would be lost and confused. Imagine trying to drive a car with no headlights at night. You almost certainly wouldn’t do it for the simple reason that you have no way of truly knowing what’s in front of you.
I’m shared this story before, but a couple years ago, Callie and I were on our way to catch a flight of Bozeman bright early one Christmas morning and we left town well before sunrise, and somewhere between Twin Bridges and Whitehall, Callie said ‘deer.’ And soon realizing that she wasn’t affectionally calling my name, I too saw the deer and drove out of its way. Light helped us see and miss that deer, or maybe the light was what attracted the deer in the first place … it doesn’t matter … that’s not the point. The point is, light helps us see.
This past week at camp we studied a few of the I AM statements and one of them was the light of the world and I was sharing this story with our campers and then thought I’d ask, “Have any of you seen a deer at night before?” Every hand shot up right away. And it became instantly clear that that question was now on the list of the top 5 dumbest questions I’ve ever asked. What kid in Montana hasn’t seen a deer before? Having grown up in the city, deer were kind of a novelty, where squirrels and pigeons were some of the wildest wildlife we had ☺
Anyway, the point is this. Light helps us see. Light reveals what is there. Light illuminates what is real and true. Light shows us where to go.
And so, when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” he’s saying, “If you see me, if you follow me, I’ll lead you towards the path that leads to life.” Even more, if we see Jesus for who he truly is, as God himself, we’ll not only see him more clearly, but we’ll see ourselves and the world around us more clearly as well.
Of course, part of why we need Jesus, the light of the world, is because of the reality of darkness both around us and within us.
Remember, Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Which begs the question, what exactly are we talking about when we talk about darkness?
This past week, before each message I gave, we’d have a skit to set up the days theme. After all, what is camp for elementary aged kids without skits? And so a couple counselors would playing the roles of Nancy and Reginald, two sophisticated people who had run into Jesus earlier that day.
Part of the script for the light of the world was about the subject of darkness. And they introduced it like this:
Reginald: Perhaps the light of Jesus is meant to lead us out of the darkness of the world?
Nancy: There’s so much darkness in this world, Reginald. There are dark caves. Dark closets. Dark chocolate.
Reginald: I doubt Jesus wants to lead us away from dark chocolate.
Pretty good, right? However, funny as it may be, it probably goes without saying, dark caves and dark chocolate are not the kinds of darkness Jesus is talking about ☺
Instead, darkness throughout the bible used as an image to describe sin and evil. And of course that’s the kind of darkness that we need Jesus to guide us through and away from.
Sometimes sin and evil and the darkness of this world are around us and sometimes they are within us.
Sometimes sin and evil are around us, whether it be through the actions of another, or whether it be ways in which our world has been marred and distorted by sin itself, whether through cancer or droughts or forest fires. Navigating through darkness such as that is an area in which we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, the light of the world to guide us through.
However, other times, and this is surely the tougher one to swallow, sin and evil and darkness not only exist around us, but also within us. Whether it be through pride or anger, lying or stealing, through our words or our actions, of course, the list goes on and on with this one.
In both cases, whether it be the darkness around us or the darkness within us, we need Jesus as the light of the world to light our path, and show us a better way, the path that leads to light.
At camp this past week, I had all the campers go through a really simple obstacle course that doubled as an object lesson of sorts. One camper would be blindfolded and then guided by words and instruction only through a simple obstacle course with the goal being to try and hit a few obstacles as possible.
And what I love about that simple object lesson is that for the person who is blindfolded, all of their personal or physical advantages that they might naturally have with their own two eyes are immediately taken away from them, and instead, they are forced to rely completely upon another person and simply trust and listen. To me, it’s a simple picture of trusting and listening to and following Jesus in midst of the darkness and sin and uncertainties of this world.
The psalmist says and the hymn we sung earlier goes like this, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”
This, of course, is an essential part of what it looks like to follow Jesus, who is the light of the world. It’s looks like listening and trusting and following Him and His Word.
Each morning at camp we would memorize a different verse of the bible and as I told the campers, one of the invaluable aspects of committing scripture to memory is that it allows God’s Word to be in you even when you don’t have the Word on God on you. That is, even when you don’t have a physical bible in your hands, you’ve still have God’s Word written on your heart and at the top of your mind.
So, that as we learned at camp, when you’re walking through the darkness, or an uncertain time, that Isaiah 41:10 would come to mind, “So do not fear for I with you, do not be dismayed for I am your God.”
Or that when a difficult decision is front of you and you aren’t sure which direction to take, that Proverbs 3:5 would to come to mind, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
When we commit God’s Word to memory, it’s one way, one tool in our toolbox that we have to more fully follow Jesus, the one who is the light of the world. Maybe take some time this week to commit 1-2 verses to memory. Maybe write it by hand, put it in your wallet, and practice putting into memory during the slow moments of the day, when you’re standing in line or waiting for dinner to finish cooking.
For as the Psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”
And I finish with this. Or rather, to set proper expectations, we’ll ever so slowly begin to wrap things up with this:
One of the things that we’ll notice over time as we study the “I AM” statements isn’t simply what distinguishes them from another, but also what they have in common.
And one things we’ll notice is that each of these statements not only have two words in common, “I AM,” but in fact, three.
And that third word is the sneaky little word “the.” And that little word, the distinction between the definite article “the” and the indefinite article “a” makes all the difference in the world.
When Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” He’s not claiming to be one option among many. He’s not claiming to be one source of light among many. He’s not claiming to be one path to eternal life among many.
Rather, he’s claiming to be the one and only light of the world. Whoever follows me, Jesus says, will not walk in darkness but will have the light that leads to life, that is, eternal life. As he’ll say to the Pharisees and to all those in temple just moments later, 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” Just as trust was the key ingredient for our campers and the obstacle course, so too, believing in Jesus, believing that he is the one and only light of the world is the path to life for us as well.
After all, Jesus says, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” Here he’s claiming and establishing oneness with the Father, where he’s claiming to be God himself. Here he’s identifying himself with the God of page 1 of the bible, harkening all the way back to the Genesis story and creation account. A God who looked upon the world, the earth a formless void where darkness covered the face of the deep, a God whose very first words were, “Let there be light.”
Friends, my hope and prayer over these next few weeks is that we would not only take this Jesus at his word, but that we would see Him for who he truly is. He’s the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life, the True Vine, the Way, Truth and Life, and of course, he’s the light of this whole wide world.