I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you have heard this story before, it has made the rounds before I think, but it’s a good story none the less: it’s said that one night when a British Battleship was out on maneuvers, a lookout noted a light in the dark, foggy night. After noting the light’s coordinates, the captain recognized his ship was on a collision course with the other vessel. The captain instructed, “Signal the ship: We are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees.” The return signal countered, “Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees.” The captain signaled, “I’m a captain, change course 20 degrees.” The response was, “I’m a seaman second class, you’d better change course 20 degrees.” By this time the captain was furious. His signal curtly ordered, “I’m a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.” The reply: “I’m a lighthouse. You make the call.”
My grandfather had a somewhat similar encounter while serving in the navy during the Korean War. He served with the Atlantic fleet, his ship was stationed in Pensacola at this point, and one evening when they went out for some basic maneuvers something pinged on their radar. I don’t understand radar enough to know how this worked but they were able to figure out what they were seeing was in fact a Soviet submarine in US territorial waters. My granddad was the chief communications officer on the ship, so he attempted to make radio contact with the sub. No response. They radioed to shore for the commander of the fleet to tell them what to do. He said try again. No response. Try again. No response. The whole time the submarine is getting closer. They received the order to try one more time, and if there was no response they were to consider the sub hostile and fire on it. The captain looked at my grandad and said “I never thought World War Three would start on board the USS Healy.” Now I’m assuming since you know World War Three did not in fact start that evening you can guess what happened next, that final radio request got a response for the sub, whose crew was incredibly apologetic, they had had power issues which shut down their location and communication systems, because it was dark out they couldn’t figure out where they were, they pulled back into international waters, crisis avoided. Just another example, in both of these cases, of how important light can be.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” We’ve opened our time of worship with those words the last two weeks, and we’ll do so throughout the rest of this advent season. They’re more than likely familiar words to us, especially during the Christmas season. That whole chapter of Isaiah is rich with Messianic imagery but it opens with this idea of seeing light in the darkness. That verse continues “on those living in a land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.” It speaks of a new way of living, right? A new way of seeing things, a chance for something new. Most of us, if we’re lost in the dark and see light, if a lighthouse warns us that we’re headed for shore, would respond positively to the moment. We’d be grateful for the warning or the path out of our predicament. Isaiah certainly presents the great light that the people have seen as a good thing. What happens though, when we’re not excited to see the light, when we aren’t necessarily interested in seeing a new way forward?
That’s what we see in text this morning. In John 8 Jesus confirms something that we as readers already know from John 1 that we talked about last week, he is the light of the world. He is that light shining in the darkness he the light that offers life.
What does that mean? It means that in Jesus we see the answer the darkness that so often rears its head in our lives. I know I’m repeating myself a bit from last week but it is worth repeating: sometimes the darkness is incredibly strong. Turn on the TV or the radio, open a newspaper, check your phone if you’re a millennial and you’re killing old media – the darkness is awfully strong. But its not just that global darkness that we face, in fact if that was the only place the darkness reared its head we might be able to avoid, we might be able to stay away from those dark patches and remain in the light, but that’s not the case. Darkness doesn’t just impact our world, darkness impacts us. Darkness rears its head in our lives, it shows up everywhere. The darkness of addiction, the darkness of broken relationships, the darkness of sorrow and grief and pain that it seems like no one understands and no one has an answer for it, Jesus stands up in this moment and provides the answer, “I am the light of the world. Follow me and you’ll get out of the darkness. Follow me and you’ll have real life.”
Jesus being the light of the world means a couple of things for us. First, if Jesus is the light then nothing else can be. Nothing else is going to fill that role, nothing else is going to get us out of the darkness and give us life. That’s a problem a lot of us fall into, we try to find light somewhere else. Sometimes we got to things that can be good: jobs and relationships and things like that, sometimes we go to things we know aren’t good but feel great in the moment, all of those things are just going to lead to more darkness if we aren’t centered on Christ as the light, the thing that shows us all those other things and keeps them in their place. Without the light all those things are just going to eventually let us down.
If Jesus is the light of the world, the only thing that can shine in the darkness, then everyone of us needs that light. We’ve talked before about the amazing capacity the human eye has to adjust to darkness. We’ve talked about how if you spend enough time in darkness you’ll start to get used to it. If you spend enough time in darkness you’ll get to where you can function and move pretty well in it. And if you spend enough time in darkness you might fall in to the trap of getting too comfortable for it, of convincing yourself that what you can see in the darkness is enough. We can get convinced that we’ve already got all the light we need.
That’s what we see happen here with the Pharisees, Jesus tells them that he’s the light of the world and they try to get into a legal argument. They try steer the conversation into a hundred different directions because they don’t want to hear that they need the light. They are so accustomed to the darkness that they don’t want to hear about any alternative.
If you ever have or ever do find yourself looking into philosophy at all you’ll probably become familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave. Plato talks about people who live their entire lives chained up in a cave with a fire behind them casting shadows on the wall in front of them as different objects pass by. Their whole world is those shadows, but they don’t know any better, they don’t want anything else. They’re so used to the darkness that they can’t imagine anything better.
That brings us to a third important thing about Jesus being the light of the world: the world was made for this light. In that light everything is seen the way it was supposed to be. In this light we see things the way they truly are. In this light we see how dark the darkness really is. In this light we see how the things we cling to in the dark are really trapping us.
Plato imagines what would happen if one of the prisoners in the cave were set free. He would turn and look at the fire and it would be brighter than anything he’d ever seen before so it would hurt his eyes. He’d start to question what he had seen before, he’d see the things that made the shadows that had been his whole world and that would cause him to panic, he’d try to go back to the what he had known. Plato imagines someone grabbing the man and dragging him out of the cave entirely, out into the sun. And as his eyes adjusted he’d be forced to deal with this new reality. And once he saw the world outside the cave he would never willingly go back to chains and shadows. Once we have a taste of the light we can’t settle for the darkness. Once we experience real life, we can’t go back to our chains.
The last thing that Jesus being the light of the world means is that one day that light will fill the earth. The Season is about celebrating that Jesus has come in to the world, that he is in the world still, and that he is coming again into the world. At that time, at that moment when God makes all things new, the light will be all we know. The darkness will be defeated and vanquished. John writes in Revelation about the new heaven and new earth and new Jerusalem where there are no lights because there is no darkness. He says in that moment there will be no more sorrow or pain, no more mourning, and no more death. God will be among the people. Darkness will be no more.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in darkness, a new light has come.” We don’t have to wait for the day when darkness is finally destroyed to walk in the light. The light has come and is available to us. We don’t have to stay in the darkness. We don’t have to be content with shadows and chains. We can walk out of the cave. We can walk into the light. We can have life.