The Feast of Tabernacles was a joyous celebration of Thanksgiving. Held annually in late fall, it was a celebration of the final harvest, thanking God for another bountiful crop. It was also a remembrance of the wilderness wanderings, and a celebration that God had been faithful to the promises and planted Israel safely in the Land. Jesus should obviously attend a such an event, yet in John 7 he stays away, at least at first.
It’s an interesting time for Jesus in John 7 and 8. Jesus is starting to draw large crowds of followers everywhere he goes, some crowds even in the thousands. Yet, his fame is causing stress for the ruling classes. The Jewish leaders were seeking to kill Jesus because of the statements he was making and the miracles he was performing. Jesus was testifying to the Truth, and those that live in darkness don’t like the truth. The Truth was challenging their lives, and where they place their priorities. So they sought to kill Jesus, and Jesus stayed away, at least at first. Jesus eventually shows up at the feast and begins teaching in the Temple courts. The crowds marvel, yet the questions begin anew. Who is this man, and where did he learn these things? Could he be the Messiah? Why don’t the religious leaders follow him? The Temple police are even sent to arrest Jesus, although they choose to let him remain. Finally, as the feast is coming to an end Jesus makes a bold claim. “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)
I Am, the same name God gave to Moses at the burning bush, the name that in Hebrew is typically pronounced Yahweh, God’s personal name, I Am. Jesus is declaring himself to be God. But not only is he God, he is the Light of the world. The feast of Tabernacles had a tradition of lighting four large torches at night around the Temple. These torches were so bright that some ancient writers say the torches lit up the entire city of Jerusalem. They shown a light into the darkness of night. Jesus is saying I am God, and I will provide light so that you can see in the darkness. I will bring truth. I will show the way. Just as these torches help to provide light so that you can see at night, I will provide light so that you can clearly see the truth and follow. It’s a word of hope in a time of great darkness as many were wondering what is the Truth and is God really in charge.
It’s not the first time however that Jesus has been known as the light of the world. Isaiah prophecies about this day in Isaiah 9. Isaiah looks into the future and says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…for to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2-6)
Later, John begins his own gospel with an introduction that describes what is to follow and he says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world….to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:4-12)
Now, Jesus is at the Feast of Tabernacles, on the last night, and darkness is everywhere. People are openly questioning who is the Messiah, who is Jesus, do we believe Truth, and how do we live in these dark times? Jesus speaks into the darkness and declares, I Am the Light of the World.
Some would say that these times today are dark times. Over the last couple of months there have been two church shootings, and other various violent rampages. Stories of #MeToo and sexual harassment claims are affecting many. The rich are wondering how much they will have to spend in taxes this year, while the poor are wondering if the “American Dream” has passed them by while the reality of economic inequality becomes more entrenched. Racial Tensions are still raw as white supremacist groups hold rallies in cities across the nation. These are truly dark times.
As we sit in this moment of a dark and stormy night we begin to wonder, what can wake us from our nightmare, and usher in the new creation. Into the darkness we hear Jesus speak, I Am the light of the world. Into the darkness the light of life shines, and the truth of Jesus is a light that the darkness can never put out.
As we wonder what can we do, what is our role, we hear Jesus say, I Am the light of the world. Our role is to embrace the light of the world, and reflect it back to the world. Our role is to speak Truth, not the truth of a cultural Christianity that embraces power for political gain, but the Truth of Jesus Christ who embraced the lowly, the destitute, the poor, the weary, and the weak. Our role is not to slip away from the public sphere, hiding behind the four walls of the church, but to embrace a Jesus Politic that lives out the Sermon on the Mount and encourages and expects others to do the same. Our role is not to allow the darkness of our culture to drive us to despair, but to embrace the light of the world, for the sake of the world.