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The Light That Enlightens


Old Testament Reading: Genesis 1:1-5

New Testament Reading: John 1:1-9

Strictly speaking the Gospel of John has no Christmas story, no Nativity story, at all. It knows nothing of any virgin Birth, since it has one of the disciples refer to Jesus as "the Son of Joseph." Neither does it know of any predicted birth in Bethlehem, as it has someone in the crowd protest that Jesus can hardly be the Anointed one since he does not hail from fabled Bethlehem, a charge Jesus seems to admit is true, though irrelevant.

But there is one slim point of contact between John's prologue and the Nativity story of Matthew. Matthew has a star mark the birth of Jesus and, two years later, guide the magi to his home in Bethlehem. To the magi nothing in John very closely corresponds, save perhaps those mysterious Greeks who come to Philip saying, "Sir, we would see Jesus," and then do not see him.

But I am thinking of the star itself, that astrological portent pointing to Jesus, as it had in the birth legends of so many other ancient heroes. It is altogether fitting that a newly dawning light should herald Jesus' appearance, for as John says in his prologue, it was the advent of the Light of the world, the one which gives light to every man and woman.

There are two rather different images of light in this passage. One has the light of the Logos of God shining all by itself, surrounded by depths of awful darkness it cannot dispel, but which in turn cannot extinguish it. "The light shineth in darkness, but the darkness hath not ..." what? Should we translate "has not overcome it"? Or "has not understood it"? It could mean either one, as when in English we say we have "mastered" something. Have we beaten it? Or understood it?

In any case, the Johannine prologue says the light can do nothing to illuminate that darkness. It only manages to hold its own against it.

But there is something that does begin to pick up and reflect the light of the world, and that is people. In fact, all of them. All men and women have within them a light of knowledge, of reason, which allows them to rise above the murkiness of the shadowed world around them.

All people have a share of godlike reason? Then why is the world the terrible mess it is? The text does not say that none of these lights are put out by the prevailing darkness! Alas, many or even most are. And John explains why: "men loved darkness, for their deeds were evil." They cannot extinguish the light fast enough! Like Oedipus, we blind ourselves. We begin with the light of moral reason, and it tells us we have no right and no excuse to do certain things. We think wistfully how blissful it would be to be ignorant of the truth! Then we could degrade ourselves with a clean conscience! So like Gideon in Paddy Chayevsky's teleplay of the same title, we pretend for so long and so consistently that we do not hear the voice of God or see his light that we finally do not. We can no longer tell the darkness from the light. In our case, the light flickered in the darkness, and then the darkness, surprised at its easy triumph, overcame it.

When the light of reason by which God created the reasonable world (it is reasonable, you know, more so than we, which is why ecology works better than technology) -- I say, when that light of reason took on mortal form to enter the dark world, humanity received its second chance to throw off the creeping frostbite death of willful darkness.

The human race was all a group of foolish bridesmaids, fallen asleep on the watch for the bridegroom, their lamps having long since run out of oil. But here came the light himself to replenish their supply. Yet when he appeared, lamp in hand, he seemed as mad as Nietzsche's lamp-bearing madman. But some listened and found their brittle wicks newly alight and glowing.

How does the Light of the World, Jesus of Nazareth, spread his light? Let me reject one analogy to embrace another, and you will have one opinion on the matter.

We have usually imagined Jesus the Light of the World on analogy with the sun, ourselves as the moon. We shine with light, true enough, but it is reflected light. Really it is second-hand light. It is the light of Jesus..On this understanding, whatever wisdom we have to share will be the wisdom of the historical Jesus. We repeat his teaching and do our best to extrapolate what it might mean for new situations. To pass on the light of Jesus becomes a scribal, an exegetical, an archaeological task.

From this understanding of things comes the classical view of church history and theology: the church is faithful and Christians are faithful as long as they pass along unchanged the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. We are, as Rabbi Johannon ben Zakkai said of his favorite disciple a "plastered cistern that loses not a drop." Working with this model of the light of Jesus, one of the early Princeton theologians was proud to announce that "no new idea has ever originated at this seminary!"

Jesus has set the light going, and the rest of us are merely holding mirrors to pass it on like a signal through the successive millennia.

I have just described the image of the light that enlightens that I reject, though once I accepted it.

Here is the image of the light that enlightens that I accept. It comes from Buddhist apologetics. Buddhists are in the remarkable position of believing in reincarnation, yet without believing in the existence of a migrating soul! How can there be reincarnation? That is not my subject this morning, but I will share with you an image they use in making their reply. They say it is like a man who used a candle to set a hundred other candles going.

This is what Jesus does, in my opinion. Once he sets us blazing, we glow with our own flame. We blaze in our own right, with a flame uniquely our own, once his matchless light has started us off.

This is why it doesn't matter that every thing we believe to be true did not necessarily come right from Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity, if you regard that as true, no doubt never crossed the mind of the Nazarene, but Jesus had set the mind of Saint Athanasius alight.

The pages of the Bible were none of them written by Jesus, but the New Testament writers each glowed softly or brilliantly with the light first kindled by Jesus. Did Jesus teach the doctrine of salvation by grace alone? I am far from sure that he did, but I am unashamed to call it true even if it were Paul, or more likely Martin Luther who first saw this truth.

In the Buddhist analogy, it is not even that the same one candle directly lights all the others. Rather the second one lights the third. The fifteenth lights the sixteenth. The ninety-ninth lights the hundredth. It is a chain reaction. Like your Christmas tree lights, they are wired in series, not parallel! Even so, you hold and perhaps modify the light of the candle before you. It is Jesus mediated by his church, by its theologians for two thousand years now. A student of mine once said she could appeal to the Spirit of Jesus directly in prayer to answer Bible interpretation questions. Doris was wrong. This was a theological delusion on her part. She was dependent on some preacher, whose opinion she swore by. Once I met this preacher, who was a most agreeable and reasonable fellow. Doris was much more radical than he. In her attempt to reflect the light of Jesus that she thought was reflected in him, she had blazed instead with her own fire.

In my thinking and believing, I was lit by the candles of Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and others, not primarily by Jesus. Tillich and Bultmann were kindled by Martin Kähler and Wilhelm Herrmann. They were sparked by Albrecht Ritschl, who in turn was set ablaze by F.C. Baur, he by Georg Hegel, and so all the way back through Luther, Täuler, Augustine, the Manichees, Ambrose, Paul, Jesus.  Each candle lit the next, and each burned with its own light.

Have you ever read Luke's genealogy of Jesus? He supplies the list of names, in which Jesus is said to be supposedly the son of Joseph, who is the son of A, the son of B, the son of C, and all the way back to Adam himself, who is the son of God! So Jesus, for Luke, is the Son of God, but several stages removed. Even so, are you a lamp lit with the fire of Jesus Christ? So you claim to be, and so you are, but in the same way Jesus is the son of God: many generations of candle flames intervene.

And the flames burn many different colors depending on the atmosphere and the composition of the wick and the nature of the wax.

If this is how the light of the world is transmitted from Jesus, then the religion descended from him need not look just like him. It glows with a light that he first kindled, but it is no longer simply his own light. It is too late for that. It has been for two thousand years. It has been since the second candle.

The faithful church of the light-bearer Jesus is the church that keeps on illuminating darkness by kindling candles. No one can predict in advance what truths will come to light in that glow. If they are new, strange, unaccustomed, so be it! The only way to avoid such truths is to drop the candle, huddle in the darkness and cherish the fading memory of the light as a poor substitute for the light.

I began this Christmas sermon with the kindling of one great light, the birth of Jesus. Since I have alluded to Buddhism along the way, allow me to close with the extinction of another great light, the Buddha. As he lay dying, as lights will do, his gathered disciples pressed upon him desperate questions about the doctrine and the future conduct of the Buddhist order. To these entreaties he responded simply, "Be ye lights unto yourselves." He had done his work, which was to kindle their lights. They should no longer need his.

And didn't Jesus say the same thing? He did not just shine in darkness, he illumines. He said "I am the light of the world," but didn't he also say to us, "You are the light of the world"?




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