(The first of three stewardship sermons on “The Light”. Next week we will talk about “A City on a Hill,” and the week after that, “The Light in the Darkness.”)
I remember a story that circulated at my seminary back in the early 1970’s. A young college student heard one of his professors say that “God is dead!” At first he was shaken; but not long after he embraced the idea with enthusiasm. He said, “God is dead, and I am glad, because now my mind can expand until it fills the universe!” This young man may have been a seminary myth, a teaching tool for one of my professors, but he represented a real category of people. For some people rejoice to think that we human beings are the apex of what we call creation, the tip top of the food chain, the little light in the great darkness, the only being in the universe who can fully appreciate what it means that there is a universe, and that we human beings have a place in it. The author of Psalms 14 has a word people who think like this. He writes, “The Fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God!’”
Others are less enthusiastic about the so called “death of God;”but they have adjusted to it. They live their lives not with joy, but with a calm stoicism. Perhaps you are familiar with Albert Camus’s novel, “The Stranger.” The hero of the tale is a victim twice over. He is a victim of circumstance. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he kills a man to protect a new friend. He is also a victim of his own moral emptiness. His mother has recently died, and people noted his total lack of grief. The prosecutor uses this as evidence against his character, the jury convicts him of murder not manslaughter, and the judge sentences him to death. The night before his execution, a pious old priest comes to see him, but he drives the priest away with a torrent of violent curses. The prisoner is man alone. He will not stoop to accept the comforts of religion. At last, by himself in his cell, the prisoner waits for the dawn and his own certain death. As he waits, he contemplates “the benign indifference of the universe.” The stars took no notice of his life; they will take no notice of his death. The apostle has a word for people such as the prisoner. In Ephesians 2:12 he writes that they are “without God” and “without hope” in the world.
Let me venture one more example. There are those who attend church every Sunday who more and more think that they, too, may someday be “without God” and “without hope” in the world. A friend recently told me that he is always loneliest, not when he is alone, but when he is in the midst of a crowd. So, too, there are those who feel the absence of God most, not on the six days of the week they are out in the world , earning a living, and doing what they do; but on the seventh day when they come to church, and sit in the pew, and sing the hymns, and pray the liturgy, and listen to the preacher, and envy the faith of those around them. Ultimately, many people start to stay away from church because church reminds them of the faith they once took for granted. These are they who confess with Job, “I am hemmed in by darkness, and thick darkness covers me.” (Job 23:17)
Is there any hope for those who without God and without hope in the world?
I believe there is. In John 8:12 , Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives and spoke to those who had gathered to hear him saying:
“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Jesus is the light of the world because the public life of Jesus cast light upon the mystery that is God.
This morning, as a part of our liturgy, we confessed our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. The Great 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth said that the 2nd article of the Apostles Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” is the bright light in the center of the room that sheds light on the dark corners of the first article of the creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” and third article of the creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
The first article of the creed confesses, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” We confess God the Father Almighty is the creator of heaven and earth; but the creator remains a mystery. He is:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise;
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.
Few people have been invited into the light which is the Lord God Almighty. In Exodus 19 we read that Moses went up the mountain to see God, and Exodus 33 tell us with some reservation that Moses met with God,”face to face, as a man might meet with his friend.” Yet, when Moses went up the mountain, he left the people of Israel at the base of the mountain. They did not see what Moses saw. They saw only clouds and thick darkness. They saw the lightning and heard the thunder, but God remained hidden from them.
Thankfully, that is not the end of the story. In Isaiah 64:1 the prophet begged God to “tear open the sky and come down,” and make his presence known in terms of cause and effect, as when fire causes water to boil. In the person of Jesus Christ, God answered that prayer. The first chapter of St. John’s Gospel tells that story:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men…(then, in verse 14) And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
From start to finish the life of Jesus cast light upon the mystery that is God. In John 4:34 Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of God and to accomplish his work.” In John 5:17 Jesus, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” In John 14 Jesus says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” and “the Father who dwells in me does his works.” In John 17:4 Jesus prayed to his Father saying, “I have accomplished the work which you, gave me to do.” And in John 19:30 Jesus says, “It is finished!” The meaning is clear. What God wills, Jesus does. What Jesus does, God does. This associates a new superlative with the name of God. Of all the faiths in all the world, only Christians can say that God is Christ-like!
E. Stanley Jones the Methodist Missionary and evangelists was speaking to a goup of Hindu’s. He told them that God is Christ-like and said, “If God is not like Jesus Christ, I want nothing to do with him.” One Hindu who was present responded, “That is Bahakti, devotion par excellence.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “It took Christianity to introduce to the world the idea of a God who suffers with his people.” If God is not like Jesus, then Jesus has had a better idea! Have no fear, God is Christ-like.
Now, some will accuse Christians of hubris for saying that God is Christ-like. I have a dear friend that converted from Christianity to Judaism. Not long after the conversion, I asked him why he converted. He said to me, “Worth, I converted in part because I got tired of the arrogant certainty of some Christians; some Christians act like they have lock on God. They act like then know all there is to know about God.” I said, “I apologize for that. When we Christians say that that we know God through Jesus Christ, we do not mean to say that we know all there is to be known of God. God can always show us more of God’s Self. What we mean is that we are certain that all future revelations of God will be Christ-like.” That’s it! God is Christ-like!
Jesus throws light upon the mystery that is God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and Jesus throws light upon the mysterious presence that we call the Holy Spirit.
In the third article of the creed, we confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” It can be just as hard to understand the Holy Spirit, as to understand God the Father Almighty. The chief reason for this is that the person and work of the Spirit is sometimes clouded by human claims. In John 20 Jesus breathed upon his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That invitation is for all the disciples of Jesus in all times and all places and this can lead to confusion and conflict.
Let me illustrate. When I was still the new associate pastor of The Little Church on the Lane, a man came to my house, and pumped-up my ego with praise. He spent no little time doing this, then he told me that the Holy Spirit had been telling him to tell me that I was to attend such and such a meeting, at such and such a place, and at such and such a time. I knew that my senior pastor did not want me to attend that meeting, so I spoke to him in the same way that he had spoken to me. I said, “That is funny, the Holy Spirit has been telling me that the last thing he wants me to do is to attend that meeting.” Just a week later, that meeting became a source of great conflict in my church; and four families left because of it. Had I been caught up in that conflict, my ministry in the Moravian Church would have been finished.
Let me give you one more example of the problem. I once heard a professor at Princeton joke that when conservatives spoke, “the Holy Spirit spoke right,” and when liberals spoke, “the Holy Spirit spoke left.” He was making a joke to make a point. Anybody can claim to have the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes it is difficult to tell the false prophets from the genuine prophets.
There is only one way we can. In John 7:39 we read that in the time of Jesus’s ministry, the Holy Spirit was not yet given to the disciples, because Jesus himself was not yet glorified. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is glorified in his death and resurrection. The meaning of John 7 is clear: The Holy Spirit was not give to the disciples of Jesus until Jesus had fixed the character of the Holy Spirit from his birth to his death, and beyond. If God is Christ-like, so is God’s Holy Spirit, Christ-like. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. People under the control of the Holy Spirit will act, at least in some measure, like Jesus himself acted. If they fail to do that, dare I say if we fail to do that, then we do not speak for the Holy Spirit at all. I am not suggesting it is easy to discern the Spirits, and I always want to do that work in community, but I do believe it is possible. As the apostle says, “We must discern the spirits.” (1st Corinthians 2:14). Jesus Christ shines a light upon God. Jesus shines a light upon the mystery which is God the father Almighty, and Jesus shines a light upon the mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit. More than anything else, because Jesus is perfect God become perfect man, Jesus shines a light upon the work that God does in and through him for the sake of the whole human race.
Mark these contrasts. I will name just three.
First, apart from Jesus Christ, we live in the anxious middle, we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. Our lives are bound on one end by the darkness of the womb, and on the other by the deeper darkness of the tomb. In Jesus Christ we know that we have come from God, and we are going to God. That means that nothing in this live has the ability to put us off the track. Nothing we suffer goes for nought. In John 11:25 Jesus says, “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and he who lives and believes in me shall never die.” This means that Jesus not only gives us the hope of eternal life, he delivers us from the fear of death.
Second, apart from Jesus we live on the dark side of the street. In John 3:19 we read that we human beings love darkness rather than light, because the darkness hides our evil deeds. Jesus exposes our darkest deeds, and invites us to come without shame into the light. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and Jesus promised him a new birth in the Spirit, which is to say, a brand new life, a new beginning, a blank slate. As Christians we believe that “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” That is found in 1st Corinthians 15:3. As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross. That is found in 1st Peter 2:24. What does all this theological mumbo jumbo mean? It means that if we have confessed our sins, and turned to in faith to Jesus Christ, then we may still remember our sins, but we must remember them like they happened to somebody else, for Jesus Christ has claimed our sins as his own, and pronounced us innocent of any wrong doing. That is the gospel, the good news!
Third, apart from Jesus we stumble along the road of life in the darkness. We may know where we have been, but we are never too sure about where we are going. There is a reason people cling to the past, complain about the present, and refuse to make decisions about the future. The past, as good or as bad as it has been, is a sure thing. The future is anything but a sure thing. We rarely see very far into the future. Ordinarily we see only the next step. That is what the Psalmist is getting at when he said that the scripture is “a lamp unto his feet, and a light unto his path.” In those days, a lamp burned beaten olive oil, and it cast a very small circle of light. We can see a little way, but not far. We take one step, then, perhaps we can see to take another, then another. Of course, sooner or later we come to a place where we can not even see the next step we have to take. It was Edward Teller, who has been called, “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” and “the real Dr. Strangelove,” who said:
“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things will happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”
Teller was a devout Jew who said, “We need God,” and he thought it was a shame that we had not seen God in many thousands of year. I hope he took some solace in what he heard of Jesus . Of course, Jesus himself said it is only those who “follow him” who will benefit fully from the light of life he cast upon the darkness of our world. The closer we follow him, the more sure we become. It was Francis Schafer who said, “If you are following a road in the dark, and someone says, ‘There is no road,’ you know there is, for you can feel the smoothness of it under your feet, and so it is with those who follow Jesus.”
Here at New Philadelphia, we have seen the next step. We have called Joe Moore to be our associate pastor. There is a next step we must take, and another step after that. The important thing is to believe that Jesus Christ can see further into the future than we can. The only think he ask of us is that we keep stepping, following him in the light that we have.