The Light of the World

From our service on January 31, 2021, a sermon by Pastor Eric Stetson. Watch video below.

This week, on February 2, Christians celebrate Candlemas, commemorating the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem and the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Jewish tradition, every firstborn son was to be consecrated to the Lord with a sacrifice of a pair of doves or young pigeons, and according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’s parents followed this custom [Luke 2:22-24].

But the significance of Candlemas goes deeper than that. As it has developed in the Christian tradition, it is a day to reflect on the Divine Light that shines in Christ as the light of the world. On Candlemas, many Christians in both Catholic and Protestant churches bring candles to church to be blessed, and these blessed candles are used for the rest of the year, as a symbol and a reminder of Jesus who illuminates our hearts with the light of God.

It is appropriate that such a holy day be in the midst of the winter, the darkest time of year for the vast majority of Christians, who live in the Northern Hemisphere. The darkness and gloom of the season makes us yearn for the light — and as we feel starved of the physical light at this time of year, so too we may hunger for the spiritual light. Many people tend to feel sad during the winter, especially after the joy and excitement of Christmas and New Year’s are over — and for some people, this tendency can become a full-blown depression caused by the scarcity of light, called Seasonal Affective Disorder. I, myself, have suffered from the winter blues for most of my life.

The Bible tells us that “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.” [1 John 1:5]. Light is energy, and it travels at the fastest speed possible in our universe. It is a measurement to which everything else is compared. When God created the universe, He said “Let there be light!” [Gen. 1:3]. And here on earth, without the light of the Sun, no life would be possible. Plants and trees grow upward toward the light, their branches and leaves reaching out to the very source of their existence. They soak in the rays, powering their cells that feed the entire planet — for light is quite literally at the base of the food chain.

And so it is with God. The Divine Light is the Urgrund, the Source of All Being, not only in the physical but also the spiritual world. Our souls are little lights that have sprung from the Great Light of Creation — an infinite repository of reproductive potential, as a multitude of candles can be lit from a single flame.

Not only in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also in other religions, we find the idea of God as light. In Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia, the One True God was the Light, represented by fires always kept burning in the Zoroastrian temples; and the cosmic enemy or Satan was the darkness. In Islam, one of the most important names of God is Nur, meaning Light. And as it is written in a famous verse of the Quran,

“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp,
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star,
Lit from a blessed olive tree,
Neither of the east nor of the west,
Whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire.
Light upon light.
God guides to His light whom He wills.
And God presents examples for the people,
and God is knowing of all things.”

In the Christian Bible we read that “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” [John 1:9]. This light was shining in the lamp of Jesus, the Christ, who gave light first unto the Jews, and then, through his apostles, to the Gentiles — a light that has shone forth in all directions until it has permeated the world. It is a light that transcends religions — a light of God’s own Self, as revealed in the human form. For “I am the light of the world,” says Jesus. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” [John 8:12]

It’s not about believing in certain doctrines about Jesus; to follow the path of Christ is the key: “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,” and our sins are forgiven [1 John 1:6-7].

The last two weeks, we talked about the ministry and teachings of Jesus, and I want to emphasize how important it is that we not just worship him for the amazing things he did in his life, but that we emulate him in our own lives. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” asks Jesus [Luke 6:46] — a question that many Christians would do well to ask themselves, especially those who prioritize a Christian identity over the practice of difficult teachings such as charity, forgiveness, and inclusion. But really it’s true for all of us — “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Paul [Rom. 3:23].

Even so, we shouldn’t sell ourselves short. Jesus tells us that “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” [Luke 6:40]. Our teacher is Jesus Christ, and we are in his classroom — the school of this world. He is our teacher because he has gone before us, showing the way to be exalted to perfection in God’s eyes, that we might attain to the glory of the resurrection to eternal life as a coworker with Christ in the Heavenly Kingdom.

For we are, after all, the children of God, even as Jesus was the firstborn Son. We, who are younger and less mature in God’s great family, are called to follow in his footsteps. And so, even as Jesus said “I am the light of the world,” he also said to his disciples that “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” [Matt. 5:14-16]

Even as Jesus said “I am the light of the world,” he also said to his disciples that “You are the light of the world.”

Each and every one of us is growing toward God, our First Parents, the Source of the light of the world. Maybe we don’t feel like a shining city upon a hill — maybe we look upon ourselves and see the darkness of sin in our lives. But this is because we have not yet grown up into the fullness of Christ; for to a degree we are still in the immaturity of Adam, the man of sin, rather than the glory of Christ, the man of God. But the Apostle Paul calls us to reach toward the light, and reminds us that in Christ, the light of God is with us: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light,” he tells us — and “the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth” [Eph. 5:8-9].

There’s a saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Likewise, when the light of God is present, it immediately and relentlessly goes to work exposing whatever bad things are lurking in dark corners. Lift up a rock and expose it to the light, and the bugs begin scurrying for cover. Shine a flashlight behind those boxes in your basement and the mice that are revealed try to flee to a place where they can hide.

But the light of God won’t let any of us hide forever — it does its work perfectly and completely, penetrating into every nook and cranny of our souls and showing us what we need to change, to be more like Jesus who was the light of the world. For some, the Divine Light may come like a gentle source of illumination to guide our steps along the path we are walking; and for others, it may burn like a blazing fire, destroying whatever we are or whatever we’re doing that is contrary to God’s will. Either way, the light always wins in the end.

For that is the nature of light. If you turn on a light bulb in a room, the darkness doesn’t radiate toward the bulb and battle back and forth with it to see whether some parts of the room will be illumined or remain dark. No, the light radiates throughout the room and wins the victory. And so it is with God — even as John the Evangelist wrote of Jesus, that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” [John 1:5]

Light may be blocked, creating shadow, but when blockages are removed, the shadows disappear. Darkness itself has no power, for it is the absence of light — the absence of God.

Like rays of light, the apostles of Christ went forth from Israel, where Jesus walked, into the world. They traveled to distant lands, wherever they could go, and everywhere they illumined the hearts of the people with the light of the knowledge of a God who loves us all — who loved us so much that he sent his chosen Son into this world to show us how to live as children of light, that we might be saved and join Them in heaven.

Courageous apostles such as Paul and Barnabas spread the light of Christ to the Gentiles. To the people who raised altars to “An Unknown God” [Acts 17:23], they made the True God known — a God in whom “we live and move and have our being,” and of whom “we are His offspring” [vs. 28]. And thus, Jesus became more truly the light of the world — whose light, over the past two thousand years, has reached nearly every part of this earth.

It is the work of Jesus’s disciples that has made this possible. For not only is Jesus the light; so are we, when we rise to the challenge and become whomever we were meant to be. Paul struggled with a “thorn in the flesh” [2 Cor. 12:7-9], traditionally considered to be some sort of illness or disability — yet he persevered through the struggle and became the most prolific evangelist and church planter, and the author of more than one-quarter of the New Testament.

Or consider the story of Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old “skinny black girl,” as she called herself, who overcame a speech impediment and became the youngest inaugural poet in American history. As she said in her uplifting poem at the recent presidential inauguration, “There is always light if only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.”

All of us have light to contribute to the world. Each and every one of us has talents, abilities, and qualities that can shine upon the lives of others and illuminate their minds and their spirits with knowledge, understanding, inspiration, encouragement, beauty, peace, and joy. We must not let our light go to waste; we are called to find a way to share whatever light we have to give.

We must not let our light go to waste; we are called to find a way to share whatever light we have to give.

Bede Griffiths, a British-born priest and Benedictine monk who lived in ashrams in India as a Christian yogi, said that “This was the very purpose of creation — that each unique, individual being should participate in its own way in the divine Being … should ‘become’ God by participation, God expressing Himself through that unique being.” Each of us may have a different wavelength, a different intensity, or a different pattern of light to give, but as uniquely beautiful and beloved children of God, we are all the children of Light, and we should grow into our destiny as radiant creative beings instead of hiding our light from others.

I know sometimes it can feel like you have nothing to offer that the world wants to receive. Maybe you feel mediocre or unappreciated. Or maybe the darkness around you seems to be choking you, sapping the very life out of you, even as you try your best to survive. Many of us are feeling that way in this dark winter of the pandemic — lonely, lost, and not sure how to give your best to the world when you can’t even be around other people, or when you’ve lost your job or your business. Many churches and community organizations remain closed. People can’t even smile at each other because their faces are hidden under masks — a necessary though unfortunate reality of life in the time of a deadly virus.

In such dark times, it is helpful to remember that we have a light that can never go out — the light of Christ. The world tried to snuff him out on the cross, but he shone forth radiant from the empty tomb — and from there his message went forth to the world. It is a message of boundless hope, a hope that can never die. As Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.” When we know Christ, we see the light of God in our world no matter how dark our present circumstances may be.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, the powerful Elf-queen Galadriel gives Frodo Baggins, the hero of the story, a special light to carry with him always, to use in his difficult quest whenever he feels the darkness of evil closing in on him. The Phial of Galadriel contained the light of Eärendil — a spiritual light from the creation of the world. “It will shine still brighter when night is about you,” says Galadriel. “May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and there is a great deal of Christian-inspired imagery and wisdom in the mythical world he created. Like Frodo, all of us in this world are on a journey to overcome the powers of darkness by resisting the temptations of evil and despair and choosing to use the light we are given. Even as Galadriel gave Frodo a vessel of holy light, the Blessed Virgin Mary bestowed upon humanity the light that shines in the darkness and can never go out — the lamp of Jesus Christ, who was given for all of us, and whose light shines ever brighter in the night-season.

Even when our spirits are crushed with fear and doubt — even when it feels like we have no light of our own left to give — if we have Christ, we have the most powerful light in the world. Let the light of Christ illumine your path, and your footsteps will be sure. Give Christ, and you can never go wrong. This world can be a dark place, but in Him, we have power to defeat the darkness. And in so doing, we rise into our destiny as the sons and daughters of God.

Watch on video (starting at 8:03):