John 8:12-20 – Light the Night (Pentecost Sunday Sermon)

There are those who would be content to simply allow God’s light to shine on them, to warm them, to comfort them. And that is good. God offers the power and protection of His Spirit to anyone who will come near to Him and follow. We call this salvation, and it is marked by a baptism of water.

But even better are those who will allow themselves to be spirit-immolated, who will not only bask in God’s love, but become ablaze in His love by surrendering completely to the purpose His mission. We do not teach that Jesus is Savior only, but that He desires to be both Savior and Lord. He not only wants to be our pillar of fire, but he wants us to become His pillars of fire in a world seized by the darkness of sin. We call this type of surrender sanctification, and it is the baptism of fire, the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’

13 The Pharisees challenged him, ‘Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.’

14 Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16 But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17 In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. 18 I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.’

19 Then they asked him, ‘Where is your father?’

‘You do not know me or my Father,’ Jesus replied. ‘If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’ 20 He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.

Just a few weeks ago, on April 22, 2022, an environmental activist set himself on fire and perished on the steps of the Supreme Court in protest of US environmental policies. Self-immolation, while tragic, deplorable, and thankfully rare, is perhaps one of the most powerful acts of protest a person can make. For the witnesses who were there, it can certainly never be forgotten. Nightmares will surely haunt them for the rest of their lives.

We who follow Jesus are also engaged in an ongoing protest – not against flesh and blood and our fellow human beings, but against the darkness of sin. We stand against evil, against hate, against oppression, against racism, against violence, against greed, against every sin that holds us captive in its dark dungeon. Unlike protesters in the world, we also recognize that our protest must begin in our own hearts and homes first – that we have no standing to judge others, but instead must first and foremost regard ourselves with sober judgment.  

Most of all, however, what separates us from the protests of the world is that we protest not in the corrupt and broken power of humanity, but in the divine power of God. We do not engage in self-immolation, but Spirit-immolation.

Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after Easter when the apostles received the Holy Spirit as they were gathered in Jerusalem once again for the Hebrew springtime harvest Festival of Weeks. In the second chapter of Acts we read: 

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other (languages) as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:1-4)

From that moment on, their lives would never be the same. Each Apostle was filled with the Holy Spirit and with a burning mission to overcome the darkness in the world with the light and the good news of God’s love, of repentance and of forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. 

It would not be an easy road. Heavy persecutions awaited each believer who was in that room where it happened. Out of the twelve original apostles, ten would die violent deaths as a witness to their faith. In the Roman empire and ancient near east, where religion was effectively big business, these followers of the Nazarene Carpenter proclaimed freedom from old religious practices, offering a simpler way, love God and love your neighbor.

And the Way of Jesus was a threat to the old order. Because followers of this new way of Jesus challenged those in powerful positions, they were many, many  times hunted down and killed by the authorities. But they refused to fight back, choosing instead to follow the way of the Carpenter, turning the other cheek, blessing their enemies, and praying for those who cursed them, even as they and their children were publicly tortured and burned to death. 

People who are ignorant of the past might think the way of Christ is burdensome, overloaded with religious rules and regulations, but just the opposite is true. Compared to the religious web of lies spun throughout most of human history, the way of Christ offers an easy yoke, and His burden is very light indeed. We cannot appreciate the liberation that the way of Jesus brought to those who were burdened with worshiping Zeus, Jupiter, Saturn, Aphrodite, Poseidon, Athena – or any of the other false deities of ancient times.

Most offended of all were of course the people at the top who had much to lose if they lost control of the masses through that powerful tool of religious pressure. Caesars were ultimately helpless to control a group who had been set free from their religious chains. And they did not take it lying down. Based on a number of accounts, in most cases, if Christians had simply recanted, rejected their freedom in Christ, and claimed that Caesar was god, they and their families would have been spared from persecution. But witness after witness refused to turn their backs on the one true God who never turned His backs on them.

One Roman emperor, Nero, famously burned these new, free Christians on posts to light his backyard. 

It isn’t too hard to imagine that those who were being strapped to the poles and covered in kerosene for Nero’s twisted pleasure may have called to mind the story of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit came down as fire on the faithful, enabling them to be witnesses to a dark world. Perhaps as the torches were raised, some of them also called to mind the words of Jesus:

“‘You are the light of the world. A town 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.” (Matthew 5.14-16)

As these precious brothers and sisters were immolated by a fearful Caesar, the light of their testimony would blaze well beyond one Roman garden party. Their deaths would not be in vain. They were witnesses in their lifetimes, in our lifetimes, and in every lifetime to come. Their protest against darkness will stand forever as evidence of the light and love of God for a broken and sinful world. 

Jesus: The Light of the World

Of course, while we remember that we are called to be such witnesses today at Pentecost, we also call to mind that not only did Jesus teach that WE are the light of the world, but before that He said that He was the light of the world. 

In today’s scripture, we read these words: 

“When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” (John 8:20)

It sounds very sanctimonious and pious to our ears, it doesn’t shock us to hear Jesus say this today, maybe because we’ve heard it so many times: “I am the light of the world.”

But to the people who first heard it, judging from their response, He was really rubbing them the wrong way. And you know what happens if you rub the fur of wolves the wrong way – you get bitten.

To understand why this saying caused the religious leaders to want to kill him, we need to understand the context.

If we follow the timeline and the text, we learn that Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the temple courts, after the end of the Festival of Tabernacles. As usual in John’s Gospel the context of time and location tell us a lot more than the words of Jesus alone.

Let’s back up and understand what happened at the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. If you recall, this festival took place in the fall harvest, around September of October each year. It was the happiest of all the festivals, and it lasted for eight days. On each of those eight days, two very important rituals took place at the temple, right where Jesus is standing in today’s story. 

First, every day of the feast except the last, water would be taken from a spring-fed pool a third of a mile away and then poured out with wine on the altar where daily animal sacrifices were made. This is why Jesus was making waves when he shouted, “I am the living water,” during the feast.

Second, every day of the feast except the last, four giant lamps would be lit to provide what can best be described as huge, oil-fired stadium lights that lit up the temple and the surrounding city. According to the only measurements we have, these lamps were on top of some kind of pole that put them at roughly seventy-five feet above the ground. It is hard for us to imagine how dramatic these lamps would be for people living in a time when not even a nightlight had been invented yet.

These huge pillars of fire were stationed in the exact spot where Jesus was standing in today’s passage. In verse 20, John, like Columbo, gives us that “Oh, just one more thing” – that last important detail of location that clinches the story – “He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put.”

So we have the context of these pillars of fire that lit the whole city on a hill, Jerusalem. But it is also after the end of the feast, and it isn’t too difficult to imagine the temple workers cleaning up after the party, taking down the decorations, sweeping the courtyard – and most importantly, taking down the pillars of fire. 

And this is exactly when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (v12)

He is basically saying, “You see these pillars you are taking down? That’s me.”

What makes this even more significant is that the pillars of fire represented another very important pillar of fire in the Bible. Does anyone remember the story of the Exodus, when the freed Hebrew slaves wandered through the wilderness, between Egypt and the promised land? How did God lead them by night? That’s right – a pillar of fire. The pillar of fire represented God’s presence for the Hebrew children. It’s light offered both protection and power. If they stayed close to the pillar of fire, they were blessed. If they wandered far from God’s presence, they suffered. This is true for everyone. If we walk farther and farther away from God and His ways, we walk deeper into the darkness and stumble into danger. But if we stay close to God, do things His way, love God and respect His ways, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, then we walk in the light and have safety and protection.

That is why the religious leaders are so angry when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” He is making either the most unholy statement or the most holy statement He could make: He is saying, “I am ‘I am’ who led you out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. I am the pillar of fire you have strayed so far from, and are now suffering because of your disobedience. If only you would turn to me, return to the power and protection of my ways, I would lead you safely home.”  

He is claiming to be God. Not just a god, but THE God – their God. The God of Abraham, Moses, and Nicodemus.

And so they get in an argument with him, but it doesn’t go very far. Grasping at rhetorical straws they argue that Jesus can’t be right because he doesn’t have two witnesses, referring to an old testament teaching that a claim needs to be made by two or three witnesses to be believed. But truth is truth no matter how we come to see it. It doesn’t matter whether we learn that 2+2=4 from a math teacher or a fortune cookie. It’s true because it is self-evident. And Jesus’ makes mincemeat out of the religious leaders’ lame objections. He goes one step farther, saying they wouldn’t know the Pillar of Fire if it fell on their heads. They had strayed so far from God that they didn’t even know Him anymore. 

‘You do not know me or my Father,’ Jesus replied. ‘If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’” (v19) 

This is a damning thing to say to those who knew the story of liberation from Egypt so well, but who didn’t really know their liberator anymore. It is one thing to know the stories, it is something else entirely to know and experience the God of those stories.

But there’s something more… the rest of the story. And it fits well on Pentecost Sunday. 

These giant lamps, they were oil lamps. Has anyone here used an oil lamp before? Every oil lamp needs one very thing to work – wick. The wick is saturated in the oil, and then lit. It essentially provides a medium for the fire to burn and give light.

At the Feast of Tabernacles, the legend handed down is that the priests and the Levites would use their sacred robes from the previous year as the wicks for the pillars of fire. That’s an amazing thought, especially when we consider that our “robes” symbolize our spiritual status in the Bible. Some of us are wearing the filthy robes of sin and some of us are given new robes of righteousness by the grace of God. These spiritual robes represent who we are.

So when the lamps are being lit at the feast of tabernacles, the Priests and the Levites are not only lighting the lamps, but are becoming a part of the fire that burns. They not only enjoy the power and protection of the pillar of fire, they participate in God’s mission by offering themselves to become a part of the fire that blazes forth in the night.

And this is a beautiful picture of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit, the God of the Pillar of Fire, invites us to become pillars of fire with him, testifying to God’s mercy and justice to a cold and darkened world. It is no mere coincidence that the picture of this anointing of th eHoly Spirit God gave in Acts chapter 2 is of fire descending and dividing and turning this ragtag group of believers into human torches. Imagine that, lamps on a stand, tongues of fire on their heads, like human stadium lights!!

But the most important thing to consider on Pentecost is not what happened then, but what is happening NOW. 

There are those who would be content to simply allow God’s light to shine on them, to warm them, to comfort them. And that is good. God offers the power and protection of His Spirit to anyone who will come near to Him and follow. We call this salvation, and it is marked by a baptism of water.

But even better are those who will allow themselves to be spirit-immolated, who will not only bask in God’s love, but become ablaze in His love by surrendering completely to the purpose His mission. We do not teach that Jesus is savior only, but that He desires to be both Savior and Lord. He not only wants to be our pillar of fire, but he wants us to become His pillars of fire in a world seized by the darkness of sin. We call this type of surrender sanctification, and it is the baptism of fire, the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost power is still ours for the receiving. It isn’t some old thing for the history books. The Holy Spirit is alive today, here and now, inviting each of us to burn with His passion for a dying world. Will you say yes to Him? Will you become a pillar of fire that lights the night? Don’t dely. Don’t put it off any longer. 

Jesus said, I am the light of the world. I am the pillar of fire that burns in the wilderness. And we – now we are invited to be pillars of fire as well. May we all come to know the joy of participating in His mission, witnesses who blaze forth into the night, until the night is no more.

Lord, haste the day! 

Lord, draw us in to your fire.

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