Author: Reverend Averill Elizabeth Blackburn
The idea of light and darkness, day and night, is rather basic. Light–good. Darkness–not so good, if not outright bad. We change our clocks to hoard the light (and how many times have we had to remind ourselves or others that we’re “falling behind” or “springing ahead”?).
The entire social premise of society is based off of light. Everyday activities occur when the sun is out, we don’t go out after dark unless it’s Friday or Saturday and we don’t have to wake up with the sunlight the next morning.
Before the invention and widespread use of street lamps, people would only hold dinner parties and other such special occasions on or near the full moon because otherwise the coachman wouldn’t be able to see the road.
In our cultural legends, the terrifying, the dreadful, the unholy live in the darkness. Werewolves turn at the full moon. Vampires cannot abide the touch of sunlight on their skin. The fairies whisk young women away if they sneak out of their father’s houses to meet a lover under the stars. It is only when the sun comes back out, when she shines down upon the earth, that danger is gone, that we are safe.
The dark hides, the light reveals.
In this week’s excerpt from the Gospel of John, we see that the disciples are worried about Jesus. It’s natural to worry, of course. Jesus is a bit of a controversial figure. While revolutionary and marvelous (last week, after all, he gave a blindman back his sight), he is nonetheless misunderstood and mistrusted in many circles.
Here the disciples have a very specific reason to fear. Jesus wants to go back to Judea. This does not seem like an unreasonable request. Far from it. Judea is the name for the Southern Kingdom, the true home of the Israelites and those who believe in the One God. Jerusalem is in Judea. For a prophet, the messiah, this only makes sense.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, the disciples remind us for those of us who are skipping from story to story. Last time Jesus was there, the Jews, the people of God, attempted to stone him.
Stoning is, of course, an ancient practice that was very prevalent in the Old Testament. What basically happened is a person guilty of a specific heinous crime (adultery, for instance, or blasphemy) was taken somewhere remote and then a bunch of people picked up stones and threw them at the person until s/he was crushed to death.
This, to put it plainly, is not a good way to die. Quite the reverse.
It is brutal, it is cruel, it is extremely painful. It is highly unlikely that the person being stoned will died instantly or even quickly. It all depends on where the stones hit you or on the aim of those throwing them.
Another point that is often forgotten about stoning is that several people are involved in the execution. It’s not just one person lazily picking up pebbles and tossing them in your direction. No, instead, you have more than handful if not dozens of angry men, women, and children, picking up the biggest rocks they can and trying to do you the most harm.
When a man or woman is stoned, it is his/her own community who is actively executing them. It is an extremely personal way to be killed, physically and emotionally.
As Jesus has already gone through the threat of stoning, it would be only human to not want to tempt fate again. The average man would perhaps try to find some way around meeting with the same people who had threatened to kill him. If he did not believe in violence and force (Jesus, after all did not) perhaps he would just avoid them. He could take the more proactive role and send an emissary of some kind, though I doubt an emissary against an angry mob would work in first-century Palestine. He could go in disguise, not draw attention. Jesus could just avoid to go altogether.
But Jesus, as we have seen, is not an average man, and he usually doesn’t react to a situation the way we might expect him to.
Instead: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight?”
Let’s deconstruct. Jesus is talking in riddles, again, as he likes to so often. Roughly, the day is split fifty/fifty with pure daylight and darkness. We can see what Jesus is saying in a very literal way. Yes, there are roughly twelve hours of daylight.
But, frankly, if a bunch of people are running after you with stones, wouldn’t the daylight only help them? They can see the stones, they can see the tracks you made in the desert or in the wilderness or wherever you are? They can find you much more easily in the daylight–right?
So, just like us, perhaps the disciples are confused, curious, and trying to figure out how to link Jesus’s answer with the fact that people want him dead.
Jesus, however, continues. “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.”
Jesus is basically flipping the story over on its head with this second sentence. A moment ago, he was talking about the day. Confusing, but we can get behind it. Now, well, he’s talking about the light–yes–but not sunlight. Instead, he is talking about the light of this world.
This is a common phrase in modern Christianity. We think we know what it means, but do we? Not quite.
Light, check. That is what brightens up that which is around us, whether from the sun or a lightbulb.
Day, check. That is the time when the world is illuminated, if we’re being poetic. Keep that definition in mind.
Light of this world. That which lights the world must be the sun, right? Not quite. Yes, the sun lights the world. Yes, that is called the day. But the light of this world is something else. It is the messiah. It is our savior. It is the one promised to us by God Himself. It is the Christ.
Jesus is talking about himself.
When he is there, when he is present on earth, he shows the way. He illuminates. You do not stumble because Jesus is with you. As such, in this brief Bible passage, Jesus as the light of the world can go to Judea and be unharmed because he is the Christ. It is not his time–and he has come to show people the way, even if they do not or cannot listen.
Then, in verse 10, Jesus concludes the image: “But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” This is a reminder of what happens when we do not walk with God. If we do not walk in the light, then we are blinding ourselves. We cannot see what is around us, we cannot see the bigger picture, we cannot comprehend that this life is just a precursor to our lives in heaven.
These past few weeks, all I have personally felt is that I was in some kind of darkness. Being in quarantine and then self-isolation, I often forget if it’s day or if it’s night. I find myself thinking at five pm that I should sleep, and then awake past midnight cursing myself because I’m out of iced tea and can’t put out a pitcher to make more for several more hours, let alone trot down to the takeaway-only restaurant in this town to buy a Snapple.
It’s all frightfully confused.
The best teller of time, actually, is my cat, who’s nocturnal. If he’s awake, I should not be, if he’s sleeping, then I have an excuse to watch yet another Disney movie to brighten my spirits.
The reason why I’m telling you this, is because I know I am not alone. I know that if you’re reading this, you may be feeling something similar or, if not that, that something of my personal experience rings true with you.
The answer to the quandry is perhaps an alarm clock.
The answer is to pray for God to end this pandemic, for the heat of our upcoming summer to kill off or at least curb Covid-19, and for our way of life to be restored. The amount of prayer in the world (along with general curses toward God for letting this happen) are undoubtedly staggering.
But the ultimate answer can be found within ourselves. We have to look for Jesus in our lives, within ourselves. We have to accept him, to search for him, to welcome him in with open arms. He is our light, he is our compass, with him we cannot fail. The unyielding loneliness or hopelessness we feel shall be comforted by him. Jesus brings joy back to our lives, at first small and unnoticeable, but then growing.
Pray. Look inside yourselves. Jesus is the light. He makes all things clear and leads us away from the darkness of our own despair and thought.
May God be with you this Sunday morning and every moment after. God loves you. Jesus loves you. And we will never be alone and without hope for our future if we remain steadfast in God’s love. AMEN.