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Thoughts for a Festival of Light

Sermon for The Festival of Light at Great Paxton Church

October 30th 2011.

I started with a few Light Bulb Jokes……

How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Change, who said anything about change?

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One. But the bulb has to really want to change.

How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?  Two, one to screw it almost all the way in and the other to give it a surprising twist at the end.

How many musicians does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, two, a one two three four….

 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

I hope you will find it helpful to learn a little about  the context in which Jesus spoke these words to the Pharisees. We find that out from verses in John Chapter 7 37-38. The scene is set during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.

It was one of the three great pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish Year.  The Feast lasted seven days and was a time of great rejoicing. Every Jewish male was required to attend. Jerusalem was packed. But there was plenty of room at the hotels.  That’s because everybody went camping, living out of doors in home made tents, put together from the branches of palm trees.  This was to remind everyone of the Exodus and the way their forefathers had wandered through the desert for forty years.

In the Temple special sacrifices were offered on each of the seven days, reaching a climax on the last day, the great day of the feast, when the people could leave their booths for the final celebrations. During the feast there were two very important events. The first was a great procession led by the priests to the Pool of Siloam to collect water which was  carried back to the Temple through the Water Gate, and poured out. It was a vivid reminder of the Lord’s provision of water during the Exodus. It was at this point that Jesus cried out,

If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  (John 7:37-38)

Jesus could not have picked a more controversial moment to make this great promise and claim about Himself.  He was claiming to be no less than the one, the very One they were commemorating for giving them the water in the first place.

That was the first important ceremony in the Feast of Tabernacles which Jesus applied to Himself. The second was even more dramatic. The Feast actually went on for seven days and seven nights. To make this possible, each night four huge candelabra were erected in the Court of the Women to provide illumination for the whole Temple area, and the surrounding galleries packed with pilgrims. They were very large, the height of the Temple walls.  The Temple itself was built on the highest point in the city of Jerusalem, so these huge flaming torches could be seen right across the city giving light to its squares, courts and lanes.

All night long until the cock crowed the next morning, the greatest, wisest and holiest men in Israel danced before the Lord singing psalms of joy and praise while the Levites played harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets, and other instruments. Imagine the scene, the night sky dark, the Temple brightly light by the flames, the Court area packed with pilgrims, and priests. It truly was “A Festival Of Light!”

it was then that Jesus stood up and said,  “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” (John 8:12).

The flaming candelabra were not simply lit so that the party could go on all night. The light was a powerful symbol.

It was a symbol which reminded the people of the glory of God seen as a “pillar of fire at night” which had led Israel on the journey through the wilderness to the promised land..

That’s what made Jesus declaration in John 8:12 so controversial- he was claiming to be that light of the world himself. It was a claim which the religious leaders standing near him in the Temple Courtyard couldn’t take on board.

Notice Jesus does not say “My teaching is the light of the world.”  He didn’t come to give important teaching. He came to give Himself.

He is the Light of The World, in him God has come to earth and the light he reflects is the light of God.

Again, the writer of John’s gospel spells this out in the beautiful prologue:

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 

Remember the words which old Simeon spoke in the temple when Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus  in the temple?

My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of your people Israel.”

Not surprisingly the religious leaders found Jesus claim threatening and they go on to interrogate him about who his father is and indeed who does he think he is.

They just couldn’t take a leap of faith and see that he was who he claimed to be :God himself come to earth. There was also a strong implication as the writer presents the scene that Jesus, The Light of world brought exposure to the things that had gone wrong in the Jewish people’s understanding of God and their own practice of the faith. Obsession with rules and regulations had cast a shadow over a right relationship with God which should be life giving and wholesome. The Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, were growing increasingly uncomfortable at Jesus words claiming that in his presence they were encountering God. Blasphemy was the word they would use.

I hope this brief look at the background to the “ I am The Light of The World”  passage helps us to  understand it a little bit more. It brings home to us how controversial his words were at the time.

It is a powerful and enduring image to meditate on – giving hope to  many Christinas over the generations. It inspired the Pre- Raphaelite artist Holman Hunt to paint a picture called “ The Light of The World” in 1853  which hangs  in Keble Collage Oxford.  ( There is also a later life size version of the picture in St Paul’s Cathedral)

I believe that to truly grow in our inner lives we need to enter as deeply as we can bear to do into the ancient human longing to move from darkness into light.

Imagine, if you can, what the midwinter darkness was like for generations of our earliest ancestors with no electricity or gas and little oil – when the Northern Europe  was far more densely forested than it is today. Midwinter must have seemed like a huge engulfing darkness of which people were very afraid. It was not only superstitious terror. Our ancestors had good reason to fear winter – food was short, tribal members might die, hunger and cold was an every day experience in winter.

The darkness of winter presented a vast and powerful reality profoundly effecting  people’s lives: the growth or shrinkage of daylight was a matter of intense concern.

The great megalithic monuments which stir our imaginations at Avebury, Stonehenge and many other ancient sites were carefully situated with reference to sunrise and sunset.

A fine example is the Neolithic grave called Maeshowe in Orkney.

The burial chamber is so skillfully designed that it is dark all year, but at the sunset on the winter solstice a brief ray of light shines through the long, low corridor and fleetingly touches the place where ancient peoples were buried. The last ray on the shortest day lights up for a moment the darkest and most feared of places.

For all these ancient northern peoples, the winter solstice was an important turning point. Almost imperceptivity at first, the darkness was beginning to loose ground.

Further south, in lands around the Mediterranean, the sun came to symbolise all that people longed for – life, wholeness, immortality. Romans worshipped the sun, and by the beginning of the Christian Era, the sun had won a place in the state religion of the Roman Empire. The Feast of The Unconquered Son was kept by The Romans at or near to winter Solstice.  At that moment, when he seemed to have been defeated, the sun began to roll back the darkness.

No wonder that by the 4th century after Christ’s death and resurrection, The Feast of The Unconquered Son was captured by Christians and reinterpreted and became the Feast of Christ’s Birth, Christmas. The true light coming into the world, as St John wrote in his prologue, and the darkness never putting it out.

Imagination can take us back to that ancient experience of living in the darkness of mid-winter and the hope and celebration that would be lived out as darkness gave way to the longer days and warmer air.

But we probably don’t have to use our imaginations to recall what we may now each call our own areas of midwinter darkness. We don’t get laid low necessarily nor become frightened by the onset of winter – though even today getting through winter can be a struggle for some.

For many of us, our midwinter darkness can have more to do with  emotional and psychological darkness which can be very hard to let go of whether this is to do with bereavement,  illness, anxiety or stress.

Modern man doesn’t suffer like ancient peoples did from the profound darkness of midwinter, but maybe more from a darkness of personal inner hurting and longing for meaning and love.  It is into this darkness that the healing light of Christ comes, piercing the darkness just like the ray of light at the winter solstice pierces the darkness of that burial site on Orkney.

When that light comes into our lives, when we ask and expect it to come in faith, then we may find  that we let go of all the dark and hurting things that we fear, that stop us from being whole people. Letting go that  which we no longer need to carry with us. In that letting go, new growth is just beginning to appear.

It can happen at any time. The light of Christ can flood into any ones life at any time when earnestly sought for.

The invitation is always there to explore, to ask, to search and to step out in faith and let Christ’s  light work on those deepest places where we may be hurting and hungry for His  love.

 As we follow Christ and let more and more of his light into our lives, we pray that his  light may be  reflected in and through us.

Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel  Chapter 5 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”

May we pray that all those who we encounter in the coming days may be increasingly drawn into the healing light and love of God. And may that be the same for you and me in our own circumstances and personal journeys.

Amen.

*The late George Mackay Brown penned what is perhaps the most poignant account of the event at Maes Howe:

“The most exciting thing in Orkney, perhaps in Scotland, is going to happen this afternoon at sunset, in few other places even in Orkney can you see the wide hemisphere of sky in all its plenitude.

The winter sun just hangs over the ridge of the Coolags. Its setting will seal the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. At this season the sun is a pale wick between two gulfs of darkness. Surely there could be no darker place in the be-wintered world than the interior of Maeshowe.

One of the light rays is caught in this stone web of death. Through the long corridor it has found its way; it splashes the far wall of the chamber. The illumination lasts a few minutes, then is quenched

Winter after winter I never cease to wonder at the way primitive man arranged, in hewn stone, such powerful symbolism.”

http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/maeshowe/solstice.htm

October 31, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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