January 14, 2024
Second Sunday After Epiphany
I’ve been thinking a lot about light recently, partly because I’m awakening before dawn and can just see the faint light above the horizon as I go out to get the morning newspaper. We are three and a half weeks past the winter solstice. Here in the northern hemisphere every day the dawn comes just a smidgeon earlier than the day before and the sunset is just a smidgeon later. We are moving towards the season of light.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, there are sixteen definitions for the noun “light.” And “light” is also an adjective. You can imagine how difficult it was for my middle school students in Ethiopia to learn how speakers of English use “light” in different ways.
We assign different connotations to light and darkness, too. Light is usually positive while darkness is usually negative—but not always. When I was six years old, we lived in a house with a big open landing on one side of the second floor where my father had his desk and filing cabinet. On the other side were three doors: one into my bedroom, another into my sisters’ bedroom, and in between, a door which opened into a T-shaped attic. I really wanted to go into the attic to play with my electric train layout. But to do that I had to walk about twelve feet in the dark to reach a light switch. And the hall was unfinished—studs and lath with plaster from the finished side of the wall coming through. This was scary for a six-year-old. I was so happy when that light came on. Light was good, darkness was bad.
My bedroom closet had a cubbyhole that had no light inside it. The only times we used it was when one of us kids would open its door to toss in the disgusting-tasting lozenges my mother gave us when we had sore throats. Six years later, on moving day we needed to ensure we hadn’t left anything behind. I made sure that I was the one to go in the cubbyhole, and when I shined my flashlight in a corner, I could just barely discern a few scattered pink lozenges. I silently gave thanks for the cubbyhole’s darkness all those years. Light in the cubbyhole would have been bad, darkness there was good.
The prologue to John’s gospel equates Jesus with capital “L” light in the positive sense:
In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light–
a Light that shines in the darkness,
a Light that the darkness has never overtaken. [or, in some translations, has never understood.]
Then came one named John, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through his testimony everyone might believe. He himself wasn’t the Light; he only came to testify about the Light–the true Light that illumines all humankind.[i]
John’s gospel makes Jesus synonymous with light as spiritual illumination, enlightenment, and truth. Ken Burton preached about this last week.
I want to explore this a bit more through today’s passage in John’s gospel. After his baptism, Jesus lingered in Bethany on the east side of the Jordan River. He invited Andrew, who had been a disciple of John the Baptist, to be his disciple, and Andrew in turn brought his brother Simon – the one who Jesus renamed as Peter–to meet Jesus. The next day Jesus called Philip to follow him to Galilee, and in turn Philip found Nathaniel and told him that he, Andrew, and Simon had found the Messiah: Jesus of Nazareth. When Nathaniel scoffed about whether anything good could come from Nazareth, Philip replied, “Come and see.”
Jesus welcomed Nathaniel, saying “Here is a real Israelite; there’s no guile in him.” This could have been high praise of Nathaniel who, like Jesus, was a descendant of Israel, formerly known as Jacob. Remember, Jacob had deceitfully gotten Esau’s birthright and their father Isaac’s blessing. We don’t know the tone in which Nathaniel replied, “How do you know me?” Was he curious, anxious, shocked, or pleased?
Jesus told him that he saw him under a fig tree, which is a Jewish figure of speech that means studying Torah.[ii] Nathaniel may have been reading 1 Kings 4:25, which relates how the Israelites lived in safety under their own fig trees during the reign of King Solomon, of whose lineage the Messiah was expected to come. Or Nathaniel could have been reading Micah 4:1-4, written when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were threatened with destruction from Assyria and Babylon, respectively:
1But at the end of days, the mountain of YHWH’s Temple
will be established as the most important mountain
and raised above all other hills—all nations will stream toward it.
2Many people will come and say: “Come, let us climb YHWH’s mountain
to the Temple of the God of Jacob, that we may be instructed in God’s ways
and walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will be given from Zion
and the word of THWH from Jerusalem.
3YHWH will judge between many peoples
and arbitrate between mighty and distant nations;
They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation will not raise the sword against another,
and never again will they train for war.
4People will sit under their own vines and fig trees with no one to make them afraid.
The mouth of YHWH Omnipotent has spoken.[iii]
Or Nathaniel could have been reading Zechariah 3:10: “’On that day, says YHWH God Omnipotent, you will invite each other to come and sit under your own vines and fig trees.” Zechariah’s prophecy would come true when God had returned the people from exile, the foreign nations that threatened the people would be destroyed, the Temple had been rebuilt, and Joshua (“God is salvation”) had become high priest.
Jesus may have seen that Nathaniel’s study of the Torah – a search for spiritual enlightenment — was due to Nathaniel’s deep yearning for the Messiah. In his awe and joy that Jesus knew his deepest hopes, Nathaniel became enlightened, seeing Jesus as the Light. He responded, “Rabbi, you’re God’s Own; you’re the ruler of Israel!” He was the second person (after John the Baptist) in John’s gospel to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus told Nathaniel that reading Torah wasn’t enough, he would see greater things, including angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. This was a double allusion: to Jacob’s experience during his flight away from Esau’s vengeance, but also a veiled claim that it would be Jesus who connected God in heaven to humans on earth. It would be through Jesus as Light that others would see God. The now enlightened Nathaniel then followed Jesus, becoming the fourth disciple to answer Jesus’ call.
John’s gospel was written after small churches had been established throughout the Mediterranean. The Light of the world had come, they had seen it, their lives had been transformed by it and the darkness of the Roman Empire — its efforts to put out the Light by imprisonment, torture, and execution — had failed to overcome the Light. After two thousand years the Light of Christ has spread around the world so that as of 2020, nearly a third of the earth’s population has become followers of Jesus.
Tomorrow, we commemorate the life of a man who followed the Light of Jesus. When I give tours to 8th graders and we stop at the memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King, I look at the students and their chaperones and realize I am almost always the only one old enough on the tour to remember Dr. King, and the only one old enough to remember the darkness of segregation, the evil of denying justice to Black Americans. Dr. King became my hero in my adolescence.
When I was in law school I taught a class called “Street Law” at Spingarn High School off Benning Road, NE. My students wanted to know when my birthday was so I told them it was a national holiday. After fruitlessly guessing Christmas, New Years, and the Fourth of July they tried holidays that weren’t specific to a date. They asked what month, and upon learning it was January, they guessed, “Martin Luther King Day.” I told them, “No, that is my birthday.” One of them looked at me, shook his head, and said, “You’re not that famous.”
And Dr. King was famous, famous for mentoring the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama; for forming and then heading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; for helping lead the fight to desegregate the schools in Birmingham, Alabama; and not least, famous for shining the Light on our national darkness of racism, especially in his speech ending the March on Washington for Civil Rights and Jobs at the Lincoln Memorial. We call his speech the “I Have a Dream” speech, because that’s what we choose to remember of it. It’s a little more than three pages long and the dream we remember, his dream of a nation marked by interracial brotherhood and freedom for all, comes on the third page.
The first two pages aren’t a dream but a recounting of the national nightmare of racist injustice to Black Americans. In those two pages, Dr. King pointed out that our Founding Fathers had issued a promissory note, in his words, “a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”[iv] But, he went on,
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Dr. King pointed to the Light, in saying “many of our white brothers…have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” Our Racial and Ethnic Justice Ministry Team has taken his words to heart. We believe we have seen the Light. You will hear more about this during our season of Lent, the time of preparation for Holy Week, the time for confession, for repentance, for atonement, for reparations.
With John, the Church proclaims that Christ is the Light of the world, that he came into the world as Light that enlightens humanity. As his followers, we dare to proclaim that we are the Light of the world. With John, we proclaim that the darkness has never overtaken that Light. The question for the Christian Church today is whether we are letting the Light go out or, too horrible to think about, whether we have already let the Light go out.
One of my favorite novels is Time and Again by Jack Finney. Its protagonist Si Morley is induced to join a government experiment to see if Albert Einstein was correct, that although the speed of light is constant, everything else, including time, is relative. In other words, is it possible to go back in time? The experiment succeeds and Si goes back in time to the New York City of the early 1880s, but he and a young woman, Julia Charbonneau, are faced with great danger. He risks using time travel to bring both of them into the present day. Julia is fascinated by our modern world and wonders if she can stay. But Si thinks to himself, in words that haunt me:
No, I won’t let you stay here. Julia, we’re a people who pollute the very air we breathe. And now we’ve begun on the oceans. And our rivers. We’re destroying the Great Lakes; Erie is already gone, and now we’ve begun on the oceans. We filled our atmosphere with radioactive fallout that put poison into our children’s bones, and we knew it. We’ve made bombs that can wipe out humanity in minutes, and they are aimed and ready to fire. We ended polio, and the United States Army bred new strains that can cause fatal, incurable disease. We had a chance to do justice to our Negroes, and when they asked it, we refused. In Asia we burned people alive, we really did. We allow children to grow up malnourished in the United States…This is a time when it becomes harder and harder to continue telling yourself that we are still good people. We hate each other. And we’re used to it.[v]
Time and Again was published in 1970. More than fifty years—FIFTY YEARS!—later in 2023 our climate teeters on the edge of disaster, we have continuing pollution of waterways and the oceans, and there are wars within Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Here in the U.S. one of our political parties, supported by close to half of our nation’s voters, is actively attempting to dilute or suppress voting rights for Black Americans; to end efforts that racially diversify our educational, governmental and economic areas; and to end the teaching of Black history because it might make White students – or at least their parents and grandparents — uncomfortable.
At President Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate, challenged us with these words:
…There is always light
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.[vi]
She was not just talking to teenagers and young adults, or even just to people in their 30s, 40s or 50s. She was talking to everyone up to their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.
As Christians, we claim to have seen the Light and to have become the Light. Now, when darkness threatens once again to overtake the Light, the mantra we must use is simple:
Don’t let the Light go out. Be the Light that I say I am.
Don’t let the Light go out. Be the Light that you say you are.
Don’t let the Light go out. Be the Light that we say we are.
May it be so.
[i] John 1:4-9, The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®, © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
[iii] NIV, op cit.
[iv] Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream.” https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
[v] Jack Finney, Time and Again, pp. 378-9, ©1970 Jack Finney.
[vi] Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb. © 2021, Amanda Gorman.