And God said: "Let there be light."
And the world was light for a while, at least until Genesis 3. There, Adam and Eve disobeyed the one command God had given, and they brought shadow and darkness into the world.
But God gave his people a night light, so to speak; a promise that he would again bring light into the world.
The light shines in the darkness; the darkness has not understood it.
That’s how John opens his gospel: the light has come! Even so, the darkness has ignored, ridiculed, tried to extinguish it.
Anyone who sins is a slave to sin…but if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed!
And isn’t it sad how often truth is repeated in word and action – that first part, anyone who sins is a slave to sin.
But we shake our heads.
It’s not slavery. I’m in control.
And once more, God’s Word is quietly rejected - just as Jesus said in our Gospel lesson. It’s just…so offensive! How in the world can Jesus say that sin is slavery?
And even though our first lesson shows just one example of the consequences for sin – that dark little voice again whispers its shadowy half-truths:
Well, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s just this once. I deserve it. I know how much effort I put in, how hard I work, and I just need to take time for myself.
The excuses flow so easily, as God’s demands are watered down or the consequences forgotten.
Is there any place as dark as the human heart, with its endless excuses and squirming?
Is there any place that compares to the human heart, and its need to be weeded and pruned and planted again?
And that’s where Paul starts today: the light shining in the darkness once more. The darkness, we know quite well; the light is as blinding now as it was.
That’s got to be the most frustrating blessing of the Christian life. We don’t normally pair those words together - “frustrating” and “blessing” - but in this case, it fits. Because it’s absolutely, spellbindingly, incredibly frustrating to know WHO we are and WHAT we do or think…and paired with that is the unbelievable truth that we have been declared righteous in Christ Jesus. It’s no wonder that people reject the Christian message!
And that most frustrating blessing of the Christian life - to know who we are, what our nature is, what we do, what we think - and at the same time, to know what God has declared about us and thinks about us and the attitude he holds toward us…it’s a frustrating blessing to see our sin, know our sin, perhaps have our sin shared publicly – and to be reminded, again and again, that our righteousness has fallen far short of the perfection God demands.
What a wonderful blessing, to have our eyes opened to the fact that our entire LIFE, for now and for eternity, depends solely on the empty Easter grave and the One who rules over all creation. And on occasion, we catch a glimpse of that beautiful truth, almost like our hearts start burning within us like we’re walking with Jesus to Emmaus - or he’s driving with us to Madelia.
But even there, the frustrating blessing comes back, like a dark mist that clouds our eyes and squashes our Christian love. Once again, the heart’s excuses roar back to the surface; and as God’s demands are watered down, the grace of Jesus Christ is equally destroyed:
Yeah, I know I’m not perfect - but who is. I’m just glad that I haven’t done the REALLY bad things, like theft or murder. Sure, I’ve told a lie here & there - but those are small potatoes compared to the big stuff. I’m just glad that my good name is intact, and that I needed only a little bit of forgiveness - not like the people who sin big sins.
Again. That shadowy sinfulness takes every blessing from God and twists it into something unrecognizable, while that darkness constantly remodels the heart…building cubbyholes and cupboards where it can hide away from God’s blinding light. Again and again, constantly, the sinful nature works to find some segment of life to hide away and keep doing its shadowy actions.
I wish I were making this up…but you know that I’m not. This is how our mind works! This is the frustration of the Christian life: Knowing what God says, and not being able to keep it - sure, definitely; but knowing what God says, and not even being able to fully AGREE with what God has said…talk about seeing your sinful nature face-to-face.
And in the same breath, above it all, the Son of God shared your human nature; and because of his perfect life, God’s blessing of forgiveness has been pronounced over you! That in spite of what we know about ourselves and our hearts, the Holy Spirit has planted a faith that receives the perfection of Jesus - and this faith is busy, as long as it is alive, labouring and striving to praise God and thank God with word and thought and action.
Paul puts it this way: For you WERE once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light and find out what pleases the Lord - and the fruit of light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth.
In other words: We were born as spiritual mushrooms, growing in darkness and loving the darkness - because the darkness covers and insulates from every prying eye.
But now? Now things are different! Now, you are light in the Lord! Now, you love basking in the light! It’s like God found mushrooms, and made them into sunflowers. Now, you are light in the Lord - and you love the Lord’s light!
Do you see the connection?
The symbolism of John’s Gospel, especially John chapter 1 – that same symbolism is right here. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it… And now, your identity, your life, your nature, your actions, your attitude is so totally changed that you are called Light!
This Jesus hasn’t left you to try and muddle through life on your own. He hasn’t left you to battle temptation alone, or try to muster up the courage to lead a God-pleasing life in a God-hating world…this Jesus calls you his child. This Jesus found you as you were, and he gave you his perfection; you have been declared righteous in Jesus Christ, simply by being a person.
But there’s more, because that ol’ frustrating blessing of the Christian life means that we must struggle against sin on a regular basis - and as is often the case, we may lose that struggle. But the way it’s supposed to work is that a fellow Christian shares God’s Word with you, so that the Holy Spirit reminds you that your standing with God does not depend on your goodness - your standing with God depends completely on Jesus.
That’s true, and certain, and unchanging.
At the same time, God encourages Christian living - because Christ found us as we were, and makes us as he is - that’s an ongoing thing. Now that you’ve been turned from a spiritual mushroom into a spiritual sunflower, from someone loving darkness and the deeds of darkness into someone who loves the light – live as children of the light!
What does that mean?
Well, allow me to be frank here.
When a guy graduates from the Seminary, there’s a bit of a gap. A gap between all the knowledge that he’s crammed into his head – and what he thinks he should do as the pastor of a congregation.
He knows the Scriptural teaching of, for instance, church discipline or fellowship or the different responsibilities God has given to men or women; that’s in the “knowledge” stack. But in those or any other topic, there might be a bit of a gap between what he KNOWS and what he thinks he should do or teach; maybe relax a little bit here, back off a little bit there, and maybe his church would gain members a bit more quickly.
And I know this is true, because it’s not just for a guy the first year out of seminary. It’s the story of every Christian: knowing what God wants, demands, encourages – and having something else in mind that I’d like to do, practice, carry on. There’s this gap.
Over time, that gap narrows. The Holy Spirit, often through the school of hard knocks, teaches that every doctrine has a place and a purpose; and eventually, hopefully, the gap between what one knows and what one does narrows until they overlap, until they stack on one another.
I think I recently stumbled across a gap in my own preaching & teaching. Paul pointed it out here in chapter 5:
Live as children of light…and find out what pleases the Lord.
Your Christian life depends on spending time with the Word of God.
Yes, devotions and the Meditations are wonderful assets to learning God’s will. But if your faith is not being fed, you cannot know what it means to live as a child of the light. You might think you know what pleases the Lord, but if you don’t spend time in the Word of God - you won’t.
Because even children of light need the encouragement that only God can give. Children of light need contact with one another to build each other up, to be able to speak openly about the sin that troubles them and to find out that another child of the light has a similar dark heart that’s constantly building & remodelling, needing God’s light shined inside regularly.
When I think of the necessity of personal Bible reading, I always think of Professor John Brug. The guy is brilliant. He knows 26+ languages, many of which he learned during the plane trip to another part of the world. He’s been teaching God’s Word at a very high level since before I was born.
And every day that he came into the classroom, he’d open up his briefcase on the front table, like this. [sideways, so that everyone has a view into it] And there it sat: the most beautiful, ugly, disgusting, amazing, awesome Bible I think I’ve ever seen.
It probably started out white. It was a regular Concordia Self-Study Bible. But from years of regular use, it was entirely this nondescript greyish-brown color – and it didn’t even close fully.
Here’s a man who could read the Bible in more than a dozen, two dozen languages…yet every day, he sat down with his NIV so that he’d have some time at the feet of Jesus.
Despite seeing this, it took me a while to realize how vitally important your personal devotional time is, my personal devotional time is. There was a gap between what I know to be true and what I wanted to do in practice.
That’s one of the purposes God is carrying out among his Christians. In v. 11 - the word expose is the idea of confronting someone with their sin so that they repent. Not to point it out or broadcast it merely to shame them - but to bring the light of Christ into that dark corner, so that this child of God may live as a child of the light; so that this child of God will not have his or her faith extinguished by the overwhelming, creeping darkness of sin.
So, please: if there’s anything you take home from today, let it be this one simple truth - in two parts:
- Christ found us as we were, spiritual mushrooms who loved darkness; and he gave us a new life;
- You are light in the Lord, a spiritual sunflower.
Please take some time for personal Bible reading, so that God can remind you who you are and bring the brightness of his light into our hearts; AMEN!