2-3-19 — Into The Light — Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:19-36a — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Home / 2-3-19 — Into The Light — Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:19-36a — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

Every Sunday people come into this sanctuary wishing to see Jesus, people who are responding to some deep longing to make sense out of life, looking to find meaning and purpose in what they do. 

       I remember at one church I served, a young man would slip in the back just as worship started and slip out during the closing hymn.  I noticed him doing that for months.  He never introduced himself or signed the fellowship pad that was passed down the pew during the service.  One day I got a call from someone wanting to come by the church and talk to me.  When he came into my study I recognized him as this mysterious man.  He explained to me that he was trying to put his life back on track after some fits and starts.  He had a rough hitch in the Army after high school.  He’d tried going to college but had a hard time of it.  He had some issues with substance abuse.  He was looking for something, he wasn’t quite sure what, and wondered if what he was looking for could be found at church.  To make a long story short, he found what he was looking for and was baptized.  Soon he moved away, but I heard from him occasionally.  He got a steady job, started going to graduate school at night and joined a congregation near his new home.  What he had been looking for was given to him by Jesus, whom he encountered on those Sundays he sat in the back row.

       There’s something that draws people to Jesus, something about him that resonates with the depths of the human soul.  Right after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, some people approached Philip, one of his disciples, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can imagine Philip responding to that request the way people respond to so much in the John’s gospel – by misunderstanding what is going on.  John’s gospel is almost comic in that way.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that the way to eternal life is to be born again and Nicodemus thinks he’s talking about obstetrics.  Jesus tells the crowd he is the bread of life and they think he’s talking about dinner.  Philip hears some people say they wish to see Jesus and he starts to arrange a cameo celebrity appearance. 

       But Jesus always knows what’s really going on.  He knows what we are really looking for.  Those Greeks weren’t celebrity spotting. They weren’t looking to see the latest personality in the news cycle.  They were looking for life’s meaning and purpose.  They were looking for the one who could call forth in them something that they felt was there but couldn’t bring forth. So, instead of giving them his autograph, Jesus gave them life. He spoke to their deepest need.

       Jesus began by being straight with them. Soon he would die and be buried. His body would be placed in a grave, the way a seed is planted in the chilly and barren soil of spring.  Whoever wants the new life he gives has to follow him. They have to allow the old self to die. Like a seed that germinates, he would be raised, and as that seed grows, straining toward the light of the sun, it produces fruit to feed the hungry and sustain life. So, you want to see Jesus? He is on the cross. He is lifted up to be buried. He dies to be raised. We give our old self to him to receive the new self we were made to become.

       It’s a challenge to talk about all this because human language is inadequate to describe what Jesus does. Jesus uses metaphors to describe who he is and what he does, images that we can understand which lead us to a deeper meaning. He says he is a good shepherd, although he doesn’t really tend sheep. He says he is living water, but we know he’s not liquid. There are so many metaphors describing Jesus in the Bible because none of them is adequate to describe him. Sometimes he mixes metaphors in a way that my high school English teacher would disapprove. In this one passage, he switches from describing himself as seed which has to die to the metaphor of light. He tells those who are looking for him to walk in the light.

When you turn on a light in a dark room, what you thought was one thing turns out to be something different.  When something is hidden in the shadows, it fools us.  In the dark what is bad can look good and what is good can look bad.  The shadow we thought was an intruder crouching in the dark turns out to be a quilt spread over the chair.  When we see something in the light, we know it for what it really is. 

       Jesus casts light on those deep longings that draw us to him.  He shows us that what we yearn for is our deepest and truest self.  In Jesus we find who we truly are.  You see, we were created in God’s own image.  To say that we are made in the image of God doesn’t mean that God physically looks like you or I. It means that God made us to reflect the essence of God.  And God is love, love that gives for others. We see what that love looks like in Jesus, who gave himself for us. 

       It’s hard to make sense of that kind of self-giving love apart from the cross. Without the light of the cross, the love that sacrifices itself for others looks like a recipe for failure and death. 

       The novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote in the mid 20th century, has been growing in popularity in recent years. Many political leaders who have come to power lately cite her as their inspiration for the vision they offer their countries. In her books like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Rand praises individualism, maximizing the self, and advocates a Darwinian belief that the way for society to thrive is to support those who are strong and leave the weak and helpless to fend for themselves. You hear many of those positions advocated in the current political debates. A magazine devoted to Rand’s philosophy, which is called Objectivism, proclaims that “Altruism [selfless concern for others] is not good for one’s life.  If accepted and practiced consistently, it leads to death.  This is what Jesus did….  An altruist might not die from his morality – so long as he cheats on it – but nor will he live fully….  Why not live a life of happiness?  Why sacrifice at all?  What reason is there to do so?  In the entire history of philosophy, the number of answers to this question is exactly zero.”[1]

       Jesus beams light on that argument that seems to make so much common sense, that philosophy that says we have to look out for ourselves first.  He exposes it by beaming the light of love, God’s love that gives itself for us. Now, this isn’t the kind of anxious self-sacrifice that tries to win approval.  It’s not the kind of compulsive giving that wears you down because you’re desperate to be loved.  The kind of giving to which Jesus calls us is the kind of giving that brings life because you’re confident you’re already loved and accepted completely by God through Jesus. You don’t give of yourself to win love. You give of yourself because you are loved.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, a group of people from the church where I was pastor in Louisville went to help with the rebuilding. They stayed in a temporary village of trailers set up by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program. The man in charge of the village was a man named Victor.  He was the one who told the other volunteers where to find the supplies they needed.  He worked alongside them all day mucking mud out of houses and tearing out wet drywall. When the others returned to the village to collapse from exhaustion, Victor pulled out the lawn mower and cut the grass. 

After the people from the church had been there a few days, someone told them Victor’s story. Victor was a homeless man from Indianapolis.  Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis had worked with him when he was out on the street, and when they put together a team to go help the hurricane victims, they invited Victor to join them.  After the team from Indianapolis had been working for a week, it was time to return home.  Victor informed the team he was going to stay for a few more weeks.  He asked the team members if they would keep an eye on his belongings that he had stashed under a bridge in Indianapolis.  This homeless man threw himself into the work of rebuilding homes for those whom the hurricanes had made like him – homeless. He saw Jesus there among those Christians who were pouring themselves out for others because Jesus poured himself out for them.

Those Greeks who wanted to see Jesus made their request to Philip because they knew he was a friend of Jesus. That young man who sat in the back of sanctuary in the church I served came to worship because he knew it was a place where he might see Jesus. Victor saw Jesus because that light shone through those whom the light of the cross led to New Orleans.

       Jesus showed the power of love when he died on the cross.  He showed how love overcomes everything that can hurt or destroy us, from the power of a category 5 hurricane to the power of addiction, to the power of human hatred.  He gave his life for us so we can give our lives for others.  It’s in that self-giving love that we discover who we are and why we are here.  It’s a light that shines on our souls and lets us see everything differently, starting with ourselves. The opening of John’s gospel says it best: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

[1] “Rand Redux,” The New York Times, “The Week in Review,” March 26, 2006, p. 3.

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