Jesus is the light of the world!
Sermon at the Service of Light, 4th December 2022
This is a translation of the sermon I delivered when I celebrated what we call a service of light with the kids in my confirmation class. In the Church of Norway it is common to have a service of light during Advent. Instead of the normal readings, we light seven candles and read seven smaller texts. After each text and light, we sing a verse of a hymn, often either Folkefrelsar, til oss kom (a Norwegian translation of the Latin hymn Veni redemptor gentium) or Gjer døri høg, gjer porten vid (a Norwegian translation of the German hymn Macht hoch die Tür). The texts I would use are these (based on this arrangement by Arne Berge, except for the last two texts, which I have replaced):
Numbers 24:16-17a (followed by v.1 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom).
Psalm 72:11-12.17a (followed by v.2 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom).
Isaiah 7:14 (followed by v.3 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom).
Isaiah 9:2.6 (followed by v.4 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom).
Micah 5:1.4a (or, Micah 5:2.5a, followed by v.5 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom).
2 Corinthians 4:5-6 (followed by v.6 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom).
Joh 1:9-12 (followed by v.7 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom).
After reading these texts and singing the hymns, I preached this sermon (in Norwegian):
As a priest, I have baptise many children. And not just children. And every time we baptise someone, we light a candle for the one who is baptised, a baptismal candle, which the family get to take home. And then I read a short verse from the Bible, John 8:12, where Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
I read this at every baptism. We light the baptismal candles to show that Jesus is the light of the world, but also specifically the light of the one baptised, and for all who are baptised. Jesus is the light of all the world, but also particularly your light and my light. When we use our baptismal candles, we can remind ourselves of our baptism and of the fact that Jesus is with us to the end of the world. He is the gift of God, given to us.
This is the central thing when we usually celebrate services of light in churches all over Norway. Yes, we celebrate it partly because it is tradition but most particularly because Jesus is our light. We come together to celebrate the Divine Service where we may praise God, where we may pray to God, and where we may encounter other people. But why light? What is it with light? Why is this such a central metaphor that we find it in virtually all human cultures?
Culture after culture points out that where darkness threatens us, light comes to save us. We find this not only in Christianity but in virtually all religions. In Judaism, they celebrate Hanukkah, for example, in memory of God’s aid in Maccabees’ revolt against the Greek tyrant king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He had turned the temple in Jerusalem into a temple for Zeus, but he lost the fight and they rededicated the temple to God. The story goes that even though they only had enough oil for the menorah to burn for one day, it burned for eight days. We actually find a reference to this festival in John 10:22-23: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” And this finds its background, naturally, in the Old Testament of the Bible. The Psalms, for example, are full of such metaphors:
Psalm 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Psalm 43:3: “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.”
Psalm 56:13: “For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.”
Psalm 97:11: “Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.”
Psalm 118:27: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light.”
Furthermore, we see in old Greek religion and philosophy a focus on our enlightenment. They maintain that we partake of a Divine Light which we cannot comprehend. But if we cannot see the Light itself, because it is so strong and luminous, we can see all else, precisely because of this Light. And this is precisely what the Apostle John takes up. Speaking of Jesus to a Greek audience, he says, as we read as our last text: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). John shows us that Jesus is this true light which comes to us and enlightens us. For God became a human being in Jesus Christ. And this way, we became sharers of this true light.
This is the reason why we celebrate this Service of Light. As it grows darker, we light several candles in the Church, often in combination with the advent candles, to underscore that God comes into our darkness with hope of salvation from the power of darkness. Where the powers of evil tries to hold onto us, God comes to show both that He is good but also that these evil powers are no powers at all. In fact, they are nothing. Like darkness, they have no independent power.
Light, in fact, is the opposite of darkness. For what is darkness? Does it exist in itself? As a matter of fact, it does not. For it to become dark, we must remove the light. And if we have light, darkness immediately yields. For darkness is just the absence of light. Have you ever tried going to the store to buy a ‘dark bulb’? The darkness which tries to consume us is emptiness, nothingness. It is everything God is not.
The absolute darkness is life without God, without friendliness, without love. The central thing we celebrate today is that God is the opposite of darkness. But we need Him to see this. He is the One who must send us the light. And He did so in Jesus Christ. Because of this, we have read seven biblical texts who all point to Christ. Because He is the centre.
We celebrate a Service of Light because He is our light. For light is completely central to us. It is not just a central cultural metaphor, or rather an archetype or a symbol. It is central in creation. In the creation story in the Old Testament, God creates light first. For light is a condition for life. Take, for instance, photosynthesis. In nature, light is transformed into energy. All earthly life depends on photosynthesis, a process which make plants and trees grow and which produce the oxygen we need to breathe.
Photosynthesis, however, depends on the sun. And therefore, many say that the sun is the source of earthly life, which is why the sun is such a central symbol. It is understandable that many people worshipped the sun, believing she was a God. They were wrong, however, even when there is a grain of truth to it. The sun is a source of life, but she is so because that is how God created her. For he is the real source. He has created everything, even the lights in the sky, as we see in James 1:17: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
This verse is tells us that the lights of the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars, are not gods, but that everything emanates from the One true God. But there is another layer or dimension here. For the true light of heaven is not the sun, the moon, or even UY Scuti, to mention the name of the largest star we know, with a diameter of almost 2,4 billion kilometers or 1,5 billion miles.
No, the true light of heaven is Jesus Christ. All created lights remind us of Him. They are like icons of Him, of the real light, the true light, which came to us from God the Father and who has opened the way home to Him. He gives us illumination and enlightenment. He can show the way, so that we might turn away from evil and darkness. And here, a small anecdote may serve as an illustration. I remember a few years ago, going out of my house to get something in the car in the evening. And doing so, I stepped right into a puddle because it was so dark. But when I turned to go back in, everything was illumined. I had stood with my back to the porch light and had created a shadow, of myself, so I could not see. There was light, but I didn’t let it help me. And this is a central part of this metaphor. In Scripture, God is our light, Jesus is our light, but it says that we need to repent, turn to God. In Norwegian, the word for ‘repentance’ is omvending, ‘turning.’ I had to physically turn around. And when I did, I received the help I needed, I could see where I needed to tread. We nned to turn to Jesus, to let him be our light.
But Jesus did not give us light just to remain outside, just to be our light in the world. He also gives us the light within. Through baptism, we are transformed and we receive the light of God, the light of Christ. As Jesus says in Luke 11:34-36:
Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.
We must not reject Jesus, because He is the source of light for us. It is He who is the light in us. He is the one who saves us, who makes sure that we are not sick, spiritually speaking. We usually use the word ‘salvation.’ This implies deliverance. In Norwegian, we use the word frelse. Deriving from the Norse word frjals, it means ‘free neck’ (fri hals). It comes from the fact that when a slave was made free, he got a free neck. He was no longer bound. And this is a very good image of what it means to receive salvation. We are free!
But the New Testament was not originally written in Norse but in Greek, Koine Greek. And the word that we translate ‘salvation’ is sōtēría, which in its root means healing. Jesus heals us on the inside, spiritually, because he atoned for our sins and gives us His power and His light.
Jesus is God and He is the One who gives us true friendliness and love. He is the source of love. Today, we celebrate that the true light came into the world to offer us salvation. We celebrate that God became a human being in Jesus, so that we may share in the divine life through Him. For we find light in God, as it says in one of the Psalms, Psalm 36:9: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”
Let us pray:
Eternal God, you created light and sent your Son as a light of the world. We pray: Let us not wander in darkness but live in the light of Jesus Christ, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and rules, one true God, world without end. Amen