Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
17 July 2016 / Ordinary Time
Our sermon text for today is John 8:12-30. You can find it in your Bible — or printed in your worship order.
Now, if you are willing and able, I invite you to stand and open your ears and listen to God’s Holy Word.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him. (ESV)
The word of the Lord. May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word. All the church says: Amen. You may be seated.
Before we jump into the sermon today I want to re-set the stage.
Remember: This story is taking place in Jerusalem at the temple during the Festival of Tabernacles. That means it is taking place in a holy city, at a holy place, during a holy celebration.
Last week, on the last and great day of the festival, when water offerings were poured on the altar and the Hallal psalms were sung, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”
As usual there was a mixed response to Jesus’ words. Some people were angry with Jesus and were looking for a way to arrest and kill him. Others were indifferent and just went back to business as usual, arguing and debating politics, religion, and sports.
Towards evening on the last and great day of the festival, Jesus stood up and started to teach at a place called the Treasury. The Treasury was a row of boxes where tithes and offerings were deposited. It was located in a corner of the temple between the Court of Women and the Beautiful Gate.
This is significant because at the end of that day, when evening came, the Levites, priests and musicians would process from the inner court of the priests, pass by the altar, through the Nicanor Gate, and down the 15 steps into the outer Court of the Women.
As they made their way to this part of the temple complex, they sang from the Book of the Psalms.
In the Court of the Women were four large columns that served as lamp-posts, each about 70 feet tall. “Great lamps of gold were lifted up and set on them, with four golden bowls at the top of each lamp. Four young priests-in-training would climb to the top, carrying immense oil jugs with which they would fill the bowls. Once lighted, there was not a courtyard in all of Jerusalem that did not glow with the light that emanated from the celebration in the Temple courtyard. As the people sang, the righteous and pious men would dance before them while juggling flaming torches. The levites, standing on the fifteen steps that descend from the Court of Israel to the Women’s Court, played on lyres, harps, trumpets and many other instruments…All this was done to honor the [ritual of pouring out water on the altar].” (based on Mishna, Tractate Sukkah, Chapter 5)
Now, what is interesting is that the last Hallel psalm the people sang that day was Psalm 118. The end of the psalm says:
Save us, we pray, O LORD! …
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God and he has made his light to shine upon us …
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 118:25-29 ESV)
It was in that context, on the evening of the last and great day of that festival, that Jesus cried out in the courtyard next to the giant lamps:
“I am the light of the world — whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
To the Pharisees, this must have sounded crazy, like, “I am the great an powerful Oz.” They already thought he was a devil, now they think he might just be insane.
But Jesus claim to be the light of the world is consistent with what we have been hearing about him from the beginning of John’s Gospel.
In Jesus was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5 ESV)
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:9-11 ESV)
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21 ESV)
Now, the mere presence of Jesus made people feel uncomfortable, like they were being judged.
But Jesus makes it clear in this story that he came as a witness not as a judge. He is not just an eye-witness who tells what he saw after the fact. He is a live-witness who tells what he sees right here right now.
He is a witness for the Father and a witness against the people. Jesus is telling the truth about the Father and about people of God.
As it is written in the prophets:
Hear, you peoples, all of you; pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it, and let the Lord GOD be a witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. (Micah 1:2 ESV)
Like a prophet, he comes to gather evidence and to present his case against the people. Like a covenant prosecutor, he shines a spot light into the hearts and minds of the Pharisees and he exposes their sin.
Listen to these accusations and charges Jesus makes against them:
“None of you keeps the law of Moses: Why do you seek to kill me?” (7:19)
“He who sent me is true, and you do not know him.” (7:28)
“You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.” (7:34 )
“You do not know where I come from or where I am going.” (8:14)
“You judge according to the flesh.” (8:15)
“You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (8:19)
“You will seek me, and you will die in your sin.” (8:21)
“Where I am going, you cannot come.” (8:22)
“You are from below…You are of this world.” (8:23)
“You will die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
Now, I told you earlier that Jesus said these things at the Treasury which was located in a corner of the temple between the Court of Women and the Beautiful Gate. But what I didn’t tell you is this:
The name of that corner was Woodshed Court.
So, in this story, Jesus took the Jews to the woodshed (literally and figuratively) and he laid down the law. He pointed to their stone-cold hearts and told them straight up, “You are law-breakers and death-eaters. You do not know God the Father or the Son. You are not able to come to heaven. You are lost and you are dead in your sins.”
Jesus is a witness who sees all these sinful things in the hearts and lives of these deeply religious people.
As you may or may not know, no one hides sin better than religious people hide sin. We have all been trained to mask and bury our sins. Yet, here is Jesus shining light into dark places and exposing secrets.
That had to make the people squirm a little.
But, with so much on the line, Jesus did not have time to pussyfoot around. With so much at stake, Jesus did could not afford to walk on egg shells.
Like a watchman for the house of Israel, Jesus spoke what his Father sent him to speak, and he gave fair warning to people lost in their sins. Why?
Not to judge them, but in order to save their life. (Ezekiel 3:17-21)
As the light of the world, Jesus was able to see through their religious exterior wall into the dark, interior, secret chambers of their hearts — and into ours as well.
This is similar to what Ezekiel the prophet did when God sent him up to the temple and showed him all the detestable idols and abominable images that were set up in the hearts of the leaders of the people. The prophet saw what they were doing in secret. (Ezekiel 8:1ff; 14:1ff)
Likewise, Jesus saw the disobedience, disbelief, disorientation, deceit, destruction, and death in the hearts and life of the people — and he sees all these things in ours as well.
Notice, there was nothing seeker-sensitive or culturally relevant about Jesus’s message, but notice also that it was extremely user-friendly, timely, and practical — especially for everyone who felt moved to turn away from darkness and trust in the light.
So how did the people respond to the bright light of Jesus’ teaching shining into their lives and exposing their sins?
As always, there was a mixed response. But many responded in a way that we do not expect: “as he was saying these things, many believed in him.”
This is not at all the response we expect after a hard word from the Lord.
We have been conditioned to expect responses of anger, conflict, frustration, to a hard and pointed message — not a response of “many believed in him.”
This just goes to show that God’s ways are not our ways, that our experts don’t always know what there talking about, and that that God’s word never returns empty, but always accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent. In this case, many believed.
Now, this was not the first time many believed in Jesus.
When he cleansed the temple, many believed in him. (2:23)
When he preached the gospel in Samaria, many believed in him. (4:39, 41)
When he showed up at the Feast of Tabernacles, many believed in him. (7:31)
So far in his public ministry, we have seen many people turn away from him, but we have also seen many turn and trust in him as well. Sadly, it is easier to focus on those who leave than on those who stay.
And yet, on that dark night at the end of the festival, many believed in him.
While we must grant the benefit of doubt to all who claim to believe in Jesus, we must not be too hasty in declaring them to be true believers.
Then as now, it’s hard to tell if someone believes in Jesus truly, madly, deeply, or if they just believe in him superficially.
There is a profound difference between mere external belief in Jesus and deep internal belief in him. One is just a knee-jerk response of the flesh; the other is renewing work of the Spirit.
The point is that not all conversions are true conversions.
Many of the conversions that happen at camp, on a campaign, or a crusade, are false conversions. People who attend such events tend to get caught up in the moment of the event and make a decision, recite a prayer, or get baptized in the heat of the moment. In that one still-frame moment it looks like they truly believed; but it’s the ongoing film of all the moments after that moment that show whether they truly believed in Jesus from the heart.
In other words, only time will tell if they believed in Jesus truly or falsely.
For now, all we know is that at the end of a long and hard week at the temple, many people believed in Jesus. After Jesus tests and tries them some more, then we’ll know whether they were true believers or false believers. So let’s wait and see what happens to them next week.
Now, back to the story.
Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. I am the LORD God who makes his light to shine upon you.”
We have heard these things so much that we no longer feel the weight of its glory. As professing Christians, this does not shock us at all. But it should.
What if you had been standing next to Jesus at the temple when he proclaimed these things? What if the eyes of the temple were upon you? What if your fate was tied to the fate of your Teacher?
I realize that it’s easy sit up here in the cheap seats and watch this story unfold from a distance. So, to help us enter into the story a little more let’s put ourselves in their sandals and consider how we would feel if someone shone a light into our hearts and exposed all our secret sins.
What idols would they find hidden there in the darkness? What images would they see flickering in the shadows?
What if Jesus came to our temple, our congregation, our life?
What icons would he find in our courts, our lives, our hearts? What images would he see in our rooms, our smart-phones, our minds?
What idols would he find in our history?
Sadly, we are just as susceptible to American idolatries, and just as affected by the imaginations of our hearts, as people outside the church in the culture are.
Here’s one that strikes close to us all.
We live in an image-rich, eye-serving, sexually explicit context. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that “everything” is either pornographic, pornified, porno-centric, or on its way to becoming some kind of porno-graffitti.
It is my fear that our zeal for the house of God — our passion and desire for the holiness and righteousness of God — has dimmed and faded, collectively and individually and personally.
We seem to be far more apathetic and carefree about these things than Jesus was — and far more tolerant and accepting of loving the world and the things in the world than Jesus was, both in ourselves and in others.
We seem to be attracted to darkness, drawn to it, lured by it; and we seem to be afraid of the light and even ashamed of it. Why?
Because the darkness seems more interesting and thrilling to our flesh than the light seems to our spirit. Because dwelling in the darkness feels like life, but walking in the light feels like death.
But Jesus is the light of the world — whoever follows him will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
So, coming into the light ought to feel like death to your flesh, but it ought to feel like life to your spirit. And fleeing the light ought to feel like death to you.
Jesus the true light that gives life to all men.
He knows our works, our love and faith and service and patient endurance. But he also knows our weaknesses, our lusts and failings and secrets and patterns. He searches the mind and heart, and he gives to each of us according to our deeds. (Revelation 2:18-29)
He gives us what we want, and lets us live and die with the consequences.
In the 16th century Calvin said the human heart is an idol-making factory. That is true. But in the 21st century we must add that the human heart is also a search engine — ever-searching but never finding what it’s looking for, never discovering what it truly needs; ever-searching but never making a strong connection.
So remember this the next time you channel surf or perform a search on google, or instagram, or snapchat, or gaze at the people and things around you:
You are not alone in your search; you are not the only one searching. The light of the world is searching your desires and motives, your thoughts and feelings. Why?
To show you your sin, to scatter your darkness, and to save your life.
It is possible that (like the crowd) some of you do not fully understand all these things. But that’s okay. Not to worry.
Echoing what Jesus said to those who did not understand him, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am.”
In other words, When you have lifted up the Word made flesh, the way you lifted up those blazing lamps, then the darkness will be scattered and your heart and mind will be illuminated.
When Jesus is lifted up like a sacrifice on the cross, and lifted up like a savior from the grave, and lifted up like a sovereign Lord into heaven —
When Jesus is lifted up like a radiant glory in your heart,
then you will understand, then you will know, then you will see that I am.
In other words, when Jesus is lifted up, then you will know that he is Yahweh, the self-existent God of Moses, the true and living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (See Exodus 3-4)
The cross makes all things clear and puts everything into focus.
On the evening of the last and great day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood up as the pillar of fire and said to the people who were walking in darkness:
“Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.” (Isaiah 50:10 ESV)
And he says the same to us now.
Vindicate us, O God, and defend our cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver us! For you are the God in whom we take refuge; why have you rejected us? Why do we go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? Send out your light and your truth; let them lead us; let them bring us to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then we will go to the altar of God, to God our exceeding joy, and we will praise you with the stringed instruments, O God, our God. Why are you cast down, O soul, and why are you in turmoil within us? Hope in God; for we shall again praise him, our salvation and our God. (Based on Psalm 43 ESV)