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The Light of the World

John 9:1-41 (first preached: March 17, 1996)


It was going to be a wonderful day. Jacob ben Issachar could tell from the very first. The warmth of Summer still lingered, but there was an Autumn smell and just a bit of a nip in the early morning air.

Jacob had spent the night sleeping outdoors with his family in a tent made of tree branches. It was the Festival of Tabernacles, and all Jews were camping out in memory of Israel's escape from Egypt and encampment in the desert.

Tabernacles was an exciting feast. It was the Harvest Festival. The crops had been gathered in and there was plenty of food. Large crowds of pilgrims had come to Jerusalem. The city was full of their tree-branch tents. The merchants were enthusiastic over their sales to these tourists. Even the beggars like Jacob ben Issachar had done well. When people are feeling good and well-fed and entertained it is easy to give to charity.

Last night they had lighted the eight great lamps in the Court of Women at the Temple. The thousands of flaming wicks floating in the oil had cast a festive glow on the whole city, and people said that the temple courtyard had been as bright as day.

So people said. But of course, Jacob ben Issachar could not know. For Jacob was blind!

Jacob had been born blind. He had never seen a sunset or a butterfly. He had never seen a beautiful girl or a pretty baby. He knew flowers by their smell, he knew Jerusalem by its sounds, he could find his way through the temple courts by feel, but he had never seen any of them.

He could know the warmth of the sun and the joy of music and the texture of fabric, but he could never see. He could use phrases- "Red with rage," "Green with envy," "Blue with cold," and he knew what they meant, but of red and green and blue he knew nothing. Jacob was blind. He had always been blind.

But Jacob ben Issachar was used to his blindness. He had never known anything else. So today he found his old accustomed seat in the market place and put out his bowl. People would be passing by on the way to synagogue services, and they might be generous. His friends were there and greeted him. Everyone knew Jacob and liked him. It was a good day, and it was good to be alive, even if you were blind.

Then Jacob heard a voice. All of the character study that we devote to faces, Jacob put into voices. He knew voices. And this voice was different. It was a voice of authority. It was the voice of Love.

Something cool touched his brow. Mud was being pressed on his eyelids. "Go," said the voice, "wash in the Pool of Siloam." Jacob never thought to ask why. He never questioned losing the day's income by abandoning his beggar's seat. He groped his way across town to the pool, washed off the dry, caked mud, and came back seeing!

What was it like to see for the first time-light and color and moving shapes? Confusing? Frightening? Exciting? Probably all of these. But it was the greatest day in Jacob ben Issachar's life. The day he first saw the light.

It was going to be a terrible day. Reuben ben Hadad could tell from the very first. He was still stiff from sleeping outdoors all night. Thank goodness that was over for another year!

Tabernacles was a headache of a feast. All the crowding made Jerusalem very unpleasant to live in. The tourists had been out making noise extremely late last night, after the excitement of the lighting of the great lamps and all the temple ceremonies.

True, Reuben had made good money this week selling his pottery. But there had been a lot of breakage, too. It seemed that every customer who had not been drunk had been just plain clumsy. "I'll be lucky to just break even," thought Reuben ben Hadad.

And on top of everything else, the festival this year had been practically taken over by that rabble-rouser Jesus with all his arguments for breaking the law. All Jerusalem was buzzing with the story of how this Jesus had made the elders of the Synagogue of the Pure, over on the far side of town, stop stoning that adulteress. Reuben could not understand how those men had let themselves be swayed like that. The Law was plain - she deserved to die. Why couldn't they see it? Well, Reuben ben Hadad was not blind. He knew the Law. He would never make a mistake like that!

Today was the Sabbath, and as Reuben ben Hadad arrived at the synagogue he noticed a knot of excited, arguing men. "Did you hear the news, Reuben? Jacob ben Issachar has been healed. He can see!"

"What? Jacob the beggar? How did it happen?"

"Jesus of Nazareth did it today. He made mud and put it on Jacob's eyes and told him to wash in Siloam. When he did he could see! This Jesus must really be a man of God!"

"You are wrong," said Reuben. "This Jesus is a law breaker. He made mud on the Sabbath Day. That is working. We are not supposed to work on the Sabbath Day. He healed a man who was in no danger of dying. That is against the Law. Can't you see that he is a sinner? Are you all as blind as Jacob? Can't you see?

"Let's get Jacob ben Issachar in here and examine him. His parents, too. Maybe he has been faking this blindness. I would not be surprised to find out there was no miracle at all."

All in all it was a most unpleasant day for Reuben ben Hadad. He did have the satisfaction of knowing that he had persuaded the other elders to throw Jacob ben Issachar out of the synagogue. But he still could not get at the real villain - Jesus. When the day was over Reuben was still so mad he couldn't see straight. He tripped over a brick on the way home!

What does Jesus mean when he says he is the Light of the World? What does he mean when he says he came for judgment?

It means that light has two different effects. For some people it is a blessing. For some it is a curse. For some it is a blinding light that causes pain. Some people are attracted to the light. Some are driven away.

To Jacob ben Issachar the light brought guidance. No more helpless stumbling. No more tedious groping. The light showed him where he was going and how to get there. "Thy Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." With Jesus as his light, Jacob could never be lost again. The light brought guidance.

To Reuben ben Hadad the light brought exposure. It revealed areas he did not want examined. Areas within himself and within his world. When he stood in that light Reuben was no longer the wise elder of a leading synagogue. He was only a sinner whose evil was suddenly obvious. So Reuben found a shadow to stand in. He crept underneath the Jewish Law as a bug creeps under a rock. He hid behind custom and tradition like a terrified mouse. Reuben hated the light because it exposed his rottenness.

Where do you stand? In the light or in the shadow? Are you hiding behind scripture like Reuben ben Hadad? Are you hiding behind tradition - "we've always done it that way; it would be painful to change"?

Step out into the light and let Jesus shine on you. It might burn your tender skin. It might dazzle your weak eyes. But the colors will be crisp, and the sights will be glorious. Wash the mud from your eyelids. And you will see what Christ means when he says, "I am the Light of the World".

Don Hoffman donhoffman@w-link.net Northwest Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Seattle, Washington, USA