Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Into the Light

Rev. Kathy Donley

4/10/16

 

Scripture Lesson:  John 9:1-7

 

There is a bill under consideration in Mississippi right now that would expand gun rights in churches.  It would give church members the right to carry weapons without concealed carry permits and offer legal protection to those who might use weapons when acting as church security.  One of the state legislators is also a Baptist minister.  He was asked if he carries a gun into the pulpit with him.  At first, he didn’t want to answer the question, but when pressed he said, “There have been occasions when I have, yes.”[1]

During our congregational meeting today, we will discuss the possibility of declaring ourselves a weapon-free zone.  Regardless of what we as a congregation decide, I will never bring a gun into the pulpit with me.  Just so you know.  And I confess that I cannot see this issue from the point of view of a pastor who would choose to do that.  It is completely at odds with my understanding of who Jesus was.

 

If we look back at history, and we don’t have to look very far, we can always find times when people of faith did not see things the same way.  And there are amazing stories of people who staunchly argued against something, then had a change of mind, and became just as fervent in their support of it.  We sometimes call that kind of transformation a “conversion.”  Transformation, conversion, changing our point of view, being given a new way to see – all of those things are at work in this story.

 

On one level, this is a simple healing story.  A grown man was blind from birth.  Jesus restored his sight.  It’s a life-changing day for that man and we might be tempted to leave the story there.  Especially if we only read the first scene, as we did this morning.  The longer story takes 5 scenes and 41 verses. 

 

But even in this scene, there’s a big clue that there’s more to the story.  Before healing the man, Jesus says, “I AM the light of the world.”  This is the second time he makes that claim.  The first time was back in chapter 8.  Chapter 8 is a detailed account of the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders.  It is a long debate about who Jesus is and what authority he has to say what he says.  It ends with Jesus saying “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” 

 

We have to remember that I AM is the divine name.  It goes all the way back to Moses.  God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand freedom for the children of Israel.  Moses was reluctant to do this, which is understandable, given the kind of power that Pharaoh had.  There were a lot of gods in the ancient world.  Moses said “Which god are you?  How shall I tell Pharaoh which god wants the people to go free?  What is your name?”   

 

Ancient people believed that if you knew the name of something or someone, you had some control over it.  So, probably this was partly Moses’s way of trying to exert some control over an unpredictable situation.  But God did not give Moses a name with predictability and control.  God said, “I AM who I AM.  I will be who I will be.  Tell Pharoah that I AM says to let my people go.”

 

I AM is the name of God.  It is found 42 more times in the Old Testament.  And so when Jesus says “Before Abraham was born, I AM.”  Jesus is claiming to be God. It is an abuse of God’s name.  It is blasphemy.  To the religious leaders, it seems that Jesus is trying to do what Moses wanted to do – trying to control God, to use God for his own purposes.

 

We could dismiss this as an esoteric theological argument from long ago.  We could think this really has little to do with life today.  Or we could look at what is happening in our world.  We could see that debates about immigration, refugees, war, and guns are being framed in theological terms.  We could see that in Mississippi,  discrimination against gay people is being legalized as an exercise of religious freedom, while in Georgia, the Baptist governor used the Bible to explain why he vetoed against similar legislation. 

 

Even today, people appeal to their religion, their theology, their faith tradition, their understanding of God to help us make moral choices.  And we should.  But if God’s name is used to justify both “Yes” and “No” on the same question, how do we know what to do?  That is the quandary, isn’t it?  That’s why they call it “Faith” and not “Certainty”.

 

In John’s gospel, Jesus uses this name of God, the Great I AM to reveal himself as God and also to reveal more about God.  Today we hear “I AM the Light of the World.”  I AM Light.  God is Light.  What might that mean?

 

Light was God’s first creation in Genesis.  At the time of the Exodus, God went before the people of Israel as a pillar of fire by night, providing guidance and direction and an assurance of God’s presence.  In the Psalms and Proverbs, Light is a symbol for the law of God and for wisdom. 

 

There are plans this fall for an art installation called Breathing Lights.  Hundreds of empty buildings in Schenectady, Albany and Troy will be lit with a soft pulsing light intended to mimic the rhythm of human breathing.  The intention is to concentrate the display in poor neighborhoods with high vacancy rates and to transform “vacant structures from pockets of shadows into places of warmth.”  The artists hope to shine a light on our area’s struggle with abandoned buildings and the effect that has on residents and neighborhood economies.  At the end of the installation, the windows will fall dark, one by one, and the artists hope that the loss of that light will create a stir to action.[2]


Light can create a sense of warmth and hope.  It can illuminate problems or places in need of help and change.  And sometimes that much illumination is enough to generate transformation.

 

But sometimes, shining the light is not enough.  I heard about a church that had an organ that was never played.  Someone new came to the church and asked why.  He was told that the organ could not be repaired, but no one knew why.  So he asked an organ technician to come and check it out.  On the first visit, which was just to see what needed to be done, he repaired the organ.  Some simple repair.  Several families left the church -- I’m not making this up. It really happened -- They left because they knew that the organ could not be repaired.  They were angry because someone had changed what they had always believed.  They had preferred to repeat the lie that the organ could not be repaired rather than enjoy the beauty of its music.  It doesn’t make sense to me, but they could not handle the fact that the organ had been repaired when they had believed it was unrepairable.

 

“I AM the light of the World” Jesus said.  Some people saw the light and believed he was the Son of God.  Others could only perceive his blasphemy. 

 

A 24-year-old son was on a train with his Dad.  Looking out the window, he shouted, “Dad, look the trees are going behind us.”  The Dad smiled and a young couple sitting nearby, looked at the 24-year-old’s childish behavior with pity. Suddenly, the son yelled out, “Dad, look the clouds are running with us!”  The couple couldn’t stop themselves.  They said to the old man, “Why don’t you take your son to a good doctor?”  The father smiled and said, “I did.  We are just coming home from the hospital.  My son was blind from birth.  He just got his eyes today.”     

 

What if we could approach life with the same sense of wonder as that 24-year-old boy?  What if our faith in the Light of the World gave us renewed vision?  I expect that young man appreciated trees and clouds and his father’s face and color and all sorts of things that I take for granted for a long time.  But I wonder if the day came when even he failed to appreciate the gift of sight?

Light has different effects.  For some people it is a blessing. For some it is a curse. For some it is a helpful light that gives guidance. For some it is a blinding light that causes pain. Some people are attracted to the light. Some are driven away.

Even for those of us who recognize Jesus as the Light of the World, it may be easy to quit seeing what the light illuminates.  We may take it for granted.  We may see what we’ve always seen and fail to pick up the new thing that are there now.  Or we may choose to retreat into the shadows.

 

Yesterday, at the celebration of Roy Mallory’s life, we sang the well known hymn Amazing Grace.  Many of us may know some of the story of John Newton, the hymn writer.  He was once involved in human trafficking, shipping enslaved people from one place to another.  It is generally known that he changed his mind about slavery and became an outspoken abolitionist.    What is less well known is that his life had a pattern of Newton began a pattern of coming very close to death, examining his relationship with God, then relapsing into bad habits. On board one ship, Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. In a culture where sailors commonly used oaths and swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.  In one conversion experience, he repented of his profanity, but his biographer says that on his next voyage, he was as immoral as before, except that he never longer cursed.  In other words, his life was a series of events where the Light of the World shone and he saw and turned toward the light.  In that sense, the amazing grace of which he sang was extended to him over and over again.

 

By the end of this story in John 9, the religious leaders are asking themselves if they are the blind ones, if they are the ones who fail to perceive the situation correctly.    That is the question that we always need to ask ourselves.  It is not so much “I have seen the Light and now I know the way” but “Jesus is the Light of the World and I will try to keep watching, keep walking in his illumination.” 

 

The man born blind is a stranger to Jesus at the beginning.  But he is more than just one whom Jesus heals.  By the end of the story, he is one of Jesus disciples.  And interestingly enough, he also uses I AM language, although not exactly in the same way as Jesus does.  People keep challenging him.  They want him to recant and say that he is not the one Jesus healed, because if no one can identify the person that Jesus healed, then there’s no evidence that any healing took place.  It’s a way to reduce Jesus’ power.  Except that in the story, seven times they ask the blind man and seven times, he says “I AM.”  We’ve heard that before.  He is not saying that he is God, but that his healing is from God. 

 

Perhaps he means “This is a story about God, the great “I am.” In other words, the blind man is saying, “I am a new Adam. I represent what God is doing in creation, in liberation and redemption. I am a child of the living God, formed from the dust of the earth and redeemed in the life of Jesus.”[3]

 

He says “I am one born blind.  I have come out from the shadows to stand in the Light of the World.” 

 

May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.

 

 



[1] http://bigstory.ap.org/article/6dd3b15455ad4ab2ae34e04d88e42a21/mississippi-bill-would-let-church-members-carry-guns

[2] https://upstatecreative.org/about-breathing-lights-regional-public-art-challenge-submission/

[3] The Rev. Craig T. Kocher in his sermon,  The Sort of Thing God Would Do, http://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/sermons/2008/080302.pdf

 

 

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