Right back at the start of everything that we can imagine, in the beautiful picture language of the first of the Biblical creation narratives darkness covered the face of the deep, and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and God gave the gift of light. Right at the start of it all, God speaks light into his world.
The writers of the Gospel of John begin their great telling of the good news of God’s love experienced in Jesus, by amplifying that central understanding of our hope further, in their prologue as they declare, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The Psalmist describes God’s word as a light for our path. The prophet Amos looks forward to the Day of The Lord being as light, and the Prophet Isaiah longs for the day when “the people who walked in darkness will see a great light, when they that dwell in a land of deep darkness will have light shone upon them.”
When the baby Jesus is presented by his parents in the Temple, Simeon the old wise man, who has waited so long to see this light breaking out in a new way around him as the Prophets promised that it would, praises God saying, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light to reveal you to the nations, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Jesus, knowing this great tradition of longing for light, living, as he does, in a world where the sun itself was worshipped as a deity, says of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Where does this great defining, revealing of himself take place? According to the Gospel writers, Jesus is in Jerusalem, at the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus goes there urged on by his companions, in secret and not in public because the religious authorities are looking for him to kill him. Come with me and try to picture the scene in your imagination for a moment this evening.
The Feast of Tabernacles has its memory in the rich history of the people of Israel, God’s chosen ones. Central to the activities of the Feast, continued by our Jewish neighbours to this day, is the building of make-shift shelters in which people live for a week, removed from the comfort of their homes; reminding themselves of the experience of their ancestors in the faith, who left their homes in Egypt and who lived during the long years of the Exodus in tents, utterly dependent upon God as they travelled through the wilderness.
All around Jerusalem, these make-shift shelters would have been deliberately prepared for the great feast. Why would we presume that Jesus had not made one, and was not staying in one himself, along with his disciples?
Like any great religious festival there were extraordinary sights and sounds to be seen. At the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, the great festival was launched with the equivalent of the fireworks at New Year on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
As the evening sun was setting, on the first day of the festival, thousands of devout God-fearing Jewish worshippers would have gathered in the area of the Temple known as the Court of the Women until it was finally filled to capacity. Within this court there would have been four great candelabras, each one with four large, magnificent golden bowls filled with fresh oil. When darkness finally came over that ancient city, a signal would have been given for four young men of priestly lineage to walk forward and light these great candelabras. Suddenly the darkness of the night would have been pierced with such a brilliant light that it was said by historians of the time to illuminate every street and courtyard in the city of Jerusalem.
As the worshippers gazed at the dazzling lights, their hearts would have been filled with great joy as they shared in this extraordinary moment. Conscious that they were together, as a community, despite all that the Roman occupiers had tried to do to destroy them. Conscious of the grandeur and the beauty of such a spectacle.
Perhaps their minds would have been transported to the stories that they had heard about their ancestors being led by a pillar of cloud by day, and a bright pillar of fire by night through the wilderness. Perhaps they would have tried to imagine what it would have been like when the bright glory of the Lord came to rest on the first Tabernacle when it was dedicated in the wilderness all those years before. Or when the same radiant cloud of light rested on the great Temple of Solomon.
Whatever was going on in their lives, for that moment in that great festival they would have yearned right to the core of their being that the God who guided their ancestors through those years of wandering would guide them still. They would have longed for an experience of the presence of the glory of God, the Shekinah of the past. As those thousands of worshippers crowded into the Court of the Women, their hearts would have been filled with great longing as they saw the brilliant flames of light dispel the darkness of night.
And here’s Jesus, standing with them all, next door in the Treasury, an ordinary looking man, with a gang of followers, who have travelled in from the countryside along with the other pilgrims. And he says to them, “forget the candelabras, and burning bowls of oil. I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
You have come here because you are hungry for a religious experience, a communal experience, an opportunity to dream that the glory that descended upon God’s people in the past will do so again. And I say to you, I am the shining, blinding light of that glory. I am the bright glory of God. I am the light of the world.
You have come here because you know in your hearts that the People of God have lost their way, that you have lost your way. You know it wasn’t meant to be like this, living alongside those who occupy your land, seeing your families wandering away from the religious traditions of our ancestors. Wondering whether there will be anything left of all of this, anyone left to tell these stories in the future. And I say to you, you long for a bright pillar of fire to guide your way. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness again, but will have the light of life.
How do people respond, when they hear this earth-shattering, life changing, world-defining revelation of Jesus? They go to their equivalent of the Diocesan Handbook. And they start to read the ordinances and the rules. We can’t believe that this is true – the rules say that someone else has to say this about you, you can’t say this about yourself… and so on, and so on.
How do we respond this evening? We are here just as those pilgrims were in Jerusalem. We have travelled here in this Holy Season of Lent, because we know that we will be reminded in some way of the glory of God, in the architecture of this magnificent building, in the sweet music of our tradition, as we hear the stories that have been told by generations before us. We probably have a sense here in the Cathedral, more than in any other church in the Diocese, of how things used to be when they were going well for the Church. And we long for a new experience of God in our lives.
Like those people who travelled to Jerusalem and built shelters to stay in, to experience God in the simplicity, and fragility and vulnerability of those who had journeyed through the wilderness before them, we are here as part of our own Lenten journey, our own striving for God. And Jesus says to us, “I am not just offering a fuzzy religious feeling, to get you through to Easter, or a tranquil moment to get you through to tomorrow.”
A cathedral built on a hill can only hide its light if it deliberately chooses to do so, and that is true for each of us as well. I am the light of the world. From the very beginning it has always been so. It was me who imagined what light would be like before it came into being. I am a pillar of bright fire in the wilderness to guide your footsteps. I am the blinding and awe-filled glory of God.
Just as I am the light of the world, I call you to be as well.
See my guiding light. Be my guiding light.
See my glory. Be my glory.