The last time we were together and taking a look at John’s Gospel we were confronted by the despicable, diabolical nature of sin. Sin warps our minds, darkens our souls, and sets us against one another. Do you remember the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery from just two weeks ago? She was guilty as charged, caught in the act of adultery, and drug by her accusers through the streets of Jerusalem until she was dropped at the feet of Jesus. The horrors of sin. The shame of sin. The dehumanizing nature of sin. You may think I’m talking about the woman, but I’m not. I’m thinking about those who had stayed up all night strategizing together, coming up with some way they could get at Jesus. The woman was their most brilliant plan to date. They had her! John tells us that she had been caught in the act of adultery. They knew the Law, but they didn’t know the heart of Jesus.
If this event had been organized by the general population of the citizens of Jerusalem then I wouldn’t have any problem understanding it at all. I’d feel horrible for the woman, for the shame and humiliation they heaped upon her already sin-scarred soul, but the way the men treated her wouldn’t surprise me at all. It wasn’t the general population who drug her through the streets. Who was it? Do you remember? It was the “teachers of the law and the Pharisees.” (John 8:3) It was those who were most well-versed in the Scriptures, those who were most familiar with their own sin and the countless times they had gone astray from God’s covenant faithfulness, they were the ones who made a spectacle of the woman. Those who were called to love others in the same way the Lord had loved them were the ones who used another human being for their own evil devices. That ought to unnerve you and me for this simple reason. If those who were so familiar with God’s Word, recipients of His grace and mercy, could somehow get so off-track that they would use another person, created in the image of God, then we must know that we are all vulnerable to the same sin.
I think we don’t need to look any further than the events that have been taking place in our nation during the past week to understand the validity of what I’m talking about. There have been enough words spoken and written about the events surrounding Michael Brown and Darren Wilson that it would fill a library. I’ve read and heard some outlandish statements coming from every corner, from both sides of the argument, and from a wide range of opinion shapers and makers. I’ve not joined into the cultural conversation because what I would say would make no sense to the general population of citizens, regardless of their race.
I sent out an email Wednesday morning encouraging God’s people to pray for the Prince of Peace to bring healing and peace to our land and for us, God’s people, to lead the way. Our society desperately needs us to model the teachings of Jesus to our broken society that is mired, shrouded, on lockdown, in darkness. How do we do that? That’s a great question that I’m certain many Christians would be more than willing to speak to, but I would rather listen to what Jesus says. If you would turn with me to John 8:12-20 and let’s read our Scripture for today.
12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16 But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17 In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. 18 I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” 19 Then they asked him, “Where is your father?” “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come. (John 8:12-20 NIV)
I want to forewarn you, we probably won’t make it past verse 12 this morning because what Jesus said in verse 12 is so packed with meaning and application for our day. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” There’s plenty of inspiration and application in this verse if we just take it at face value, but when we take the time to dig down into the verse, to understand the story behind the statement of Jesus…Wow! You aren’t going to believe what we will learn in the next few minutes.
We have to remember that Jesus had been at the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Also remember a feature of the Feast of Tabernacles that we’ve discussed in weeks past was the “water pouring ceremony.” Each morning the priests from the temple would process down to the Pool of Siloam where they would gather water in the pitchers and then process back to the temple where they would pour the water on the altar of sacrifice. All along the way the people were celebrating, chanting God’s Word. They chanted things like Isaiah 12:3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3 NIV) They shouted,
7 Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 8 who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs of water. (Psalm 114:7-8 NIV)
The whole water pouring ceremony that took place each day during the seven day celebration was designed as a reminder of God’s provision of water during the forty year wilderness wandering of God’s people. Jesus took advantage of the great celebration to make a declaration to the people who had witnessed the water pouring celebration. Turn to John 7:37-38 with me.
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38 NIV)
Just as God provided water to those who would have died without His provision in the wilderness, God has provided Living Water, water that nourishes like no other, through His Son, our sustenance.
There was a second feature of the Feast of Tabernacles that I’ve only mentioned in our study of John 7 and it’s the “lamp lighting ceremony.” According to the Jewish Mishnah after the sun set on the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, two giant lamp stands were set up in the court of the women. The lamp stands were 75 feet tall and each bowl on top of the lamp stand held somewhere between 7.5 and 10 gallons of oil. Young men of priestly descent would climb ladders and light the oil. It has been said that the light from the lamp stands could be seen in every section of Jerusalem. While the fire burned, the men down below with torches in their hands, danced and sang songs of praise to God as the Levitical musicians played harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets. (Mishnah, Sukkah 5.2)
The lighting of the lamps was a reminder to the people of the pillar of fire and the cloud that God provided for His people as He delivered them from bondage in Egypt and then accompanied them throughout the 40 years of wandering throughout the wilderness. Take a look at Exodus 13:21-22 to get a sense of what I’m talking about.
21 By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13:21-22 NIV)
This is the first mention of the cloud and pillar of fire in the Exodus story. Did you notice what God was doing? “The LORD went ahead of them…to guide them on their way.” Then, in verse 22 we read, that “the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”
The Presence of God
God was present with His people. I can’t overemphasize the importance of knowing this truth: God is with us! We are not alone! We had the blessing of having Doug Manning with us Tuesday night at our “Rapha Journey Conference” for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Doug has been around the world speaking to people who are grieving, he has written more than 30 books, and he shared with us the most important thing we can do to help those who are grieving. He didn’t tell us to get a degree in Grief Counseling, provide answers, or seek to fix our friends. He told us the most important thing we can do is to be with our friends and if we need to speak, to simply say, “That must really hurt.” There may come a time, later on, when we talk about other things, but initially, the most important thing is to acknowledge their pain and be present. I’ve thought about all that Doug said since Tuesday night. There is a powerful ministry in the “ministry of presence.” Just to be with those who are afraid, those who are hurting, and those who are suffering in mind, body, or spirit.
As I was working on this sermon I got a phone call from Jerome Harris letting me know that he was at the hospital and they were admitting him. Jerome’s been having some swelling in his legs, he said his kidney area has been feeling “hard,” and he had no idea what the future held for him when we talked Wednesday morning. I asked Jerome if I could send out an email and have you pray for him and he said, “Yes.” I then asked Jerome if I could pray for him while we were on the phone. As we prayed, the truths that I’d been studying before Jerome called were at the forefront of my mind. In prayer we affirmed God’s presence, His Sovereign promise that He will never or forsake Jerome and Doris, and we confessed in prayer that in the unknown we would trust Him, cling to Him, and know that He is at work.
We can be most present for others when we are most aware of God’s presence with us. If we are unsure of God’s presence it makes being present with others during their time of need so uncomfortable for us because we might not have the answers they need or we might not be able to help them. If we are sure of God’s presence then we know that our friends don’t need answers…they need the Lord and we are His ambassadors.
God’s Provision of Protection
In Exodus 14:19-20 we find another truth about the pillar of fire and the cloud that accompanied God’s people. Just after they left Egypt, pharaoh and his army were hunting down the Children of Israel. They had them hemmed in between the Red Sea and the desert of Pi Hahiroth, God intervened. Read along with me.
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. (Exodus 14:19-20 NIV)
God intervened. Through the pillar of cloud God intervened and kept the Egyptians from destroying His people. Throughout God’s Word we find that His people look to Him as their place of refuge, their strength, and their Deliverer. David wrote,
2 The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Psalm 18:2 NIV)
He is our Rock, our Fortress, and our Deliverer! He has been all of this and more to those who have gone before us and He will never change my friends. The prophet Isaiah wrote,
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. (Isaiah 43:2 NIV)
I don’t want you to make something out of these verses that God never intended. Notice, God’s people do pass through the waters, they do pass through the rivers, and walk through the fires. Walking with God doesn’t mean that we get a pass from the trials and troubles of life, but it does mean that they won’t destroy us; our God is our refuge and our strength.
There is another, less dramatic, easily overlooked way that God protected His people during those 40 years of wandering through the desert. James Montgomery Boice writes,
In the daytime the temperature can easily reach 140 or 150 degrees, and at night it can fall below freezing. To survive in such a region the vast host of Israel needed water and a shelter from the sun. The rock, which Moses was instructed to smith with his rod, provided water. Shelter was provided by the cloud, which spread out over the camp of the people to give them protection. Without this special and miraculous provision the people would have died. (Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of John: Vol. 2. pg. 616)
The last provision of God for His people through the provision of the cloud and the pillar of fire was God’s guidance. We’ve already briefly touched on this when we read Exodus 13:21, but in Numbers 9:20-23 we get a much better glimpse of how closely the people followed God. Read along with me.
20 Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the LORD’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. 21 Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. 22 Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. 23 At the LORD’s command they encamped, and at the LORD’s command they set out. They obeyed the LORD’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses. (Numbers 9:20-23 NIV)
When the cloud moved the people knew it was time to go. It didn’t matter what they were doing or what they wanted to do—it was time to go. When the pillar of fire stopped it was time to set up camp. Once again, nothing else mattered. The only thing that mattered was to follow the cloud, the pillar of fire, to follow God.
Through the pillar of fire and the cloud God was teaching His people, training His people to trust Him, to follow Him. He reminded them that He was with them, through it all, through the entire 40 years, He was with them. When they found themselves between a rock and a hard place God taught them to turn to Him, to look to Him as their refuge and rock of strength and protection.
Now that we understand the provision of the pillar of fire and the cloud we can hear Jesus cry out with an understanding that we would surely miss if we hadn’t taken the time to study the pillar of fire, the cloud, and their relationship to the lamp lighting that took in Jesus’ day at the Feast of Tabernacles. As the lamps were extinguished Jesus announced, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus is the light that will never be extinguished. When Jesus said that He was the light of the world He was letting everyone know that what the pillar of fire and cloud were to the Jews, He was for His people. Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us.” Jesus is our source of strength, our refuge, our Deliverer, and our Protector. Jesus is our Guide and if we will follow Him we will never walk in darkness.
Now, I want us to stop and think for a moment before we get out of here. How many times in your life have you been led astray because you followed someone else? How many times have you led someone astray because they chose to follow you? Left to ourselves we are not good leaders are we? Neither are we good at picking the right people to follow…unless, unless we choose to follow Jesus. He will never lead us astray. Not only will we “never walk in darkness,” but we “will have the light of life.” It’s not enough to simply avoid the darkness; we need the light of life. You’ve probably forgotten by now because it’s been a long time since we were in John 1. John begins his Gospel by saying,
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:1-4 NIV)
“In him was life, and that life (His life) was the light of all mankind.” Oh my friends, that’s what the world is missing! We don’t need more education, we don’t need more government programs, we don’t need sensitivity training, or new and better models or methods—what we need is His life to transform our hard, darkened hearts. It is only then that we will see change, personal change, change in our families, change in our churches, and communities.
The world will continue to walk in darkness. They will continue to try to figure things out apart from God, but they will continue to fail and fail miserably. What our communities and our society needs is for you and me, brothers and sisters in Christ, to surrender our lives to Jesus and live wholeheartedly for Him. We are ambassadors of our King and we are called to let His light shine in this dark world in which we live. Won’t you invite Him in this morning and begin the journey of a lifetime?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
Oklahoma City, OK.
November 30, 2014