Tuesday, 13 September 2011

What if Jesus turned up at the Mid-Autumn Festival? (John 8:12-20)

Harvest in the desert

It is one of the biggest festivals in the Chinese calendar. Back in Malaysia we call it Pesta Tanglung, which is Malay for Lantern Festival. But most know it as the Mid-Autumn Festival or the Mooncake Festival, named after the super-sweet lotus paste dessert called mooncakes, commonly enjoyed this time of the year. It is celebrated not just in China and Hong Kong, but also in Vietnam and the Philippines. In Korea, this weekend just happens to coincide with Chuseok, a major holiday marking the celebration of the autumn harvest.

So when I was choosing a passage for this Sunday, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the bible said something about the autumn festival?”

And you know what? It does.

Way back in Exodus 23 God gives a command to the Israelites that they are to celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year when they gathered in the crops from their fields. The reason was thanksgiving. The people of God were to remember all that God had blessed them with in terms of land, food, blessing, wealth and life. It was the time of the year when grapes and olives would be harvested and the Israelites gathered to celebrate and give thanks to God. So there we have it: God actually commands us to celebrate the Autumn Festival!

The thing is: it was a pretty strange thing that God had commanded the Israelites to do - to celebrate this Autumn harvest. You see, back in Exodus 23, the Israelites were in the desert. They had just been rescued from slavery in Egypt and lived in tents. They kept moving from place to place. These guys didn’t have any land. They couldn’t grow any crops. How could they be expected to celebrate a harvest in a desert?

The point was: they couldn’t celebrate this festival. Or at least, not yet. Embedded in this command was a promise. God was going to give them a land where they could grow their crops and where they could build their homes. And when they finally received this blessing from God, they were to remember to be thankful.

But we’re not looking at Exodus today, because what I want to do is fast forward 1,500 years to the temple in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. Because here we see the celebration as it’s meant to be. The people are in the land. They are gathering in the crops. They are worshipping God and giving thanks to him for the bountiful harvest.

And also because here in John’s Gospel, we see Jesus turning up at the height of the Autumn Harvest Celebrations.

John 7 refers to this as the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2). It’s the same celebration with a different name, because a tabernacle is basically a fancy word for a tent. And what the Israelites would do was construct a temporary hut out of wood and bamboo; and during the duration of this festival they would live in this hut and eat in this hut and sleep in this hut. Why? To remember the time when the people of God lived in tabernacles, or tents as they wandered through the desert. In fact, Sukkot (the Jewish word for Tabernacle) is still celebrated today.

You see the reverse is now happening. Now that they have plenty, the Israelites remember the time when they had little. When they didn’t have land. When there was no harvest.

Being thankful in plenty and in want

Perhaps it is a helpful reminder for us today as we gather at the Chinese Church for our Mid-Autumn Festival. What are you thankful for? How has God blessed you this year? With that job, or that university place, or that new relationship, or that new baby? Today is an opportunity to recognise God’s goodness in blessing you abundantly and graciously. Maybe like these Israelites you might need to think back to the time when you hadn’t yet received these blessings; when times were lean and tough. Maybe it might be helpful for you to remember how far God has brought you in your walk with him.

Conversely you might not have very much to be thankful for. For you, times are tough right now. Well, like the Israelites in the desert, you are meant to hear God’s promise in these words - he will guide you, he is leading you and he will be true to his promises in Christ.

I am the light of the world

Like us today, the Israelites would have gathered together to give thanks to God. Verse 20 gives us a clue where this happened. It says there that Jesus was teaching “in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put”, and this would have been in what was called the “Women’s Court”. This was one of the largest assembly areas in the temple. The reason why it’s called the Women’s Court is not because only women were allowed in, but that this was the furthest bit in the temple that women could advance in approaching God. Beyond this, only men were allowed; after that, only the priests; and after that, only the High Priest. The Women’s Court was this huge (about 71 squared meters) and up to six thousand men and women would pack the court on a day like this, especially on the night of the Festival of Tabernacles.

Now one further and important reason why they gathered in this court was because situated at each of the four corners of the square were four huge, ginormous lampstands that stretched up 86 feet into the air. That’s almost as high as King’s College Chapel. So you need to imagine six thousand people packed into King’s College Chapel, looking up at the four corners to these tall pillars where there would be four gigantic bowls. And as the sun set in the distance, and darkness began to creep in, these large lamps would then be lit and the night sky would suddenly be ablaze with light!

And it was then, as the thousands of worshippers were watching this spectacle, that they would have heard a voice cry out among them, saying, “I am the light of the world!”

The light of life
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.”
John 8:12

What did Jesus mean? Why did he choose this moment to draw attention to himself?

Remember: the festival was a commemoration of the Exodus, when God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. And the Israelites could visibly see God’s presence manifested in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Wherever God led them, they followed. For those forty years, he guided them in safety, he provided for them daily, until he brought them to the Promised Land.

Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” At one level, he is using the same imagery. Following Jesus means having that same experience of God’s presence and guidance. He is their light in the midst of darkness.

But Jesus actually says more. Whoever follows him will have the light of life. The contrast between light and darkness is that of life and death. To know Jesus is know life. No Jesus means no life.

It might be worth pointing out what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying that he is author of all life on earth - though that is true (John 1:3). He is not saying that we all owe our life to God - though that too, is true.

No, what Jesus is pointing out is this: We live our lives in darkness. We walk in darkness. By that, Jesus is saying that we are essentially walking in death. But Jesus has come to bring us true life. He has come as a light shining in the darkness.

But as this passage goes on to show, our first instinct is to reject this light.

The light of truth

The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”
John 8:13

The religious leaders reject Jesus’ statement. You could argue that they had a point: Jesus was making a rather wild claim. Here we are gathered for a nice celebration. We’ve brought our friends from out of town. Everyone is looking forward to the big buffet at the end of the day. We are honouring God as we are meant to. Jesus, what’s your problem? Why do you have to spoil things by stirring up trouble yet again? And what does it even mean that you’re the light of the world?

Yet notice, none of this form the basis of the Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus. They claim that his testimony isn’t true. Why? Because Jesus is appearing as his own witness. Meaning: they need more proof. Meaning: there needs to be something in addition to what Jesus has just said about himself - another witness, another voice, another perspective.

You know what? I think this is one of the most common objections I’ve heard in recent years here in Cambridge. “How can you seriously believe the bible?” And the objection is not just the bible is unreliable, but rather that the bible by itself, is insufficient for anyone to come to any conclusion about who God is or whether Jesus really existed. It is such an ancient document.

Christians are thought of as simpletons for taking the bible as truth: to consider the words written in this book as actually being inspired by God.

When what we really need to do is test it. With science. With reasoning. Perhaps even with personal insight and experience. We need to supplement the claims of the bible - perhaps even challenge them - with other sources of knowledge.

After all, don’t we have talks organised by the Christian Union of the historicity of the bible? Isn’t there important archeological evidence that supports the detailed events, dates and places recorded in books like Acts in the New Testament. Aren’t we inviting one of the foremost apologists in the world, Dr William Lane Craig next month to engage with Professor Hawking’s book, “The Grand Design”?

And yet...

And yet, as Christians we need to be clear that what we are doing is not supplementing the truth of the bible. Rather having confidence in the authenticity and sufficiency of the claims of scripture, we are able to - and even, eager to - engage with every aspect of these claims on the world. That includes science. That includes philosophy. That includes history.

But the source of that certainty and knowledge is God himself. The bible is God’s word. It is God’s self-revealing and self-authenticating word. That means to say: the only reason we can know anything about God is that he has revealed himself to us. And the bible says he has done that supremely in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

What this means practically is: the bible is complete. That’s the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture. Everything that God has to say about salvation is here. Everything that we need to know about Jesus for God to effect saving trust in him is here in this book.

And that’s what Jesus says in verse 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.”
John 8:14

The religious leaders object that Jesus is making statements about himself which cannot be verified and therefore cannot be true. But Jesus says, “Actually, I can.” In a few verses, he will appeal to their reasoning. In verse 17, Jesus will cite the Law which the Pharisees are familiar with to back his claims up. Yet it is so important for us to see that Jesus’ claims are self-authenticating; they are self-sufficient. “My testimony is valid,” Jesus says, “for I know where I came from and where I am going.” By that, Jesus isn’t simply hinting at his origins - where he came from - but pointing forward to the cross. He knows where he is headed - towards his own death. “But you have no idea,” Jesus adds. The religious leaders are clueless as to Jesus’ identity and purpose.

Yet notice how the sentence begins. “Even if,” Jesus says. He doesn’t just make a statement about himself, which in itself would have been true and valid. “Even if,” means: Jesus gives them more. More to go on. He is helping them in their unbelief to see who he truly is. Friends, that ought to amaze us.

And friends, what Jesus says next ought to humble us..

The light of judgement

“You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”
John 8:15-18

The picture is that of a law court. Words like “testimony”, “witness”, “judgement”, “truth” and “law” come together to paint a picture of judge, defendant, accuser and witnesses in a law court.

What is happening is this: Jesus is helping the religious leaders and the crowds listening to him to work out and reason through who he is and what he is really saying. He even uses their own arguments and objections to clarify their doubts.

“In your own Law,” Jesus says, referring to the Old Testament which these religious professors would have been experts in, “it is written that the testimony of two men is valid”. You guys know this is what is needed to establish authenticity and truth.

And Jesus goes on to say that he is Witness Number One. But then he calls in another witness to the stand. Jesus calls in God. “My other witness is the Father, who sent me.”

Get this: here we are picturing a scene in a law court and Jesus is the accused. God himself steps in as the witness for the accused. Who is missing? The accuser and the judge.

Verse 15 reads: “You judge by human standards; I pass judgement on no-one”. In this scenario, Jesus’ hearers are acting as judge over him and over God.

Friends, I think Jesus would say of us today: “You are making judgements on who I am when you make a judgement what I have said. You are standing in judgement over God using human standards.”

I spoke to a university student recently over the summer break. She wasn’t a stranger to church. She had been coming Sunday after Sunday since she was a little girl. Heard many sermons. Even helped out with children’s church. But God didn’t seem a priority at the moment. Not with the workload. Not with tutorials. Not with job applications after finals.

I said to her, “Every time we hear the bible read; each time the gospel is preached, we are making a judgement. Even when we walk out of the meeting and say to ourselves, ‘Oh how nice for them as Christians, but that’s not for me,’ that too, is a judgement. We are saying to God, ‘You don’t really matter to me that much. I don’t think Jesus is all that important.’”

The Pharisees had made a decision about Jesus. In their minds, he was a liar. Jesus responds by saying their verdict is not just about him. It revealed their judgement on God himself.

In verse 16, Jesus says again, “But if”. “I pass judgement on no-one. But if I do judge, me decisions are right, because I am not alone”. One day, Jesus will return to judge; he will be the Supreme Judge of all the living and the dead; that is, God will hand over all judgements to be carried out by Jesus.

But for now, Jesus stands as the true witness. He is the light of the world. He offers the light of life. He bears the evidence to the truth of his testimony. The Greek word for witness is “martur”, where we get the word “martyr”. God has sent Jesus to bear the sins of the world on the cross. It is on the cross that Jesus bears witness as the true light of salvation.

And the question is: Who do you think Jesus is? Who is he in relation to you - the light of God’s presence and salvation whom you follow wholeheartedly? Or the accused over whom you stand as judge and accuser?

The key to answering that question is to see who Jesus is in relation to God.

The light of salvation

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.”
John 8:19

The question the Pharisees pose to Jesus is “Where”. Jesus answers, “Who”.

Where is the Father, Jesus? Where is this second witness you have been raving about? We don’t see him here, do we?”

It wasn’t really a question, was it? More of an insult actually. They might have even meant to refer to Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, who would have been dead and buried by now.

Still, I wonder if they meant it as a challenge. “Show us your Father, Jesus. Then we will believe.” I don’t think they were talking about Joseph at all. They knew Jesus was referring to God as his heavenly Father. I say this because verse 20 implies they wanted to arrest him on the spot. Something Jesus said caused them so much anger; sounded so much like blasphemy; that John says in verse 20, it was surprising that no-one crucified him then and there!

What was it Jesus said that stirred up so much hate in the religious leaders towards him? Jesus gives a two-fold answer: First, he says they are clueless about who Jesus is or who God is. That’s bad enough.

But secondly, Jesus says: If you knew me, you would know my Father also. What is he saying? To know Jesus is to know God.

Remember where he is standing. It’s the Feast of the Tabernacles. They are in the temple courts. Ask anyone “Where is God?” and they will answer, “Why, God is there, of course - beyond the altar of sacrifice, behind the walls of the Holy Place, behind the curtain.” God is in his temple.

But Jesus didn’t point towards the temple. He pointed to himself. If you knew me, Jesus says, you would know God!

Isn’t that why they wanted to arrest him; why they wanted to kill him? And they eventually did kill him: Wasn’t it because Jesus clearly claimed to be God?

So, when Jesus stands and proclaims, “I am the light of the world!” What is he saying? This celebration of thanksgiving is about me! The pillar of fire in the Exodus - that is me! The light of God’s first act of creation in Genesis when God spoke and said, “Let there be light!” - that’s me! The light of the glory of God which Moses saw on the mountain in Sinai - that’s me! The light of God’s salvation - that’s me! The light of God’s word - that’s me!

If you knew me, Jesus says, you would know the Father; you would know God!
Now if Jesus does that at the Feast of Tabernacles in the temple two thousand years ago, wouldn’t you think he might do that here today? Why have we gathered for this big celebration at the Chinese Church? To eat mooncakes? (Sorry there aren’t any this year!) Might Jesus say to us: this Mid-Autumn Festival should remind us of his light of salvation?

Or might Jesus even dare to say: September 11th is not simply a reminder of the horrors that happened a decade ago - but stands as a reminder of the horrors of humanity two thousand years ago, when the Son of God bore the anger and hatred of our sins on the cross?

Jesus says, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also”. “If,” meaning: we are meant to ask the question - Do you know Jesus? If you did, you would know God.

Light of the world
You stepped down into darkness.
Opened my eyes, let me see.
Beauty that made this heart adore You
Hope of a life spent with You

Here I am to worship,
Here I am to bow down,
Here I am to say that You're my God

(“Light of the world”, Chris Tomlin)

2 comments:

ABloggerReader said...

You obviously never studied biblical scholarship. There are so many problems with the historicity of the Bible - both OT and NT. Let's just start with problems with the Gospel of John. See chapters 3 & 4 in:
http://www.theologynetwork.org/Media/PDF/David_Wenham-Johns_Gospel_Good_News_for_today.pdf
This booklet is written by an evangelical New Testament scholar.

ABloggerReader said...

After reading through David Wenham's booklets, then look at Wikipedia articles on books of the Bible, for example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorship_of_the_Petrine_epistles

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_daniel

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_hypothesis

For a historical-critical approach to the OT & NT, listen to Yale 1st year religious studies courses:

http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145

http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-152