John 1:9-18 January 3, 2021
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
We’ve had wonderful celestial lights in this solstice season of long nights and short days. I was awakened by the big full moon, glowing yellow and orange as it sets in the morning sky. The planets in our solar system aligned for the first time in 800 years. It recalls the magi’s story as a bright star aligned to guide them toward a newborn king. We look up at the heavenly lights in wonder, searching for astrological signs from the gods which will tell us who we are and what will happen next. We see constellations, stories, patterns, comets and speculate what it all means. The starry heavens provide more profound stability beyond our anxious days. Mariners found the stars to be dependable to guide their journey. We are told to reach for the stars, wish upon a star, be guided by their patterned movements.
But what happens when the stars don’t seem to tell us anything? Clouds can block our view for days. Our modern world is hazy and streetlights obscure the heavenly glow. We now know that some of those stars twinkling in the sky are already dead and burned out. They are so far away their light took years to reach us. Even the star over Bethlehem wasn’t perfect. It guided the wise man straight to Herod and tipped him off about Jesus, the newborn king. That miscalculation was deadly for many families around Bethlehem. I love the wonder of the stars, but I often need something earthly and near to me to light my way.
A 19th-century passenger wrote about the monotony of a five-week journey by ship across the Atlantic. On a dark and foggy night, their boat neared America, and they feared crashing against the rocky shore. Finally, a single light pierced the darkness on the horizon. As they got closer, they saw that it was not a star, but a lighthouse. The passenger wrote, “At the sight of the light, we threw ourselves on our knees and gave thanks to God.” The light guided them safely into the harbor.
Not all those early voyages, however, ended so well. According to the book America’s Maritime Heritage, “In olden times, many a ship was navigated safely across the ocean, only to be wrecked as it tried to make port. The most dangerous part of an ocean trip was the last few miles, as a ship approached and finally sighted land.” A ship is just as likely to reach land at night as during the day. What stops you from just running into the shore? The outer banks of North Carolina off Cape Hatteras is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The shallow waters are the intersection where the cold North Atlantic meets the warm Gulf current. Wikipedia estimates 5000 shipwrecks off this coast.
The 19th century became the great era of the lighthouse. Nearly 700 lighthouses were built along the American coastline, guiding hundreds of ships to safe harbor and saving thousands of lives. Lighthouses are emblematic of coastal New England. Can you guess the state with the largest number of lighthouses? I might think it is Maine or Massachusetts, but it’s Michigan. Its coastline stretches along four Great Lakes for over 3000 miles, whereas Maine to Miami is just over 2000 miles. If you look at a map of Michigan lighthouses lining the shore, you can imagine that there is no way to be out of sight of their bright beam.
Lighthouses fascinated me this week, thinking about lights shining in the night and the light of Christ coming into the world. Lighthouses are the remarkable human adaption to safely guide us when the sun, moon, and stars can’t help us. The heavenly lights may give us wonder and inspiration, but we also need an earthly light to guide us through the real world of jagged shorelines. The lighthouse is a metaphor for the incarnation of the heavenly light being made known in human form. The Gospel writers may have never seen a lighthouse, though Rome did build about 70 fire towers around the Mediterranean. They may have heard of Alexandria’s great lighthouse, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, constructed about three centuries before Jesus. It stood about 15 stories of a modern building in height, and guided ships into the harbor at night. Alexandria became a powerful trade center and as the lighthouse stood for over 1000 years until an earthquake toppled it.
If the author of John’s Gospel had sailed into Alexandria at night, he would have included this lighthouse as a metaphor for Jesus as the incarnation of the light of God coming into the world. The first chapter of John’s Gospel is meant to draw us from the universe’s cosmic origin story, beginning in the being of God, brought down to earth. John begins with the same words that start the Bible, “In the beginning…” The first act of God in Genesis is to speak a word, “Let there be light.” Creation starts with turning on the light. John says this creative word, the source of all that is, was always with God and is now revealed again in one time, one place, one person, born of Mary, the cosmic word alive with all that newborn smell. This baby is the light shining again in the world, a continuing act of creation.
In John 8:12, Jesus, now all grown up, says, “I am the light of the world.” I was curious about the context of this saying, so I read verses 1-11. It is the story of a woman caught in adultery who is about to be stoned to death. Jesus says whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. They all slink away because it would be blasphemy to say they were without sin. Jesus then says to her,
10 “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
The next words out of Jesus’s mouth are, “I am the light of the world.” I don’t think these words are a random placement. The light of Christ doesn’t only make us intellectually enlightened, or holy, or morally perfect. His light just stopped mob violence. The light is to protect us from our worst impulses, to destroy one another, from hurting those whom we love, or whom we hate. Just like a lighthouse protects a ship from the rocky shores, Jesus’s love shined to warn people from doing something dangerous and deadly in their moral outrage. The story is so powerful even today, because the predictable outcome of people’s anger is to scapegoat women and other vulnerable people and inflict their wrath upon them. Sometimes all it takes is one person who is willing to act as a lighthouse and turn people away from their violent fury.
Lighthouses exist at the intersection of wonder and danger. They sit at some of the most beautiful places on earth, on the rocky coasts, with front row seats to the gorgeous sunrises flaming forth from the ocean. But they aren’t put there for the landscapes. Their purpose is to guard against danger. That is where they need to be to save lives. It’s the same with Jesus. He began and ended his life at the places of danger and suffering. He was born into a world that had no place for him, in a manger—born into a conquered land on the edges of the Roman Empire. Rome took his life in the most inhumane way possible, execution on a cross. His beautiful life was lived in the most dangerous spaces.
“The true light, that enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” We are a church because the light needs a lighthouse Lighthouses need brave keepers. The task isn’t just being a part of the quaint New England landscape. Lightkeepers must be vigilant to shine the light at all times because the danger is always present. They must endure long loneliness and boredom while keeping watch. Then when disaster strikes, they must be ready to be bold and brave.
Grace Darling was one of the most famous heroines of 19th century England, a teenager whose father operated a lighthouse in the Farne Islands. In the early morning watch, she saw a ship foundered on the rocks of a nearby island, broken in half, and a few struggling survivors. When Grace told her father, he thought it was too dangerous to row out in the choppy sea, but she convinced him. Together they rowed a mile through perilous waters to the shipwreck and saved nine people of the crew of 63. Her bravery was celebrated in poetry by Wordsworth and in paintings, and she received awards. But she did it because she valued human life and was willing to take risks to save others. That is the job if you are a lightkeeper.
Friends, we too are lighthouse keepers, here in our wonderful little outpost. I pray that we too may be watchful, faithfully vigilant, and brave in the face of peril, ever shining light to guide everyone home through the dangers. Amen.