The Light Shines
Text: John 1:1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
I think I have probably mentioned before that this particular text is one of my favorites in all of scripture. While we normally hear this text around Christmas time, I wanted to use it today because I was recently reminded of this text as we toured the Redwoods National Park in northern California recently. More about that later. The portion of the text I want to really zero in on today is actually just verse 5 – the translation that I read from is the NRSV, the New Revised Standard Version, and there it states that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
One of the things I find to be an interesting thing to do, is to take a text and read it in several different translations and see if anything jumps out at me. In this case, if you read several translations, you will get several different interpretations of the light shining in the darkness. Even though they are each a little different, as I think about each one, they are all correct. Let me see if I can explain.
The first text that I read said the darkness has not overcome the light. One of the things I think about when I hear the word overcome, is a total annihilation or complete destruction or a complete and total overwhelming of one thing over another. An image that comes to mind for me is a flash flood. The waters rise quickly and fill an area to the point of overflowing. Anything and everything in the path of the flash flood is in serious danger. This image resonates with me because one of my favorite places on planet earth so far are the slot canyons in northern Arizona. These canyons are formed by flash floods, so the image of a flash flood representing the word overcome has multiple layers of meaning for me.
Whatever image comes into your mind when you hear the word overcome is probably a good one to work with, because the point is that the light prevailed. Even in the midst of a flash flood, or completely overwhelming odds, or whatever kind of disaster you can imagine, the light prevailed, the darkness did not overcome it. And the light of Jesus continues to shine.
But that is not all. If you read the King James Version of this text, you get a slightly different take on things. In the King James it says the darkness did not comprehend it. Now that paints a little different picture. What I think of when I hear the word comprehend is entirely different than what I imagine when I hear the word overcome.
To not comprehend something creates an image in my mind of just being clueless; it’s not necessarily violent or riddled with conflict, the word creates an image of mystery in my mind. One of the things that the words “did not comprehend it” brings into my mind is the distances involved when we speak of outer space and space travel and the far reaches of our own galaxy or of those galaxies comparatively near to us. For example, this image taken from the Hubble telescope just a few weeks ago is of the Lagoon Nebula, which is about 3,000 light years from our own galaxy. Now if you try to get your mind around that number, you might get an idea of what it means to “comprehend it not.” The distance of one light year is almost incalculable; it is the speed of light, which is about 186,000 miles per second, multiplied by the number of seconds in an entire year. That number is hard enough, there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year; so if you traveled 186,000 miles every second for 31.5 million seconds, you will have traveled one light year. This image of the Lagoon Nebula is 3,000 light years away. It is a light that shines in the darkness to be sure, be we comprehend it not.
Now those of you that are here, I believe have some level of comprehension about the impact the life of Jesus has had on our world. But there are still many who are not here, and those are the ones I would say still comprehend it not. They just don’t get it. But the light of Jesus continues to shine, even in the midst of those who don’t comprehend it. But we can help, we can tell them about it.
Getting back to our multiple translations for a minute, I think we have time for one more. In the Contemporary English Version, and other translations as well, you can read John 1:5 and the words will state that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. It doesn’t seem to matter what you do, the light will always shine. This image for me conjures up weeds in the yard. It doesn’t matter what you do, it seems they always come back. You pull, you spray, you mow, you starve, you hack and weed-eat, and yet the weeds prevail. You just can’t ever seem to put them out.
By almost every measure, when Rome executed Jesus, it should have been over. Rome should have been successful in their attempt to put out the light. Yet the light prevails and the darkness has not been able to put it out. This remarkable life of Jesus can be looked at in so many ways.
All of these things came into my mind a few weeks ago as we wandered through the forest of the giant redwoods in Redwoods National Park. If you have ever been there, you might remember what it is like to get out among these giants. If you have not experienced this, it is something not to be missed.
The thing is, we almost put out the light. The greed and seduction of more money logged the redwoods to near extinction. The estimates are staggering; a full 95% of the giant redwood forest that once was, is now gone. But what has been preserved is amazing.
The struggle to save the redwoods reminded me of this passage in John. How the redwoods were not overcome by the greed and the clearcutting. They continue to shine. The redwoods were not put out by the logging, they are now protected and they continue to shine. And when you visit, and you walk into that forest for the very first time, you comprehend it not. How can a tree be so big? How can a tree be so tall? What holds them up? How is this even possible?
Just as the light and life of Jesus continues to shine in the darkness, so do the redwoods. The experience of walking into that forest and trying to comprehend what you are seeing is a mind boggling experience. But the trees stand for more than just a great tourist attraction. In my mind, the trees, like Jesus, stand for hope. The hope that good will prevail. The hope that we as human beings will learn from our past. The hope that our care for each other and our care for God’s creation will increase. The hope that each of us has the potential to stand as tall as a redwood. The hope that we can draw strength and wonder from what we observe around us. And the hope that in spite of incredible odds, the trees will remain and the light will continue to shine.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not put it out. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.
For me, the experience of the redwoods confirms all I believe to be true about the life and light of Jesus. The experience of the redwoods also confirms for me, all I believe to be true about this church as well. This church is a light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not overcome it nor will it be put out.
As we wandered the trails in the giant redwood forest, as you might imagine, I took a few pictures. It is a frustrating subject matter for a photographer, because try as you might, one cannot communicate the experience visually. The task is just too big. But you can try, so I wanted to share a few minutes of the giant redwoods with you at this time.