The difference between night and day is exactly that: a proverbial expression of contrast; as in, “the two of them were as different as night and day.” In order to paint a picture, our language draws on one of the most immediate and obvious contrasts from the natural world, one that we’re reminded of every twelve hours of so. “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down” (Eccles. 1:5), the author of Ecclesiastes put it, allowing Ernest Hemingway a chance to borrow some ancient wisdom from the Hebrews in titling his novel. The book Genesis makes the creation of light and its separation from darkness the starter gun in the story of creation. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light… And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:3,5).
Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, from our reading today, draw from this tradition of reflection on the diurnal round. In John’s Gospel, light and darkness are a major theme, drawing on the tradition of ancient Israel. It begins, in the first chapter, with this riff on the creation story, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jo. 1:5). Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is the light of the world, by which the heavens and the earth were made, and (as the first chapter says) in him is life. As Jesus says a little later, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jo. 8:12).
More is going on here than commonplace instruction about the best time of day to make your way in the world. These natural terms of night and day lend themselves to the great theme of salvation, life snatched out of death, that is at the heart of the good news. When Jesus appears on Easter Day, in the full light of day, he has emerged from the darkness of the tomb. Not only him, but us as well. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jo. 3:16). Death could not hold him, as St. Peter says in the second chapter of Acts; and because it could not keep him bound, it will not bind us. To live is to walk in the light that the darkness of death cannot overcome.
There is a moral dimension to this, as well, bearing on the way we live our lives. By “moral” I mean the trajectory of our lives: where we’re headed and how we get there. It’s possible to simply drift through life, to sleepwalk our way through it, but that doesn’t really come up to the mark. By casting our lives in terms of darkness and light, in these elemental features of the natural world, Jesus is inviting us to take our lives seriously, as means of blessing or curse, darkness or light.
Jesus has come as light into the world, so that we need not walk in the darkness. What does it mean to live without light? Well, impossible to see ahead; hard to see what’s around us; easy to stumble and fall. It’s much easier to get lost in the darkness, which is why our primitive ancestors kept close to the fire. The light of Christ is meant to lighten our path. Whatever our trajectory, whatever our direction in life, Jesus is the light of the world.
In preaching on this text centuries ago, St. Augustine offered these words to his congregation in North Africa. “Jesus has awakened in us a great longing for… his presence; but it is by daily growth that we acquire it; it is by walking that we grow, and it is by forward efforts that we walk, so as to be able at last to attain it” (Tract. 54). These words today are addressed to all of us, and to our confirmands as well, as we choose a direction and chart a course. Jesus is the light of the world, and it’s up to us to walk in the light.