Advent 4 December 18, 2016


The Enlightenment of the World

John 8:12

Scripture Readings

Isaiah 7:10-14
Luke 1:26-38


66:1-4, Worship Supplement 705 (alt. TLH 69), WS 703 (alt. TLH 72), 66:5

Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”

If someone told you that we are living in an enlightened society, what would you say? When you trace the history of our nation to its founding, you may find that this is exactly the way people saw it. The American Revolution of the 18th c. was seen as just that: a pursuit of a more enlightened world; a world that was governed by reason, science, and rational ideas. Men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, founded this country on what they saw as enlightened principles. Ideas like democracy, education, freedom, and individualism formed the basis for many to leave Europe and take up the cause of these United States. And we see it still today. When our politicians and other world leaders address global issues, it is usually in these same terms: a democratic world, a free world, a world where every individual has a choice. They speak of bringing all nations to see the light to discover a better way. In many ways, we could say that this pursuit is still alive and active, the pursuit of an enlightened world.

But is this how Jesus sees things? When He said, “I am the light of the world,” was He thinking of the pursuit of democracy and individual freedoms? Today, we kindle the light. We discover the true light which illumines our world, our hearts, our steps, and our Christmas. Today we will take up that 18th century concept: “Enlightenment” and discover what truly enlightens the world, namely, Jesus Christ.

The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries began among Protestant Christians. It began as a reaction to religious intolerance and arbitrary rules. In France during the 1680’s, for instance, you had basically three choices: become Catholic, go to prison, or flee the country. The leading figures in the Church were seen as those who wore a disguise. There were many who seemed to think that once they donned the black cloth or the royal crown, they were exempt from the same expectations of common people. They applied the rules of law to others, but not to themselves. It was an arbitrary authority. And whoever would seek to take off their mask would be forcibly silenced. There was good reason to unmask them, for they were clouding the truth of the Gospel in darkness.

So it was then, and so it was in Jesus’ day. However, Jesus would use his silence to unmask them. In the Gospel of John, we see how tensions between Jesus and the religious authorities has been building. They are convinced Jesus is the hypocrite, not them. Jesus is deceiver. In chapter 8, they seek to unmask Him.

The scribes and Pharisees find a woman, one of a poor reputation. They have caught her and so they will catch Jesus. They have caught her in the act of adultery, and will use this to lead Jesus into a trap. They drag this adulterer before Jesus, saying, Teacher, according to the Law of Moses, she ought to be stoned. What do you say? If He responds no, He will contradict the law; if He responds yes, He will be seen as unmerciful and the people will not favor Him. But Jesus just remains silent, writing something in the sand with His finger. After asking Him again, He responds, and with a word, He reveals His true face and unmasks theirs. Whoever among you has no sin, let him take up the first stone. And all falls silent.

Jesus has identified their hypocrisy. They were using the law to promote themselves and control others. This selfish thinking is not how the law functions. This is darkness and all who follow this thinking walks in darkness. To use the law as a means to compare ourselves with others, or to serve yourself at the expense of others, is to wear a mask. It is a mask which blinds us to what is really going on: that we are the real sinners who cover up what we don’t want others to see. We look at others through our masks, relieved that we are not like those Pharisees; relieved that we are not like that woman. Who among us is ready to pick up the first stone?

All is silent. Jesus leaves us in silence, dropping our stones at our feet. And there He is. Will we go to Him or flee from Him? He says, I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of enlightenment. After all, it was this pursuit of knowledge that led protestant Christians of the 18th century to resist religious intolerance and promote individual freedoms of knowing and speaking. They recognized the Pharisees‘ masks and wanted to discover for themselves what was true and right about God. It is not enough for you simply to believe what your church teaches because “my pastor says so.” So the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it: “dare to know.”

It was this “dare to know” attitude that led to many important discoveries in the realms of science and politics, inventions and democracy. The pursuit of the enlightened world was driven by the use of reason. Along with the benefits of the use of reason, also came its pitfalls. The problem with the Enlightenment was, it didn’t know where to stop. Reason will just keep going. It will never rest or find comfort with not knowing or proving. It will always want to take another step. And that next step may be right into the pit.

Immanuel Kant argued that those who do not use their reason to guide them are like cattle led about by a rope. If you were to let go of that rope, the cattle won’t know where to go, because they have been trained to rely on the rope. Kant argues that humans are shackled in the same way. And although removing the shackles is easily done, taking those first steps is not so easy. That first leap over such a narrow ditch becomes uncertain, since he is not used to this freedom of movement.

What Kant is suggesting is this: if only we can learn to take that first step, we will learn how easily this freedom of reason will move us. But where does that next step take you? And the next? And where does it stop? The problem with the enlightened view of reason is it doesn’t know where to stop.

Take, for example, a protestant Christian who seeks reform. He is interested in reforming the church. He want to restore a right view of the Scriptures and God, and to purge the church of her oppressive tyrants. So his reason tells him to join the revolution and overthrow those who are causing this corruption and persecution. But in doing so, he begins to wonder why the Christian God should prevail? How should he know that the religion these leaders promoted is not as corrupt as they are? Why should another not take its place? And his reason tells him that God would not be limited to just one religion. He knows there is a maker of all things. That is true. But he has never seen him, and cannot say which God he is. Nor has he ever seen a miracle or spirits or demons. So he decides that what he can see, test, and prove will be true, and he limits his thoughts to only what his senses can detect. All that is left for him is matter. His reason tells him that all that can be known is what can be measured. So God, if He exists, must be made up of all matter. God is everything, and knowing Him is to know science. But why the need for God at all? If He does not govern or rule us, then there is no need for Him. And his reason tells him, there is no God, there is only reason. As one document from the 1740’s put it: “In the place of God, we should put civil society, the only deity we will recognize on earth” (Le Philosophe).

With just a few steps, he has gone from Protestant reformer to diest to panthiest to athiest. This is where reason will take us if left unbound. The pursuit of a more enlightened world becomes an endless pursuit of ourselves. Once that beast is loosed, it does not know where to stop; it will come this way and that. When it comes to an obstacle such as sin, it will only turn the other way and move on until all that is left is the herd of cattle with no one guiding them. Pretty soon, there are no miracles. There is no devil. There is nothing to be believed. And Christmas becomes about nothing more than pursuing a peaceful world, a better society, and the freedom of democracy. A shining beacon of civil society, yes, but this in the place of the true light of Christmas.

Back to John, chapter 8. They had come to that obstacle with Jesus. They were confronted with the most important question of whether or not He is God and the Savior of the world. They could not come to agreement. So Jesus says, Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe. Even after they had seen the miracles themselves, they were still divided. But one thing remained true for them all—Jesus confronted them with the obstacle of their sin.

They had come to an impasse. He who is without sin, pick up the first stone. All was silent. Slowly, they walked away, one by one. They were convicted by their conscience. They didn’t want to see what is right in front of them. Reason tells them to move on and find another way. They wandered off in darkness.

But not all. One remains. There is still one left before Jesus, when all the others have walked away. And it is the one caught in sin.

Jesus looks up. All have left. He sees only you. Only you are left, the one who has been caught, convicted, and who knows the darkness within, who knows the bondage of the flesh. He stands up. Where are those who accused you? Has no one condemned you? In that moment you know He is the only one who could pick up that stone and condemn you of sin. You are at his mercy.

He says to you, Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. This is freedom. THIS is enlightenment. The Holy Spirit has enlightened you with the gospel. The gospel needs no earthly authority, for it is the word of Christ and that is enough. It need not agree with your reason, for it is to be believed and not reasoned. You see the light that shines from Bethlehem.

Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.

Enlightenment is not the result of an unbounded use of reason; it is a gift of faith. It is a light that shines where it cannot be seen. From the darkness of condemnation this light leads us out. It shines from the darkness of the cross. From the darkness of the grave it brings us light. From the manger in Bethlehem, a light shines for all the world. For where Jesus is, there is light.

John 3:19-21 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.

Jesus is the Enlightenment of the World. Amen.

—Pastor David L.W. Pfeiffer

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