Headlights, Taillights, and the Light of the World

Posted: March 30, 2011 in Sermons
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Sermon for April 3, 2011 at Temple Lutheran Church.
Scripture text: Ephesians 5:8–14 and John 9:1-11.
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Jesus speaks those words as he encounters a man blind from birth.

Everyone else, including even Jesus’ disciples, are concerned with determining how sin created the man’s blindness: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus didn’t seem much concerned with the question. He said the answer was “neither” and made it clear that he was more interested in God’s works being revealed. And then Jesus spat on the ground, made some mud, rubbed it on the blind man’s eyes, and sent him off to wash. When the man came back, he could see. The others were concerned about how the man came to be blind. They were concerned with understanding the way things came to be this way. Jesus is more interested in making something new. The others looked at the present as the result of the past while Jesus looked at the present as the key to the future. And in the middle of all of that, right before he spits on the ground, Jesus says,”As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Light is a significant theme in the gospel of John. The opening paragraphs in chapter 1 are all about light coming into the world. As the story of Jesus unfolds, It’s about Jesus bringing light into the world and the resulting struggle of the light coming into the world, but people still loving darkness. In this passage, Jesus comes right out and makes light his mission: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Jesus came to be light—to bring light into the world.

In other places in scripture, Jesus makes it clear that we are a part of that mission. Jesus not only says “I am the Light of the world,” but “You are the light of the world” followed by the words spoken to each of us as we are baptized: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Jesus makes us a part of that mission—Jesus calls us to be light. That invitation is reflected in our reading from Ephesians: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.” Because of Jesus, we are light!

“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light — for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”

We are invited—called by Jesus—to be light; To live as children of light. As we gather together as a community of people following Jesus, the question I invite us to wrestle with is are we going to be headlights or taillights? I can’t take credit for the distinction—I came across it this week as I was reading. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that first talked about headlights and taillights in this manner. It got me thinking about headlights and taillights on a car and how they are both lights that shine in the darkness, but that they shine in different ways and in different directions.


Taillights are there to communicate what the car is doing. They send the message “here is where the car is at.” They shine brightest when the brakes are engaged; they light up when forward motion is slowed down. Taillights shine backwards.

Headlights, however, shine forward. Placed at the very front of the vehicle, they shine forward into the darkness.

Headlights do not simply indicate where the car is at, but illuminate the road ahead to determine where the car can go. Headlights expose things that are hidden by darkness so that the car can be moved in a direction that is good, right and true. Headlights don’t light up when forward motion is slowed down, headlights shine in order to make forward motion possible.

Dr. King lamented that Christians and churches were too often merely being a taillight for our society instead of a headlight shining at the forefront and illuminating the way forward toward God’s promised land. He described “a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading [people] to higher levels of justice.”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be light. The words that Dr. King wrote from a jail cell in Alabama are not too far removed from the words that define baptism for us. Every baptized person is claimed not only by God, but also by a community—by followers of Jesus called to be light. The community promises to include that person “so that they may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”

In Jesus, God comes into our world. God comes into your own reality—your very own life—and brings light into darkness. Jesus steps in and makes a new life possible for you. It is no less dramatic than if you were blind since the moment you were born sitting in darkness listening once again listen to voices judging you as they asked each other what sin created you blindness.

And then you hear the sound of someone spitting on the ground.

And then you feel a hand rubbing mud on your blind eyes and sending you to the water—and as you wash you receive your sight. You receive a new life.

Others may be concerned about how you came to be blind, but Jesus is more interested in making something new. Others might look at the present as the result of your past, but Jesus looks at the present as the key to your future.

Jesus brings you light so that you can be light. Not a taillight that shines backwards, but a headlight that shines forward for the purpose of finding what is good and right and true. A headlight that “proclaims Christ through word and deed, cares for others and the world God made, and works for justice and peace.”

Jesus brings you light so that you can be light—so that you can shine forward with the good news of the gospel. (amen)

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