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A sermon given January 17, 2010 at the Alafia River Rendezvous

Jefferson's LanternSeveral years ago, I spotted a lantern in a catalog. My wife had remembered me talking about it and behold one Christmas, a copper lantern appeared under our tree. This lantern I have right here. The lantern came from the Monticello Foundation, a group that has restored and maintains the home of Thomas Jefferson. The lantern was described as a copy of one found on Thomas Jefferson’s estate. It is large, 16 inches high, 8 inches wide and 5 inches deep, with a nice handle. To me, this lantern is more than a light, it is truly a thing of beauty. So out I went on my next Alafia experience and I was sure that I had the best lantern here. But I was quick to learn much more about lanterns and of course, much more about Thomas Jefferson and our God. So today, I bring you the message from Thomas Jefferson’s lantern.

Our modern world is changing all of the time. People can easily lose the subtle intent of history’s examples that were so evident long ago. Living as our ancestors did, Alafia offers each of us insight into history in a unique way. We understand life’s struggles not BY reading about them in a book but by living them. This problem of understanding grows even more difficult, the farther back into history we go and the more modern our lives become. Have you wondered why the Bible is sometimes hard to understand? Well, to the people living 6,000 years ago, life was very, very different. Let me use King David’s Psalm 119:105-106 as an example:

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.

On the surface, the psalmist, David, is saying that God’s Words, the Bible, is a guide just like a light. Specifically, he says it’s a lamp. In David’s day, it would have been very much like this lantern, a small single flame flickering in the breeze. David takes an oath and affirms his intent to uphold his oath and then follow the rules, God’s rules. We have come to know those rules as the Bible. But today, who walks with a lamp, a lantern? Well, you the people of Alafia do and that gives you the opportunity to go back in time and understand the mind of King David and that experience will help you to understand more about your God.

When you walk about the 323 acres here at night, lighting your way is done by simple candle light. When I saw this lantern in the Monticello catalog, it seemed perfect to blend in with my pre-1840 persona. Copper is also like a good bottle of wine. It mellows well with time and that is definitely a goal I have set for myself, get better with age. If you add to that the fact that I especially love the night time here, to wander and listen to the music, to look up at the heavens and stars, to hear the distant drumming of the Metis’. It is one reason why it is so easy to slip back in time. I found myself wondering whether our great leader Jefferson might have taken a late night walk, maybe to clear his thoughts when he was authoring that most famous document, “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” We know that Jefferson played the violin to help words flow from thought to paper. A nice evening walk with a copper lantern could have been just as effective as music. Having this lantern led me to want to learn more about Jefferson and, of course, take more evening walks at Alafia.

Isn’t that how a person’s knowledge grows? It starts from some innocent event like getting a Christmas gift, creates a curiosity and before you know it, this Lantern becomes the basis for a Sunday’s sermon. As I learned more about Thomas Jefferson, I found out that he had made an attempt to write his own Bible. After writing an early draft, Jefferson arranged selected verses from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order, mingling excerpts from one text to those of another in order to create a single narrative. Thus Jefferson begins with Luke chapter 2 and Luke chapter 3, and then follows with Mark chapter 1 and Matthew chapter 3. He provides a record of which verses he selected and of the order in which he arranged them. Here is Thomas Jefferson’s Bible and here is the Bible of the times, the 1611, the one the people of the 18th century were reading, including Thomas Jefferson. Quite a difference in size isn’t there.

What you may not know is that the title, “The Thomas Jefferson Bible” is something modern society added to his book. Jefferson’s original title was “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Yes, the man who could envision what would become the greatest country in recorded history also envisioned that all of the Word of God could be distilled to the simple story about our Savior. Jefferson copied the Scriptures that documented who Jesus was, why Jesus came and how Jesus lived. Now I hold a copy of Jefferson’s lantern in one hand and Jefferson’s Bible in the other. Are you curious to see what history can teach us about what God meant way back when David, and our Apostles walked this earth? I sure was.

Have you ever walked at night with a lantern? Well, the first thing I learned about the Monticello Lantern is that it has a mirror in the back and the lantern is shaped in a triangle. Candle light reflects off the mirror through the glass and is projected forward. Notice also that the handle of the lantern was placed so that you could not hang it on a wall. It is 90 degrees in the wrong direction for hanging. So the Jefferson created his lantern to hold in his hand. As he walked, the mirror projected the light forward toward his destination. Yes, Jefferson’s lantern is an Early American flashlight.

From this design, we get a clue about our God. Jefferson’s lantern is such that you cannot see where you came from but only where you are about to go. The light from the candle is used to move you toward a destination and it is not diluted on reflecting back at where one may have come from. You know, the light is focused on the journey ahead.

This first point is also a basic element in the doctrine of the Christian faith. We have been forgiven for all we have done. As Christians, we do not have to earn our way into eternal life – is a free gift, given to those with Faith. The prophet Isaiah gives us a message directly from God to help us understand this better:
“I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins. Put Me in remembrance; let us contend together; state your case, that you may be acquitted.” Isaiah 43:25-26

Through the prophet Isaiah, God is reminding us that when we are truly repentant, when we “state our case to God,” God not only forgives, He FORGETS! God says He forgets for His sake, and that allows us to live in perfect fellowship with Him. It does not matter where any of us have been, it does not matter what any of us have done, it does not matter that any of us are imperfect and will fail again. What matters is that we ASK GOD FOR HIS FORGIVENSS and our God has promised to always grant it.

I want to read that part of God’s promise again because it is easy to miss. “I will not remember your sins.” This does not say I will “forgive” you, it does not say I will “try” to forget what you have done but if you screw up again, I will bring your past up again and really give it to you. It says, “I will not remember your sins.” This is such a hard concept for us as humans to understand because no matter how hard we try, we can’t do this. Trust me; any married person knows that there is no such thing as a spouse not remembering what you did wrong. But our good news is that God forgets so perfectly it is exactly as if we never did anything wrong, just like it never happened and it will never be held against us now or in the future. God wants us to be just like the mirror in that lantern, focusing ourselves forward toward Him and not looking back. How about a big Halleluiah!

Could Thomas Jefferson’s belief in God and his understanding of this lantern influence the formation of this country? I don’t know that answer. But when Thomas Jefferson penned our Declaration, he did so with a forward vision of creating a nation of free people, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness. You pursue Jefferson’s dream not by living in the past, but by looking to the future. Jefferson and the other 55 signers of our Declaration closed out their thoughts with this last sentence: And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. There is no more forward reaching pledge that a human can make than to rely on God and be willing to give their life, their wealth and their honor so their families and countrymen can look forward to being a free people.

There is more knowledge that comes from this lantern. The second thing you learn when you walk with a light, with only one candle in power, is that you can only see a few feet ahead. You never really see your destination until you arrive. A simple lantern only lights up enough of the darkness to guide your next few steps. This is enough, however, because you should always be looking immediately in front of you anyway. Now let’s consider why this is true – Alafia has probably over a 1,000 tents; most of these tents have stakes and ropes that stick out to hold them down in the wind. If I conservatively estimate maybe 25 to 50 stakes per tent, this adds up to tens of thousands of stakes and ropes everywhere you walk. And the truth of the matter is that one of those stakes always seems to want to jump out and snare your leg, especially in the dark. I think I have personally found at least half of your tent stakes myself.

Those ropes and stakes are not unlike the hazards that befall our human plight. We are here on earth, being tempted by things that seem to jump out and grab us, ensnare us. Before we know it, we are face down in the dirt. Remember the story of David and Bathsheba? One afternoon King David was just gazing out his palace window and before he knew it, one of those “tent ropes” was bathing in his view. King David tripped hard: adultery, murder, deceit to name a few.
However, a night time walk with just one good candle in your lantern will give off adequate light for any journey and each step can be taken in safety. Look out too far into the darkness and the rope right next to your foot will entrap you. That is what our walk of faith is all about – a thousand careful small steps guiding each of us safely to our eternal destination. But even as hard as King David fell, his repentance and love for God was sufficient to receive God’s forgiveness and God’s forgetfulness. David went on to be a good king for his people and it is from David’s lineage that God chose to send us our Savior.

And like all of my Sunday messages here at Alafia, I have a third and final point. But I need to ask you this question first: What is the source of light in life? What kind of candle do you have in your lantern? Is it a good beeswax candle that burns long and does not drip or is it a cheap substitute, smoky, quick to drip and consumed before your walk is over? The perfect candle, the perfect source of light must be our Savior, Jesus Christ. The light of mankind today can found in John 1:4-5:

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

Have you ever wondered how a little candle, just one tiny flame can overcome the darkness that befalls over 300 acres? Yes, that little flickering light cannot be overcome by the darkness. The lantern light always wins. And that is the greatest lesson of them all. You see, the Apostle John was trying to tell us that Christ is the light of men and he meant our candle light for our journey. Christ cannot be overcome by the darkness of the world. Not only does the lantern always win, Christ always wins. And this my brothers and sisters is why we place our faith and hope in our Savior. This is why Thomas Jefferson thought Chris’s life was so important. Jesus will always be the light that shines in the darkness, lighting up for each of us the next step we need to take so that the “tent stakes” of the world do not entrap us.

I would hope that you never look at a lantern the same again after today. My hope for each of you is to see the “Light of men” in every flickering candle.