November 3, 2013

That the World May Know

Now that we are past Halloween, we are officially and fully into the retail Christmas season.  All the shelves that have been holding candy and Halloween decorations have been cleared out and are now filled with Christmas decorations of various kinds.  Have you noticed how Christmas decorations each year seem to get more and more over the top?  I was curious the other day and went to the official Richmond.com website for the tacky lights tour.  When we went four Christmases ago with Noah there were three or four tour routes you could take, one at each of the cardinal directions on their respective sides of Richmond.  The site done up for last year revealed 19 different tour routes, some small, some large, that could be mixed and matched to custom design your own tour.  Our own Church Road tacky lights neighborhood up the road seems to keep getting more and more garish each year to the delight of everyone except perhaps the neighbors who haven’t yet gotten in on the fun.  The other day I was in Lowe’s and saw a 14-foot inflatable polar bear.  It was awesome…in anybody’s yard but mine.  But in all playfulness, going around to see these various houses that must be nearly visible from outer space is a lot of fun.  We are drawn to their lights, particularly on dark, cold nights in late December, like proverbial moths to proverbial flames (although I suppose real ones would suffice just as well).

When I was in high school, while the whole tacky lights trend hadn’t really caught on just yet, there was one house a couple of blocks over from my parents’ that stood out but for a slightly different reason.  Each and every year at Christmastime the owner of the house went out to the 50-60 foot radio tower in his backyard, climbed to the top, and hung a star that would be illuminated each night for the whole month of December.  This star was visible from a distance of several blocks.  People from all over the neighborhood looked forward to seeing this star each year.  It proclaimed a message from a height that simply could not be ignored.

You see, much like both proverbial and real moths, we are drawn to light.  We were not made for the dark.  If we are in the dark and detect some light we very naturally move in that direction.  There’s something attractive about light itself that seems to invite us to move in its direction even if the distance seems great.  When I wake up in the morning and it’s still dark outside and inside, even the tiniest mote of light immediately draws my eyes which yearn desperately to soak up enough of the photons to be able to tell whether or not I’m putting toothpaste on my toothbrush or Lisa’s.  We need light.  Fortunately, in a world that is dark there is one who is the light of the whole world.  And yet, He is no longer present.  This presents no barrier to the world’s having enough light to see for instead of one single beacon shining in the darkness, now there are millions and millions of points of light, all working together to make sure that the world is effervescent with light.  The reason for this can be traced to a declaration made by Jesus, the light of the world, in His most famous sermon.

Well, this morning we get to do something really exciting.  I look forward to this service every single year.  This morning we get to commission another Friends of Barnabas Team for the work they will do in Honduras over the next week and a half.  You may not realize it, but over the past few years as a church we have become the primary sending body for this particular mission team.  Therefore, it really is our pleasure and frankly duty to properly commission them for the service they are about to do and send them on their way in grand fashion.  And as I thought and prayed about where to focus our attention this morning, some number of months ago I opted to narrow in on a comment Jesus made near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  As it turned out, the Spirit was moving because Sandra was independently planning for this morning from her end, she was leaning in the same direction.  You’ll see the evidence of that in a little while.  For now, though, if you have your Bible handy, find your way to Matthew 5.

When Matthew was putting together his reflections on his time with Jesus, he organized his narrative around five teaching blocks.  The first, longest, and most famous of these we call the Sermon on the Mount because, well, it happened up on a mountain and Bible scholars aren’t very creative about naming Bible passages.  Now, this wasn’t the only time Jesus said these things, but this was when He put them all together in one total package like this.  Together, the various teachings of the Sermon on the Mount present what is sometimes called the ethic of Jesus or the Kingdom Manifesto of Jesus.  If someone is going to be a Jesus follower—the same Jesus whose primary message while He was on earth was that the kingdom of God had come—there’s really not a single other block of teaching that, if followed well, would set them more successfully down that path than this one.

This most famous sermon by Jesus came fairly near the beginning of His ministry.  He was still fairly fresh off His time of temptation by Satan in the desert.  He had only recently settled on the twelve men who would be His closest followers.  He had done a few miracles and a host of healings and so was attracting a pretty healthy following, but He hadn’t yet sketched out exactly what His deal was.  Who was this new teacher?  What did He believe?  They say he had a special connection to God, but how would He handle the Law, especially some of the thornier places that much more famous rabbis like Hillel and Shammai had debated for generations?   What did He expect from His followers?  Who was this Jesus?

These were the kinds of questions that at least some in the crowds following Jesus around were hoping to get answered.  (The rest were merely curiosity seekers.)  Seeing these crowds, Matthew writes, Jesus went up on a mountain and sat down—the posture of a teacher.  When He did, His disciples came around Him as did, no doubt, the crowds.  Then Jesus opened His mouth and began to teach.  What came next has quite literally changed the world.  It’s the reason the slave trade ended in the British Empire.  It’s the reason India is an independent nation.  It’s the reason we no longer have officially sanctioned segregation in this country.  And while the whole sermon is worthy of the great deal of attention it has received over the centuries, I want to focus in on something Jesus says near the beginning.  After a prologue in which He pronounced blessed a whole number of different kinds of people with whom we would not normally associate blessing, Jesus makes two statements that I think serve as a kind of interpretive lens for the main body of the sermon that follows.  He first says that His followers are the salt of the earth.  Now there are many uses for salt today, but in that culture there was one that was primary: food preservation.  Salt kept food from spoiling.  If salt lost its saltiness food would spoil and people would die.  So Jesus’ followers are to serve as a kind of preservative for this world.  They, we, are to keep it from ruin.  The second thing Jesus says actually serves as a how-to for the first thing.  How do we preserve the world?  This is where I want to focus the rest of our attention for this morning.  Find Matthew 5:14 in your Bibles and take a look at this with me.

Jesus, sitting on this hillside surrounded by His disciples and a great crowd of people, some of whom really were interested in what He had to say, looked at this ragtag group and said, “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Alright, let’s think for just a minute about what Jesus says here.  He looks at this group of people who would later turn on Him, betray Him, abandon Him, totally misunderstand Him, and He said to them: You are the light of the world.  He didn’t say, “You will be the light of the world when I’m finished with you.”  Neither did He say, “If you work hard enough you might possibly be the light of the world.”  He had no intention of communicating, “If you’re good enough maybe some folks will be able to see by you.”  He didn’t even say, “There are a bunch of different lights out there, all shining in their own special way and you are one of them.”  And He definitely wasn’t thinking, “If you go to seminary and get into full time ministry, then you will really be the light of the world.”  None of that.  He simply looked at this group of people who were following Him—most of them poorly—and said, “You are the light of the world.”

Okay so that’s what Jesus said, but let’s go just a bit deeper on this.  What does light do?  Well, I have a chemistry background so I spent some time dealing with light in my schooling.  The truth is that light does a whole lot of different things.  But there are a couple that I think are most important.  First, light allows us to see.  Now in one sense that’s a no-brainer.  Of course we can’t see without light!  Why would Jesus make such a pedestrian point?  Well, I’m thinking perhaps just a bit more literally than some of you are.  Physically speaking, without light we cannot see.  The way our vision works is that a particle of light called a photon bounces off something in our field of vision, travels through our pupil, and strikes a light-sensitive membrane in the back of our eye called the retina.  The retina converts the photon of light into an electrical signal that transfers to our brain’s visual receptors and registers in our minds as a picture.  So again, without the photons of light there is nothing to strike our retinas and vision can’t happen.  Light allows us to see what’s there.

Light doesn’t merely allow us to see, though, it allows us to see in color.  Imagine for a minute that we could see without light.  That would be great and all, but everything would be in black and white.  You see, colors exist because of light—even greyscale colors.  Those same light photons that enable us to see in the first place are actually not the full amount of light that struck whatever it is we are seeing.  If the object is opaque, meaning not see-through, some amount of light in the visible spectrum—which is the range of light wavelengths to which our retinas are sensitive—is absorbed by the particular combination of chemicals on its outermost surface, but not all of it.  And the wavelength of the light that isn’t absorbed corresponds with a particular color which specialized cells in our retinas called cones appropriately translate when sending their electrical signals to our brains.  In other words, colors only exist because light does.

Let me take a bit of a spiritual turn with you.  As the light of the world, followers of Jesus allow people to see what’s there, not merely in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one.  If we’re doing it right, when people look at us they are able to see the real world—the kingdom of God.  Yet we’re not the source of the light.  Jesus said we are lamps.  Lamps today work quite a bit differently than in Jesus’ day, but the principle remains the same.  Lamps work by drawing power from a source outside themselves and converting that power into light.  Lisa and I bought a new lamp just the other day.  It’s one of those bowl lamps whose lampshades point up instead of down.  We set it next to a lamp with a regular lamp shade but with the exact same kind of bulb and it’s almost jarring how much more light the new lamp puts out by being up a little higher on its stand and aiming up.  And yet, Jesus’ followers do not merely allow people to see, we allow people to see in color.  Jesus followers bring a richness and vibrancy and warmth to this world that no other worldview has proven capable of doing.  And in nations today where the population is overwhelmingly not Christian there is a spiritual darkness and by that a hopelessness that pervades throughout the land.  Indeed, we are the light of the world.

And yet, just as Jesus said, it doesn’t do any good to have a light and “put it under a basket.”  Some translations phrase that: “put it under a bowl.”  In our day, to do something like that is a waste of power.  Perhaps you can see the spiritual allusion there?  In Jesus’ day, when lamps were all glorified candles, putting a light under a bowl would snuff it out.  There are some spiritual allusions there too.  Thus, Jesus doesn’t stop by comparing us to lamps.  He goes on to finish the illustration.  “In the same way, let your light shine before others…”  In other words, just like having a lamp under a bowl renders it worthless for the job of giving light, so too, if everyone can’t see clearly that we are followers of Christ by simple observation of our lives, we are worthless to Him in the task of reflecting His light to a dark world.  We’re a waste of His power.  We’re in danger of being snuffed out.

The point here, then, is that we should be known as lights of the world.  Everybody should know.  There shouldn’t be any question.  This doesn’t mean we go around making that the first point of conversation with other people.  We shouldn’t have to.  It should be obvious just by looking at us.  We should stand out like a sore thumb…or perhaps, more relevantly, as a light in a dark room.  Lamps don’t have to announce that they are lamps.  That would be weird.  If my lamps started talking I would take them back to the store.  We had a lamp that went off and on by itself one time.  We threw it away.  No, lamps are known as lamps because they give off light and you look at them and know immediately, “Well, that’s a lamp.”  Here’s the thing: when a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.

So let’s make the connection here.  How do we shine so everybody can see?  Well, what is it about us that people are going to see the most quickly and clearly?  The things we do.  Thus Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.  So if people are going to know that we are the light of the world, we’ve got to shine.  We find ways to bear witness in public.  There’s an argument floating around in our culture today that Christians should practice their faith in the privacy of their own homes and not bring it into the public square.  This argument is made by two kinds of people: 1. People who don’t know anything about worldviews and so who are advancing a bad argument that they don’t really understand; and 2. People who do know something about worldviews and who are using deceit to try and trick Jesus followers into not living ours out.  They are trying to force the basket on us.  The truth is that following Jesus is a whole worldview commitment.  It affects every single part of our lives.  It’s not something that can be done in private only.  And so, if we are going to be the light of the world, we find ways to do so in plain view of a watching world.  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.  Now, they may not like it, but they know it.  When Josiah wakes up before the sun and I turn the TV on for him, he immediately exclaims, “Can’t see, Daddy!  Can’t see!”  Why?  Because his eyes are used to the dark and the light’s blinding and painful at first.  His—and our—first instinct is to want to shut it back off.  But if it doesn’t go back off…we get used to it, and we start to live in light of it.  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.

Here’s the other thing: the light is different from the dark.  Our good works that point the way to the Father are going to stand out as different from how the world acts.  Whether this means going above and beyond to help a neighbor who really doesn’t have the worldview capacity to return the kindness, or perhaps, traveling to a generally impoverished nation to serve the medical needs of a people who have no other way of seeing those needs met, when we are acting as light we are going to look different.  We are going to be counter-cultural.  We are going to stand out.  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.  I sometimes hear people, usually Christians, complain about the state of our culture today.  The truth is that our culture is running away from any meaningful reflection of the Christian worldview.  Another way of saying that is that our culture is growing dark.  And yet the light’s not out.  All that means is that the lights who are still shining are going to shine more brightly.  They are going to look even more different than perhaps they did before.  Who cares?  Our job is not to worry about how much or not we look like our surrounding culture.  Our job is to be light.  And yes, while when we first shine into the darkness our efforts might be met with a great deal of hostility and derision and persecution of various sorts, Jesus told us this would happen and told us to do it anyway because He would be with us the whole time.  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.

The truth is that we should stand out.  But we should stand out for our good works.  There’s a new show on Oxygen called “Preachers of LA” that showcases the lavish lifestyles of some Los Angeles pastors.  It has generated a fair bit of controversy especially since all the preachers on the show are black.  In any event, I watched a few minutes of an episode the other night.  It was awful.  I might as well have been watching any one of the other trashy “reality” shows on networks like Oxygen.  These guys were moral sinkholes who cared far more about themselves and their luxuries than actually serving as light in the world.  And people will watch this show, associate the title “Christian” with them, and rightfully not want anything to do with it.  I wouldn’t.  This is exactly what Jesus didn’t mean.  Our works should point people to God and nowhere else.  We should shine light so brightly that people can’t avoid asking: where’s your source?  Then we can tell them.  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.

And this morning, we are going to send out some lamps to shine in a dark corner of the world that the power of Christ our source may be known.  You see, when a group of folks like the Honduras Team—and guys, if you would, please make your way up front here—go out to do their work it is easy to fall into thinking that once they go it is them and God.  This is nonsense.  Yes, individual believers are lights of the world.  And, yes, like a candle in a dark room, we can shine brightly wherever we happen to be, particularly if that place happens to be pretty dark.  But still, one candle isn’t so powerful.  Two candles, though, shed twice the light.  But God’s plan wasn’t for a bunch of isolated candles to go out into the world and shed light.  Not enough power there.  His plan was more along the lines of having hundreds, thousands, millions, of candles all shining together.  When you start getting to that kind of volume you don’t just have a candle anymore, you have a bonfire.  You have a bonfire up high on a hill where everybody can see it.  There’s some power there.  And so when groups like this one go out, we’re not sending a bunch of candles, we’re running a long cord to another part of the world and sharing some of our high-powered lamp light with the folks there.  And when a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.

So to the Honduras Team, you are going to do good works that will point people in the direction of the Father.  You are living out in a very meaningful way what Jesus said here should characterize all of His followers.  But you need not forget that 1. The light doesn’t come from you, and 2. it didn’t start with you.  You are being sent in power and you’ll need to stay tapped into that power to have the kind of impact you desire.  If you’re going to be a lamp, you have to stay plugged in to work.  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it…unless it’s not plugged in and then nobody does.

To the church: it’s great that these folks are going to be lights in the world, but they are being sent…mostly by us.  That’s not just intended to be a feel-good, pat-ourselves-on-the-back fact.  That’s a call to arms.  We are a big part of the power source on which they will be traveling, the Spirit ministered through us.  That means we need to keep sending power, and the way we do that is by praying.  And so yes, we’re going to pray for and over them in just a minute, but the praying can’t stop here.  We’re going to be praying the whole time they are gone until they get back to us safely.  We’ll be praying for the mechanics of the trip.  We’ll be praying for the interactions with the people.  We’ll be praying for their own hearts to be tuned to the right source.  When a lamp is shining, everybody know it…we just need to make sure they have the power to keep shining.

 

And to give us a symbol to remind us of all of this, as the choir begins to sing in just a minute, we’re going to take these two lights and spread them throughout the room.  And as the light spreads, remember: we are the light of the world, sending these lights into the world, to shine their light so that the people may glorify our Father in heaven.  When a lamp is shining, everybody knows it.  Let’s make sure they do.