Isaiah 60:1-3, Matthew 5:13-20
November 17, 2013
The Gospel writers often made reference to Jesus as the “Light of the World.” And when they did so, they often made a contrast between darkness and that light – the light of Christ. And I think no one did that more vividly than John in the first chapter of his Gospel. Remember these words? We’ll read them again in a few weeks! “The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world…” “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never conquered it.”
I love the way John described that! Jesus was the light of God that was coming into the world. And of course, he called himself that. Later in John, he said “I am the light of the world.” “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) There’s that darkness and light again.
So, as we look to Advent – which is right around the corner now – we recognize again that the light that was coming into the world. And the light would “shine in the darkness,” as John said.
I like all of that imagery as it occurs in this “dark” time of the year. Literally, this time of the year is darker. As you know, December 21st is the Winter Solstice. The actual hours of daylight, which have been getting shorter since the end of June, will continue to get shorter until that day. The sun will continue to set earlier and earlier, until the Solstice, when it will do so in the late afternoon.
So literally, this time of year is, in fact, darker. And it is at this time of year that we celebrate Christmas, the time of the light of God coming into the world. And we do so with lots of candles and decorative lights. And I think those are all vivid reminders to us of the coming of the light, and how “The light shines in the darkness.” as John told us.
Of course we know that “darkness” is about more than just a lesser amount of photons. The darkness John spoke about was the darkness of the human condition. That darkness he described was about a world of sorrow and despair, a world without the knowledge of God, a hurting world in need of the “light” of God’s love and grace. Does that ever describe our world?
I would remind you of what the world was like this time last year. Do you remember? I think there was no greater example in recent years, of the light of Christ coming at a time of darkness. If you remember this time last year, many people were still reeling from the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. Lives had been devastated. Lives had been lost. And if that wasn’t bad enough, by Christmas Eve, we were grieving the loss of the school children in Newtown Connecticut. It seemed like a very dark world then, didn’t it?
Maybe you can think about how that darkness looks this year. Maybe you can think about the storm in the Philippines, or some other recent events. Maybe those things represent the darkness this year – the darkness into which the light shines once again. And I hope there are not more of them to talk about come Christmas Eve!
Maybe the darkness is personal for you. Maybe you’ve been going through rough times, maybe you’re grieving a loss. This is the time of year – this family oriented time – when the loss of missing family members is felt most acutely. Maybe that’s the darkness for you this year, the darkness into which the light shines.
Whatever form the darkness takes, that time is coming once again, (and sooner than we think!) that time when we will take the light from the Christ candle in the center of our advent wreath and pass it around the sanctuary. That’s always a highlight of the Christmas season, isn’t it? The room will be dark, and the light will grow among us. I think you’ll agree that’s a strong reminder of the light of Jesus Christ that was coming into the world.
Well, there’s another contrast that we have in all this. That contrast is the interplay between the two statements Jesus made about “The light of the world.” Yes, he said, “I am the light of the world.” But then here in our passage from the “Sermon on the Mount,” he also said, “You are the light of the world.”
That’s pretty amazing coming from Jesus, isn’t it? Certainly looking back, we would have expected him to say he was the light of the world. But I wonder how well that would have gone over at that point. Remember, this was still early in his ministry. He was still teaching people some very important things, he was saying things that appealed to people, and his popularity was growing. But to have made that bold statement in this sermon, to have said such things about himself at this point, that might have been too much for many.
Remember that he would eventually make such claims. And yes, they were too much for some! Read the 6th Chapter of John sometime. There he called himself “The Bread of Heaven.” Not only was he comparing himself to the Manna in the Wilderness, which was shocking, but he was also saying how the people must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life in them. Now, we know what he meant by that. But his statements were too much for some. And that chapter ends with these words. “After this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:66)
So here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus – the Light of the World – says to the people, and to us, “You are the light of the world.” That worked better here at this point. And he meant it. Jesus, the “Light of the World,” said that we are the “light of the world.”
As we approach the end of the year, I think those two things come together. Of course I’m talking now about the “liturgical year.” On the last Sunday of the liturgical year, which comes next week, we celebrate Christ the King. But very soon after that we will start to talk again about “Christ the newborn King.” So, the light that “was coming into the world” then, now at this time goes out to the world at the end of the year – through us. Because we now have been called “The Light of the World.”
How does that feel to you? Do you feel like you are the light of the world? Or do you feel like maybe you’ve hidden your light under a basket? Do you feel like “a city set on a hill?” Or do you feel like the darkness in your life has “conquered” that light after all?
John would tell us that can’t happen. The darkness has never extinguished that light. It might feel that way sometimes. The darkness of the world or the darkness in our personal lives might seem overwhelming, but we follow the one who said, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)
The old ‘70’s song has been running though my head this week as I’ve been thinking about all of this.
“Light of the world, shine on me, love is the answer”
“Shine on us all, set us free, love is the answer”
(England Dan and John Ford Coley, 1978)
The light indeed shines in the world – the light of God’s love. It shines in and through our lives. Be aware of that. Look for it. No matter how short the days become, no matter what dark events happen in the world or in your lives. Jesus says “I have overcome the world.”
“You are the light of the world! A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Let your light so shine before men that they will see your light and give glory to your father in heaven.”
Eternal God, we know that we have been called to be the “Light of the World,” but we know that’s not easy. We are glad to be part of your kingdom, but we don’t always know what that means. Help us, Lord, to hear the still, small voice of your Spirit, guiding us, leading us, teaching us, that we might know what it means to be your people and to promote your kingdom in our midst. We thank you, and we praise you, in Jesus’ name, Amen.