You couldn’t see anything. When the sun went down in the ancient world, it was completely dark. It might be hard for us to imagine, with our nightlights, bedside lamps or the glow of a phone close at hand, but nightfall in Galilee brought total darkness. Candles and oil were premium items, not utilized in the day-to-day limited lives of the average Palestinian peasant. When it was dark, most people couldn’t see anything at all.
Some years ago my father and uncle were caught in the darkness. My father, Craig, is a man of many hobbies – from bird-watching to sail-boating to motorcycle-riding – he acquires new hobbies all the time, most of which have equipped me with a lifetime of stories to use against him.
Like when my aspiring outdoorsman father and his brother set out on a fly fishing trip in the mountains, hiking own the side of Grandfather Mountain to fish for wild trout in Wilson Creek. At the urging of the cashier at the fly shop, they planned to fish at dusk, when they were told to expect the best bite. They set up camp by late afternoon, organizing everything perfectly: tent pitched, sleeping bags rolled out, firewood stacked, and an expensive freeze-dried camping meal just waiting for some boiling water. With dusk approaching they hiked a hundred yards downstream, planning to casually fish their way back to camp. They had fished for an hour when – all of the sudden – it was dark. The darkness of the mountain creek gorge had snuck up on these two Florida flatlanders, who had somehow forgotten that after dusk comes dark – real mountain darkness. They couldn’t see anything. They were standing in the middle of Wilson Creek, unable to even see their hands in front of their faces, let alone their well-organized campsite.
So the two boy scouts slogged to the shore, where they combed their way through the woods, grasping about, trying to find camp. This went on for a few hours, until finally, exhausted, they knew nothing more to do but to give up. So they cut some pine branches to sleep on and under, laid down in their fly fishing waders, and cuddled up next to one another to stay as warm as they could on a chilly fall night, all the while cursing themselves for not leaving any landmark or light to help them get back to their sleeping bags, tent and gourmet fireside meal.
After a cold and miserable night, my father and uncle woke up at the first crack of light, rubbing their eyes to find that their campsite was about 20 yards away.
The prophet Isaiah was well acquainted with the darkness. “We wait for light,” he cries in chapter 59, “But lo, there is darkness. We wait for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping and grasping like those who can’t see.”
The prophet’s words echoed in the lives of those described gathered on the mountain with Jesus in our passage this morning. They are leaning in to hear the words of Jesus, but deep inside they cried out like Isaiah, “Justice is far from us, righteousness does not reach us, we wait for the light…” They must have felt at times as though they were grasping about in the darkness, but somehow they had found their way to Jesus. Some had to be carried, Matthew tells us. Some were probably crawling or limping along. But all were there with a sense that their world was darker than they could have known, and as they listen the message reaches them, “You are the light of the world.”
They were much like those early readers of the gospel of Matthew, years after Jesus’ death. It was a time of social and theological tension following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The community gathered around Matthew’s gospel was in conflict about just what the future would hold, and just what the past had meant. The way forward was uncertain, without much clarity about how to find their way back to what they had seen and heard in Jesus. And the word comes to those early followers of the risen Christ: “You are the light of the world.”
Just as it reaches through the ages to us today, amidst the heavy-ness of winter clouds and winter sorrow. The greying grief we wade through together as a community of faith, each time we light a candle of remembrance. So much about our lives seems to hold more darkness than light. Sometimes it’s a bad day, or sometimes that bad day lasts for years and years. Struggles, failures, loss of a job, a friend, loss of faith, loss of love. We witness terrible things unfolding around our world, and feel helpless in the midst. Everything clouded in darkness, we look for the light but don’t know where to find it: “You are the light of the world.”
They knew the darkness those years ago, and we know it just as well. All of us grasping about, waiting for the light to crack the clouds and shine on us, and Jesus’ sermon reminds us that we are closer to the light than we ever could have known.
Light is one of three metaphors Jesus uses in this section of the Sermon on the Mount – salt, light, and a city on a hill. All three make it clear at the outset of this sermon that faith in Christ and following in his way is public. It is external. It cannot be contained or privatized. You are salt to flavor the earth, you are light on a stand, you are a witness high on a hill, seen from all around.
Jesus is saying this to the same unexpected band of people that he has just called “blessed” in the Beatitudes. The poor in spirit, meek and mourning, the justice-seekers, the peace-makers, the merciful and righteous, all who wait around in the overwhelming darkness are the ones Jesus views as light in the world.
He must know it’s counter-intuitive and hard to believe. His entire sermon will turn out to be that way. Jesus uses the language of antithesis in his sermon – that is, he takes what you have believed and assumed (your thesis) and refutes it or reverses it (antithesis). “You have assumed ‘hate your enemies,’ but I say to you, ‘love them, and pray for those who persecute you.’”
You can hear that inference here at the outset. It’s as if he’s saying, “You have assumed that this is a world of overwhelming darkness, and that you are left with nothing to do but grasp for a way.” That’s our thesis, but then Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”
Light itself is antithetical. An Indian proverb says it this way: “A candle at midnight does not conform. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’”
That’s who all those gathered on the hill are. That’s who all of us who claim the name of Christ and follow in the way of Jesus are. We are a refusal to conform. We are God’s way of facing the darkness and saying, over and over, ‘I beg to differ.”
So any time we come across the contention that our world is doomed for destruction, loss, and looming darkness, the light of Christ in us says, “I beg to differ.”
When violence and hatred seem to claim the loudest shouts, through the power of Jesus Christ our lives can say, “I beg to differ.”
When we think we must just accept the way things are as the way things will always be, there’s this light in each of us who follow in the way of Jesus that piercingly, persistently, defiantly says, “I beg to differ.”
It’s the light of the one who was born to shine not in spite of the darkness, but right in the middle of the darkness. It’s the light that could not be killed, crucified or entombed. This light defied all stones that tried to encase it and the structures that tried to smother it. It kept coming back and saying, “I beg to differ.”
This is the light that is in us, through the power of Jesus Christ and his invitation to us to follow. The light does not come from us. It does not originate in us, Christ is the alpha and the omega. We can no more create the light than salt can generate its own flavor. But because of who Jesus is, and because of his call to us, and because of our decision to follow in this way, we are a light that cannot be overwhelmed.
Of course, we decide what we will do with this light. Salt can lose its saltiness. A city can be raised to the ground. And the light of Christ can be hidden or smothered.
We can cower. We can throw up our hands and just lay down right where we are, overwhelmed by the darkness as though there’s nothing we can do amidst all that encroaches so quickly. That’s why no sooner has Jesus told us who we are, that he tells us what we are called to do. The mood of the verb shifts in verse sixteen to an imperative – a command. Jesus moves from describing what we are – “You are the light” – to telling us what we must do – “Now let your light shine.”
It’s a message many of us have sung since we were children, raising our fingers in unison, “I’m gonna let it shine.” Many of us saw our children sing this message at this past summer’s Vacation Bible School, raising their lanterns and singing of the light. Children become what they are called. That’s what psychologists suggest. Positive messages shape a child’s understanding, and hopefully help them to live into the names they hear spoken over them, and so we say, “You are the light.”
I don’t know about you, but that seemed easier to believe as a child. But then as a teenager, I’m trying to fit in or find my way, and I’m somewhere with someone who’s doing something that I want to join. I know it’s darkness, but my life is hard and friends are difficult to come by. It won’t hurt to dwell in the darkness for just a moment. Yet Jesus says, “You are the light.”
Or in college, striving for success amidst so much pressure to perform and keep a scholarship. Who’s going to know if I cheat? Everyone is doing it, and it’s slanting the odds against me. To which Jesus says, “Let your light shine.”
Maybe I’m in a job that asks me to set aside my commitments. Its practices are unjust. People are mistreated. So much darkness, to which Jesus says, “But you are the light of the world.”
Maybe I see legal, social, economic policies that relegate people to unseen places of hopelessness. There’s so much suffering beneath an overwhelming dark sky. What can I do? And Jesus says, “You can let your light shine.”
Our families face illness. Or death. Or the unimaginable. We are gripped by fears concerning marriage, children, and future. So much darkness, and yet we hear, “Be the light.”
“How do you think the darkness is pierced, if not by you? So become what I have called you: you are the light of the world. You bear my name. You carry my light.”
Brooks Andrews is a minister who has worked with Japanese Baptists on the West Coast, most recently as an Interim Pastor at the Japanese Baptist Church of Seattle.
Brooks’ father was the English pastor of that many church years ago, back in the mid 20th century – back when Japanese internment camps were opened in the United States during World Ward II. It was a dark and devastating time in our history. Many of the parishioners the Andrews family knew were moved to the camps, uprooted from their homes and jobs, completely reorganizing the church community.
So the elder Rev. Andrews and his wife, decided very quickly that they would move, too. They moved the whole family – Brooks and his siblings – to live next to one of the internment camps so that they could support their Japanese colleagues, friends, and congregants, and thus continue the ministry to which God had called them.
Sometimes Brooks is asked why his parents did that. What caused them to act in such a radical, sacrificial way? His answer is immediate, matter-of-fact, without any hint of drama or show: “Well, they were Christians.” (1)
We might say today, they recognized that amidst all that darkness that sought to define them, Jesus had called them by another name: “You are the light of the world.”
Father Greg Boyle has said that as powerful as that statement is, it’s even more powerful to realize what Jesus doesn’t say. He does not say, “One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.” He doesn’t say, “If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.” No. He says, straight out, “You are light.”
It’s what he calls us. It’s the truth of who we are, waiting only for us to discover it, and to let it shine. (2)
The author Elizabeth Gilbert once described how one dreary day some years ago, she was stuck on a crosstown New York City bus during rush hour. Traffic barely moving. The bus filled with cold, tired people. Irritated people – irritated with one another, with the weather, with the inching bus. All stared blankly at the darkness out the windows. Two passengers shouted about an inadvertent shove. A pregnant woman got on, and no one offered a seat. It was not exactly a meek and merciful crowd.
But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. “Folks,” he said, “I know you’ve had a rough day and you’re frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here’s what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight – just leave ’em with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I’ll open the window and throw your troubles in the water. Sound good?”
Gilbert said it was like a haze had been lifted. Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who’d been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, “Is this guy serious?”
And he was. He was serious.
At the next stop, just as promised, the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did it. Some even teared up. But everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop. And the next. And the next. All the way to the river. (3)
We live in a hard world. A dark world, where we so often grope about, looking for light and not always knowing where it is to be found.
But what if, through the power of Jesus Christ, the light is you? You are the light of the world. Once we believe it, there’s really only one thing to do: let it shine, let it shine… all the way from here to the river and back again.
- Story of Rev. Andrews courtesy of Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski
- Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
- Elizabeth Gilbert, “This Little Light of Yours” in Oprah Magazine (May 2016)