Matthew 5:13-20 (Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112)
In the midst of all the excitement this past week—both in our nation and the world at large—I spent one morning doing something rather mundane. Facing a breakfast counter covered with paperwork—mortgage statements, receipts of medical expenses, annual reports of dividends and charitable gifts, some W-2 statements—I attacked them all with a calculator in one hand and a stapler in the other, threw them into a cardboard box, and then quickly delivered them to my tax preparer.
To top it off this unpleasant task inside the house, outside it was cloudy, cold, and wet. (For a change, don’t you think it would be great right now to get, say, a foot of some fresh, clean snow? Can I see a show of hands?)
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To me, the liturgical cycle of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seems perfectly designed for this time of the year,[i]when we may need it the most—at least for us Christians living in the Northern Hemisphere. For many if not most of us, winter can be not only an especially dreary time, but also disheartening, even depressing.
But the liturgical calendar of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany offers us a renewed sense of hope. I’m talking about the fact that periodically the Sunday readings during this time of year focus on the theme of light, on the promise that God’s presence shines among us—no matter what. For example, from Psalm 80, back on December 22nd:
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may
be saved. (v. 3)
And on Christmas Eve—from the 9th chapter of Isaiah:
The people who walked in
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep
on them light has shined.
The message in such verses helps lift our spirits. They remind us God comes to shine hope and blessings upon us and upon all who look to the Lord.
Well, this morning, the image of light appears once again—and not only in one passage, but in three of them. A difference, though, is they all have to do more with light shining from us.[ii] In Psalm 112:
[The commandments] rise in the darkness as a
light for the upright;
[who then become] gracious, merciful, and
In Isaiah 58, it comes as an admonition for God’s people to focus less on some elements of devotion—such as fasting—and more on acts of love for the less fortunate:
[When you do such things…]
Then your light shall break forth
like the dawn…
And, of course, we witness it most directly in today’s Gospel, when Jesus declares to the people: “You are the light of the world.”
“What?,” we ask. “We thought he was!” As in the first chapter of John, which was the gospel reading back in early January: “What has come into being in him [that is, Jesus,] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [has] not overcome it.”
And yet Jesus still says: “You are the light of the world.” If you’re like I am, you might respond, “Why, thanks so much for what you just said. I really feel honored you think so much of me. But, I’m going to have to pass on your offer. I just don’t feel up to it.”
Well, this is one of those things where Jesus doesn’t actually give us a choice. To paraphrase him, this is another way in which he says it: “Look, this is who you are. Now I expect you to act like it.” The wonderful part about it is he doesn’t expect perfection. And it’s not something we do in order to win God’s favor or love. Properly speaking, we might say it’s something we don’t actually do at all, that is, except for maybe one detail.
It has something to do with what I call spiritual physics. Yes, you heard me right—spiritual physics. I’m going to start off explaining what that means by turning first to “regular” physics. But I’ll keep it simple. I have to. You see, I never took that subject in college—thank goodness! But even in high school I didn’t learn much. And this is why. The class was taught by a second cousin of mine, Cliff. Now Cliff didn’t make it into medical school. So he came back to our hometown to teach science at his alma mater. The problem was that teaching wasn’t his strong suit, either. There was virtually no discipline in the class, and often he told stories that had absolutely nothing to do with science.
But I do remember a couple of things. For example, one of the properties of light. And that is what happens when it’s traveling through space and hits an object. We usually think of it reflecting or bouncing off of the surface of that object into a completely different direction—who knows where.
It’s the phenomenon known as refraction. An interesting thing about it, though, is that when the surface that the light strikes has an uneven density, the light can sometimes actually pass through it. Yet what comes out on the other side isn’t exactly the same. For instance, it may not be “perfect” as it had been before.
I like to think of us believers that way—that we are part of what might be called spiritual physics. The light of Christ shines before us, then into us, and finally through us. Again, not perfectly by any means, but real nonetheless. And then that light touches the lives of others, which can happen in any number of ways.
One of the most important is in the nurture and formation of faith in children and youth—and, insofar as Christian education is ideally a lifelong activity, for people of all ages. But I do want to focus especially on young persons. One goal of raising them as Christians is so they themselves will become like lamps that give light to others. You may have noticed that one of the verses in today’s gospel was spoken during Luciana’ baptism—at the beginning of this morning’s service. It happened when the baptismal candle was lit and given to a family member on her behalf. The assisting minister said: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Now, exactly how will that flame keep burning and giving off light? Naturally, the main responsibility lies with you parents who will be the most important influence on Luciana’s life. Other family members and perhaps friends as well will be an important part of that process.
And by the looks of our all baptismal visitors this morning, we can see that a lack of them will not be an issue!
But we also must remember that parents, godparents, and other family members by no means bear all the responsibility for the flourishing of that light. As all of us said in response to Luciana being blessed with the Sacrament of Baptism: “We welcome you into the Lord’s family! We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ…” That implies, that means that ideally we all help the flame in her heart to grow and grow. It happens…
- With those who teach Sunday school.
- Those who serve as sponsors at summer camp.
- Those who help children and youth with service projects.
- And, those who help underwrite some of the costs of these various activities.
- It even happens those who relate to them strictly on a social basis.
In a different way, it happens with children who have some other point of contact with this church:
- Those among us who, in some capacity, interact with children in our daycare center.
- Also with those connected to the tutoring program that meets here weekly during the school year.
- There also are annual events attended by children in the neighborhood. Our staff person in that overall ministry, Katie, can certainly find a place for every willing volunteer.
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Two weeks from today the cycle of Advent, Xmas, and Epiphany comes to an end—when we once more celebrate the event of the Transfiguration of our Lord. As he appeared brightly before Peter, James, and John—his light later to shine into and through them and then into the hearts of many, many others—so may he continue to do with each and every one of us.
[i] For the placement of Christmas per se on December 25th, see theories as given in “Why Is Christmas in December?” in https://www.britannica.com/why-is-christmas-in-december; and Christmas on pages 2-4 in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas.
[ii] Amy G. Oden, in “Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12],” writes: “Throughout Advent and Epiphany images of darkness and light are central. God’s in-breaking is marked by light. This week’s reading uses this absolute contrast of darkness and light to describe what happens when the people allow this God to break into their lives. In verse 3, the people accuse God of not seeing their piety, while they are the ones in the darkness of gloom, unable to see God’s present work. However, once the people partner with God, ‘Your light will break forth’ (verse 8), and ‘then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’ (verse10)….Isaiah reminds us that this is a God who a) wants more than a formal relationship with the people, b)expects us to be partners in bringing forth God’s purposes, and c) is responsive to our choices” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4374).