You are the Light

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2023 || Epiphany 5A || Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the light of the world.” Jesus says these words to his disciples as a great crowd listens in to his teaching that we now commonly call “The Sermon on the Mount.” You are the light of the world. In John’s account of the Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World”, but here in Matthew, he’s not talking about himself. He’s talking to his followers and to the readers of the Gospel and (a few thousand years later) to us.

You are the light of the world. And Jesus keeps going with two more images – the city on the hill and the lamp on the lampstand – as things that, like the light, should never be hidden. And then he says, to make sure everyone understands his meaning: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

You are the light of the world. I wonder what that really means? It’s such a potent image, and I’d like to spend our sermon time this morning unpacking it. So, “the light of the world.” Outside of Jesus’ metaphor here, what is the real, physical light of the world? The sun! (This is not a stumper.) In our day, we understand the sun is responsible for most of the energy on earth. Plants metabolize sunlight and grow. Then animals eat those plants and they grow. Other animals eat each other and they grow. At each stage in the cycle, the energy from the sun transfers from one living thing to the next. Even the “fossil fuels” we burn for energy – like coal and oil – were, millions of years ago, derived in this way from the sun.

We know all this now, but back in Jesus’ day, the idea of the sun as the light of the world had a more visceral connection to people’s lives. We can flip on the lights when night comes. We never even think about this revolutionary ability until the power goes out. But back then, beyond the occasional oil lamp, night meant darkness. And like all of us as children, people were afraid of the dark.

(As an aside, I need to take a minute to point out the connection between the visceral feelings of light and dark and how such feelings contributed to the rise of racism based on skin color. When light is considered good and safe and dark is considered bad and dangerous, you can see how easily such an outlook can transfer from the environment to the people around us. So please keep that in mind as I talk about light for the rest of this sermon and practice resisting the unjust cultural norm that links darker skin colors with danger.)

People were afraid of the dark in Jesus’ day because those long marches of the night held the possibilities of unseen predators or enemies. That’s why so many verses in the Bible compare God’s presence to the breaking of the light of dawn.

In Luke Chapter 1, Zechariah ends his prayer for his son John with these words: “Because of the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Psalm 130 begins with a cry of utter longing for God: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD; LORD, hear my voice.” A few verses later, the psalmist says, “My soul waits for the LORD, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”

And in our reading from Isaiah this morning, God instructs the people that the proper fast is not a theatrical one of sitting in sackcloth and ashes, but a fast of liberation, of sharing bread with the hungry and clothing with the naked and shelter with the unhoused. When this liberation happens, God says through the prophet, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; […] Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and [God] will say, Here I am.”

These are three of many, many places in scripture where we imagine the healing presence of God as the light of the dawn. So, when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,” he’s linking us (Us!!) with the light of the sun that makes things grow and with the light of God that brings healing and reconciliation. We’re that light! That’s what Jesus is talking about!

And the thing is, when you get right down to it, light isn’t really something we can see. It is the something by which we see. There’s a famous C.S. Lewis quotation (which might have just popped into some of your heads); Lewis finishes a paper called “Is Theology Poetry?” with this thought: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Light, the first of God’s created works (Fiat lux “Let there be light”) – light is the gift by which we see. So when Jesus calls us the light of the world, what he’s saying is this: be the person through whom someone else feels the presence of God. What a wonderful invitation! Imagine a cold dreary day in midwinter. Maybe like me, you’ve been taking Vitamin D tablets to simulate the sun’s effects. But the supplement only goes so far. You go outside on this cold dreary day, and you look up into the sky. And lo and behold, the sun breaks through the clouds for a few minutes. You feel its warmth on the skin of your face. And that warmth allows you to breathe a little deeper, to trudge a few steps further.

We are that light. That’s the good news for today. Jesus calls us the light, and we accept that call. So “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Be the light of the world, the light by which someone else comes to see the presence of God.

Photo by Rajesh Rajput on Unsplash.

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