Let Your Light Shine

Jesus said that because he did something about the darkness in your heart and mine, we can do something about the darkness all around us. In Matthew 5:13-20 he calls out to you and to me to “let your light shine.”  February 9, 2020.

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Some people think that an office party means it’s OK to drink to excess as long as you Uber home. That’s darkness. Some people think the money they earn is their own to use any way they want without first setting aside a thankful, generous portion for Jesus. That’s darkness. Some strive to get ahead and be successful but in doing so push others down or aside. That’s darkness. Some people think that looking at dirty pictures is a private matter, does no harm to a relationship, and hurts no one. That’s darkness. Some people think that allowing their kids more than two hours of screen time per day won’t damage their kids’ ability to process feelings and relate to others. That’s darkness. Some people think that racial profiling and making demeaning comments about someone with different skin color are “just jokes.” That’s darkness. Some people think that all religions are the same and reach the same goal. That’s darkness. Some people know they are not perfect, that they are sinners, but think they are not as bad as the people I just described. That’s darkness. The Bible describes us like this, “See darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the people” (Isaiah 60:2).

What to do about that? Throw up our hands in disgust? Vent about all the evil around us and go back to business as usual? Hide behind closed doors and hope Jesus returns in glory real soon? Jesus said that because he did something about the darkness in your heart and mine, we can do something about the darkness all around us. So, he calls out to you and to me: let your light shine.”

 Lights out

The Pharisees meant well. They were members of local congregations who were concerned about beggars, traitorous tax collectors, prostitutes, gamblers, petty thieves, farmers cheating on their taxes, indecent, uneducated shepherds, families falling apart, children imitating all that was bad in the current culture, only a few older folks scattered in the pews for worship, everyone else too busy to go to church, showing up only for a couple festivals each year. They saw greed, humanism, materialism. It was every man and woman for him- or herself. Something had to be done. So they studied the Old Testament rules meant only for people of their nation and determined that the quickest way to fix the problems they were seeing was to get people to buy into stricter guidelines for behavior. Soon they were swimming in rules and regulations. Not many Israelites bought in, but that didn’t stop the Pharisees from setting themselves apart from the masses as better and more pure because they worked at keeping the rules. In fact, the term “Pharisee” means “set apart.” They spent their days trying to get their fellow Israelites to comply and shoveling piles of guilt onto the shoulders of anyone within earshot. “If you want to be enlightened, follow us!” Everyone knew those Pharisees were the holy rollers, the “holy Joes,” the better-than-thou, snobby, religious fanatics. Nobody wanted to live up to their standards. Nobody could.

Yet Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” His followers were hoping for a break from the constant nagging and pressure from the Pharisees. Jesus makes it clear that God’s standards are even higher. God’s standards go off the charts. “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” His followers knew what he meant. If they couldn’t live up to the standards set by the Pharisees, how could they live up to God’s standards?

Sometimes I feel like I’d like to quarrel with the Lord when he says, “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). “Come on, Lord! Give me a break! You know that’s impossible.” Aren’t you tempted to raise your eyebrows even a little? “Lord, do you mean to tell us that if we keep all your rules except one tiny thing, maybe one well-intended but little white lie, that we are still liable to being dumped in darkness forever? Do you mean to say that if we keep all your regulations and break just one that that we are not good enough to live in your light?” Jesus answers, “That’s right!” Ninety-nine point nine percent is not good enough.

Come to think of it, in many cases ninety-nine point nine percent isn’t good enough for us. If ninety-nine point nine percent were good enough, two plane landings per day at O’Hare would be unsafe. Twelve babies would be given to the wrong parents each day. Two hundred ninety-one pacemaker operations will be performed incorrectly this year. Twenty-two thousand bank withdrawals will be deducted from the wrong bank accounts in the next sixty minutes. One hundred three thousand two hundred sixty income tax returns will be processed incorrectly during the year. Two million four hundred eighty-eighty thousand two hundred books will be shipped in the next twelve months with the wrong cover. Five million five hundred seventeen thousand two hundred cases of soft drinks produced in the next twelve months will be flatter than a bad tire. Even by our standards ninety-nine point nine percent isn’t good enough. And it isn’t good enough for God. The moment we think that we’ve done all that God would ask, we have stepped into darkness. Anything less than perfection is sin, darkness, lights out!

The light source

But listen to Jesus. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus did not come into this world to set a good example on how we should do it right. He came to do what we couldn’t. The Bible says, “God made Jesus who had no sin to be sinful in our place so that connected to Jesus we might be considered right when we stand before God” (2 Cor 5:21 paraphrase). Do you understand that? It’s the best news you’ll ever hear! Jesus did not come to do away with God’s standards. He came to fulfill them. And here’s the miracle message of Holy Writ: God now considers Jesus’ rightness to be ours. That’s what makes him the light of the world. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness (John 1:4-5a). Jesus is our light source.

Wherever we go, no matter where we are, God scatters the darkness of our sin with the light of Jesus’ love, even when the thermometer plummets below zero, even when our friends are fickle, even when income doesn’t cover the bills, even when we slip and do something we promised ourselves we would never do it again. You and I have no inherent light of our own. But we can join with the Bible writers to sing: “My God turns my darkness into light” (Psalm 18:28). “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). “[Lord,] in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9). And we are tickled, thrilled to hear the prophet announce, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you ... The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” (Isaiah 60:1,19).

Lights on

“Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?” A search for answers without a message from God himself leaves us empty and in the dark. But God has spoken. God has pulled back the curtain and flipped on the spotlight. Jesus, our light source, lights up the path to heaven. But that’s not all. He turns us into lights, reflecting his, light that is desperately needed in our life and in our world. To get across to us the power and purpose of this light, Jesus is not afraid to mix metaphors. “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” The point? Salt is good for something. In that culture it was used not just for flavoring food but also as a preservative. If the substance in your hand is not salt but white sand, it won’t work for flavoring or preserving. It has no purpose. If the substance is salt, it works. We are salt. We have a purpose in life.

Now back to the light picture. An LED bulb does not emit light by itself. It shines only when connected and turned on so that the electric current generated in the power-house is transmitted to it and through it. When we are connected Jesus, the light source, we are a light for others. No need for a false sense of modesty, “I can’t talk about spiritual matters with my friends. It would turn them off.” Keep in mind that it is not your own light that you are shining but his. That takes the pressure off, doesn’t it? We don’t have to fake being some kind of spiritual luminary or some kind of theological star. We are already walking around as “lights on,” energized by Jesus, the light source. “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Let your light shine!

My guess is that you know a lot of people who don’t realize that they are in spiritual darkness. They seem to be cruising along through life just fine without God, thank you very much. But just wait. Our great God has a unique way of working. Sooner or later God will allow them to experience loneliness, emptiness, or fear of darkness. That’s when they will be awfully glad they met you. Let your light shine!  Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on February 9, 2020