Follow the Light

Light guides you through darkness, drives the fear of the unknown away, and directs you where to go. Why should it be any different spiritually? Based on Matthew 4:12-23, we learn that Jesus calls you today, too, to follow him. “Follow the light.”  January 26, 2020.

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The fire-alarms blared. The hallway was filled with thick black smoke. The power was out so it was as dark as night and it was impossible to see where to go, how to escape. But then looking up, the trapped office workers saw the dim glow of the emergency exit sign. They followed that light to find their way out to safety.

The flight attendant goes through the pre-flight safety announcements. Seat-backs upright, tray tables stowed, carry-on items completely under the seat in front of you. Take a moment to find the nearest exit to you keeping in mind that the closest exit may be behind you. If there is loss of power, follow the emergency floor-level lighting. You look down to see the strips of lighting that you would follow in the case of an emergency.

You get this. Whether it’s the night light that glows enough to guide you through the hallway to the bathroom without tripping over the clutter, or the night stars that sailors follow across the seas to land, or the path or road lit by lights, you follow lights every day. Light guides you through darkness, drives the fear of the unknown away, and directs you where to go. So, you follow the light. Why should it be any different spiritually?

Two of the twelve tribes of Old Testament Israel, Zebulun and Naphtali, were situated at the very northern end of Israel north and west of the Sea of Galilee. They were in a position that made them face the brunt of enemy attacks as foreign armies would first march through and devastate their land. When the Assyrians conquered Northern Israel, they removed many of the Jews living there and replaced them with foreigners. So, you ended up with this mix of Jews and Gentiles that not just mixed different cultures, but religions. These people were susceptible to influences from unbelieving neighboring people and it clouded the worship of the true God. Listen to the way that Isaiah described them as we heard earlier from the first reading. “[They consulted mediums and spiritists instead of God.] If anyone does not speak according to this word [of God], they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.”

The people of this land lived in darkness. No, not in physical darkness, the sun still rose and shined on them each day. They lived in spiritual darkness characterized by wickedness, ignorance, unbelief, not knowing the Lord and the way to life with God. They were people living and walking in darkness.

They were people not all that different than us. We are people who live, like them, on the border of Christianity and the unbelieving world. You are susceptible to the influences of those who have no hope or need for God – the influence of greed, of lust, of power, of achievements, of pleasure. You get caught up in the darkness of sin, whether its sin that takes place in a dark room behind closed doors, or in the dark recesses of your mind, or by creating the dark atmosphere of hurt, or despairing under the dark burden of guilt.

You’re tempted to forsake the way that God desires for you to live in this world and the various relationships that you find yourself in. You wrestle with what you do or fail to do and wonder how much they affect your eternal destiny. You are made to question whether God exists, whether he’s really good, whether he’s the only way to something else, something bigger. These doubts cloud your spiritual view and leave you wandering in the darkness. You know what it’s like to be spiritually distressed and hungry, seeing only distress and darkness and fearful gloom. You too live and walk in the darkness.

“The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The light left Nazareth, and went to live in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. That great light came to dawn on people living in darkness. That light is Jesus Christ. When Jesus started his ministry in Galilee, making his home base in the coastal city of Capernaum, he was fulfilling God’s promise to shine the light of life on people in darkness. He shined brightly by showing that he was the promised Savior through his teaching, preaching, and healing.

Jesus’ preaching message was summed up in this short and sweet statement. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

God’s word, specifically his law – his rules for holy living – is like this big mega-watt spotlight that shines on our lives and exposes everything. It shows our failures to live in a holy way. It shows every stain and regrettable and shameful thing that we’ve done. It highlights our outward sins and the penetrates the skin to even uncover the sins of our hearts. It shows us the sin we need to turn away from, the sin we need to repent of. But then the light of Jesus shows us why we can leave the sin behind. The kingdom of heaven has come near. God’s kingdom, his powerful and saving rule, comes near in his son Jesus. And it comes near to you.

Jesus said in the gospel of John chapter 8, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” He is the light as the perfect substitute and Savior for me and for you. He is the light of perfection where we have failed. He is the light that conquered the darkness of sin, death, and Satan for you. He is the light that bursts out victoriously from the empty tomb, the light that gives you life. Like the dawning of the sun chases away the darkness of the night, Jesus shines the light of truth that breaks apart the darkness of your sin. Jesus shines the light on God and who he really is as we see him in Jesus. Jesus shows God’s grace exposing it as his amazing, unconditional love for you and all people. And all those who live in the light, who turn in faith away from the darkness, find God’s forgiveness, life, and eternal hope. Follow the light.

As Jesus ministered in Galilee, he came upon some fishermen along the sea who were already familiar with him. He said to them, “Come, follow me.” Two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, dropped their nets, left their boats, walked away from their careers as fishermen and followed Jesus to become fishers of people. This was immediate, at once they followed Jesus. It’s like they didn’t even take a moment to think about it; “Jesus give me a day and I’ll get back to you.” They had seen the light of Jesus and the life that he brings and when he called, they followed.

Jesus calls you today, too, to follow him. Follow the light. But what does following the light look like? Jesus isn’t necessarily calling you to drop everything in your life to become a full-time minister of the Word. But he is saying to quit living in the darkness of sin and unbelief and follow him with a heart of faith.

Come out of the darkness and live in the light. This starts with daily repentance – leaving shame and guilt behind, leaving in the past all of your sinful ways and attitudes and embracing a new life with Jesus. Quit playing in the dark and instead dwell in the light of Christ and his forgiveness as you embrace his will.

Living in the light is not saying, “I’m a Christian, I love Jesus,” it’s having a faith filled change of living by obeying God’s will. I can say I know how to get through a dark place, and then crash into a wall or stub my toe on a rock. John gave us an illustration of what this looks like in the reading from his first letter. “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble” (John 2:9-10).

I get this is a hard thing to do. But notice how Jesus called the first disciples. He didn’t pick guys who were already perfectly trained and prepared. He said follow me and Jesus would teach them and equip them for the work in front of them. Being a disciple doesn’t mean that you already have it all figured out, but it means listening to Jesus, living with him each day, allowing him to guide and direct your thoughts, words, and actions. Jesus teaches you his will and what living in the light looks like. He equips you with his Spirit to enable and empower you to live in the light. When you follow Jesus, even when you slip back into the darkness, he is right there to shine brightly right back into your life. Follow the light.

Some people who have experienced a near-death experience report that, among other sensations, they often are drawn to a bright powerful light. I don’t know if that is the reality that you and I will look forward to when our time in this life is over. But I know it can’t be far from the truth and the experience that God has for you now as you live and later in death. That light is Jesus. He is the light of eternal life and the light that guides us in this life. Follow the light. Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on January 26, 2020