Have you ever seen an eternal flame?
They are often a beautiful memorial signifying an event and are meant to cause the person seeing the flame to reflect upon what took place. There are several examples of eternal flames throughout the world. One of the most famous sits adjacent to the tomb of President John F. Kennedy as a way to symbolize his vision for the nation. Among the most powerful exists at the Holocaust museum in Washington and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Both call the person viewing the flame to remember the atrocity of the Holocaust and how we are called to be a light of God’s love so that it never happens again.
These flames – natural gas that is lit to produce fire – are to remain lit, so that these memories, and their values, become a constant reminder of hope in the midst of darkness. It is to never be extinguished, so that the light continually shines for all to see in such a way that it calls the person to remember and reflect.
A light that continually shines for all to see in such a way that it calls the person to remember and reflect – that sounds a lot like what the church, and each of us, are called to be in response to our faith in God. We are not called to avoid the darkness. We are not called to create enclaves to protect ourselves from the darkness. We are called to be a light that shines in the midst of darkness, so that all may know the love of God.
What does that look like, and how are we to do this?
Those aren’t questions that are directly answered in our text from Matthew 5:13-20. We are continuing our look at Matthew 5 and how it calls us to reflect upon the meaning of our faith and how we live it out today. Jesus simply tells the original hearers that they are to be salt, light, and a city that shines on the hill, but the how is left unanswered. Or, at least, that is what it seems like. Remember what Jesus gives here is a foretaste for the greater mission and teaching that will come throughout his three-year ministry. Jesus is setting the stage for the crowd – his disciples and those who are curious about what this life is about – to understand that he has not come to lower the expectations, but to raise them.
We get a clue about what Jesus is doing by where Matthew places this discussion. It comes immediately after the Beatitudes, which changed the perception of who receives the blessings of God in the kingdom that Jesus is establishing. At the same time, it comes right before Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the desires of the law and to express what it truly means to live obediently in God.
Light was a common point of reference for the people of Jesus’ time and in Scripture. John uses the imagery of light and darkness throughout his Gospel account to express how Jesus came as the Word of God to bring hope into the world’s darkness. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel in Isaiah 49:6 were called to be the light of God. They were to reflect the nature of God’s redeeming love, so that the Gentiles – people not of the Jewish faith – would be able to experience God’s love for themselves. Jesus, the light of the world, is now expanding on what this nature of light means.
To really get into this idea, let’s think for a moment about what light does. We have become immune to thinking about the contrasts between light and darkness. For us to receive light is as simple as flipping on a switch. Thanks to Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb, we no longer worry about the darkness as an inhibiting factor in our activities. In Jesus’ time, though, light, as with salt, was a commodity to be cared for and used wisely. Light came from a candle, and you had to trust that a simple candle would illuminate the room and give light for people to see. It wasn’t something you wasted or ignored. It was something to be used.
In time, light became symbolic of the nature of God’s redeeming love. It was God’s light that shone hope in the midst of darkness. Light was the nature of God’s love that brings relationship and deep connection with all people and all of creation. It is the witness of God’s truth and hope for the world that never fades. Light is powerful because it shines in the midst of darkness.
What is darkness? Darkness is the symbolic expression of a life and world absent from God. We see it all around us. We’ve seen a lot of it this week. Darkness is our anger towards one another. Darkness is our racism and xenophobia. Darkness is our divisions and refusal to sit with one another simply because they are different than us or we do not agree with them. Darkness is children who go hungry because there is no food in their cupboards and not enough money to pay the lunch bill. Darkness is fear. Darkness is filled with lies. Darkness comes in any place or any moment that is absent of the love of God and a desire to live in deep connection with the hope of God. Darkness comes as a result of the inattentiveness of God’s people in their community and the places where God calls them to be a light that shines in the darkness.
Darkness does not fade in time or go simply because we wish it away. We cannot match darkness for darkness in the hope that if we stoop to the same level of others that it will go away. Darkness doesn’t disappear when we ignore it. In a sermon in 1957, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Truly, when Jesus calls us to be a light for the world, he is calling us to be a manifestation and witness of God’s holy love. There are many characteristics throughout Scripture that are used to identify who God is. They only give us a glimpse of the fullness of God, which can never be fully described. At the root of each of these characteristics is that God is love. In God, there is the welcome and embrace of all people because they are children of God and people of worth. In God, there is a love of relationship in wanting people to be in deep relationship with the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. In God, there is a love that knows us by name, calls us his children even when we fall short of the glory of God, and welcomes us unconditionally into his arms. In God, there is a love of compassion and hope that was witnessed in Christ’s love that he shared through his words, miracles, and life.
In calling those who would claim the name of Christ to be a light to the world, what Jesus is calling us to is to respond to the world’s darkness with the love of God. This is where the message of Christ is challenging and speaks to us in the times that we live. Jesus truly expects those who follow him to be not a witness of the world’s hatred and division, but to be examples of the love of God and to share it with all people.
Because of this, we are to be a lamp that shines out love where darkness exists. For that to happen, we have to take seriously that what we say, do, and how we treat one another is a reflection of our heart and our connection with God. What comes out of the heart is the light that we share with the world. It is the reflection of what is inside us that we share with each other when we speak, when we build relationships with one another, when we engage difficult conversations, when we post on social media, and any other act of life. What we do is a reflection of who we are. Christ calls those who would follow him to the serious and hard work of reflecting the love of God as a light that guides the world to know the love of God.
When we engage the world with anything other than the love of God, what we end up doing is hiding the very nature of God’s grace and love for the world. In doing so, we put God’s love on the backburner, and instead respond with the same darkness that defines the world. This is what happens when we hide the light of Christ. When we live out of anything other than the love of Christ, we are hiding the very love of God. Even more, when we think that we are living witnesses of Christ in all that we do, we must be mindful that what we say, what we do, and how we live tells others how much we value, or do not value, the light of Christ in our own lives.
So, what would it look like for us to take stock of how we are living out our faith in Christ? Are we living as a light of hope in the world in response to God’s love?
If we were honest with ourselves, if I was honest with myself, I think we would admit there are places in our lives, in our church, and in the entire global body of Christ that we reflect more the principles and values of the world than the love of Christ. If I were to look deeply in my own life, and perhaps if you looked deeply in your own, there are places where I live more for myself than God. There are places where my words do not match the love of Christ, but the divisions and anger in the world. There are places where my actions do not match the love of Christ, but the actions of the world. There are places where my focus is not on the love of Christ, but on the dark corners of the world that can shape me, and all of us.
When we refuse to live for the love of Christ in all things and truly be a reflection of God, we hinder our ability to make disciples and to shape the world. Yes, the life that Jesus calls us to is difficult. Jesus didn’t lower the expectations when it got harder, but raised them to match the nature and love of God.
As such, we should raise the expectations upon ourselves, our community, and one another, because the world is in dire need of the church to be the witness of God’s love. It is in dire need of people to live for Christ and to exemplify the Christ that they see in Scripture lived out in those who claim the love of Christ. The darkness needs put out by a light that shines with the hope of God’s love.
Will we be that witness? Will I be that witness? May it be through the love of God that we will be that witness of hope in the darkness of the world.