February 9, 2020 / Epiphany 5 / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 58-1-9a; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
You Are the Light
We Christians are kind of odd. We say we believe in Jesus – we say it each Sunday in the creed. If someone asked if we believe in Jesus, we’d be quick to say we do. Often, however, we are more inclined to believe what the world says about us than we are to believe what Jesus says about us. In many and various ways, the world says to us: You’re not good enough. You’re not doing enough. You don’t matter all that much. You’re not loved – not worthy of being loved. You’ve made a lot of mistakes. You’ll never amount to much. You’re a burden on others.
If the world isn’t sending us this message, then it’s the devil and/or our sinful selves. In his Small Catechism, those three make up Martin Luther’s “unholy trinity”: “the devil, the world and our sinful selves. Another name for the devil is “the accuser”, the one who is always pointing a finger, reminding us of all our failings and inadequacies. And we can do it to ourselves, beating ourselves up with guilt and regret – telling ourselves we are unworthy, unlovable. Wherever the message comes from, we’re inclined to believe it.
On the other hand, what is Jesus telling us about ourselves? Last Sunday we heard the opening verses of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. That’s where Jesus says things like this:
“You’re blessed when you are poor in spirit.”
“You’re blessed when you are mourning.”
“You’re blessed when you are meek and humble.”
“You’re blessed even when you are persecuted.”
We’re not always quite ready to believe what Jesus says about being blessed! (But there it is.) Today Jesus says this to us:
“You are the salt of the earth.”
“You are the light of the world.”
Notice that Jesus is not telling us what to do. Jesus doesn’t say: You better be the light of the world. You really should be the salt of the earth. You have to try really hard to be the light of the world. Instead, Jesus reminds us who we ARE: You ARE the light of the world. Jesus is not giving orders or issuing high expectations. He is pointing us to our true identity. He is not preaching LAW, he is preaching GOSPEL. He is saying to us:
You are children of God
You are dearly loved by God.
You are blessed and forgiven by God.
You have received the Spirit of God.
You are full of the grace of God.
This is not a demand, it is a PROMISE. Jesus speaks to us wonderful words of blessing. Why is it hard for us to believe him? Why do we find it easier to believe in our unworthiness than in our blessedness?
When I was in seminary, William Sloane Coffin gave a lecture on preaching, and I have always remembered a key insight he shared. He said, “The challenge in preaching is not getting people to believe they are sinners. The real challenge is getting them to believe they are forgiven.” I believe this is true. Somehow, we are more willing to believe the message about our guilt than we are to believe the message of grace. We trust the bad news more than the good news. Perhaps it seems too good to be true.
Nevertheless, the gospel is first and foremost not a message about something you and I have to do, have to accomplish, have to achieve. It’s a message about what God has done and continues to do. In Christ, God breaks into this world, changing things for good, changing all who welcome the blessing of grace, bringing light that overcomes our darkness.
God’s grace touches our lives in a tangible and lasting way at Baptism: we are welcomed as beloved children of God; we are marked with the cross of Christ; we are promised forgiveness and eternal life; we receive the Holy Spirit. At baptism a candle is lighted, signifying that the light of Christ has now been given to this newly baptized person. And these words from today’s gospel are spoken: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That is: you have received the light of grace, now let it shine – don’t hide it or cover it up. Like the song says:
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Hide it under a bushel – NO!
Don’t let Satan blow it out
I’m gonna let it shine.
We are not called to be anonymous Christians. To be a child of God is not a secret identity. The light is meant to be shared – not to draw attention or credit to ourselves – but to point to the grace and goodness of God.
Letting your light shine before others involves getting caught being good. Years ago we took an parenting class, and the teach encouraged us to try to catch our children being good. He pointed out that we are quick to catch and correct them when they are bad. We often fail to notice and commend them when they are being good: when they share, when they wait their turn, when they are helpful, when they obey.
As children of God, we can catch ourselves and one another being faithful, generous, patient, forgiving, encouraging, compassionate. I have seen the light shining through all of you – and often you are not even aware of it. Trust me, it makes a difference. You make a difference.
We know this world can be a pretty dark place. There are worries and griefs and fears, doubts and despair. Big worldwide problems and personal dilemmas. It is much better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. There is more than enough cursing and complaining in this world. I can be guilty of complaining about all that’s wrong and pointing fingers at those I presume are to blame. Instead, each of us can let our light shine. By the content of our character, and by faithful works of mercy and love, we can be a beacon of hope and grace.