Lamps and Light
Read : John 8: 12, Matthew 5: 14-16
A while ago, I spent a few days in Bowling Green in American Kentucky, to attend a Corvette rally. Bowling Green, and I don't know why it's called that, is where the Corvette sports cars are built, and where the national Corvette museum is located. In case you're now wondering, I'm not going to spend all my time today talking about cars ! Just a few a miles outside of Bowling Green is the Mammoth Cave national park, which claims to contain the worlds longest cave system.
While we were there we took a tour and after walking a long way down into the earth, through many twisting passageways, we came out into an enormous cave. All the time, the way was well lit by electric lights. Well, that is, it was well lit, until our guide turned out all the lights ! By that time we were so far from the surface that not the tiniest ray of natural light could reach us, and so with the lights off, it was utterly and completely dark.
Sometimes we say 'it was so dark I couldn't see my hand in front of my face', even though it probably wasn't really that dark. But with the lights off in the cave, it really was that dark. We couldn't see anything, not the person next to us, not our hand in front of our face, just was total and complete darkness.
After we had been in the dark for a while, our guide lit a candle, and because we had got used to the darkness, that candle seemed to shine very brightly. Now of course, one candle wasn't enough to light the whole cave, but because of the candle, we could now see the person standing next to us. And it didn't matter how far anyone was from the candle, they could see it shining in the darkness. If all the electric lights really had failed, that one tiny candle flame would have been enough to lead us through the darkness, and back to the surface and safety.
In our day to day lives, there is so much light everywhere, all the time, that unless we go on holiday to some remote corner of the world, or there's a power cut in our street, we probably hardly ever experience complete darkness. But the people Jesus was talking to, didn't have electric lights in their homes, or street lamps outside to light their way. Once the sun set, they would have lit candles or small oil lamps, and these were their only source of light in their homes. If they went outside at night, unless there was a good moon, it would have been completely dark. They lived with darkness, and they knew that even a small light can push back the darkness. So when Jesus talked about being the light for a dark world, it would have made an impression on them.
The people Jesus was talking to would have been familiar with the common Old Testament theme of God as light for the world, and for individuals. Light represented what was good and pure and holy, while darkness represented what was sinful and evil. When Jesus said he was the light of the world, he was saying that he was the source of light for the whole world, and this was another occasion when he was implying his divinity.
Light is not a natural human possession, it comes only from God. The whole world is in darkness, because of sin, and so without God, people exist in darkness, but Jesus came to bring light to the world. The purpose of his incarnation was to deliver us from the darkness of sin and death, and to bring us into the light of his love and a right relationship with God.
Jesus told people that he was the light of the world, and yet on another occasion he told his disciples that they were the light of the world. Was he saying that they were equal to him ? Well no, they would have understood that they were the light in the world then, as we are now, only through Jesus' presence with them.
Saying that Jesus' followers are collectively the light of the world, means that they mediate his light to the world. But their light comes only from God, and so it can never be more than a pointer to, and a reflection of, the light that streams from him. But Jesus followers are able to bring his light to the whole world, in a way that could not happen without them.
Imagine a city on a hillside. At night in a dark world, the lights from the city would be visible from miles away. Jesus' listeners would know that because of its lights, it was not possible to hide the city. It is the nature of light to shine, and when people have received the light of the gospel, they are to shine in this dark world.
Imagine you're flying somewhere and it's dark outside. You've been flying over water, but you know when you're flying over land again. How do you know ? Because you can see the lights below you ! The lights can be clearly seen, even though, because of the darkness nothing else is visible. You can make out the streets outlined by streetlights. You can see the mass of lights that make up towns and cities. You may even see a single light surrounded by darkness, from someone living or driving in the middle of nowhere.
I've often wondered whether Jesus' followers, look like that from heaven. I wonder if, from a heavenly view point, we should stand out as bright shining lights, surrounded by the world's darkness. But what if our light isn't bright, what if we're just flickering dimly, so that we don't show up as one of Jesus' followers ?
Jesus would have described that as hiding our light under a bushel or basket. A bushel was a large basket used for measuring out dried goods. It would have a very tight weave so that nothing put into it escaped - whether it was 48 lbs of barley, or 32 lbs of oats, or 42 lbs of white flour, which it would hold and the tight weave which meant that if it was put over a lamp, its light would be blocked out.
When Jesus talked about lighting a lamp and putting it under a bushel basket, those listening probably laughed. Unlike us, they didn't light lamps to create ambience or atmosphere in a room. They lit their lamps for light, and the idea that after lighting a lamp they would cover it up again, would have seemed ridiculous to them.
Remember the candle in the cave? Even though its light wasn't enough to illuminate the far corners of the cave, it could still be seen by everyone there, regardless of where they were standing. Although only a small light, it would have been enough to lead us out of the cave to safety. Jesus said that if we are his people, we should not hide our light, or hide who we are. Being one of his people should make us stand out. People should be able to see who we are, by the way we live our lives, by the way we behave, and by the way we treat other people, even before we say anything. The light of Jesus' presence within us, should shine in the world's darkness, and it should help lead others towards Jesus.
Think about what happens when you put a lot of small lights together - don't they seem to give out more light than just the sum of all the little lights ? We may only be small lights, but when we come together as a church, we bring all our small lights together, so the church should be a shining beacon for God. The light should be unmistakable. The light should be capable of leading people out of the darkness of the world, and into the light of Jesus.
I wonder what your church (or our church !) looks like from that heavenly viewpoint ? Is it a shining beacon for Jesus, showing people the way to him, or is its light so dim, that no-one even notices that it's there, and it never draws anyone to Jesus ? I wonder too what each one of us would look like from that heavenly viewpoint - how brightly are we shining ?
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