“Shining in the Darkness” on Matthew 5:13-16 by Joe Ellis — September 25, 2022
“You are the Light of the world." This is what God’s people, Israel, were always meant to be — Israel was always meant to be a Light, telling the other nations about the one True God. Take Isaiah 51: “Listen to me, my people, hear me, my nation: Instruction will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations." This calling is repeated again in Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn." You see, the Messiah did what Israel could not do. He became God’s Light. That’s why John’s Gospel begins by describing Jesus as the “Light shining in the darkness." Jesus became what God’s people could not, a Light shining in the darkness.
With that background in mind, let’s take a moment to remember who Jesus is talking to here in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew is pretty intentional about linking the large crowds that followed him up the mountain with the large crowds that were following him as he began his ministry. Matthew tells us in 4:16 that these people are “The people who sat in the darkness and saw a great Light. Light dawned on those who sat in the shadowy land of death." It is these people who are now hearing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These people, who perhaps earlier that day or week were the ones sitting in the shadowy land of death, sitting in darkness. Now they are sitting at His feet listening to him. He is saying: “You are the Light of the world!" Quite the shift. How do you go from being in complete darkness to becoming the Light of the world in the course of an afternoon? No doubt the answer is obvious. They have come close to the True Light. They are following the True Light. The True Light of the world has dawned on them so they are no longer in darkness. Just as the moon reflects the sun, as they are near Jesus they reflect His Light back into the world. We can identify with them. On our own we are in darkness. Only in Christ can we find the Light. Then we can reflect the light back into the world.
And the people seemed to have found this Light to be irresistible. They saw the True Light heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom. Their eyes were dazzled because of the beauty of the True Light they saw coming from Jesus. They would risk their lives to be near and follow this Light. Remember, the message of the coming Kingdom was dangerous in those times. Those people well knew that following someone announcing the Kingdom of God could cost them their lives. Rome did not take kindly to revolutionaries, they’d seen enough rebels crucified to learn this lesson really well. Yet, they followed Jesus, drawn in by the beauty of the hope He held out for them. His Light seemed to be irresistible to the people who were so long in the dark.
With that in mind, I want to read you a poem that’s stuck with me for about 13 years. It’s not a Christian poem, but one that invites us to think about our relationship to beauty and light: “The Lesson of the Moth,” by Don Marquis. Here’s the summary — a man is talking to a moth, and the moth is telling him about why moths are so irresistibly drawn to light — it’s because of the beauty of light. They will fly towards light even if it will kill them. Here’s the poem:
I was talking to a moth / the other evening / he was trying to break into / an electric light bulb / and fry himself on the wires —
why do you fellows / pull this stunt I asked him / because it is the conventional / thing for moths or why / if that had been an uncovered / candle instead of an electric / light bulb you would / now be a small unsightly cinder / have you no sense —
plenty of it he answered / but at times we get tired / of using it / we get bored with the routine / and crave beauty / and excitement / fire is beautiful / and we know that if we get / too close it will kill us / but what does that matter / it is better to be happy / for a moment / and be burned up with beauty / than to live a long time / and be bored all the while / so we wad all our life up / into one little roll / and then we shoot the roll / that is what life is for / it is better to be a part of beauty / for one instant and then cease to / exist than to exist forever / and never be a part of beauty / our attitude toward life / is come easy go easy / we are like human beings / used to be before they became / too civilized to enjoy themselves —
and before i could argue him / out of his philosophy / he went and immolated himself / on a patent cigar lighter / I do not agree with him / myself i would rather have / half the happiness and twice / the longevity — but at the same time i wish / there was something i wanted / as badly as he wanted to fry himself
Now, if we could’ve joined in this conversation with that moth, we might point out that the choice isn’t necessarily between beauty and death. Living a beautiful life doesn’t mean an early death. We might point out that there is a Light that won’t kill you as you draw close. There is a Light that is so beautiful that the closer you get to it, the more you will become who you were always meant to be. This Light doesn’t destroy you, but draws out of you what is good, honourable, whole and true — this is the Light of Christ. Maybe if we truly believe what we say, this moth, who is so drawn by beauty, will say, “Oh, then you must have left everything, you must have rearranged your life so completely, you must have sacrificed all you have just to be near this Beautiful Light." What then would you say? "Hmm. Uh-huh?”
Peter would have said, “Of course, just not perfectly." Just as Peter later said to Jesus in Matt. 19:27, “We have left everything to follow you." Many, many followers of Jesus throughout the centuries have found themselves sacrificing their all for the beauty of Christ. The church Father, Justin Martyr, after being threatened with scourging and death said, “The sufferings of this world are nothing to the glory which Christ had promised to His people in the world to come." Or think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he was about to be hung by the Nazis, said, “This is the end — for me, the beginning of life." Throughout the centuries, countless followers of Jesus would look that moth in the eye and say, “There is no Light more beautiful than Christ. We have given our all to draw near to His Light”.
Yet some professing Christians might be slightly more reserved, or maybe more cautious in drawing near to the Light of Christ. They might not agree with the moth when it says, “better to be happy for a moment and be burned up with beauty than to live a long time and be bored all the while." Do we find it easier to trade beauty for boredom and safety?
One of the more valid translations of the Beatitudes goes like this: “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice”, “happy are the peacemakers”, “happy are the persecuted” — like the moth, they certainly won’t be bored. We do know that the Beatitudes could scorch us if we lived closer to them. We do know that following the teachings of Jesus could burn us even as we live. Jesus does say, “Pick up your cross and follow me." As Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person, He bids him come and die." Is it better to find happiness in Christ and be burned up with His beauty than to keep your distance and be bored all the while? Have we traded the beauty of following the Light for the safety and boredom of darkness?
Reading the Sermon on the Mount makes our hearts beat faster because we know that in following His commands, we could get severely burned. We know that as we get close, as we start living as Jesus says, like moths our wings will catch on fire. We will get burned. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is for us to be burned up with His beauty. Maybe the point is to willingly let our wings catch fire. Perhaps then we’ll discover the Light of Jesus is not an ordinary fire. Perhaps it's more like the fire that burned and burned but didn’t burn up the burning bush. Perhaps it’s like when God said through Isaiah the prophet in Ch. 43: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." Maybe we’re called to be that kind of fire. Perhaps when our wings are set afire, we will fly through the night’s sky and light up the world.
Let’s abandon the safety of boredom and brighten up the night’s sky. Let’s do this together. We are brighter together. Jesus does say in Matt 5: 14, “A city on a Hill cannot be hidden.” It's the many lights together that make the city so bright. Imagine a church full of people lit up with the glory of Christ. A beautiful city on a hill whose light flashes out in the darkness of night. We are brighter when we shine together. Of course, we can always keep our distance from Christ and be like bored moths crawling safely on a dark wall. But if we draw close to Christ, if we follow Him wherever He may lead — we will discover true living. That’s living for the beauty of the Kingdom. People will see our wings on fire, they’ll see the brightness all around us and give glory to our Father in Heaven.
“No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bucket. They put it on a lamp stand, then it gives light to everybody in the house. That’s how you must shine your light in front of people. Then they’ll see what wonderful things you do and they’ll give glory to your Father in Heaven." (Matt. 5:15-16) It's the beauty of your light that people will be drawn to. The beauty of your Christ-Light shining in the darkness, so that people will be drawn to the Light of our Father in Heaven.
It’s no mystery how to live this out. It’s no mystery at all. Jesus gives very clear instruction for how to set our wings on fire and shine in the darkness. That’s what the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is all about. Go and read it again in Matthew chapters 5 through 7. As we live the way Jesus tells us to, our lives will be illumined with His Light. So do what Jesus says and go make friends with those who have a grudge against you; Cultivate wholeness in your sexuality; Be good on your word; Don’t use violence to resist evil; Love your enemies and pray for people who make your life hard; Secretly give your money to those in need; Resist lusting after money; Trust that your Father in Heaven will provide for all your needs; Pray regularly to your Father who is with you in the secrecy of your own room; Trust that He hears you; Fast; Trust that He will provide for all your needs; Don’t judge people; Treat others the way you want to be treated; Watch out for people who profess to know Jesus but don’t follow His teachings.
These are very clear ways that Jesus teaches us to shine our light in front of people. That’s the only program we really need. We hear Jesus say that we are the Light of the world and wonder how to do that? — It's no mystery at all! Do the things Jesus says and people will see what wonderful things you do and give glory to your Father in Heaven. It’s no mystery, but it is not easy. Difficult? Yes. Dangerous? Sometimes. Challenging? Of course. Beautiful? Beyond telling.
In teaching us how to live in these ways, Jesus is teaching us in these chapters how to recover what it means to be human. We were never meant to be a mere dusty moth crawling on a dark wall. The devil loves to heap mud and dirt on us so that our God-reflecting Light will be snuffed out. Let it not be so. The devil will tell you that you can’t possibly live up to these expectations so don’t even try, or you could become very hard on yourself, and he’ll tell you to turn away from the Light. Be not discouraged when you fall into sin, when you fall short of His glory, when you pass by opportunities to live the way Jesus tells us to, or when you find yourself feeling safe, boring, cold, and creeping in the dark. Christ has redeemed you in the past, and He will redeem you again. Jesus is summoning you once again to come out of the darkness and into His wonderful Light. To live in power the way He calls you to live. He will pick you up and set you ablaze, empowering you and me to stand together and shine out the glory of God through our lives — as we do, the darkness discovers what it is to flee and those sitting in the darkness find themselves rising to shine with Christ alongside us.
In following Jesus’ teaching, we are recovering what it means to be truly, beautifully human.