Sermon: Be the Light
Text: Matthew 5:13-20
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
Date: January 5, 2017, Epiphany 5, Communion Sunday
Years ago when I was avidly backpacking, I carried with me a light that was the envy of everyone I met on the trail. Instead of using batteries, my little lantern burned off another energy source which at first blush sounds crazy. You see, I used to pack with a calcium carbide lantern. It’s the same little lantern miners use.
Unlike batteries which get used up or a gas fuel source that would run out, a calcium carbide lantern worked on just two ingredients: Little rocks of calcium carbide and water. You place a few pieces of calcium carbide in the bottom of the lantern and then just add water. The mixture produces a gas which emits at the top of the lantern and once lit, burns for hours. I didn’t have to worry about batteries or kerosene; all I needed were my rocks and some water. Whoever would have thought the phrase, “Just add water” would generate fire and light?
Today’s text from Matthew’s Beatitudes describes what it means for you and me, this church, to be light. Being light is synonymous with the theologically loaded word “righteous.” Just as unlikely that a mineral mixed with water produces light, so the concept of what it means for us to be righteous is not immediately recognizable at first glance; as rocks and water create fire, righteousness is not made up of what we think it is either.
Turn in your Bible to Matthew 5:13. Jesus is up on a hillside above the seaport village of Capernaum located at the 12 o’clock position on the Sea of Galilee. We read last week the series of “Blessed ares…” and today we are picking up right where that left off. Let’s refresh our memory with the “Blessed ares…”.
Jesus begins his sermon in chapter five by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger after righteousness…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted for showing righteousness…blessed are those when you are reviled because of me.” Now, let’s listen to what Jesus says next. Listen to the Word of the Lord!
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Light is a big deal for the Jews. They would have heard Jesus’ words and reflect back on the text in Isaiah 49.6 that says, “I will make you (O Israel) as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah the prophet was reminding those Jews held in exile’s captivity that they would be restored to Jerusalem; furthermore, it is through them the world would come to see and learn about the Lord God. They were to be lighting up the Lord of Hosts so that all could believe and live in the unity, grace, gaze and care of God’s provision.
Sadly, that didn’t happen.
What happened was when the Exiles got back to Jerusalem, they took the notion of being a light to the nations and codified it into a list of do’s and don’ts. They said that to be a real believer, one had to do right things; what Jesus is saying today is that they got it wrong; what Jesus is stressing is that in order to be the light of the world, his followers would have to live out from the right way of viewing and understanding life.
The Jewish religious leaders felt that doing the right things – a very will-full and intellectual matter – made one righteous, i.e. made one right with God. Jesus, on the other hand, was stressing that being made right with God is not about mental assent to do the right things; on the contrary, Jesus was stressing that in order for his followers to be the light to the world and to the nations, they are to live the right way as guided by their heart.
For the religious leaders, living righteously was a matter of personally following the Law for their personal piety’s sake and because the Law demanded it.
For Jesus and his followers, living righteously was a matter of humbly living out the “Blessed ares…” in relation to God and to one another; this is what it means to be righteous. Righteousness, or right living before God, requires the intellect for action but righteousness’ birthing ground is in a person’s heart. Lest we forget, the people in Jesus’ day believed that God resided within a person in their heart as opposed to their head. Righteousness describes how a person sees and lives out their life in a God-oriented direction as opposed to doing “the right things.” Righteousness is way and attitude towards living life; it’s not about moral checklists. Righteousness describes who a person is and to Whom a person belongs more than it describes what a person does or does not do. Our actions of what we do or do not do stem from who we are in our heart and core. The soil our actions are grown in is either self-righteous or is light-generating righteousness. Jesus prefers the latter.
Being the light of the world means we humbly live poor in spirit; that we are in touch with the suffering in the world; that we are not driven to gain power or to have power over others; it means we desire to cultivate a relationship with God in our heart; being righteous means that we are merciful and kind to others; being the light, being righteous demands that we keep our hearts swept clean for God’s presence and trust God to hold us close even though the world reacts against us because the light reflects a different quality of life to the world that people would rather ignore. Jesus’ very life and progression to the Cross and his crucifixion are an example of what righteousness means; His very life and death are a reflection of the Beatitude’s “Blessed ares…”
He is telling us that our very life, our very difficulties, our triumphs are to be a reflection of the “Blessed ares…” This, my beloved, is what Jesus means when he says our righteousness needs to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Entering the Kingdom of Heaven is not about doing right things; entering the Kingdom of Heaven is about living rightly with our hearts calibrated to Jesus and to the “Blessed ares…” just as Jesus’ heart was. Righteousness is more than doing good; righteousness means living well and humbly from the depth of one’s heart out of gratitude for God and for the desire of sharing that Light of God with others.
The scribes and Pharisees were living self-righteously for their benefit; Jesus tells you and me to live out the “Blessed ares…” in order to be the light source for others to learn about God’s righteousness. It’s either self-righteousness for my salvation or other-directed-righteousness for the declaration of salvation for others. The Law was not meant to be some high-level Trigonometry test we have to pass in order to get from here to heaven. The Law was originally designed to show people how to cultivate a humble heart so as to live right with God and with our neighbor. Oh my, haven’t we messed that up over the last several hundred years!
The Pharisees and Scribes believed righteousness meant living separated from “those type of people” like the leper, the prostitute, the unclean and the ordinary. Jesus understood righteousness to mean living one’s life emanating the love, grace and glory of God in the very midst of the ordinary people, the unclean, the prostitute and the leper. Christ-following lives are lived in the midst of the world’s daily grind and as such, appear as bright lights of hope in the face of other people’s despair or are a fragrant sweet smelling breeze that comes from out of nowhere to revive the tired and fainthearted.
Preparing ourselves to receive this powerful meal means we pause and ask ourselves: Does my spiritual life show that I am simply punching a check-list of what I am supposed to do, or, does my Christ-following life reflect a righteousness that is attempting to live into the “Blessed ares…”? Remember: Righteousness is not for the self; righteousness is the light of God’s face shared with others. Amen.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, FL
724 North Woodland Boulevard
DeLand, Florida 32720
© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church in DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
All scripture is from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.