Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Being Creatures of Light
Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6
Images of dark and light are ancient. Living out in the country makes it clear why: without streetlights or houselights, the night can be incredibly dark. It is the dark of night that scares us; the light of the day shines to show us where the roots and rocks are so we don’t trip on them. We don’t have to worry if a bear or a pack of wolves is lurking around that big tree over there. We don’t have to be afraid of each shadow because the light shows us what is really there.
It’s a natural thing to consider light to be good and dark to be bad. Sadly, this has been abused over the years to be used in racist ways, to unfairly categorize people. Something we can’t forget as we talk about this ancient imagery is that even good and useful ideas can be twisted and corrupted to hurt others.
Epiphany is a season when the ideas of light and dark get a real workout in Christian tradition. There’s a natural connection between the images and in our northern experience. Before Christmas, the days were getting shorter and shorter with more and more darkness, less and less light. Now that Epiphany is here, it is clear that the days are getting longer again. In Pagan and Heathen times, this was celebrated with all kinds of things, like bonfires.
In Christianity, we talk about the Magi, the Wise Men following a star and we associate that with our reading from Isaiah, which was written centuries before. It talks about how the nation of Israel would stand out like a light in the dark and be so attractive that other nations would come to know God through their brightness.
An important part of the way Matthew presents this to us is that it is a message of welcome, of tolerance and acceptance. The Magi were priests of a foreign religion: the law of Moses forbade Jewish people from trying to read the future in the stars. Nobody questioned the idea that God could speak through the stars or any other part of creation but the thought that God would speak this way to these foreigners was shocking.
Matthew was a Jewish Christian, writing for other Jewish Christians and addressing the issue of all the pagan people who were joining their ranks. “Don’t worry,” he is saying “this is the realization of Isaiah’s hopeful vision. Don’t be afraid of them, welcome them!”
Jesus used images of light and dark in the Sermon on the Mount, also recorded by Matthew. He tells us not to hide our light under a basket; he says that the lights of a city on a hilltop cannot be hidden but instead can be seen for miles.
That’s not as dramatic an example as it used to be. People live in cities these days where light pollution is a problem. There is so much light at night that it is hard to see the night sky sometimes. Light pollution is so bad in Los Angeles that in 1994, when an earthquake knocked out the power, people actually called 911 to ask about the strange things they were seeing in the sky: it was the Milky Way galaxy!
When you are out at night in the country, away from all the lights, it is so very dark that you can see just how far the light of a single bulb, or even candle, can shine. Rather like the Magi following the light of a single star across the miles, it doesn’t matter if the light is small. It can still be seen in contrast to the darkness around it.
I have met people who worry about what it means to be a good follower of Jesus. Some have even had the sense that all Christians are called to be preachers or experts at explaining theology, or people who can quote a scripture reference for every situation.
But Jesus didn’t call us to talk. Jesus called us to live. Jesus called us to shine in the darkness by our lives of love, of welcome, of kindness; by our lives where we build bridges to reach the strangers, the people like the Magi from other places, languages and traditions, who are also beloved by God.
And we don’t have to be brilliant, either because of how far it is possible to see the light of one small candle in the darkness.
Preparing this sermon, I couldn’t help thinking of a Sunday School song I was taught in the 60s: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”. I remember how reassuring it was when I was a child because it told me that I could do something good, even if I was small. This is still a powerful message today and right in line with the teachings of Jesus.
It’s possible to talk about the darkness that surrounds us – the war in Ukraine is an obvious choice – but there are all kinds of other issues going on as people near and far flee from violence, try to feed their children without adequate resources, or simply try to cope with the disasters caused by climate change.
Every one of us can make a difference if we live lives that show God’s love even in simple ways. We don’t have to be flashy and we can still shine out in the darkness.
I was amazed to learn that this simple Sunday School song written for children in the 1920s, which I thought had faded away, has become a song of peaceful protest in the American civil rights movement today.
I think that has happened because it is the simplest lessons we remember the best. Jesus understood that. We don’t hide our light under a bushel basket; we let it shine. We don’t let the darkness overcome us; we let our light shine!
God’s love can be seen in the simplest acts of kindness: in helping and sharing; in walking with someone through a difficult time; and our light can shine in all these things.
Being creatures of light isn’t a dramatic calling, it is something each of us can do, from biggest to smallest, youngest to oldest.
And the darker things get in life, the more clearly our lights will shine.