Matthew’s Gospel quotes our text from Isaiah: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” The image of light is one of the great figures of Western religion, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism, the religions of South Asia, and it has many meanings. Like most of the important symbols of religion, its many meanings resonate with one another and reinforce its power far beyond the significance of any one of its meanings.
In Isaiah, the principle meaning of the light that has dawned is that the people who sat in the darkness of political oppression have now been visited by the glory of God and they shall prosper as at the hand of the messiah. Light is a symbol of divine glory and favor. Matthew spins this passage to mean that the special favor God bestows on Zebulun and Naphtali, the territory of Capernaum where Jesus established his permanent home, is that the messiah saving the whole world has come from there. The glory of Zebulun and Naphtali is not necessarily that they will become especially just and prosperous as Isaiah said, but that they have the honor of being the home of Jesus the Messiah. As history would have it, Jesus would be known as the Nazarene, where he grew through the teen and young adult years, not as Jesus of Capernaum, nor as Jesus of Bethlehem, his birthplace, or Jesus of Egypt where he spent his early years. Nevertheless, the light shone with divine favor on Capernaum, of Zebulun and Naphtali.
The symbol of divine light also means the source of the good example and teaching. Other passages in Isaiah that we have discussed in previous weeks said that Israel as the suffering servant would be the light to the nations, showing them the glory of God and instructing them in justice. Jesus has this meaning of light in mind when, in the 5th chapter of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says to the crowd, “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.” I have great affection for this biblical meaning of light because, when I was very small my mother taught me my first song—“A sun beam, a sun beam, Jesus wants me for a sun beam.” As I got older and matured in the arts of sin, she amended her teaching, saying “Don’t show off so much, Bobby!” What’s cute at three is pretentious in a ten year old who proclaims himself a sunbeam for Jesus. My experience illustrates the difficulty in being the light of the world. When the Puritans came to America to establish the city built on a hill to be a light to the rest of the world, they soon were dazzled by their own self-righteousness. We in America, deeply committed to being the glory of God, are still working through that self-righteous dazzlement.
Yet another biblical meaning of light, perhaps the most profound yet, is divine understanding. As we have quoted several times in the last month, the beginning of John’s Gospel says that Jesus was the light of all people. Then recalling our Isaiah text, John says “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The light, according to John, is the Word of God through which all creation has come to be. That Word, Logos in Greek, is the divine mind, the understanding or intelligibility at the heart of God through which the cosmos and its goodness can be understood. One of the primary ways that we can love God is through understanding God through the Word. This spiritual path is especially beloved of theologians, and I acknowledge a professional bias here. Nevertheless, the spiritual path of understanding and meditation, of striving for a vision of God, is at the center of the Christian, and most other religious traditions.
The Christians discovered very early that approaching the divine light for understanding can be easily misconstrued. Many early Christians, and Jews too, thought that by focusing on the knowledge of God they could leave Earthly concerns and climb to a higher reality. Perhaps you’ve known mystics who are bit too other-worldly. These people were condemned under the name of being Gnostics. Gnosticism is the officially heretical belief that one can be saved from the world by special knowledge of higher planes. The orthodox Christian point, made directly by John, is just the opposite: the Word came into the world and we find its saving light here. Salvation is not escape from the world, but the discovery of God in the world.
Why should we study science? Not principally for better technology, but to understand the world God has created and worship the Creator that way. Why should we cultivate and study the arts? Not principally for decoration, but to explore God’s beauty in the world and give it residence in our lives. Why should we ponder the meaning of life? Because that is God calling us to find the divine meaning and intelligence within our very selves.
John, like Matthew and Isaiah, contrasts the light with the darkness, which has not overcome it. For our Isaiah text, darkness meant the horrors of suffering under the vicious rule of the Assyrians who occupied Zebulun and Naphtali, and light meant messianic relief. For Matthew, the darkness probably symbolizes human sin, for he has Jesus preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Those are the exact same words Matthew put in John the Baptist’s mouth in the previous chapter. The darkness of human sin is about to be shone up by the light of the Messiah, and so repent quickly. For John, the darkness symbolizes all evil, cosmic as well as human. That evil cannot overcome the light of God that has come into the very place of evil itself.
This leads to the last meaning of the biblical symbol of divine light, namely, that it reveals who and what we are, our shame as well as glory, our dirty secrets as well as our virtue. Paul, in the 4th chapter of 1 Corinthians, warning people not to judge one another, says, “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” In our own souls, the light that reveals all is at war with the darkness that would keep things hidden. Light exposes us. It shows the God within us. And it shows the darkness that is a rejection of light. Light is God coming to us, but it is very scary. In so many things, we prefer the dark. The light of the world makes us honest.
The Christian moral is that to embrace Christ is to pursue the light. To pursue the light is to be grateful for our blessings, in contrast to the Assyrian alternative. To pursue the light is to rejoice the Christ’s messianic mission rests with us: like Zebulun and Naphtali, we are hosts for God’s work. To pursue the light is to embrace the work of being the light of the world, the sunbeam, the beacon, the help to others struggling to understand and live well. To pursue the light means to commit ourselves to knowledge, to inquiry, to creativity in accord with God’s Word. To pursue the light means finally to become honest and admit who we are.
Honesty is always easier to require in others. So we can be easy with the Christian duty to shine the light of truth on government rhetoric in which democracy means capitalism, freedom means occupation, liberation means control by us, insurgents means freedom fighters, compassionate conservatism means cutting entitlements, social security means betting on the market, “no child left behind” means those who are not already behind, international cooperation means our way or not at all, and morality means the imposition of one culture on everyone. Let’s be honest about “them.”
It’s harder to be honest about the ways we live ourselves, for whom pension funds require management to squeeze out top dollar, ourselves for whom freedom to spend what we acquire requires occupying countries who object, ourselves for whom gasoline consumption requires control of the oil, ourselves for whom defense of our children in the military requires demonizing those who attempt to expel them from their countries, ourselves who do not want to pay taxes for entitlements to help the poor, ourselves for whom a satisfactory way of life requires a system in which others are left behind in satisfaction, ourselves for whom giving up American sovereignty might cost us our way of life, ourselves who prefer our culture’s morals to others and act to impose them. Let’s be honest about ourselves, and how our government so often speaks for our real but dark interests if not for our better sentiments.
Let me only hint at a further honesty required in the light of Jesus, a candle in the heart of our souls. Do we secretly want a control of others that borders on sadism? Do we secretly want to embrace the lie that we are better than others, knowing it is a lie? Do we secretly lust after wealth, power, and flesh, not merely enjoy those things, but lust after them? Do we secretly want comfort and plenty rather than the duty that comes from the watch in which God stations us? Do we secretly long continually to test God’s love, because we do not love ourselves properly? Do we secretly want to give ourselves to the powers that might give us our secret passions rather than to the God whose light exposes those passions? Surely I dare not speak for anyone here, including myself. The last three of those secret passions are those to which Satan appealed in Jesus during the Temptation, and I suspect the devil is a pretty good judge of our character too. Nevertheless, the light of God is here among us. God’s glory is here. And we are exposed.
The good news is that we therefore have a vocation. In Matthew’s text, Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and told them he would make them fishers of people. We are those who have been caught, and like those disciples we have been called to follow Jesus. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were not better than we are. They too had a dubious government that gave them peace and a good living, and their hearts were as secretly corrupt as our own. No matter, says the Gospel. That doesn’t matter. All is forgiven if you get up and follow. The darkness of our society is no excuse to sit still. The darkness of our dependence on darkness is no excuse to sit still. The darkness of our souls is no excuse to refuse the call. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That is our vocation, freely given, and giving of freedom. That is the Gospel, the good news.
So where did the disciples follow Jesus? The text says Jesus went about teaching in the “synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Our vocation is to follow along and do that too. Even in our darkness we can proclaim the light that is God’s glory and that exposes the sins of which we and everyone else should repent. We teach by word and example that the darkness cannot overcome the light. And then we help people, curing every disease and sickness. That does not mean only biological sickness. It means the sickness of injustice, poverty, war, arrogance, powermadness, selfishness, and hate. Of course the ways to cure these things are obscure. Of course the sicknesses remain in ourselves. Yet the Christian good news is that these things cannot keep us down. We have the light that shows us a vision of justice. We have the light that allows us to imagine sharing wealth with everyone. We have the light to wage peace, to curb powermadness, and selfishness. We have the light to turn hate to love. For the light of the world has dwelt among us in Jesus and even death could not turn that light to darkness. We who have dwelt in darkness have seen a great light. Let us enter into that light that has come to us, the God who beckons.