You are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16) [sermon 12-16-18]

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December 17, 2018 by jmar198013

Live audio and manuscript of the third and final message of our Advent series, Out of the darkness, into his amazing light.  (The fourth Sunday of Advent we do Lessons and Carols.)

The texts we read in worship were Isaiah 9.2; 11.1-3 and Matthew 5.13-16.

The audio link is embedded below for those who’d prefer to listen.

Me and God among the fireflies

One of the things I miss about living down around Alabama and Tennessee is fireflies. Or, as we called them, lightning bugs.

We don’t really have fireflies in California.

But when I was a kid in northern Alabama, I counted it all joy to be able to sit out on the porch of a summer evening, watching the fireflies flicker.

Flittering this way across the front yard, flitting that way through the trees.

It was like hundreds of little stars had fallen to earth. And they were putting on the most dazzling dance. Just for me.

And in my young heart, lightning bugs were a comforting word from the Almighty Himself, written by his own hand in the Book of Nature.

Through them, I heard God say, See—even in the darkness, there are little flashes of hope.   

So my heart would overflow with joy whenever I got to watch the fireflies scurrying through the night.

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child.

My world was so enchanted, even the fireflies were a word from God. Declaring his glory as they flashed across my lawn on summer nights. Reminding me that heaven isn’t too far away.

But when I grew up, I put away childish things.

And watching fireflies didn’t bring me near as much joy. I realized that it was just a childish fantasy, that God would try and tell me anything through fireflies flickering.

I learned that fireflies aren’t anything special. They’re just bioluminescent beetles.

And they have really practical reasons for shimmering. Like attracting a mate. And warning predators not to come at them.

And their glow is just a reaction between two chemicals called luciferin and luciferase. [1]

When I studied the lifestyle and habits of lightning bugs, I found out that they’re actually pretty dark creatures.

They are toxic.

And they fight dirty. They deceive other fireflies with their sparkles. Then they devour each other.

And they have to do incredibly gross and ugly things to get by. Fireflies are parasites. They burrow under snail shells, and eat them bit by bit from inside. [2]

Why people are like fireflies

I also learned that all those things are true of humans, too. Myself included.

We can all be toxic.

Sometimes we fight dirty.

We lie to each other.

Sometimes we devour each other.

Some people are parasites. Co-dependent. Emotional vampires.

Like the glimmer of fireflies, we often put on a big show to intimidate other people. Or make them like us.

And we all find ourselves in icky, sticky, tricky situations and compromises.

We all make questionable decisions. And sometimes even our best behavior is iffy.

We are no better than fireflies.

Actually, we’re worse.

At least fireflies carry some light in them. At least they manage to accidentally shine in the darkness sometimes.

But we humans actually make the world a darker place.

We darken the world with sin, selfishness, suffering, and sadness.

We dwell in darkness. And darkness dwells in us.

Which is why it’s so amazing, so astounding, so astonishing to hear Jesus say the words we heard him say in our Gospel reading today.

We are acutely aware of the darkness inside us. Our sin and selfishness and the suffering and sadness they cause.

Even so Jesus calls out to us—to us, oh the audacity of it!—and says: You are the light of the world.

Jesus. Said that. To us.

Look at yourselves! Look at me! Look around the room at each other!

We are the light of the world?

As crazy as that might sound, it’s exactly what Jesus said.

You know, fireflies can go to some dark places. And they do some pretty shady things. But they also flicker and shimmer and glow and light up the darkness.

Maybe we’re like that, too.

The people Jesus calls the light of the world

Maybe you’re still having a hard time believing that when Jesus said, You are the light of the world, he had people like you in mind.

Maybe you think you’re too broken. Or too boring. Or too timid. You think you’re too much of something, or not enough of something, to shine a light.

Maybe you’re thinking about some of the dark places you’ve gone to in your life. And Jesus couldn’t possibly mean that you are the light of the world.

You know what, though?

The first people Jesus said those words to probably didn’t believe him either.

Do you know where these words come from? They’re actually from Jesus’ most famous sermon. The Sermon on the Mount.

Do you know who was at the Sermon on the Mount?

His first handful of disciples were there. They were mostly fishermen. Have any of you ever seen that TV show, Deadliest Catch? They were more like that kind of fishermen. Super salty and rougher than dollar store toilet paper.

You know who else was there? A random crowd of people. And all of them had showed up with some deep need. Some distress or trauma or emptiness in their life.

Some had come for to be healed. Some had come to be forgiven. Some of them probably just had nowhere else to be.

Jesus called them the poor in spirit. They were the hopeless, the hurting, the humble, and the hungry.

Those people knew about going to dark places.

Some of them probably never had a good day in their lives.

History has been able to paint a pretty detailed picture of the people who heard the Sermon on the Mount live and in person.

With just a little bit of imagination, we can bring them into today’s world. To see them in high definition.

Maybe you’ll see people you know among this crowd. The first ones Jesus called the light of the world.

Maybe you’ll even see yourself there.

We’ve already talked about the fishermen. They were people with dirty, demanding, and sometimes dangerous jobs. Also, they depended on nature to cooperate with them. If not, they wouldn’t have food on the table or a roof over their head.

Let’s think about the crowds.

A lot of them would be people you’d see on Social Security and disability now. People with birth defects. Or chronic illnesses. Or maybe they’d been maimed by an on-the-job injury. Or something in their body had just stopped working at some point.

Not to mention people with mental and emotional issues.

But back then, there was no safety net.

So if you were live at the Sermon on the Mount, you would have had people experiencing homelessness. Panhandlers. People who maybe hadn’t eaten in a while.

You would have had single mothers, along with their children.

Women whose marriages had fallen apart. Some of them had probably suffered domestic abuse before their husbands divorced them.

There would have been young men who, before they had even turned twelve, had seen their fathers and uncles killed by soldiers in the streets. Or publicly executed by local authorities.

Okay, can you see those people clearly?

Now, look out on the rim and fringes of the crowd.

You’d have had seen these clusters of people trying to keep a safe distance from the rest.

Respectable-looking people. Who on paper might have looked like they had pretty good lives.

But who were really hurting. Empty. Afraid. Confused. And alone.

You would have had farmers whose land was about to be foreclosed and auctioned off. And homeowners whose mortgages were way underwater. And all of them would have been in arrears on their property taxes, too.

You would have seen soccer moms and desperate housewives. Trying not to make eye contact with people they recognized from Little League and the PTA.

Now I want you to imagine yourself among that mixed crowd of curious onlookers, seekers, and followers.

You know in your heart which group you belong in.

Now, listen again. Jesus is looking at this crowd you’re in. And he says: You are the light of the world.

And you look at all these sad, lonely, mixed-up, desperate people. And you know most of them are in a really dark place.

And you remember the dark places you’ve gone to.

And you just want to interrupt his sermon and say: How, Jesus?! How can we be the light of the world? Do you see us? Do you see me?

Church, I want to pan out from the Sermon on the Mount for a minute, to see the bigger picture.

Let’s go back just a few verses, to hear how Matthew sets up the Sermon on the Mount. Matt. 4.16 says: the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light.

The Bible even admits that the live audience for the Sermon on the Mount had been to some dark places in their lives.

But they had seen Jesus.

And he is the light of the world.

And his light was stronger than all their darkness combined.

And he called them out of the darkness, into his amazing light.

Jesus is the light of the world. And they were following Jesus. They were walking in his light. They were living in his light. And his light lived in them.

They weren’t the light of the world because of anything they did, or anything they had to offer. They were the light of the world because Jesus was among them. And he chose to shine his light through them.

And if they could be the light of the world, then so can we.

If Jesus chose to shine his light through them, he chooses us, too.

We become the light of the world when Jesus calls us out of the darkness, into his amazing light. And we listen to his call, and follow him.

We follow him and walk in his light.

We live in his light, and his light lives in us.

So maybe you’ve been in some real dark places. Maybe all of us have.

But even the darkness in us can’t extinguish his light when our lives are hidden in him, and he lives in us. His light can penetrate every darkness. Even the darkness in us.

We are the light of the world. You and me and us together.

Because Jesus is the light of the world. And he has chosen to shine through us.

We’re like a cluster of fireflies floating, dancing together in the darkness.

We flicker and we shimmer and we glow.

We are the light of the world, because Jesus is the light in us.

Let your light shine!

You know, when I was growing up, some of my friends liked to catch fireflies and put them in Mason jars.

They wanted to keep the light all to themselves.

But that’s not what Jesus wants to do with his church. That’s not what he wants for you.

He doesn’t fill you with his light just to bottle you up in a Mason jar.

No. He says, You are the light of the world.

You are God’s kingdom of fireflies in the darkness.

So Jesus wants you out in the world. Flickering, glimmering, and glowing.

Remember those people who came to hear the Sermon on the Mount?

All hopeless, hurting, humble, hungry people. With their broken bodies and empty pockets and shattered dreams. What did Jesus tell them? He said: let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.

He told them to go out into the world and shine!

And then he told them how to shine.

He taught them to be peacemakers in times of conflict.

To pray for their enemies, and welcome people who didn’t look like them.

He told them not to try and outshine other people by flaunting how religious they were. Instead, they should shine by sharing with those who had less than they did.

They should shine by really listening to other people, instead of trying to rush to fix them.

They should shine by treating other people the way they’d like to be treated if the shoe was on the other foot.

Two thousand years later, Jesus hasn’t changed his mind about any of that.

You are the light of the world. And he wants you to shine.

But remember—it’s his light you’re shining. Not your own.

It’s your relationship with Jesus that will give you the power to shine.

He will shine through you.

And people will see his light, glimmering and glowing from your life. How you look at them. How you talk to them. How you treat them. And they’ll be drawn to God. Because of the Jesus-light you’re giving off.

So go out this week and shine.

Don’t get offended by that retail worker who wishes you, Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas. Smile at them and thank them.

And then go pray for them. Pray for them to feel God’s love and how much he values them. Because their job can be really stressful this time of year. People are cranky and rotten to them. And they’re probably not making a lot of money.

Go out and shine.

You know, sometimes holidays with families can be full of tension and conflict. Maybe you can be the peacemaker at the Christmas dinner table. You can be the one who cares more about healing the relationship than being right.

Go out and shine.

Hand out little bags of dog food for people experiencing homelessness to feed their dogs. Send out a special Christmas card to encourage somebody you know is having a hard time. Organize a neighborhood Christmas carol singing.

Go out and shine.

Don’t post yet another video of people fighting and acting fools at holiday sales on social media. Post something uplifting and beautiful. Something other people can look at and celebrate.

Pray every day that you will be willing to let Jesus shine through you. Pray that he’ll show you how to shine.

And then go out and shine his light of joy in this dark world.

An army of fireflies

When I was a child, I found so much joy in watching fireflies flicker in the darkness.

I really did believe God was reaching out to me through their light. Reminding me that, even in the dark times, I could always find little flashes of hope and joy.

So I would watch the fireflies, and my young heart would draw closer to God.

But when I grew up, I decided that was a childish thought that needed to be put away. So I stopped seeing God in the glow of the lightning bugs.

Here lately, though, I see my childish instincts about fireflies were absolutely, totally appropriate.

God may very well have been working to draw my young heart to him through the flickering light of the fireflies who darted and danced through my front yard every summer.

After all, I’ve come to see that we’re all like fireflies. 

Sometimes we go to dark places. We have bad days. We don’t always glow with a steady light. But we do glow.

And God still makes us the light of the world.

Even when we’re only able to consistently manage a spark or a flicker.

Maybe at our best, we can even give out a steady rhythm of pulsing light.

But a lot of times, that’s enough.

Because God still uses our unsteady light to shine some light in the darkness. Just like the flashing fireflies did for me when I was young.

And people still see Jesus in those flashes and flickers.

And when we all come together as a church—that’s when we fully become the light of the world.

Because then we’re like an army of fireflies.

Working and worshiping together. Doing life together.

Shining together in the darkness.

We illuminate each other.

But we also reach out into our communities and our world together.

Radiating the light of Christ.

So they can see him shining in us and glorify God, and draw near to God.

So, let’s go out from here and shine, because we are the light of the world.

But even if the best you can do right now is flicker and flash a little light in the darkness—that is enough.

You can go out in trust that whatever light you can shine comes from Christ.

And by his grace, he can take your little light and make it enough for whoever needs to see it.

Because he is the one who makes you and me and all of us the light of the world.

[1] Marc Branham, “How and Why Do Fireflies Light Up?” Scientific American. Accessed December 12, 2018.

[2] Matt Stansberry, “Fireflies: Glowing, Snail-sucking, Poisonous Hedonists.” Belt Magazine. October 26, 2018. Accessed December 12, 2018.


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