“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. – Matt 5:14-16 +INPFSS+
This passage is often wrongly co-opted to describe America's standing before the world. Now, don't get me wrong, the system of government that the founding fathers created is an impressive thing. It deserves its accolades, but America is NOT the city on the hill that this passage refers to.
Jesus teaching here is Clearly talking about the Christians in the Church. NOT Any particular nation. And it is very dangerous – its actually sacrilegious – to take what Jesus said about his Church, and apply it to this, or to any, country.
The city on a hill, is the Church, and the Church is a trans-national organization. This picture the Lord gives us of who we are as a church applies in equal measure to us, the Church here in Opelika, as it does to the Church in Nigeria, as it does to the Church in the West Bank of Palestine. God has built us – as Christians – as a city on a hill.
Having clarified what this metaphor is referring to, let's look at what our Lord is telling us through it: about who we are, and how we are supposed to live.
Let's begin at the beginning:
Our Lord declares that we, his disciples, are (verse 14): the light of the world.
Now wait a second, does this phrase, 'light of the world' sound familiar?
It should! John 8:12 records Jesus saying about himself, “I am the Light of the World.”
So, is it Jesus? Or is it us?
Well, what at first glance looks like a contradiction – John recording Jesus as saying HE is the light of the World, and Matthew recording him as saying that WE are the light of the world, is of course no contradiction, but is actually the marvelous truth of the Gospel – that, through the in-dwelling Holy Spirit, Jesus, the light of the world, lives IN us. Lives through us. That we are his real body, and that therefore, WE are the Light of the world too, being vessels of his own luminous self.
But what does it mean that we are the light of the world?
It's a metaphor rich with meaning. It means that, amid a world that is in large-measure covered in the darkness of sin and spiritual blindness, we have had the lights turned on, in our own hearts and minds, to understand the reconciliation we have with God in Christ Jesus, the forgiveness of sins that is ours by his promise.
And having our own lights turned on, we have ourselves become little light-bulbs in the world. Little islands of light, amidst a sea of darkness. It was a favorite phrase in the Early Church to refer to Christians as the “illuminated ones”. The ones who had been lit-up by the knowledge of God, and made bright and alive in his Son.
And from this personal illumination – the phrase 'the light of the world' signifies also the illuminating effect we are to have on the world itself. We are not just lights amidst the world, we Christians are also the lights that shine light on the World, so the World can see itself for what it is. When we proclaim Christian truth: That we must worship God and not Money, that the Great Judgment day is coming, That Christ died on the cross. When we speak Christian truth, it unmasks the euphemisms the World tries to hide itself behind. When it comes to the World, only Christians can call a spade a spade.
For instance, What the world calls merely 'appetite', Christians recognize as Greed. What the world calls 'desire' or 'satisfaction', Christians give the proper name of Lust. What the world might say is 'deserved', the Christian recognizes merely as pride. This list goes on.
The light of Christ shows us just how broken and sinful we really are. Before becoming a Christian, most people genuinely think that they are “good people”(!), it's us Christians who know the truth about ourselves. We are the ones who actually know that we are NOT good people. That I am, in fact, a terribly selfish, petty, dirty man. That I need Christ to be my clean-ness, and to make me clean.
This is what it means, to be the light of the world: The shine light into the confusion of our dark age.
And it's not just for our own sakes – the Lord has installed us, as his lights here, radiating his own glorious light, as a witness for those around us. The Church is a public, living monument, to the saving help of God. We are as visible as a city on a hill is, to those around it. You can't miss it! Every Christian person, like every Church building, stands as a testimony to God and his presence with us. As our Lord said, “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.” – Jesus is the one who lights the lamps, it is he who has made us his own, it is him living within every believer.
And he has placed us here in the world; he keeps us in the midst of our ordinary lives, rather than just whisking us off to heaven right away, so that we might be a witness to others. So that we might be, to use Saint Paul's phrase, his ambassadors here on earth. God's purpose for our lives is that we might shine his light into every corner of the earth, into the lives of everyone that we come in contact with, until the whole house is filled with light.
And to that end we are commanded: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.”
This is sort of awkward to hear isn't it? “Let your good works be seen by everybody else?” After all, doesn't Jesus elsewhere say, just a little later on in Matthew, (6:3) “When you give to the poor, Don't let your right hand know what your left hand is doing?”
How can these two sayings both be true?
The solution is found in examining the reason we are being public about our deeds.
In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus points out that the Hypocrites make their good deeds public – verse 2 – “that they may be praised”.
Contrast that with what we have here, in chapter 5: Let people see your good deeds that they may – verse 16 – give glory to your Father in heaven.
Do you see the two different reasons for letting good-deeds shine?
Good deeds can be displayed to give glory to ourselves – or, so we think right? In actuality when we someone saying 'Look what I am doing!' it's actually rather off-putting. We don't instinctively want to praise that person, like that person was no doubt hoping would happen.
Good deeds can be displayed for our own glory, or for God's glory.
The first motive is reprehensible, the second, we are commanded to do.
Now, this is a delicate issue. We are right to identify that parading our good deeds before others is full of the sin of vanity and pride. And so we are inclined to just make a law for ourselves – of never ever showing our good deeds to others.
But pride is a slippery devil.
When you seek to avoid it in one area, it just pops up in another.
It sneaks into even our being secretive about our good deeds. We can think to ourselves, “yes, this is a good deed, such a good deed, that I must be sure not to brag about it to others”, and in thinking like this, we have the pride of self-satisfaction – the thought that we really are a generous person after all. When in fact we should even privately give the glory and the credit to God, and say as our Lord told us to in Luke 17 – “we are just servants, we have just done our duty.”
When we give money or time to the Church or to the poor, or to some good non-profit organization. When we help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. These are genuinely good deeds, but for the Christian, they also just duties. These are obligations, and so we have no reason to be smug or self-content in our doing them. They should just be part of the normal course of our lives.
Even our faith – our trust in and our obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, this should also just be a normal thing for us who are his creatures.
We can take our repulsion of bragging so far, that I see many Christians mistakenly think that our whole Christian life is supposed to be just a secret thing.
And we see this manifest in the old saws of “what I believe is up to me. You believe what you want to. We're all free to choose. Different strokes for different folks” even “no religion is better than any other” all that sort of talk.
And in the name of refusing pride, nominally a good motive, this is a tragic misunderstanding. For the Lord very plainly says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.”
What we learn from our Lord then, is that REAL humility, is willing to do a deed in secret, with regard to my own glory AND is willing for deeds to be seen, so God can get the glory.
As I observe the Christian culture in America today, I don't see a lot of people making the mistake of doing so many good things and then saying “look at what I am doing! Aren't I amazing!” No, We are making the opposite of mistake – our tendency today is to take our light, and put it under a bushel-basket. We think we're being humble by doing this, but it's not humble. It's just pride in another form. And what's worse, when we do that, we're actually depriving the World of light that it needs, of the light that would save it.
Yes, it's the good-deeds being seen part that I think we need to work on now, as a Church generally, and for us here at The Good Shepherd. We need more humility, in order to be more public about our faith and our deeds. Children actually give us a good picture of what this looks like. It is the humility of a child that can say, “look, Mommy, what I did in school today!” The Child is happy to have his good deeds seen, because he isn't puffed up thinking they're so amazing. He just sees them for what they are. And this is how we should be, in talking about and in sharing our lives with others.
So, what does this look like; how might we go about obeying this command of our Lord. Well, first we DO need to install a pride-antidote into our hearts, to keep us from falling into the other trap. But like I said a moment ago, When we understand that any Good deeds that we do, are not of our own devising, but is actually the Spirit of God working through us. That it is HIS light, which generates OUR light, then really there's no concern about Pride being in the picture at all. So, keeping this antidote in mind, let's get down to the real brass-tacks: What good deeds are we actually doing?
If you're honest, perhaps some of you might be thinking, “I don't want my life to be on display for others, because there's not many good deeds for them to see”.
It's good to be honest about this, because this is honestly a real problem.
And I believe it stems from one of the most destructive lies that has crept its way into the American church. The lie that says, “I have faith in Jesus as my savior, it doesn't matter what I do now.”
It DOES matter what we do now!
It's only our flesh that wants to take the Gospel of free salvation in Jesus and use it as an excuse for just doing whatever the heck we want.
Our Lord, and Saint Paul, set this straight over and over again in the New Testament. Not only in just simply assuming that we will each have good deeds to shine out into the world, but in the verses that follow right here, in our Gospel reading this morning:
“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.”
Is there any doubt, after hearing that, that our lives should be full of good deeds?!
We are told that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees!!
And, just a few verses later on in Matthew 5, our Lord will go even further, saying, “Be PERFECT, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
BECAUSE we are Christians, BECAUSE of our faith in Christ, we should be striving with all our might to live a life full of glorious good deeds. Not to earn salvation, but to prove salvation. Not to earn salvation, but to shine forth the salvation we have been given, into the whole world.
“let your light shine before others, so that they may see your GOOD WORKS and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
So the challenge of this Scripture for us this morning, is first that we start living more intentionally just to DO Christian Good works. To double-down on investing our energies in them. If you have no idea where to start on this front, ask your spouse, and I am sure they can point some out to you.
But also ask God.
Ask him how he wants you to use what free time you have.
What ministries you can be a part of, or even start, if you're feeling ambitious, maybe at an organization in town, maybe through the Church. The possibilities are just about endless. It doesn't have to be BIG things, simply GOOD things.
And if you do them with the right intention, with the right understanding, that this is simply God working through you, and for his Glory in the end, then the second challenge is to let others see them. To not shirk around the issue when others inquire, but to say boldly, “Yes! I'm going to Bible Study!” “Yes, I am going to serve at the Food Pantry!” “Yes, I am fasting” “Yes, I made a commitment to my wife to do this or that this morning” “Yes, I was a part of that”.
“let your light shine before others, so that they may see your GOOD WORKS and give glory to your Father in heaven.”