There is an image used by James May (one of the Top Gear lads) that has stuck in my mind – I may have mentioned it to some of you. He was presenting a series, “The 20th Century”, which explored the changes that made the last century so distinctive. One of these revolutionary changes was the coming of electricity. The Earth, viewed from space, is no longer dark – it is a glowing globe. Our habits, our interests, our occupations, our very world have all been transformed. Without electricity the world was a very different place. Let me quote James May:
“In previous centuries… if aliens had flown past our planet at night, they would have detected no signs of life… we would have blown out our dim candles and gone to bed. But now our planet glows in the dark. For the first time in 4.5 billion years, intergalactic travellers now know that the earth is worth visiting.”
Our planet glowing in the dark is a wonderful metaphor for how our world was transformed by the coming of Christ, the Light of the World. Our world would have been dark. But now, there is Light that banishes the darkness. Christ declares in the gospel of John “I am the Light of the World, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Matthew, Luke and John pick up this metaphor for Christ in the opening chapters of their Gospels. They declare that Christ is the true Light that takes away the darkness. As we have just heard in today’s Gospel reading, Matthew echoes Isaiah’s words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” Luke takes the same phrases from Isaiah as he declares “the dawn from on high will break uponus, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The prologue of John’s Gospel declares in those legendary words: “What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John goes on in the prologue to declare that Christ, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
But why this fascination with Light?
Throughout history, people have connected light with spiritual life, and spiritual enlightenment. In Sri Lanka, there are two annual celebrations where light is central. Homes, streets, gardens and cities are lit up.
Diwali, the “festival of lights”, is an ancient Hindu festival. Its spiritual significance is the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. The festival rituals last five days, but the main night of Diwali coincides with the darkest night. On Diwali night they light lamps and candles inside and outside their home, and celebrate with fireworks. There are family meals and the exchange of gifts. Vesak, celebrated by Buddhists, commemorates life, death and enlightenment of the Buddha. Various forms of lights – oil lamps, paper lanterns, and electric lights are used, signifying the Buddha and his teaching.
Around the world there are other festivals of light – like Hannukah – a Jewish festival. Christmas itself is a transformation of a Roman festival in honour of the sun god.
Humanity has always sensed an existential darkness within themselves, and known the fear of death. They have always sought to find a “Higher Being” who can deliver them from themselves and the shadows of this world and death. All cultures find ways of dealing with the darkness and fear. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the Romans all found ways to affirm the triumph of Light over Darkness. I often wonder whether Scripture describes Christ as the “Light of the World” because of these innate fears that lurked within us. We need the Light of God, as we pray often at Evening prayer…to “Lighten our darkness”.
C S Lewis spoke about an intuitive awareness of Eternal truths – an awareness that is found to some degree in every human culture. He describes Myths as ways in which humans seek to express these deep needs and truths. Religions, Myths and Legends echo similar stories and truths. For Lewis, Christ was the culmination of the centuries, millennia of these myths and hopes. Christ was Myth become Reality. In the words of John: “the True Light that takes away all darkness”.
Isaiah 9 and Matthew 4 connect the coming of this True Light into the world with the inauguration and establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The dawning Light transforms everything. Isaiah tells us that the coming of this Light increases the joy of the nations – like the rejoicing at the harvest time. It brings liberation from bondage – as if lifting the burdens that trap people and weigh them down. It brings Peace and Freedom, banishing the effects of War – Isaiah pictures the boots of warriors, and garments soaked in blood being burned in the fire. This is the inauguration of a new Era – the Era of the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah 9 continues to describe the coming Kingdom with words that most of us know from memory and hear every Christmas – “For unto us a son is born.” The Prophet declares that all authority is upon his shoulders, and that this coming King will establish his Kingdom with Justice and Righteousness. Matthew’s Gospel makes the same connection. Just after quoting this prophecy from Isaiah, Matthew adds: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’”
Jesus is the Light of the World, and he proclaims that God’s Kingdom has arrived!
In our reading, Matthew describes how the Kingdom was inaugurated and built – Christ called men and women to follow him. There is a fascinating insight for us, here, now, in the 21st century. The Kingdom of God – the Kingdom Christ came to establish – is perpetuated and grown by People. By People whom Jesus calls.
The work of building the Kingdom of God is described by Matthew at the end of Chapter four – which we haven’t read. Teaching, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and healing the sick. It is vital that we see the building of the Kingdom of God in its holistic context – as Jesus himself practiced it. It included both the hearts and the physical bodies of the people. Ours is not a purely spiritual faith, but a holistic caring for all aspects of human life. Jesus didn’t preach or teach simply spiritual truths. He always reached out to people’s physical and emotional needs: The need for celebration and joy, as he turned water to wine; The need for food, as he fed five thousand; The need for love and family, as moved by compassion he raised from the widow’s son from the dead; The need for respect, as he treated women and children with dignity; The need for acceptance, as he touched lepers and dined with outcasts.
Often we assume that the Kingdom of God is Spiritual – about our Spirits and our Faith. And so it is. But Christ’s light also touched the physicality of the lives he encountered. Christ’s Light is the Light of righteousness and justice, as Isaiah declares. He did not confine his gaze to the purely Spiritual.
That we are meant to do the same is evident to Matthew. The very next chapter is the Sermon on the Mount – the Magna Carta of the Kingdom of God – a collection of Christ’s teaching about what it means to live in God’s Kingdom.
But what if we don’t live out the values of the Kingdom? The church in Corinth – in the passage we just read – had forgotten their calling. They had disintegrated into petty squabbling and factions. They were fighting for power, aligning themselves with different leaders. Paul confronts them, and reminds them of their purpose: “to proclaim the Good News”, about the power of the Cross and the Kingdom of God
If we want to learn how to live as Kingdom people, we would do well to read and re-read the Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus tells his disciples – and us – “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket – it goes on a lampstand, where it lights up 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.”
May God the Father, who lit up our dark world with the Light of His Son, give us the power of His Spirit.
May we, through His Spirit, continue to shine like bright lights into the darkness of our world.
May God give us grace to walk as Disciples of Christ, as we build the Kingdom of God.