Go Light Your World

darkness-cannot-drive-out-darkness

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. –Matthew 5:14-16

Jesus uses a number of metaphors in the Sermon on the Mount to describe the Kingdom of God and those would follow him into it: salt, light, leaven, a growing plant, a city on a hill. They are not metaphors of power and control, but of the gradual transformation that comes through the power of love. When God’s people are behaving in the way God intended for them to behave, others can’t help but be attracted to God. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” Sadly, many Christians don’t seem to put these words into practice very well, and I’m afraid that is the reason many people aren’t interested in, or have abandoned a faith they once held dear.

It is impossible for the Kingdom of God to come by force, and, as history is my witness, I think those who think they can use force to bring it about only drive it further away. I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he observed  “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subject to violence, and the violent lay claim to it.”  The Kingdom of God will come “not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit” The Kingdom of God will come when enough of God’s people start being the people of God, and Jesus seems to think that good deeds are an inseparable part of that. And by “good deeds”, I tend to think of the things Jesus did while he was on earth, not the things some of his later followers have done in his name. I doubt that God was too pleased with Charlemagne’s baptisms at the point of the sword, or the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials, or quite a number of other bad things people have done in the name of God. In fact, I’d go so far as to say those who do such things are guilty of violating the third commandment.  It’s also interesting to note that Jesus uses the metaphor of leaven in two ways, one positive and one negative. He compares the Kingdom of God to the small amount of yeast that a woman would work into a large amount of dough in order to make bread, but he also warns his followers against “the leaven of the Pharisees”.  The defining characteristic of leaven is that it grows and spreads. It can be used to spread light, or to spread darkness.

I agree with Dr. King that the only way to dispel the darkness of hate is with the light of love as demonstrated in positive actions. One of my favorite contemporary Christian songs is “Go Light Your World”, by Chris Rice. In the album liner notes he observes that “You are the light of the world! Don’t hide! Don’t waste your batteries in the broad daylight. Let’s not spend our flames impressing each other, admiring each other, outshining each other .Instead, find some darkness and show someone the way out. Exhaust yourself lighting up dark places. That’s what light is for.”  Jesus didn’t tell us to sit around in our comfortable pews and admire each other’s candles, or to argue about whose candle was brighter, or hotter, or more pure, and he certainly didn’t tell us to use our candles offensively and burn people who are not of our tribe. Instead, we are to take our candles out into the world and be a source of light for all to see.

Hebrews: We Can See Clearly Now

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Hebrews differs from the other New Testament letters in that it bears no salutation. We don’t really know who wrote it, to whom it was written, or when it was written. Based on internal references, many scholars speculate that it was written for second-generation Christians living in the lull between active persecutions by Nero and Domitian. The author seems to have been very familiar with both Platonic philosophy and the Hebrew scriptures, for he references both frequently in his arguments.  Various names have been proposed as its author, including Paul, Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla and Aquilla. I find the latter suggestion especially intriguing, as its proponents speculate that the reason the letter itself doesn’t tell us who wrote it is because it was written by a woman, which if known might have caused it to be dismissed.

The main message I get out of Hebrews is that if we want to know God, we need to look to Jesus.  God has been reaching out to human beings for millennia, trying to get through to us in all kinds of ways. From the dawn of human sentience, many people have managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a partial picture of God, or to hear a faint echo of his message of love. But until the coming of Jesus, no one person has seen or heard clearly. Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Want to connect with God? That happens through Jesus, too. Jesus is the lens through which we can see and know God most clearly.

Again and again, the writer of Hebrews takes events described in the Hebrew Bible, and applies them to Jesus, sometimes giving them an entirely different meaning from that of their original context. That’s a fairly common technique for the biblical writers.  As history unfolds, old stories develop new layers of meaning. For example, when read in context Isaiah’s prophecy of “Behold, an almah (young woman or virgin) shall conceive and bear a son was clearly directed to King Ahaz, but the writer of Matthew takes this verse and applies it to Jesus. Jesus often had a tendency to put a new spin on old Scriptures by saying “you have heard it said (something) but I say (something else) Exodus 21:24 clearly prescribes an eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth payback for wrongs done, but Jesus commands his follows not to repay evil with evil, but with good.   People are still doing this today, even my most literally-minded, God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it friends. Jeremiah 29:11  was clearly written as a promise to the Jewish exiles that they would one day return to their ancestral lands. Yet this version is particularly treasured as a personal promise by many, including myself, when going through difficult times.

There is nothing wrong with finding new layers of meaning in ancient texts. That’s part of what makes the Bible a living book to me. But the Bible itself is not the lens through which we should see God; Jesus is. The Bible can lead us to God, but it is not a fourth member of the Trinity. The “word of God” is not ossified words on a page, but Jesus. who is  “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”.  We cannot say “the Bible clearly says” anything without understanding it through the lens of Jesus. Jesus is the lens that can, and will, bring everything into focus.

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Exodus: Who is God, Anyway?

 

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,  and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”  God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever,and this my title for all generations.
 

There are a lot of good stories in Exodus, but this one is pivotal to me because it seems to show the roots of ethical monotheism.  At this point in the history of the people that would one day become the Jews, the idea that there was only one god hadn’t really caught on, even among those who identified themselves as Abraham’s descendants. There was a god for the Israelite people, and different gods for the Egyptian and Canaanite peoples. Different gods controlled different territories, so if you moved to a different location you might find your god less powerful than the god that was native to that territory.

Furthermore, the Israelite god had been seemingly inactive for quite a while. 400 years had elapsed between the time of Joseph and the time of Moses, and the children of Israel had languished in slavery for most of that time. They’d heard stories, sure, but God seemed awfully silent. Maybe he didn’t come with them into Egypt? Maybe the Egyptian gods were more powerful? Nerd that I am, I imagine Moses’s encounter with the burning bush to feel a bit like the scene in “The Force Awakens” where Han Solo shows up and tells an incredulous Rey: “There were stories of what happened.” “It’s true, all of it.”

What’s most interesting to me in this story is God’s seemingly cryptic answer when Moses asks him to identify himself.  God responds “I am who I am”. God can’t be named because he can’t be constrained by the limits of the human mind. God can’t be defined; he just is. God refuses to be confined to any kind of box we might want to put him in for purposes of understanding and/or control. That includes the Bible, which points us to God but is not God.

For the children of Abraham, this concept of monotheism took quite a few more years to sink in to the point where they would proclaim their core statement of faith in the Shema as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. It’s fascinating to watch their understanding of God grow through the centuries, from a tribal god who fought for Team Israel when they were good and against them when they were bad, to a universal God who is not limited to space or time and cares about all people.

When I hear some religious figures today saying “Muslims, Christians, and Jews don’t worship the same God” I have to wonder if we still don’t understand the concept of monotheism. If there is one God, there is one God. Different people may have different understandings of what that God is like, but that doesn’t change the one “I Am”. It’s rather like the old parable of the blind men and the elephant, who touched different parts of the elephant and “saw” it quite differently. The fact that they perceived it as a wall, a tree, a snake, or a rope did not mean there were many elephants. A finite mind has trouble with the concept of an infinite God.

In God’s speech to Moses, he reveals himself not only as an undefinable “I am”, but as concerned for those who are powerless, mistreated, and oppressed. An ethical God was a relatively novel concept at this time, as any student of ancient mythologies can attest. The gods might be immortal and omnipotent, but their morality was severely lacking. They remind me of the character “Q” in Star Trek…powerful but self-centered beings who meddle in the affairs of humanity for their own entertainment.  In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the gods destroy the world with a flood because they are bothered by how noisy humans are.

It’s also fascinating that God, who I would suppose could miraculously transport the enslaved Israelites from Egypt to Canaan if he chose to do so, enlists Moses to help him accomplish his goals. That’s interesting to me, because that’s the way I think God works most of the time: he works through and with people. He enlists us as his partners in accomplishing his vision for the world, even though we are flawed and finite and will invariably make mistakes.  If you read the rest of the Exodus story, you’ll see how imperfect Moses was, from his initial reluctance to get involved to his famous temper. God is like a parent who enlists their child for help in some household chore, knowing that they could accomplish the task more quickly and efficiently alone. The person is more important than the task

God is one, and won’t be confined to the boxes of our thinking. God is ethical, and desires the well-being of all creation. Yet, this God invites us to be his partners. God changes us, and we change the world for the better. And that’s good news.