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.

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Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: The Last Prophets?

Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are the last books in the Old Testament, and according to rabbinic tradition, the last of the prophets. God has said everything he needs to say; now it is up to his followers to study, interpret, and apply his words.  All three are set in the Persian period, after Cyrus had allowed the return of those exiles who wanted to return to the land of their ancestors. Haggai and Zechariah are set specifically “in the second year of Darius” after the exiles had returned, but the Second Temple had not been built. Malachi’s prophecies come a little later, after the Temple has been completed, but ongoing support for it was shaky. Since the name”Malachi” means “my messenger”, some scholars think the writer wasn’t necessarily a man named Malachi, but someone who wished to remain anonymous, perhaps even Ezra.

The people are back in their own land, and the concept of monotheism seems to have been refined in the crucible of the exile.. However, all is not well. The poetic dreams of a second Eden in the form of a restored Jerusalem have not been realized. Although the people aren’t sacrificing their children to Molech or setting up Asherah poles in their backyards anymore, neither do they put God first in their lives. Idols of wood and stone have been replaced by idolatry of the heart, and that’s a bit more difficult to root out. Each of the three final prophets have slightly different concerns and perspectives.

Haggai’s main concern is that the people have not yet rebuilt the Temple. They’ve been there long enough to build nice houses for themselves.“This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”  Haggai admonishes them to get to work building the Temple with a carrot-and-stick approach: If they do, they will be materially blessed. If they don’t, they will be never get ahead, no matter how hard they work.

While Haggai speaks plainly and directly, Zechariah uses a variety of metaphors: a man watching from the myrtle trees, a man with a measuring line, dirty and clean laundry, a flying scroll, a woman in a basket, chariots, crowns, shepherds. He thinks the temple should be rebuilt too, but understands God as being more concerned with ethical behavior than formal worship. There’s a really intriguing pericope in chapter 7 about fasting. The people want to know whether they should continue fasting on the anniversary of destruction of Solomon’s Temple, as they have done for the past seventy years. Zechariah has God saying “Was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? God doesn’t want ritual worship as much as he wants people to treat each other fairly and kindly. This is nothing new; it’s the same thing he’s already said many times through the Mosaic law and the earlier prophets, but Zechariah says it again:  “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

Most sermons I’ve heard on Malachi have to do with tithing. Malachi says that God knows people aren’t offering their best to God, but their leftovers, and he’s not impressed with their fake piety. Like those who “donate” used underwear and broken electronics to Goodwill, they offer second-rate sacrifices to God while keeping the cream of the crop for themselves. They figure out ways to cheat on giving their fair share of tithes, which God intended to support the priests and temple, provide relief to the poor, and to support the general welfare of the community. “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  But Malachi is equally concerned about ethical behavior. He is particularly concerned with family values, especially divorce, which he sees as a kind of violence against women. “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”says the Lord Almighty.” God is not pleased with ” adulterers and perjurers,  those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice”

It’s interesting to me to consider Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi together and note their similarities and differences, especially since the writers lived in the same time and place. Although the people are physically back in the Promised Land, they still have far to go spiritually. The much-anticipated Day of the Lord did not coincide with their return, but there will come a time when good will finally triumph over evil, and all will be as God intended. Only God knows when that day will come, but God has already shown us the way to that future: love of God expressed through love of neighbor. And that’s good news to me.