“You are the light of the world.”
“No, Lord – You are the Light of the World. Look. Come along to Keble College Chapel and see – Holman Hunt has shown you as the Light of the World.”
Besides, being the Light of the World sounds really difficult.
Today’s readings all touch on this:
in Isaiah: we hear: ‘satisfy the needs of the afflicted’; ‘bring the homeless poor into your house’; ‘break every yoke’;
in Paul: he speaks ‘God’s wisdom’; there is ‘a demonstration of the Spirit and of power’; we ‘discern all things’;
and in Matthew: Let them ‘see your good works’, your righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees;
(and in parenthesis with a nod to last Sunday’s sermon we can note that Jesus is addressing all who seek the kingdom of heaven, all for whom God is their father, the Christian Church and those who become today’s practising Jews).
Being the Light of the World – letting our light shine before others – reads like a run-down of the five marks of mission,
and we could easily end up with impostor syndrome:
acting as if we are the light of the world, but not really believing we are.
Acting ‘as if’ has enjoyed some popularity in Christian theological circles – maybe it still does.
It suggests the double nature of our present life, our positioning as
those who are already sanctified and at the same time not yet pure;
already belonging to the kingdom of heaven and not yet there.
Acting ‘as if’ is a way of living between the victory of the cross and the new Jerusalem,
between the resurrection of Christ and the second coming.
Well, Isaiah also has something to say about living ‘as if’.
The reading at Mattins today concerned fasting.
One week after Candlemas, and the lectionary is encouraging us to think about the Lent we need to keep – it is the same reading we’ll hear again on Ash Wednesday.
What is good fasting?
This was a concern for those living in Israel in the days of Third Isaiah.
Formerly they had been exiles in Babylon, now returned through the decree of King Cyrus.
Their recently re-established nation wasn’t going as well as they had expected. The Isaiah of the exile had held out a vision of wine and milk without money and without price. But they were experiencing hard graft for few rewards.
The Isaiah of the exile had told them that the Lord was giving them as a light to the nations, extending his salvation to the ends of the earth. They felt on the defensive.
Perhaps as Christians in 21st century UK we can empathise. Sometimes the life of believers doesn’t seem marked by God’s long-prepared glory but by confusion, futility.
And those early returnees had something else to cope with, a new and onerous practice of fasting – ‘Should I mourn and practise abstinence in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?’ they asked the prophet Zechariah.
Or, as Third Isaiah reports them complaining, ‘Why do we fast?’ ‘Why do we fast but you do not see? Why do we humble ourselves but you do not answer?’
Why keep going when nothing seems to get better? God, where are you in all this?
And that’s where these words ‘as if’ come in:
God says, ‘Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways’ … that sounds promising but wait, here’s how the sentence ends: ‘as if they were a nation that practised righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.’
Suddenly acting ‘as if’, as if we were the light of the world, sounds hypocritical.
And that’s exactly what many people think we are.
Those present at the mission lecture on Wednesday heard +Toby offer a thoughtful, powerful engagement with just this criticism, drawing on the Wisdom tradition and the book of Job.
Today it is the turn of the prophetic tradition.
‘Look,’ Isaiah reports God as saying, you may ‘bow down the head like a bulrush’ but ‘you fast only to quarrel and to fight.’ ‘You oppress all your workers.’
Yes, those Israelites are serious in their religious practice, nobody could miss how devout they are,
but still God is silent and life is hard graft.
Because, as God tells them though the prophet, ‘you serve your own interest on your fast day.’
You fast as if you mean it, but you’ve forgotten what fasting is for, whom fasting is for.
You were exiles in Babylon separated from your kin – so: don’t now hide yourself from them.
You went hungry; the fast I choose is to share your bread with the hungry.
You were oppressed, so: fast to remember who you are, and break every yoke.
Our religious practices: they are not to inure us against the realities of our weakness and our compromises in this life.
We won’t be keeping Lent to bolster our self-esteem.
Our living ‘as if’ is a living as if we know our need of forgiveness, of salvation.
Try this out as a contemporary reading of Isaiah’s marks of a true fast: –
bring the homeless poor in?: – what do we want to do with the UK teenagers who joined ISIS? Or the Chinese dependents of UK citizens wanting to leave Wuhan?
see the naked?: – do we prefer to cover them or to ogle them?
share bread with the hungry? or make our First World gluttony habitual?
And what of our kin? The lonely elderly or the relation I’ve never got on with?
“You are the light of the world,” says our Lord Jesus Christ, “Let you light shine before others.”
And we remember that the one to whom we shall be coming around the altar today, he is the light that came into the world and his own did not receive him,
the light who was stripped naked, and who cried, ‘I thirst.’
Yes, there is much in our religious practice that is living ‘as if’. That’s not wrong but, to be a lamp that gives light, we need to question what we’re doing when we live ‘as if’:
do we live ‘as if’ – to bolster ourselves? – or to learn to love?
We live the redemption we have received. We can have confidence living as if we are redeemed when we recall that we need forgiveness and when we treat people as people, like us,
treat people as if they are people, as if they are like us.
“Then you shall call and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”
So to conclude, here’s an account of one time when the people of Israel learnt to deny themselves, to fast we might say, after the fashion of Isaiah:
The people of Israel defeated King Ahaz of Judah and took captive 200,000 of their kin.
The prophet Oded went out to meet the army and said to them, ‘Because the Lord was angry with the people of Judah, he gave them into your hand. But what have you except sins against the Lord your God? Now hear me and send back the captives you have taken.’
And the assembly took the captives and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they provided them with food and drink and anointed them, and carried all the feeble among them on donkeys and brought them to their kindred at Jericho, the city of palm trees.
“You are the light of the world.” Amen.