The Light of God's Holy Love - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany (February 5, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 58:1–12 | Psalm 112 | 1 Corinthians 2:1–16 | Matthew 5:13–20
“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.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
“You are the light of the world.”
What a thing for Jesus to say to the rag-tag band of disciples who had gathered around Him… that strange new community He was drawing together to take part in God’s Kingdom, both back in Galilee all those years ago… and here in Gondola Point today.
But do many of us feel like we are the light of the world? How does Jesus want us to live up to this high calling???
One way that many of us Christians have understood what it means to be the light of the world is to strive to be preservers and proclaimers of the truth… champions of the doctrines, teachings, and traditions of the Church, determined to make sure everyone comes to share our understanding of God and His ways. For some, sharing God’s truth is what it takes to be the light of the world.
Others take a different approach. For them, being the light of the world is more about doing what is right. Acting with compassion and mercy, challenging injustice, helping people in all kinds of need. For these folks, it is the practical good things we do that shine out into the darkness. Doing the right thing is what it takes to be the light of the world.
Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to know and share the truth… or seeking to do what is right. Both of these belong fully within the life of the Kingdom of God.
But when we reduce our shared calling as Christians to be ‘the light of the world’ to one or the other… to speaking the truth or doing good… something is deeply amiss. And we know this because at various times in our history, the Church has done both of these things… and when we have, the results have left us more divided and in the dark than ever.
Now’s not the time to drag up all the examples that could come to mind, but we know how easily we Christians have embraced at times the evils of judgmentalism and violence, all in the name of standing up for the truth… turning on our neighbours, and even our fellow Christians to try to prove that we are right.
On the other hand, when the Church has just thrown truth to the wind in favour of ‘getting things done’, we have fared no better… often causing all sorts of confusion and damage we did not foresee. There have been many examples over the centuries of well-meaning Christians creating more problems through the ‘good’ we were trying to accomplish. When our actions are out of line with God and God’s ways, even our best intentions can end up in darkness.
This struggle to be the “light of the world” has been an ongoing problem for God’s people for a really long time. As we heard in our first reading today, this was an issue the prophet Isaiah was called to confront… with Israel seeming to be concerned with “drawing near to God” and following His ways, and yet being far off from the life and light of the LORD.
Centuries later, in Jesus day, this problem still remained, as the remnant of Israel in the land of Judah wrestled with one another about how to best be the people of light in the world. One well known faction in those days were the Pharisees, devout Jews who took God’s laws very seriously, and tried to teach others to do the same.
And rather than choosing between holding fast to the truth, and actively doing what was right, the Pharisees strove to do both. They were concerned both with the truth, and with doing ‘the good and right things.’
But as Jesus Himself points out in our reading today, and all throughout the Gospels, the way many Pharisees tried to be “the light of the world” somehow missed the mark. Even though their commitment to truth, and right action may have been commendable, something essential was off… something was missing… something was out of line with the life and light of the LORD. Matthew 5:20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What was it that Jesus was looking for in His followers that would make all the difference? What would truly make them… make you and I… into “the light of the world”?
What is the key? It’s God’s holy love alive within His people… leading them into all truth, empowering them to do God’s good work in the world, and given to them through Jesus Himself, by what He accomplished for us all at the cross.
God’s holy love alive in us is what makes us the light of the world. Without His love, all our best words and deeds won’t be able to break through the darkness. But with it, even when we stumble and struggle, God’s power and grace shines out for all to see.
Let’s think back to the two approaches I mentioned earlier that many of us take in trying to be the “light of the world”: through believing and teaching the truth, and through doing good things for others.
Both of these approaches belong together, and belong in the life of God’s people, but it is only God’s holy love that transforms them both into light… into something more than we could ever hope to achieve on our own.
Though it wasn’t one of our Scripture readings for today, I think it would be fitting to reflect together on another well-known passage: 1 Corinthians 13. In this short Chapter, St. Paul gets to the heart of what the Christian life is all about, and what it really means for us to be “the light of the world”:
Regarding the first temptation to focus solely on holding to the truth, St. Paul points out that, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Powerful speech, and complete understanding of the truth is nothing when separated from God’s holy love.
Regarding the second temptation to focus simply on doing good to those around us, St. Paul again makes the case that these acts alone aren’t what God is after: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Even sacrificial giving, going to extremes to meet the needs of others, if cut off from God’s love gets us no closer in the end to the life and light of God’s kingdom. Without love, all the good we may do remains in darkness.
Love is what lights up the world.
But let’s be clear, were not just talking about natural, human love here… the kind of connection we feel for those close to us, or those who we admire or pity. We’re talking about God’s holy love, that has it’s source not in us, but in Him, a love that is able to connect us with people that we would never consider caring about on our own. It’s a love that does not just look out for its own interests. A love that forgives, and reconciles, and seeks the best for everyone, especially when it is not easy. A love that does right and seeks the truth… that binds us to God and to our neighbours. A love that when put into practice, shines like a beacon for all to see, drawing those sitting in darkness closer to the Lord of Love.
This is the power of God! This is what our God has done for us! Sharing His holy love with us through Jesus His Son at the cross… and working inside us, through the Holy Spirit, so that Christ’s light and life might shine through us too. Drawing us into the community of the Church, who are meant to grow together in God’s holy love, becoming the light of the world in word and deed, through our Saviour’s love.
The beautiful simplicity of the Gospel leads us into the depths of God’s saving love: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave His life at the cross to rescue us from the power of evil, sin, and death… and rose again to bring us into God’s New Life, now and forever.
And so, when we’re tempted to place our confidence in anything, apart from God’s love made known to us at the cross, let us remember St. Paul’s words to the Christians in Corinth that we heard this morning:
“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
That power is God’s holy love; the source of all our light.
Knowing Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, transforms our lives and reveals the wonderous depths of His holy love, which is His power at work in us, shining through us, through our words and actions, out into God’s world.
I want to end now by reading 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 again for us in full. May this holy love of Christ be our light today.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School