Some time ago, there was a spectacular commemoration of Reformation Day at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany, Luther's old monastery. A pastor set himself on fire. Why? To warn against the inroads of Islam in Europe. The pastor died. He was a light in the world, quite literally, but not really as Jesus intended.
We want to be a light in the world. It seems the church is full of people on fire. In the parish, I used to get advertisements in the mail telling me I needed to set our youth on fire for the Lord. I have a feeling that if I'd ever brought gasoline and matches to youth group, I would have been in trouble.
"You are the light," Jesus says. The old Adam, loving the sound of a "you" as a subject of the verb, looks to get to work. It's time to shine. Maybe I can put another bumper sticker on my car. Maybe I can change each "baby" in my favorite song to "Jesus." Maybe I can change my profile picture. Maybe I can wear eight different bracelets. Maybe I can vote for this candidate. Maybe I can play soccer for a week with poor kids in another country. Maybe I can take this job or go to that school. Maybe I can, maybe I can, maybe I can…We want to know, we beg, "What can we do to shine?" We forget that we are.
"You are light." I hate to break it to you, but "are" is not an action verb. "Are" is a being verb. You are baptized. You are light. When I preach at funerals. I could tell the cold, lifeless body in the coffin, "You are dead," but he or she isn't going to get up and do anything. "Are" isn't something we do. "Are" is something we are. "Are" isn't something we become. "Are" isn't potentiality. "Are" is reality. We are.
This text is about you only in so far as it is about Christ in and through you.
Whenever tempted to think that our light is something we kindle or brighten, we ought to remember that light also exposes. Perhaps you've seen the crime shows. Perhaps you've seen what happens when they take a blacklight to a crime scene. It reminds me of a friend of mine in college with half a fake tooth (I think he was saving up for the whole tooth). When you shone the blacklight on it (we had a blacklight, of course, to go with our disco ball because, well, we were cool), the false half of the tooth would light up. So also, when we are tempted to kindle or brighten our own light, we should let the light of God's law, his divine blacklight, remind us what we are on our own: a walking crime scene, half a tooth.
"You are light." Notice the other verbs here. "You are like a city set on a hill. You are like a lamp put on a stand." This text is about you only in so far as it is about Christ in and through you. Christ says in John 8:12, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." Jesus is the light of the world, and you are light because you are in Jesus. You are. You are set. You are put. And all this is in Jesus.
Many churches have the custom of lighting an infant's baptismal candle from the paschal candle, the big candle we light at the Easter sunrise service. Why do we do this? In baptism, Christ's life and light become the life and light of the infant. Christ lights that little wretch up by water and the Word to shine like a city set on a hill, like a lamp put on a stand. That child is a light before it can speak, before it has a favorite song, before it's on social media, or before it can hold its own pacifier, let alone a job. We're light the moment we belong to Christ.
God promises through Isaiah, "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out" (Isa. 42:3). Have you been smoldering? Are there things, perhaps more than a few things, that you would be terrified to have exposed to the light for all to see, whether lingering thoughts, loose-lipped words, or loveless deeds? You are light. Throw water on the fire to keep it going, for water lit this wick, and the same Light set upon a cross upon a hill still burns for you. The answer is not to try to kindle yourself, to set yourself, to put yourself. The answer is to be kindled, to be set, to be put. We are light, but we are Christ's light, in Christ, through Christ.
The candlelight service that is our Christian lives is not one with those battery-powered fake candles that you flip on and off at your own discretion, but one with candles that sometimes make a mess when set alight, dropping wax on the floor—one wherein the light is passed from one candle to the others, where the flame sometimes flickers. And all the light comes from Christ, from the great paschal candle, from his resurrection for you. You are lit, set, and placed.
Jesus warned his disciples, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). That means we're in trouble. Say what you will about the Scribes and Pharisees; they tried really hard to be religious people. They went out of their way to do impressive works. And yet again and again, Jesus reminded even those scribes and Pharisees striving to become, setting their heart on human righteousness, putting their trust in their own deeds, that they couldn't earn heaven, that they too were sinners in need of grace. The righteousness that matters most is given, not earned. It is received when we stop working, not by working.
We all want to shine, but never forget that the torch can only burn with the flame it receives.
That's why Jesus also said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Jesus came and kept the law we could not, the law we fail to keep even when we try our hardest and all too often don't try all that hard to keep, to begin with. He did this so we could become righteous. He did this to become sin for us so that we could be saints, which we are, in him, as an accomplished fact.We all want to shine, but never forget that the torch can only burn with the flame it receives. It's good and right to want the light of Christ to shine through us. Just make sure it's the light of Christ. The Lord does the lighting, the setting, and the maintaining. You are. So be.