Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Seeing the Light

When we first moved to the Keys, you could tell when hurricane season was near because all of the stores would stock up on big flashlights and C and D batteries. And you needed a lot of batteries because the ones in the flashlights always seemed to be dead when you were groping for them in the dark. And it was dark a lot. The electricity was much less reliable 20 years ago. It was not uncommon for the Keys to have a blackout once or twice a month. And after hurricane Georges some of us were without power for a whole month. We went through a lot of batteries. It’s too bad we didn’t have today’s technology. LED lights burn brighter and require a lot less power. Their light is whiter as well, without the yellowish tinge and wedge of shadow the older flashlights often cast. Today there’s no excuse not to have an affordable bright light on your key chain or in your pocket. I bet our ancestors would literally kill to have one.

For most of history, humans were understandably afraid of the dark. Until we mastered fire, we were at the mercy of predators with exceptional night vision. On a moonless night, you couldn’t see the dangers around you and you couldn’t see well enough to run away from them. Even with campfires, torches and lamps, the light was limited and flickering. It could easily burn out or be extinguished. So much of what happened intentionally at night was the kind of stuff you didn’t tell your parents or your spouse about.

Small wonder the Bible is full of imagery about light. In the days before light pollution, nobody took light for granted. Light meant safety. And so what more appropriate metaphor was there for God and for his Word, by which he enlightens us.

The ancient Hebrews did not confuse God with the sun but they did see it and its light as his gift. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “light is sweet and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun.“ In Genesis light is the first thing created. Then, on the fourth day, God creates the sun and moon, one to rule the day and one to rule the night. The stars are signs for seasons and days and years. In fact, most of what God creates in Genesis is either a form of light or a form of life.

We now know about photosynthesis and the role of sunlight in helping our bodies create vitamin D. And yet our ancestors intuited the connection between light and life. Perhaps they noticed how poorly plants grew in the shade. Perhaps it was the fact that it was just safer getting around by daylight. But they knew that light was essential for life and that God was the source of both.

The chief thing about light is that it allows us to see. Even in familiar surroundings, light is vital to navigating safely. I've lived in our present home for 15 years and I still occasionally whack my shins or stub my toes trying to get around in my darkened bedroom. And when you are in a new environment, you really need illumination to find your way around. So it’s easy to see how the metaphor of God being light arose, even before he appeared to Moses in a burning bush and to the Israelites as a pillar of fire in the night. In morally murky situations, whether at home or elsewhere, the light of God is essential for assessing where we are.

The other morning at 6 am I was putting fluid into my car engine. I cleaned my hands with wet wipes and was, I thought, rather thorough about it. But when I went into a lighted building I realized I'd missed a few spots and had to re-wash with soap and water. The light of God has the same effect on us. We might think our lives are clean in comparison to the rest of this darkened world. But when viewed in the radiance of God, we can see that we still have some areas that need attention.

Light helps us see dangers around us. One of the tropes one often sees in suspense or horror films is the flash of lightning that reveals the person on screen is in a precarious situation or that the monster or serial killer is right behind her. Or the hero and villain are frantically groping for a weapon that falls to the floor just as the lights begin to flicker or go out. Few films are brave enough to have more than a few seconds of pitch black and so they tease us with glimpses of light between several frightening frames of darkness.

The light of God also reveals spiritual and moral dangers we often don’t see. It warns us of keeping the wrong sort of company to which our friendship or romantic attraction might blind us. It reminds us that the seed of our actions can be found in angry or careless or foolish thoughts and words. It points out that we can get so caught up in the rituals or trivia of religion than we forget the essentials of following Jesus.

Light can also guide us. Before there were telescopes, sailors realized that the stars could tell them where they were and guide them to their destinations. During the day, the sun travels from east to west. And a lamp or a flashlight can show us the path to follow.

The light of God shows us the way to live. It turns its spotlight not only on the pitfalls along the way but also the proper way to respond to situations. It highlights the importance of justice, peace and forgiveness in our lives. It picks out those who, while not perfect, are heading in the right direction. And it points clearly to Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is called the Word of God, and the Light and the Life of the world. He is the beacon we should be following, the radiant example of God’s love that we should strive to reflect in every area of our life. In First John, it says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin.”

Darkness hides reality but light reveals the truth. At a Halloween party, children might pass off peeled grapes as eyeballs but they have to let you feel them in the dark. The light would destroy the illusion. And Jesus destroys the illusion that evil is just a matter of things external to us that we can control, or that calling him “Lord” is sufficient even if we don’t obey him, or that we can serve him without taking care of the needs of others.

Light destroys darkness. In the original novel, Dracula does come out during the day. His powers are weakened but sunlight doesn’t destroy him. But when the story was first filmed, in an unauthorized adaptation called “Nosferatu,” Dracula is not staked and beheaded as he is in the novel. Rather the heroine entices the vampire to overstay his nightly visitation so that the rays of dawn can kill him. It’s such a powerful visual that most films still feature vampires who evaporate in sunlight.

And since light does banish darkness, the Book of Revelation pictures a new heaven and a new earth where night is no more. The sun reigns supreme in the sky and the Son of God is the light of the City of God. He not only wipes away all tears but chases away all that would overshadow the joy of his presence.

Lest we get too dualistic, remember that light does not cast everything into black and white. Rather it is light that allows us to see colors. Black is the absence of all color. Only in the light can we see the multi-hued beauty of God’s creation. Rainbows are in fact light itself revealed in its constituent colors and in all its glory.

Light is God’s first gift. It gives us life, warmth, truth and a whole spectrum of colors to appreciate. As C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” And just as everyone can carry a small but powerful source of light these days, so we Christians carry in our hearts the light of God and whenever darkness threatens we can call upon his light that we might see our way out of the night that seeks to envelope us and emerge into the radiance of God’s Son.

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