Monday, April 21, 2014

In a New Light

It all starts in the dark. In the beginning there was no light until God called it into existence.

The Exodus took place in the dark of night. While the children of Israel hastily ate unleavened bread, death passed over them. Pharaoh rose in the night and called for Moses and Aaron and told them to leave that very night.

Christianity started in the dark of a tomb. The women started for the tomb while it was still dark and came upon it just as day was dawning only to find that the tomb was empty.

We all start in the dark. There is no light in the womb and we are pushed down a tunnel until we emerge into the light and a different kind of life.

We spend roughly half of each day in the dark. So why do we fear it?

The dark hides things. It hides what is familiar. In the dark, a room you've been in a thousand times becomes an obstacle course where objects and furniture will trip you or cause you to bang your shins or stub your toe. In the dark the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

The dark also hides danger. Predatory animals and humans do their worst under cover of darkness. The owl swoops down on the mouse. The burglar slips through the unlatched door. And as we said, even the mundane can be dangerous when shrowded in shadows.

By hiding both the desirable and the undesirable the dark also cloaks the world with uncertainty. Am I groping towards the door or a dead end? Is that sound the house settling or has an animal gotten in? Is that click the key of my spouse getting home late or a serial killer picking the lock?

Small wonder most of us fear the dark. And I don't mean night illumined by streetlights, houselights, high beams or even night lights; I mean total darkness. I was on a tour of a cave when the guide had us stop and then turned off all of the lights in the cave. You could see nothing; not your hand, not your neighbor, not the chasm you realized was just beyond the footpath. There was a chorus of gasps as we were plunged into the inky blackness that reigns beneath the earth. They pulled the same trick when I was on a ghost tour of Edinburgh. We were below the city in a space that poor people in the past crawled into to escape the plague. And they doused the lights. And my hair stood on end.

A night illumined by the full moon is beautiful. A night without a moon is ominous. Darkness is only tolerable when there is some light. Which is why, as soon as they invented LEDs, they started putting them on every electronic device and even on Swiss Army knives. Now you need never be caught in total darkness. Except that night when I was in the jail and the lights failed. I can't take anything electronic down into the jail. So even though I know that the jail is not nearly as scary a place as they paint it in movies and TV, I was still a bit creeped out as I waited for what seemed like a minute but which was probably mere seconds before the generator kicked in and the lights came back on.
And then with a couple of relieved laughs, the inmate and I resumed talking about God.

God's Word talks about light a lot. The word “light” appears more than 270 times in scripture. The Bible frequently uses light for imagery. Light is the first thing created. And as soon as light came to be, God set about sorting out the chaos that thrived in the darkness.

Light is a common symbol of goodness while darkness usually symbolizes evil. Job speaks of “those who rebel against the light” and stray from its paths. (Job 24:13) Jesus says, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (John 3:20) On the other hand, Jesus says to us, “You are the light of the world...let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14 a, 16) Paul says, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:12)

Our light does not originate in ourselves. It comes from God, a gift from his grace. Psalm 97 says, “Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” (Psalm 97:11) Job recalls “when his lamp shone upon my head, and by his light I walked through darkness.” (Job 29:3) And because light enables us to see things as they are, light is used as a symbol for truth. Darkness hides and disguises things; light exposes everything so we can see it clearly.

Light is seen as life. We know now that light is physically important to life. Sunlight is important in helping our bodies make vitamin D and morning light has been shown to literally lighten our moods. In contrast, death is often pictured as darkness. Psalm 49 says that when those who think their wealth can redeem them die, “they will never see light again. A man with valuable possessions but without understanding is like the animals that perish.” (Psalm 49:20) Job 33 says that being brought back from the grave is to “see the light of life.” (Job 33:20)

And of course, light is used as a metaphor for God. Isaiah says, “...the Lord will be your everlasting light.” (Isaiah 60:20) 1 John 1:5 says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” Psalm 104 pictures God as covering himself with “light as with a garment.” And Paul describes God as one who “dwells in unapproachable light.” (1 Timothy 6:16)

The light imagery is also applied to Jesus, God's son, the Messiah. Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) John 1:9 says that Christ is “the true light which enlightens every person who comes into the world.” Jesus himself says he is “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and says, “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)

Nearly 2000 years ago, a bunch of women, who probably hadn't slept very well, got up well before dawn, got their things together and set out through the pre-dawn darkness. They lugged spices and a jar of olive oil through the silent streets of Jerusalem. They walked out through the city gates, passed the place where Jesus bled and died and wove their ways through the graves till they got to the tomb. And in the first light of dawn, they saw the stone door had been rolled away. And they saw a being of light, a messenger from God, perhaps one of those who announced his birth, who now told them that Jesus was alive again. And they ran like rabbits, fueled by fear and giddy with the slowly awakening hope that perhaps, just perhaps, the blazing angel spoke the truth.

The light of this truth was slow to dawn on the disciples. Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Lord. Next, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, the earliest account of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve, and then to 500 Christians, most of whom were still alive as of that writing. And then Jesus appeared to James, his brother, and then to all the disciples. He ate with them and shed light upon how the scriptures spoke about him.

Lastly, as Saul went to Damascus to arrest the Christians there, Jesus appeared to him in a vision so dazzling that Saul went blind even as he saw the light. A follower of Jesus laid hands on the former enemy of Christ and he received his physical sight back. And Saul, which means “asked of God,” became Paul, which means “little,” the self-proclaimed last and least of the apostles, who most fully understood the grace of God in Christ.

The formerly blinded Paul wrote in Ephesians, “For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” (Ephesians 5:8, 9) He reminds them of how light exposes everything. “Therefore it says, 'Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'” (Ephesians 5:14)

Light in all these instances is a metaphor, a word-picture to help us understand a God who cannot be completely comprehended. But it is a particularly powerful metaphor, one which illuminates certain key aspects of God. Let's look at a few.

If God is somehow light, it means that what is secret or hidden or done furtively does not sit well with him. Light exposes the things that like the darkness. When you flick on the lights, the cockroaches don't come out to greet you. They scurry for the shadows. And nothing godly hides from the light. Crooks don't publish their balance sheets and honest men don't have secret affairs. If we are children of the light, we need to live in the light.

Light is not private either. You can't hide light. You can try but it escapes through every crack and opening. Jesus spoke of the stupidity of putting a lamp under a bushel. Light is meant to be shared. So let us not try to hide the gospel. In this dark world, we need the light of God's glad tidings. It's not ours to hog. Put it on the lamp stand; build it on a hill so all can see the light and benefit by it.

Light is tough on the impermanent. Light can fade, yellow, and make brittle those things which are not meant to last. If you have any of those resin chairs out on your patio, you know what I mean. If something in your life does not stand up to the light of day, don't try to build on it. If it fades each time you revisit it, don't base your life on it. Stick with stuff that loves the light and flourishes in it.

Light also brings out the true colors in things. Ever had an item of clothing which could be either dark grey or black under your house lighting and you had to take it out into the sunlight to see what it really was? There are people and schemes who use the darkness to hide what they really are. Only in the light of day, do you see their true colors. If things change their colors when in the spotlight, don't trust them.

Light invites scrutiny. Everything Jesus did and said has been laid out for us to see. It is remarkable how many skeptics have gone over the gospels with a magnifying glass and fine tooth comb and come away believers. C.S. Lewis was an atheist trained in logic by an atheist when he read the gospels in the original Greek. An expert on literary myths, he found them to not be “good enough" or well-crafted enough to be myths. They struck him as reporting. He became a Christian. Lee Strobel was an atheist, lawyer and journalist when his wife became a Christian. He decided to get to the bottom of these fairy tales called the gospels. The more he looked, the more reliable they turned out to be. He became a Christian. Albert Henry Ross was a professional writer who was skeptical about the resurrection of Jesus. The more he investigated it the more convinced he became that it was true. The research he put in his book Who Moved the Stone?, written under the pen name Frank Morrison, has been bringing people to Christ ever since.

The truth of Jesus' resurrection has held up not only under the examination of modern investigators but the first inquirers as well. Jesus' disciples were skeptical at first. They disbelieved the women. Even when they first saw Jesus they thought he was a ghost. They all started out doubting his resurrection; they ended up declaring it till their deaths.
Jesus' opponents should have had the trump card. They could have produced the body had he not been raised. They did resort to saying the disciples stole it, though they never explained how they would have gotten past the armed guards. Nor could they explain why the disciples were willing to be whipped, imprisoned and executed to protect such a profitless fraud. Why didn't the authorities press their advantage if the resurrection was a lie? Unless they were afraid it was true—that a man who could raise the dead could himself come back from the dead. They wouldn't want to highlight that possibility. Better to ignore it and hope it would fade away.

But Jesus' resurrection wasn't one of those things that faded in the light; it grew! 20 years later, Paul essentially writes that if people don't believe him about Jesus being raised from the dead, there were nearly 500 witnesses they could ask about it. Pretty bold claim—unless it was the truth.

That first Easter morning casts our lives in a different light. If Jesus was raised from the dead, how should we then live? If the darkness of death has been dispersed by the risen Son, what change does that make in the path we take?

A few weeks ago I referenced Hamlet's speech about how the fear of death makes “cowards of us all.” Fear makes us cautious and conservative in what we do. Take the fear of death off the table and what would we dare to do for Jesus? He said “Blessed are the peacemakers.” If we need not worry about being caught in the crossfire of people in conflict, how much more courageous can we be as peacemakers? Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” If we need not worry about grave injustices done to us, how much more bravely could we pursue justice for others? Jesus said that if anyone wants to go after him, they must disown themselves, take up their cross and follow him. If we know that the cross is not the end, how much more fearlessly could we turn the other cheek, walk the second mile and give to those who ask in his name? Jesus said to love one another as he has loved us. If his self-sacrifice led to resurrection, how much more heroically could we love even our enemies?

On Easter the sun rose and the Son rose and there dawned a new world, one where the rules changed. The biggest change was in the rule that seemed least able to be altered: that dead is dead. But Jesus showed that's not even true. The truth is that the God of the living is stronger than death. For the God who created the universe out of nothing, bringing life out of death is easy. If death can be reversed, if death is not permanent, but life can be, what else has changed? What in this dark world needs to be changed? In the light of God's love and power displayed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, what can possibly stop us who walk in his light? The night is over. Let the nightmare of death and disease and destruction be ended. 'Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'” Put on the armor of light and walk as children of the light, bearing the fruit of the light which is found in all that is good and right and true.

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