Sunday, November 27, 2016


Just this week I started riding a bike—well, a trike really—to the church on the days I have office hours. When I was in physical therapy the first 15 minutes of each session was spent peddling a stationary bike. I need exercise; the weather was lovely; and I live only about a mile from here. Thanks to Peggy for lending me the adult tricycle. The only problem was that the trike had no light. So I had my son drive me to the bike shop on the island so I could pick one up. Also, I got a helmet and I got a rear view mirror that clips to my glasses. The main reason for all of those things is protection. The mirror helps me keep track of cars coming up behind me; the helmet protects me from brain damage; the light helps me see and be seen when I drive during the increasingly early twilight hours.

Everybody is, if not afraid of the dark, at least more cautious in it. Darkness hides stuff. It could be a serial killer or it could be something you might trip over. The latter concerns me more than the former. When you are driving darkness can obscure potholes or people or key deer in your path. You don't want to hit any of those. Of course, if you are a serial killer, or doing anything illegal or unethical or disreputable you might want the darkness to hide you and what you are doing. The reason we have lighted certain areas of cities or the outside of our houses and businesses is at least partially to flush out thieves and robbers and all manner of unwanted activity.

Light reveals things and by doing so, protects us from threats we otherwise might not know about. It can change the threat. Psychological experiments have shown that people do not cheat or steal when they think they might be observed. As Jesus said, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed.” (John 3:20) Small wonder then that light and darkness have taken on metaphorical meanings as stand-ins for good and evil.

In the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, the first thing God does is create light. And in the last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, God eliminates all darkness: “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 22:5) 

Light is associated with life. In the first chapter of John, Christ is called “the true light” and it says, “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:5) It is also a symbol of joy. Psalm 97:11 says, “Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” It also stands for wisdom and truth. Psalm 119:130 says, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” (By the way, notice the parallelism in the psalms, saying the same thing 2 ways. That will be important later.)

In 1 John 1:5 it says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” Since God is light and Jesus is “the light of the world,” (John 8:12) it follows that those who follow him are vessels of light. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” (Matt 5:14) Paul says, “For you are all children of light and children of the day.” (1 Thess 5:5) We are therefore to “walk in the light, as he is in light.” (1 Jn 1:7)

In our reading from Romans 13:11-14 Paul urges Christians “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” It's not the first time Paul uses the metaphor of spiritual armor and it won't be the last. Paul sees us involved in a spiritual battle. In Ephesians 6:12 he writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age...” Darkness in the Bible is a symbol of death, chaos and ignorance. If we are opposing darkness, our armor must be of light.

Here we come to an issue that we cannot ignore. Paul clearly means spiritual powers in this passage. Regardless of whether you believe there are evil spirits out there—and there are times where so many things go bad that there is a cascade of catastrophes and it is tempting to see a cosmic conspiracy behind it all—I think this can even apply this to things we see. There are powers and rulers in this physical world that promote and live in darkness and shun the light. I am not one who generally believes in massive conspiracies, because they are impossible to keep secret, but the powerful have often succeeded in shaping the world not so much to benefit others as to increase and preserve their wealth and influence. They don't advertise it and they don't like it pointed out.

For instance, in the "tough on crime" 1980s and 90s, when we started incarcerating more and more people, privately-run prisons became a popular solution to keeping costs down. The problem is that they turn out to be just as expensive as government-run prisons, but because they need to turn a profit, they cut back on how they feed prisoners, on the medical care they give inmates and on programs offered to help the incarcerated better themselves. Since 1994 the number of college programs open to prisoners across the country has gone from 350 to just 12. Prisons thus ensure that little or no actual rehabilitation takes place. And since in their contracts many private prisons penalize the states they are in should they drop below a certain occupancy level, they give state and local law enforcement an incentive to lock more people up. Add to that the fact that a lot of small communities use traffic and other fines as revenue streams to support local government, and those fines grow when not totally paid off, it is actually in the interest of both towns and private prisons that crime not go down. And indeed the explosion of our prison population has not made a dent in crime.

There are other industries and even governments who do not want light shed on their activities. That's why one of the first things dictators do is stifle the press. Hitler forced out of business newspapers that opposed him, sometimes by passing laws that said Jews could not own publishing companies and sometimes by just having his thugs break in and physically destroy the offices and printing presses. It happens today. Worldwide 40 journalists have been killed so far in 2016, a third not in combat or on a dangerous assignment but by murder. Since 1992, 56 journalists have been killed in Russia, 21 since Putin came to power in 2000, and nearly 2/3s were murdered. As Jesus said, “...people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19) That's one reason that the founders of our country put freedom of the press in the first amendment. Dictators hate the light of a free press.

Darkness can distort and disguise the truth as well. The internet has enabled us to have nearly instant access to the news. Reporting is no longer local but can spread globally. Unfortunately, so can badly reported or deliberately distorted news. And now there is fake news, things made up out of whole cloth. Some of the fake news is propaganda but some is simply done to make money. NPR recently tracked down the person behind a fake story about a fictitious FBI agent and his wife dying in an apparent murder/suicide after leaking emails in the recent scandal. The publisher said the story, which featured a fake town and fake people, got 1.6 million views and was done not to influence the election but simply to drive traffic to certain websites and their advertising. He has 25 domain names and makes $10,000 to $30,000 a month. And he will continue to do so as long as people do not check to see if reputable news sites back up or fact check the stories he makes up.

Like good journalists, our only weapon as Christians is the truth. We proclaim the good news of God in Christ calling all people to him for forgiveness, healing and restoration. Our job has gotten harder because of the cacaphony of competing voices essentially broadcasting any kinds of “news” you can imagine. Paul foresaw this. He wrote, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) Paul is recognizing something we now call confirmation bias. Scientists have learned that people tend to select out data that seems to agree with their deeply-held beliefs and ignore or explain away facts that contradict those beliefs. This bias is so strong that showing people stuff that disproves their beliefs just makes them more firmly committed to their worldview. We are more concerned with our justifying our personal opinions than in learning the truth.

What I find fascinating is how people who supposedly base their beliefs on the Bible will disregard scriptures that contradict their personal understanding of Christianity. You would think they would change their views to conform to the whole of scripture. Thus we have churchgoers who put their trust in political leaders despite the fact that the Psalmist says not to. (Ps 146:3-9) We have churchgoers who believe revenge is all right even though Jesus said to turn the other cheek and love your enemies. (Matt 5:39, 44) We have churchgoers who think it is ok to turn away the homeless, aliens and refugees though the Old Testament explicitly says to shelter the homeless (Isaiah 58:7; Leviticus 25:35-36) and Jesus, who, along with Mary and Joseph, was a refugee in Egypt, said that not welcoming the alien is tantamount to not welcoming him. (Matt 25:43) As Stephen Colbert, who teaches Sunday School, said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to.”

Light can be harsh. There's a reason why those in power are not really in favor of people telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That's in large part why they felt that Jesus had to die. That's why those who preach a santitized and comfortable version of the gospel become popular and those who preach the unvarnished and uncomfortable truth are not. In the same way, as a nurse I have found that people prefer not-very-good doctors with good bedside manners over quite good doctors with less than comfortable bedside manners. As Paul said, people would rather hear what they want to hear than listen to the truth. But the only way to get better is to get the real diagnosis and to follow a treatment plan that is honest if not the most pleasant.

This does not mean being mean. Paul says, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ...” (Ephesians 4:15) The purpose of knowing and acting on the truth is not to lord it over others or gloat over their flaws but to become more Christlike. Indeed in our passage from Romans just two verses after telling us to “put on the armor of light” we are told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” I think Paul is using the same kind of parallelism we see in the Psalms and other Hebrew poetry. The two phrases are two ways of saying the same thing. To put on the armor of light is to put on Jesus Christ.

And how are we to do that? When I was acting in school and community theatre, to become a character, I had to study what he said and did and then practice saying and doing those things. I would think about why he spoke and acted as he did. Once I realized that my character had to be in love with the female lead from the beginning of the play rather than out-of-nowhere at the end. It changed the whole play for the better. With the help of the director I had to learn to relate to the other characters. I hoped that eventually people would not see me, Chris Todd, pretending to be someone else but would instead come to see the character I inhabited in all that I said and did.

In a sense that is how we become more Christlike. We study and learn Jesus' words and deeds. We put them into practice. We look for his motivation in it all. With the help of his Spirit we learn how to act towards and in concert with others. If we immerse ourselves in Christ, we will begin to see others as Jesus sees them and they will see him in us. We will speak to others as he would and they will hear him in our words. We will reach out to help and heal and comfort others as he would and they will feel his love and power in our actions.

The way to fight the darkness is to light the darkness. Put on the armor of light. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Be the light of the world. 

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