Shine as a Light in the World to the Glory of God

200th Anniversary of St. Paul's Church, Alexandria, VA
December 16, 2008

The people in darkness have seen the light. 'ow you who live in Christ are light. Everything exposed by the light becomes light. 'You are the light of the world, so don't hide it under a bushel ' let it shine out and enlighten the world.

Light is the physical source of all life, not just our own, but all life we know about. The food we eat depends on the energy of the sun, 'the great light that God creates (Gen 1:3) at the beginning of all things. The miracle of photosynthesis takes light and turns its energy into a form we can use, either directly by eating plants, or indirectly by eating something else that eats those plants. Every system on this planet, and the systems beyond this planet, depends on light in some form. Even the heat at the core of this planet, that keeps the continents moving and their parts recycling, has its origins in the same fiery starlight. The energy forms we use so wastefully, like oil and gas and coal, are the result of preserved life forms from ages ago, themselves nourished from light. Even nuclear power has its origins in solar or stellar energy, some of which we see as light.

There is a reason why the creation story in Genesis resonates so deeply. It begins with light ' 'and God said, 'let there be light,' and there was light. Light is essential to our existence; it is the source of life. We yearn for light when we're stuck in the dark ' whether it's the dark of winter, or a cave, or the dark of depression, fear, anxiety, grief, and hopelessness. There's a reason why Jesus is called the light, why John Baptist comes to testify to the light, why the voice of God that first spoke light in creation, speaks the incarnate Word as the light of Jesus. When we walk in the light we can see the glory of God all around us.

Your history in this place, over 200 years, has seen profound changes in the way we understand light. Physicists were looking intently at the nature of light by the early 1800s, and soon showed that light had a particularly wave-like character, propagating from a source but appearing to bend very slightly around corners. A hundred years later, the first Nobel prize was awarded for work that showed the particle nature of X rays. The next couple of decades saw that general result expanded to other wavelengths, including visible light, and Einstein got the Nobel in 1922 for showing that light also has a particle nature. Later work said that you could treat light as either particle or wave, but not both at the same time. Thirty or so years ago, other physicists postulated a theory called Quantum Electro-Dynamics that bring the two natures of light together into one theory. There is a wonderful irony in calling it QED. Somehow, I doubt the discoveries are finished.

But this isn't a physics lesson. I want to draw the theological implications. If we say that God is Light, and the origin of light, and the radiating energy itself, we begin to sound pretty Trinitarian. If we say that Jesus shows us the light, it also begins to imply that no one image of God, or the Christian life, is ever adequate. It is only the whole fiery radiation that can begin to hint at the full reality of the divine. Light can be broken down into a rainbow spectrum ' but that's only the part we can see. No one color defines the whole, and there is more going on than our eyes or ears or other senses can appreciate. And at the very least, light has a dual nature, like the divine and human Jesus ' particles are individuals, and waves are relational ' both ways of describing holy reality, but neither is adequate to the whole; only as we wrestle with the both/and and the more than any simple answer, do we begin to explore what and who God might be. There's a warning as well, like that ancient wisdom that says no one can see God face to face and live. If we think of God as something like that nuclear fusion at the center of the sun, we begin to acknowledge the immense power that mere mortal flesh cannot endure. That energy to bring things together is essential to life, but we cannot approach too closely. It's certainly a corrective to the hubris that would say all we have to do is look more closely ' and a hint that the divine will always remain beyond our full and ultimate knowing, at least in this life.

We say that Jesus is light, that he is both human and divine, and that his presence enlightens the world. That light-spreading across all creation is what we call redemption, and Ephesians speaks to it ' everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. It's another way of saying that the redeeming light of Christ has impact on all of creation, and that nothing and no one is immune.

Which brings us back to the bushel basket. Nothing is immune to that light, as long as it is allowed to shine. What helps take the light out from under the basket? What motivated the individual Christ-bearers in this place 200 years ago to insist that light was meant to be shared and spread here in a new way? What has kept that light reaching out into the darkness? That bushel basket has been lifted off in stages in this place. The early insistence on teaching both white and black children to read in Sunday school was an early lifting. The basket came crashing down again when Virginia passed laws that said slave children could not be taught. It took years and years before visible light began to shine again in that quarter.

What is it about us that seems to prefer the dark? There are times when we think we've got it all figured out ' that light is just waves or Jesus is only divine, or only one kind of people are adequate images of the holy. Each of those filters is like a layer of basket fiber. Yet the surprising thing about light is that it covers such a wide spectrum. Another wavelength is going to penetrate our flimsy screen, however hard we try to hide in the dark, unseen ' like Adam and Eve in the garden, trying to hide from God, out for his evening stroll. You can't hide. The energy of radio waves, or X rays, or infrared is going to get through. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. There is no place, or soul condition, where we can escape the light of Christ.

As the Psalmist said long before other forms of light were thought of, 'Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me turn to night,' even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Ps 139:7,11-12).

If the light can penetrate even our best bushel baskets, then all that's needed is a little cooperation. Our light can shine into a world that sits in deep darkness if we are willing to let go of the false security of hanging on to that flimsy fiber. The main sort of fiber we're overly fond of is twined of fear. The angel's message is eternally significant ' 'fear not. The light is already streaming in and on and through us, so let go and let it out. Embrace the light ' the world is in dire need of it. Your very breath, and your ability to see and touch the wonders of creation, are reminders that God continues to bless. Your knowledge of the love of others and your love for them, are reminders that God continues to shine in you. So go on out there and shine on the world. Fear not.