I have a friend from seminary, named Mark Young. He is the pastor of First United Methodist in Phoenixville, PA. He posts his sermons on a blog like I do (But he usually gets his posted the day before, not after). This week, he described what he would be doing as a visual aid – actually putting a basket over a lamp.
Of course, there are some 21st century adjustments: he’s using a “KFC bucket”, since he couldn’t find an actual “bushel basket” (his church must be in a city, I bet you West Alabama still has a few bushel baskets floating around!); he is using a candle under a glass globe – much like the ones we have in the sanctuary at Christmas. It’s as close as he can get to a literal re-creation of Jesus’ original illustration.
I tried something like that on an Ash Wednesday once. Fire on the altar made some folks uncomfortable – I don’t know why. Everything was under control . . .
What do you think would happen if I joined Mark in the re-creation? Let’s say I was able to find a typical “bushel basket” and put it over an open flame, a candle, with or without a globe. What would happen? The basket would catch on fire. It may take a moment or two, but, soon enough, flame would erupt.
What’s the point? Mark says, “even if you, for some inexplicable reason, wanted to cover the lamp and throw the room into darkness, the result would be an even brighter flame than you had to begin with.”
The point of Mark’s experiment is the same as Jesus’ words. “You are the light of the world,” said Jesus. No one can cover that up! It’s useless to try! Oh, but some folks are going to try – and try hard!
Mark reminds us they’re going to try with words that attack us personally. The goal is to make us doubt the light that God has placed within us.
- “That’s stupid!”
- “Nobody with any sense would do that!”
- “You’re just not very good at ______.”
Sometimes, Mark says, the “lamp coverers” cover the lamp with fear:
- “I wouldn’t associate with people like that!”
- “You just never know what will happen to people anymore. One time, this friend of mine . . . “
- “You might try to help, but I sure wouldn’t give them cash. There’s no telling what they’ll do with it! They might even see it and think you’ve got more, so they’re just gonna knock you in the head and take it!”
Whatever attempts people make to cover up our light, it just can’t be done! Soon enough, there’ll be a bigger flame than the one they tried to put out!
No one was subjected to more “lamp covering” than Jesus. These words Matthew records were spoken early in Jesus’ ministry, before enemies started really trying to “put him out.” Later, the Chief Priests, Pharisees, and Romans would think that he had been “covered” for good. God had a different plan.
For the people to whom he spoke, the “bushel basket” that tried to squelch their light was the overbearing burden of the Law, as enforced by the Pharisees. Being righteous was impossible under such a burden. So, why try?
For us, the “bushel basket” might be the confidence-draining words of friends; it might be the fear we feel almost daily over events that are out of our control. In response to this attempt to cover our lamp, some of us just give up. We settle for shining only in places where we feel safe – like church or home (though we know those places aren’t always safe for everybody).
We might even content ourselves with “just waiting ‘til we get to heaven.” I think one of the greatest “cop outs” Christians exercise today. Many of us give up on this world, allow the powers and principalities to “put us out” because “when we all get to heaven . . . We’ll sing and shout the victory!”
Jesus’ words were about the “here and now.” Notice he speaks in the present tense – “you are the light of the world,” “you are the salt of the earth.” Christ does not call us to sit around and wait. This world isn’t just some cosmic “waiting room,” until God calls our name, “The Lord will see you now.”
The world is where the Kingdom of God comes to pass. Jesus’ ministry is “present tense!” He meant his words to be brought to fruition in the “here and now,” both 2000 years ago and today!
When folks “cover our lamps” with criticism or fear-mongering. These God-given lights won’t go out – they’ll only burn brighter!
I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this passage in The Message:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine!”
Now that I have put you there – so that everyone can see – shine!
These lights that burn aren’t ours – they come from God and belong to God. It’s God who lights the flame, and God who keeps it burning.
I’ll close with the words of my friend, Mark:
“All God’s gifts, whether given to an individual or placed for awhile in the hands of a community or even, perhaps, a nation are not given to exalt a person or even to make a nation great. They are given so that the giver – God, and God alone – will be glorified.”