A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:1-12
When I saw you last it was Epiphany, that special day in which we celebrate the coming of the Magi to find the Christ, led by the light of a remarkable star. Imagine my surprise, returning a month later to find that we are still stuck in Epiphany, if not the day, at least the season. Furthermore, it seems the season will go on for another 4 or 5 weeks. I guess there is no harm in holding onto Epiphany a little longer, continuing to mark a time when the light of God entered the world in a way that illuminated every corner. We can always use more light, can’t we?
The theme of light runs all through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. “God is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear” (Psalm 27:1)? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). “…they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9-10). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). Mystery of mysteries, God joins us, you and me, in human form, Jesus, the Light of the World.
Now I know it’s somewhat risky to focus on light at the beginning of black history month. Unfortunately, our recent history is blighted by the association of darkness as evil with those whose skin is darker. While we celebrate the brilliance of the light, we need to remind ourselves of the beauty of the dark. Some light is blinding and some dark is healing. There are times when the light which we are exploring this morning glows in and through the very heart of darkness. When John of the Cross speaks of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” he envisions experience beyond nights of trouble and anguish, something more than a crisis of faith, or those difficult times when one experiences the absence of God. The dark night can also include a kind of ultimate religious experience when one lets go of all that is familiar in world around and enters fully into the Sacred Presence, when one steps out on the high wire without benefit of a net. Paradoxically this step can be crucial to reaching for more light, for something deeper, more intense, more intimate and, therefore, fearful, than one has ever known before as one enters more fully into the powerful presence of the Holy One.
The interplay of light and darkness is at the core of our being. In searching for a theme for this year, the words that came to me were these: “More Light…More Love…More Life.” Oleta pointed out to me that these same words can be found on the masthead of the website of First Presbyterian Church. It may be that I subconsciously pilfered them. If I did, I apologize. However, neither the words nor their order are copyright so far as I know. If they’re good enough for the Presbyterians, they should be good enough for us.
Alex Spiridon asked me a while back what my goal or vision is for this congregation. He could list for me what he understood as the foci of the last several pastors and was wondering if I could identify mine. It was good question and a good exercise in which to engage. What keeps returning for me is the notion that I would like to assist us all in going deeper spiritually, to find ourselves, individually and collectively, moving closer to the heart of God in both our living and our witness. This is an important growing edge for me personally, which is part of why I am using my sabbatical to do a diploma in the art of spiritual direction. How may I assist you as pastor and how may we assist one another as companions on the way to find more light, more love, more life for ourselves and those we serve?
Though we won’t linger long here, there is spiritual direction in today’s text. We know the beatitudes. They are among the most beloved and challenging verses in scripture. Jesus looks out at the crowd that he’s collected on his journey through Galilee. He must have seen that some of them were excited, some were joyful, some were wondering, some were curious, some hopeful, some wandering, some lost, some hurting, some longing, some desperate. He sat down on that sun-drenched mountain side and said, “Let’s see if I can shed a little more light on the situation.” And he launched into a litany of ways that those who were following him might find themselves closer to living fully in the commonwealth of God.
Blessed, happy, fortunate, to be congratulated are those who are “poor in the sense of being oppressed and abused…downcast and depressed because of their situation”; they will find a place in the coming commonwealth of God. Those who are “disenfranchised, overcome with helplessness…because of their allegiance to God in a lost world” will find comfort in the Comforter. Those who are “gentle…who are totally dependent on God will in due course inherit the land.” Those “who long for what is truly right and long that right be done in general are reflecting God’s wishes and will.” “God will show mercy to those who have exhibited it themselves.” Only those with “personal holiness…can enter into the holy presence of God.” Peacemakers, reconcilers, “the people who establish shalom, well-being, wholeness for all concerned…shall be…sons and daughters of God.” Those who have suffered and “experienced the scars of persecution” belong to the commonwealth of God and it belongs to them. Those who suffer for “Jesus’ sake…have a good pedigree – they stand in a long line of the great biblical sufferers for God’s cause…” They will have a great reward in heaven (See Ben Witherington, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary: Matthew, pp. 121-123). Blessed, happy, fortunate, to be congratulated are these. Do any of these familiar words and images speak to you today, draw you into their sacred light?
Jesus is not trotting out an ethical laundry list here. He is not saying do all these things and you will be saved, or if you follow these instructions you will go straight to heaven. Rather, in wisdom and grace, he seeks to shine light on what it means to be a child of God, what it’s like to inhabit the commonwealth of God, what it’s like to sink into the Holy Presence as a way of life. More light than they could assimilate and, I imagine, the same could be said for us.
Still, as consider our future as children of God, individually and as a congregation, what light may we desire to shine on us? Take a moment to examine yourself as you relate to God and to our faith community. Where do you need, where do we need, more light? Excited, joyful, wondering, curious, hopeful, wandering, lost, hurting, longing, desperate – how do you look to the Light of World and ask for a little more – a little more grace, a little more wisdom, a little more understanding, a little more faith, a little more stamina, a little more commitment, a little more of that very Light?
I believe there are light-filled days ahead for us. Stepping out on that high wire, taking a risk in search of more light, may be uncomfortable, scary even, but if we want to explore more deeply, to look more fully, to listen more intently, to follow more faithfully, to live more gracefully, we must put our trust in God who goes with us all the way. In our living, in our dying, and in our renewal, more light, O God, more light. Amen.