Premature Exclamation

by Jason Micheli

Length: 26:00

Matthew 5.14  (click to see Scripture text)

August 14, 2022

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I’ve ad libbed words like it for more years than I can recall. A couple of weeks ago, with water and the Spirit, Peter and I drown little Bailey Arrington in the promises of Christ, washing away her sin and clothing her in Christ’s perfect righteousness. And then, having anointed her with oil, I held Bailey in my arms, lit the baptismal candle, lifted it up before her and said words I always say. 

I told Bailey that there is a story in the Gospels where Jesus is on top of a mountain surrounded by a motley crowd of people every bit as unimpressive as the people who gather here in his name. Jesus looks at this ragtag group of losers, I told Bailey, and, despite all appearances to the contrary, he announces to them that they are the light of the world. 

Not— they may one day become the light of the world. 

Not— they will be the light of the world once they’ve been properly discipled and the Holy Spirit has descended upon them and the Risen Christ has dispatched them to the ends of the earth.   

Not— they ought to be or they should be the light of the world.

It’s not command; it’s promise. 

It’s not an imperative; it’s an indicative. 

You are the light of the world. 

Neither is it exclusive. 

It’s not some of you— the ones who truly believe, who go the extra mile and follow the law to the letter— are the light of the world. 

It’s all-inclusive: you all are the light of the world. Already, you are the light of the world. Right now. Having done nothing, contributed nothing, earned not a thing. Right now, already, at this very moment these sinners, Jesus inexplicably announces, are the light of the world. 

And, by implication, you are too. Even if this is your first time here and you possess not one iota of faith, even if you’re only here for the wrong reasons— and, for the record, Pam Jones’s hugs are not a wrong reason, even if you too have classified nuclear secrets in your mudroom closet, you are the light of the world. 

Matthew reports that most of the crowd gathered there on on the Mount of Beatitudes are there only to witness this Jesus of Nazareth work mighty deeds and miracles; nevertheless, Christ calls them too the light of the world. 

After the Sunday service, out in the atrium, one of you ambled up to me, looking as skeptical as the last laborers to show up for work in the vineyard. 

“How in the world can he call them the light of the world?” 

I was about to answer, but then he shifted tenses, “How in the hell can he call me the light of the world?” 

I learned long ago that if I practice what’s called a ministry of presence and don’t answer your questions too quickly, then you’ll impute to me a wisdom my wife knows I lack in spades. So I didn’t say anything. And he repeated it, softer, not wanting anyone to hear but this time he marked the emphasis on the me, “How in the hell can he call me the light of the world?” Then he leaned towards me and almost whispered it to me, “My wife doesn’t even know I lost my job…” His voice trailed off for a moment. “…because of the drinking.” 

I almost responded but then shut my mouth, chastising myself for forgetting that no one who comes to worship Jesus Christ does so for no reason. 

“Most days,” he said, “I drive from Harris Teeter to the ABC store, and then I find a parking lot and sit in the darkness of my SUV and drink until I’m drowsy and as good as dead to the world. How in the hell am I the light of the world?” 

There in the Galilee the light of a lamp can cover the distance from Tiberius all the way to Capernaum, but even that is too modest an analogy for Jesus. 

You are the light of the whole world. 

And notice— it’s not a possession. 

It’s your person. 

It’s you. 

Despite how Martin Luther interprets this text, it’s not you point to the light of the world. It’s not you proclaim the light of the world. It’s not even you bear witness to the light of the world. It’s not something given to you, learned or earned. You just are it. 

Jesus reckons you, your very being, as no different than him. 

The light of the world. 

How?

“Light of the world?!” 

Even if that motley crowd of unimpressive losers and hangers-on barely know their scriptures, they’ve got to know “light of the world” is no anodyne, throwaway line. In the Book of Daniel, the light of the world is the wisdom of God. This gaggle on the mountain ain’t that. According to the prophet Isaiah, the light of the world is synonymous with the justice and salvation of Yahweh. Peter and Andrew still smell like their fishing nets they’ve followed Jesus for so brief a time. You think they somehow measure up to be mistaken for the justice and salvation of God? John in his first epistle says that Jesus is the light [of the world] in whom there is no darkness at all, and in his Gospel, John declares that Christ’s life is the light [of the world], light no darkness can overcome. Later in the Gospel, “light of the world” is the ascription Christ applies to himself, “I AM the light of the world.” Just a few beats later, Jesus adds, “If you know me, you know the Father as well.” 

It’s like a philosopher’s syllogism:

I am the light of the world. 

You are the light of the world. 

The Father and I are one. 

The Father and you…

You are the light of the world. 

Not only does Christ claim God’s identity as his own, he applies his own self-designation to you. To be light to the world is to be as God to the world, holy and righteous and good. I know I’ve only been here four years, but is that you? 

Holy and righteous and good— is that you?

He who speaks directly and audaciously of himself as the light of the world, says just as clearly and even more ludicrously, “You are the light of the world.”

“How in the world can he call them the light of the world…How in the hell can he call me the light of the world?” 

It’s a good question. 

For as many baptisms as I’ve done, for as many times as I’ve recalled those words of Jesus, I’d never stopped to consider that Jesus should not be allowed to say what he says here at the start of his Sermon on the Mount. After all, Christ has only just emerged from his trial in the wilderness. He’s only just begun his ministry. Those gathered on the mountaintop to hear him do not even know who he is much less have faith in him. Peter won’t stumble upon Christ’s true identity for another eleven chapters, and here in Matthew 5, he has yet to call all twelve of his apostles. 

How on earth can he call them the light of the world?

They’ve not been trained to be the light of the world. For that matter, other than describing those who constitute the blessed in the Kingdom and comparing the community to salt, Christ has not yet taught them anything at all. They’re no different now than they were before they followed him up the mountain. Not a one of them has confessed trust in him. Not one of them has pledged allegiance to him as Lord and Savior. Not a single person has done any repenting whatsoever or committed themselves to his Kingdom way. 

This should be a problem, right?

Every one of them is a sinner. 

Every one of them has fallen short of the glory of God. 

Not a one of them is righteous— no, not one. 

Nevertheless!

“You are the light of the world.”

They should all be dead in their trespasses and sins not reckoned as though they were the light which gives light to everyone. 

Jesus tells Nicodemus that the “true light has come into the world but the people preferred the darkness over the light because their deeds were evil.” Of course he’s talking about them. He’s talking about the very same people gathered before him on the mountain. They too are the people who prefer the darkness over him who is the light. 

Nevertheless!

Christ imputes to them what he is alone. 

How on earth can he call them the light of the world? Matthew’s Gospel has only just begun. Matthew himself isn’t even yet a disciple. How can any of them— even the best one among them— already be counted as though they were Christ himself? 

This is a premature exclamation. 

Maybe it’s risks stating the obvious, but Christ has not yet died for them. How can they already be counted as Christ when they are not yet on the empty grave side of the cross? Jesus has not yet carried their sins in his body upon the tree. Jesus has not yet offered himself, once for all, as a single oblation for iniquity. 

The Great High Priest has not sat down. 

It is not finished.

The Lamb of God has yet to take away the sins of the world. 

Not only has Christ not yet suffered for them the penalty owed for their failures to live according to God’s Law, Christ has not yet lived a life of perfect obedience under the Law. Jesus has not yet earned his permanent, perfect record; therefore, he possesses no credit that can be reckoned to them already. 

Light the world?!

They are the ungodly for whom Christ has not yet died. 

Not only can they not stand before the world as God, they cannot even stand before a holy God. 

So how?

How in the world can they be light to the world?

Almost a decade ago, I was part of a team that planted a new church in Kingstown. By God’s grace and good humor, it’s still active and doing ministry in the community. New church starts attract all sorts of people from different religious backgrounds and with every type of spiritual baggage. One Sunday morning in the cafetorium at Island Creek Elementary School, I baptized two baby boys, twins named Tyler and Parker. 

After the worship service, a visitor about my age charged up to me as I stood in front of the stage next to the vending machines. He almost looked like a private school student with his navy polo tucked tightly into his khaki pants. He was holding a thick, heavy Bible in one of those zippered, leather carrying cases with a handle. 

“You must not be a United Methodist,” I said, pointing at the Bible. 

He just blinked at me vacantly. 

“Most Methodists don’t bring one to church. We give them one in the third grade and that’s as close as they ever get to it again.” 

He didn’t laugh. 

“Of course I brought my Bible,” he said, “I don’t want to ever be without the word.” 

Oh boy, bless your heart, I thought. 

“I have a question,” he said, “Or, I need clarification.”

“Sure,” I replied, “How can I help?”

“What you did with those two kids— that was just a dedication, right? That’s what it’s called in other churches I’ve been a part of.” 

“No,” I said, “That was no dedication. Dedication is what they do with Simba in the Lion King. Tyler and and Parker were baptized.” 

“But…” he started to say before I cut in. 

“And what’s more, we didn’t do it. God baptized Tyler and Parker. We were just witnesses and accomplices. God did it.” 

And then, because I knew it would throw him for a loop and because we all know I’m a word even I can’t say in church, I said to him, “Baptism is how God applies his predestination to us.” 

He frowned and shook his head. 

“There’s no better illustration,” I said, chuckling, “of God’s unmerited grace and one way love than when it’s given to someone who is drooling and wearing a dirty diaper.” 

“But I was sitting in the front,” he said, “I could see. One of them— Tyler or Parker— wasn’t even awake. How can they be baptized before they even know the Lord or give their lives to Christ? They have no faith. They haven’t even obeyed a single commandment. How can they be baptized?! That’s like saying God has made a decision for them before their walk ever even begins.” 

“Like?” I said, “Not like. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Baptism is the outward and visible sign that before you were— before the world was— God made a decision for you.”

He walked off, shaking his head, before I could confess to him that I’d stolen that line from Athanasius, the ancient church father, who wrote, “The incarnation was prepared long before we ourselves or even the world was in being.” 

“How in the world can he call them the light of the world?!”

Connecting this verse from the Sermon on the Mount to the Prologue of John’s Gospel, Karl Barth calls the incarnation of Jesus the lumen electionis, the light of election. That is, by taking flesh in Jesus Christ God brings to light his own eternal, unchanging divine decision. When John’s Gospel announces to us that “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…” the Gospel is staking the claim that in the beginning— before the beginning of all things, before the word worded anything into existence— there was a choice. 

Would God be a God of justice?

Or would God be a God of mercy?

Would God be a God whose love requires reciprocity?

Or would God be a God of one way love?

Would God be a God whose grace was expensive? Or just costly?

Or would God be a God whose grace was rock bottom free?

In the beginning— before the Big Bang even— there was a choice. 

Would God be a Judge who demanded atonement for sin? 

Punishment for sinners? 

Or would God be a Judge who elects to be judged in our place?

Barth says we don’t understand the word “God” and we certainly don’t comprehend the title Father, Son, and Holy Spirt if we don’t realize the Trinity names this eternal, divine determination of God to be no other God than the God who is for us in Jesus Christ. 

God’s not angry with you!

Not now. Not ever. Nor will he ever be!

God’s election of humanity is a predestination, Barth says, not only of humans but of God. Barth goes on: 

“The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God…In the beginning, before time and space as we know them, before creation, before there was any reality distinct from God…God anticipated and determined within Himself that the goal and meaning of all His dealings with the as yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in the Son He would be gracious towards man…this choice was in the beginning.” 

In other words, when Christ enters the world, he does so with each of you already in him simply because from “before the foundation of the world” God had decided not to be God without you. From before every beginning, it was already true that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more and there is nothing you can do to make God love you less. 

You can’t carbon date the Gospel!

The good news is older than creation!

Christ can call the crowd on the mountain the light of the world. 

Even though  they’re sinners. 

Even though they know him not. 

He can call them the light of the world. 

He can count them as himself, as righteous. 

Because they have been justified. 

Already.  

Justification is a past-tense, historical, actuality. As St. Paul writes in Romans, nothing in the world can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The world has been justified. 

We are justified not by our good deeds, which makes justification merely a future potentiality. We are justified not by our decision to believe, which makes faith its own kind of deed and makes justification only a present possibility. We are justified not by human deeds or decisions. We are justified by the divine decision already present at creation, Barth says. 

Cross and Resurrection do not change God. 

Cross and Resurrection do not change how God regards a sinful humanity.

Cross and Resurrection only illuminate God’s eternal choice. 

To be the Judge judged in our place. 

So why not, Jesus? 

Go ahead and call them the light of the world.

A couple of weeks ago in my Sunday School class, out of the blue, a woman exclaimed to the group, “I know that when I die I won’t be with God. I’m not going to heaven. I’ve made peace with it. I’m resigned to it.” 

When I asked her why she thought this, how she was so sure, she replied, “I’ve not done very many good things. I’m not a very good Christian. And I don’t have all that much faith.”

Hearing her, I thought to myself, “ARGH! WHAT?! WHY?! HOW?! How have we managed to hide the Gospel from you? How have we kept you in the dark?”

You see— 

We can never assume that simply because someone has gotten themself here that they’ve gotten it. 

So hear the good news:

You are the light of the world. 

You are. 

Right now. 

No matter who you are or who you’ve failed to be. 

You are shining with the righteousness of Christ. 

Not because you decided to follow Jesus. 

Not because of anything you’ve done or abstained from doing. 

But because in Jesus Christ God decided not to be God without you. 

As Gerhard Forde writes, 

“God has made a decision about you:

“He hasn’t waited to find out how sincere you are, how devout or religious you might be, or how well you understand the Bible. He hasn’t even waited to find out if you are interested or willing to take this decision seriously. He has simply decided.

God made this decision knowing full well the kind of person you are. He knows you better than anyone else could — inside out, upside down, and backwards. He knows where you are strong and where you are weak, what you are most proud of and what you would most like to hide. Be that as it may, God’s decision is made. 

He comes straight out with it: “I am the Lord your God.” This is the decision: God has decided to be your God. For God wants to be as close to you as your next breath, to be the one who gives you confidence and value, to open a future to you in the freedom of the Word. God wants to be the one to whom you turn for whatever you need. He has said this before, many times. He first announced this decision about you when you were baptized. “You,” God said, as the pastor spoke your name, “are baptized in my name. I am your God and I will never let you go.”He has said it since your Baptism, too, speaking on the lips of those who have loved you, whether they were part of your family, a teacher, or one of your pastors. In fact, God is saying it again in these very words: “You, the one who is hearing this, I am your God. How do you like that?”

You are the light of the world. 

Right now, no matter how much you prefer the darkness or how dim your life feels, you are shining with the righteousness of Christ. 

But don’t take my word for it. 

Come to the Table were Christ’s promise to you (“My body broken for you…”) is older than time. 

 

 

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.

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