This was a bottom line first. And a sermon that found it second.
I know, I know . . . that’s not the way it’s supposed to go.
Yet a couple of months ago, I was sitting in the back of the room at a meeting regarding the future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (pretty big deal, that), and my mind wandered into a mistake we ALMOST made at Good Shepherd (see paragraph #2 below).
And in pondering that near-miss, a sure-make came to me:
God NEVER shows up … but sometimes he shows off.
I remember being so excited that after the meeting I texted my best wordsmithing friend, who agreed it was both memorable and true. (And, by texting it, I ensured I wouldn’t forget it!)
Anyway, the bottom line fits right in with what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:14-16. And the sermon led into an interview with Stephen L. Smith, the executive director of Charlotte Family Housing, which then led into a ministry fair in our church lobby.
Because we want a church full of “lit” people God uses to show off.
Would you like to know a prayer I can’t stand to hear prayed? One that if I hear it prayed out loud, I just cringe? And if I hear one of our staffers pray it from the platform or in front of a group . . . well, it may not be their last day on the job, but it’s getting close? Here it is: “Lord, be with us.” Worse: “Lord, please be with us.” Worst: “Lord, please JUST be with us.” So why am I so opposed to that particular prayer and the job jeopardy that ensues? Well, to tell you THAT, I have to tell you about something else.
I have to tell you about a huge, ENORMOUS mistake we ALMOST made around here. See, when we were establishing and articulating our core values – which are really like the atmosphere in which we reside – we came within a razor’s edge of calling one of them this: (AV) WE EXPECT THE HOLY SPIRIT TO SHOW UP. Bam! Sounds good, sounds bold, sounds like we’re announcing to God, “Hey, WE’RE here so if you know what’s good for you, you’ll make an appearance, Mr. Holy Spirit!” Except that almost-core-value – WE EXPECT THE HS TO SHOW UP – is every bit as bad as that prayer that I hate – “be with us.” Why? Because God doesn’t SHOW UP! He’s already here. He was here before we got here and I suspect he’ll hang around long after we’re all gone. And we are therefore wasting valuable prayer breath asking him to do something he by definition is already doing! It’s like praying, “Lord, please make the sun come up.” Or “Father, please help gravity work today.” Or “Lord, YOU be real good today and don’t sin.” Absurd! And so is the notion that he is somewhere else and then in response to our prayer he SHOWS UP so that he’s with us. Nope. There all along. He never shows up.
Well, now that we got THAT out of the way, can we look at something Jesus actually SAID as opposed to something he DOESN’T do? And to do that, we’re in Matthew 5, in a place called the Sermon On The Mount which for lake of a better word is Jesus’ debut. His first major public address. For all we know, it is his stump speech! And in the way Matthew tells his story of Jesus’ life, everything of significance in the rest of the story – and the rest of our lives – flows from what Jesus says here. So look at 5:14a:
You are the light of the world.
OK, if you were here with us last week, you have every right to be confused. Because last week we drilled down into a verse where Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” And now he says, “you are the light of the world.” So we’re like, “Which is it, Jesus? You or us?” And I think his answer to that is . . . YES!
Because look at 5:14b:
A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
That’s sort of a statement of identity and definition. An elevated city CANNOT be hidden; it must be visible. It can’t avoid being seen; no camouflage will ever work. That’s what that kind of city is and it can’t be redefined. Then in 5:15, Jesus goes on:
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
Huh. In ancient culture, remember, there was no electricity. So lamps were in these bowls and in that time when light was so hard to come by, you’d NEVER go to the trouble of lighting a lamp and then concealing it. No way, no point! You put it up high on a stand where it could do the most possible good; where it would not only light your way, but it would show what that lighted way looked like.
And then Jesus’ grand summary here in 5:16:
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
So here’s the light at the beginning of the tunnel and this time it’s not so much the light given to you to guide you; it is instead the light that is invested in you, poured into you that is then reflected or refracted out into the world. That’s why Jesus’ people can be the light of the world at the same time Jesus is the light of the world: because they may reveal the light, but they didn’t cause it. They just reflect it. Just like the moon! Hello! Ever seen it? Well, it don’t generate no light of its own; his entire luminosity (?) is because it’s reflecting the light of the bigger, better, hotter light. Same w/ Jesus’ people.
But look at the why of all that in 5:16 again: READ. Here’s the thing, here’s the reason God takes pleasure in using his people – their deeds & words – to communicate who he is. Notice what it says: “see your good deeds and think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread,” right? “See your deeds and put you on the preacher conference circuit,” right? Nope. See deeds and glorify God, which is a way of saying make God more famous and better loved. See, what God loves to do, in order to expand his fame and extend his reputation, is to pour his character and his goodness and his love into people and into groups of people (like GS!) and then put them on display. So folks who don’t know him yet can’t help but be curious. Because here’s where we’re landing today, and it has EVERYTHING to do with where we started: God NEVER shows up. But sometimes he shows off.
Yes! He massages his character and his love into people and then puts them on display so the name and fame of God advances. That’s what it means for Jesus to say “you are the light of the world.” God is looking for individuals and groups that he can make radiant, then put them up on a lampstand and say to a world full of confusion, “this is what I’m really like.” Guess what that means? He wants “lit” people! He wants us to be a “lit” church? (Not THAT kind of lit, folks!) But think of it! You – those of you here who have a living relationship with Jesus Christ – you are God’s chosen vehicle through whom he points light back to himself. You can be the kind of person who by words and deeds, by action and by example, can make us all say to God, “there you go again, SHOW OFF.”
God NEVER shows up. But sometimes he shows off.
I love how this series and its theme ties together so much that is in Scripture. In Genesis 1, God’s first spoken words are Let there be light! Here in Matthew 5, among Jesus’ first words, he says, “Let there be disciples!” And it’s the same thing! Same purpose!
You know what that means? No one else is. Just as Jesus is the ONLY light of the world, his blood bought, Spirit filled people are the ONLY ones punching holes in the darkness in a way that points back to him. It’s so funny. Remember Katrina? 2005? (AV) Ugly, devastating, depressing. And some of you live here in CLT now because of what happened then. But in those next few years as volunteer groups came in to rebuild the city, to engage in the disgusting work of cleaning up flooded out houses, you know what groups were absent? Atheists of America, Free Thinkers Society, Agnostics United. Who was there? In droves. Southern Baptists. Samaritan’s Feet. Roman Catholic relief. The Vineyard. Calvary Chapel. And I think I even saw a few or a million United Methodists there. And you see that, you realize that, and you understand: there goes God again. Just being a show off. God NEVER shows up. But sometimes he shows off.
And the truly glorious thing about Jesus declaring his own people to be the moon-like reflectors of his bright sunshine is that you are not here by accident. You are not random. Regardless of your history, in spite of your flaws, no matter your weaknesses, you are on purpose. Here by design. In fact, in the way God works, he usually chooses the most heavily flawed to be the most vividly displayed. Moses? Murderer. David? Adulterer. Abraham? Wife-passer-offer. Peter? Hot tempered. Paul? Insecure. Jesus? Well, there are exceptions to every rule! But for all those folks who are NOT the incarnation of God himself, it seems like the Father delights in taking us from valleys of darkness and redeeming us with light so he can put us on display. For those of you in recovery . . . this is what your sponsor is! They got sobered up and now they’re being used to sober you up! Living, breathing, 12th step!
In all this, that 5:16 means everything. Glorify your Father in heaven and not glorify yourself on earth. What I am so not talking about is a “look at me” spirituality. The funniest thing happened this year on Ash Wednesday, something we don’t make a big deal of here, but many churches & Xns do. Anyway, I noticed this year that all over social media that day people were posting selfies of their ashes. Ash Wednesday Selfies. Think about it. Ash Wed is about humility, reminding us that we came from dirt and to dirt we’ll return and what do we do? LOOK AT ME! I AM THE HUMBLEST MAN ALIVE! God help us! Where does our light point? To your Father in heaven. See, God is good, his motives are pure, and his glory, his fame is something that is worth advancing. It’s actually a foretaste of eternity. God NEVER shows up. But sometimes he shows off.
(Followed with an interview with Stephen L. Smith of Charlotte Family Housing and then a Ministry Fair in our church lobby through which the people of Good Shepherd could be the “light” with four partner agencies serving the greater Charlotte area.)