You Are the Full Spectrum Light of the World
My dad says it was around 1979, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, our family bought our first microwave. I remember how amazing it was that in just 4-5 minutes we could cook a TV dinner and eat its steaming corn, green beans, tater tots, salisbury steak, and brownie; of course the brownie was the best part, all warm and gooey; you had to eat that first before it got cold and hardened, but our parents told us not to because that was dessert. We would eat regularly at the dinner table, but occasionally we would gather around the TV with our microwaved dinners and watch hysterical sitcoms like M*A*S*H, Taxi, and Three’s Company or re-runs of great shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family. Those were special nights.
In hindsight I feel like we were late adopters of the microwave, but in reality we bought our first microwave before they became common household appliances. The U.S. market purchased about 40,000 microwaves in 1970; by 1975 the number was 1,000,000; by 1986 about 25% of U.S. households had microwaves; by 1997 90% of households had a microwave. After researching the history, I now see we were fairly early adopters of microwaves. It’s truly amazing to reflect on this simple history and realize how far we have come with technology in just the last few decades.
Raytheon developed the first commercial microwave oven, the Radarange, in 1947. It wasn’t until that point in history that humans developed any meaningful control of microwave radiation. Of course the universe is awash in microwaves, the part of the electromagnetic radiation (or EMR) spectrum with wavelengths from about the size of a baseball to the size of a period on the printed page. Microwaves make up just one part of the full EMR spectrum, which includes radio wavelengths measured in meters to infinitesimal wavelengths much smaller than a single atom. The part of the EMR spectrum visible to humans is very small, just 700nm (nanometers) to 440nm. A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter, and a millimeter is about as wide as the lead in a wooden pencil. A human hair is 75,000nm wide. Comparing the scale of one nanometer to a hair is like comparing one inch to one mile. So, the wavelengths of visible light are very, very small.
Look at your bulletin cover this morning. Look at the colors there. That’s it. Those colors are all you get. Your entire visual experience of the world around you is made up of those colors, which are a teensy-weensy fraction of the vast EMR spectrum in the universe. How appropriate it is, then, that after God sent the flood to wash out the world in Noah’s day, God set the spectral rainbow in the sky, the full display of visible light. According to Genesis 9:17, “God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’” In the very beginning, “God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” In the Gospel of John, chapter eight, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” This morning in Matthew’s Gospel we heard the words of Jesus, “You are the light of the world … No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Jesus taught both: “I am the light of the world” and “You are the light of the world.” Jesus, what were you talking about? Can’t you get your story straight? Are you alone the light of the world? Am I as your follower the light of the world? Are we together, collectively, the light of the world? The answer is: yes. The divine light of the world is plural and singular, just as visible light is virtually a singular slice of the full spectrum. That’s the beauty and the mystery of the incarnation of God in Jesus, that God chose to confine his full glory to the tiny slice of his creation manifested in humanity. Just as white light contains all the visible colors, from red to violet, we bear all of the “colors” of humanity. And while Jesus as the human incarnation of God shares that capacity with us, bearing all of the colors of humanity, the difference with Jesus in his divinity is that he also bears the full spectrum of God’s glory.
There are two keys to understanding God’s Word this morning: first, in the “salt” and “light” metaphors the “you are” is plural in the original Greek, as are the subjects of all of the Beatitudes we heard. Jesus taught “crowds” of early disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, the beginning of which we heard this morning. Jesus taught “crowds” of disciples, much more than the famous Twelve, most of which had not even been called at this point in Matthew’s story; of the Twelve, only the fisher brothers of Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John had been called. Already at this early point of Jesus’s ministry we see him impacting many, many people. Our Sunday School conflation of the term “disciples” with the Twelve is very limiting. The Twelve are simply the most visible characters in the multitude of disciples that followed Jesus.
The second key to understanding Matthew this morning is understanding that the Beatitudes are not conditional; they do not instruct individuals, for example, to work to be “poor in spirit” so that an individual can inherit the kingdom of God or work to “mourn” so that an individual can be comforted. Rather, the Beatitudes identify diverse parts of the human spectrum of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus is identifying who his people are and, therefore, who they will become. Jesus is not teaching his disciples a laundry list of characteristics that you, the individual, should strive to have, as if following him was a self-improvement program. We do not strive to eat right and exercise so that we can all have the same body shape; we eat right and exercise because we desire to take care of our physical bodies because they are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Each element in nature has its own signature spectral lines of light emission and absorption. A complex chemical compound will have a complex signature of spectral lines. The Mars Rover Curiosity millions of miles from Earth can analyze chemical compounds through three spectrometers designed to record thousands of different wavelengths of infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. The Beatitudes are specific wavelengths, as it were, of human being, identifying the disciples of Jesus to the world and to each other. The diverse church of Jesus Christ’s disciples have distinct markings. I seriously doubt any one Christian embodies all of the Beatitudes, but together as a gloriously diverse body we bear all of the spectral lines of righteousness identified by Jesus in the Beatitudes.
The function of light is not to display the thing casting the light (you cannot look directly at the sun) but rather to illuminate everything else upon which light is cast. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Our purpose as lights of the world is not to glorify our particular signature, either as individuals or as a community, but to glorify the source of our light, the full, awesome spectrum of God in all of God’s eternal majesty, which is not contained solely within the expression of humanity. The incarnation of Jesus plugs us into the full spectrum. Jesus connects us to the vast continuum of light that is God.
Let us recognize in each other and in our Christian communities, near and far, local and global, the Beatitudes’ signatures identified by Jesus. Jesus names first the “poor in spirit,” and for good reason. This is, I contend, the universal mark of a Christian because to be a follower of Jesus you have to be self-denying on some level, that is you have to yield your spirit to Christ. You have to give up the “riches” of ego, self-promotion, and building up earthly treasures for yourself and your own. Surely, the “poor in spirit” inherit the “kingdom of heaven.”
As a collective human species, we expend much effort and resources to scientifically analyze and appreciate our planet and other planets and, indeed, the far reaches of the cosmos through spectrometers. Let us come with similar focus and fervor to learn about and appreciate ourselves as the people of God through the Beatitudes. Let us not cynically judge ourselves and others according to the human lines of identification too frequently used to perpetuate in-group and out-group think, stratified lines of politics, gender, class, race, employment status, and religious affiliation. We need not strive to embody all of the Beatitudes, that is a tall order, but we should be moving on to perfection, as we Methodists say, in our Christian journey. Our Christian identities cannot be prepared with little effort, at the push of a button, as it were, as our food can be in a microwave. Over time, through living the Christian life, through regular praying, worshipping, giving, serving, and witnessing we naturally take on other Beatitude-shaped identities.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, and the rest of the Sermon teaches us how to be shaped into those Beatitude identities. One early rabbi wrote, “By three things the world is sustained: by the law, by the Temple Service, and by deeds of loving kindness.” These are the “Three Pillars of Judaism” and these “pillars” form the structure of The Sermon on the Mount, at the center of which is the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer recognizing where we’re at now and where we are going. In this Lenten season, let us examine ourselves and where we’re at now. And let us humbly recognize in our fellow sojourners the divine Beatitudes.
Are you mourning? You will be comforted.
Are you meek? You will inherit the New Earth.
Are you hungry and thirsty for righteousness? You will be filled.
Are you merciful? You will receive mercy.
Are you pure in heart? You will see God.
Are you peacemakers? God will call you part of her family.
Are you marginalized for the sake of righteousness and for Christ? Your reward will be great in the kingdom of heaven.
Rejoice and be glad, you are the light of the world!
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