Friends of the Seminary Day sermon

Matthew 5:14-16 * October 5, 2019 * Friends of the Seminary Day * Professor Pagels


In the name of the God who made light shine out of darkness and made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, dear friends:


There are certain things that happen when a pastor accepts a call to teach at the Seminary. In the days after you announce your decision, you receive cards and emails and text messages (some from people you haven’t heard from in a long time) wishing you God’s blessings on your new ministry. A few months later you pack up all your earthly belongings and your family makes the move (in my case it was less than an hour move) to Mequon. And we are grateful for everyone, president, professors, seminary staff, who helped make our transition a smooth one.


Once you get moved in and settled in, something else happens. You run into people you know, former church members, fellow pastors, and they all ask you variations of the same question: “So how is life on the hill?” I have been asked that more than a few times, and I have given a number of different answers. There is the short and sweet answer: “It’s good. Thanks for asking.” There is the trying-to-be-funny answer: “It would be great if it wasn’t for all the rowdy neighbors.”


But after taking a closer look at the verses before us from Matthew, I have come up with another answer. If someone would come up to me after this service and ask me: “How is life on the hill?,” my response would be: “Why don’t you tell me?” Because according to Jesus, every Christian is like a city on a hill. And in the sermon Jesus preached to the disciples who had gathered around him on a mount in Palestine, he shares the same encouragement with his disciples who have gathered on this hill in Mequon. This morning your Savior comes to you with this simple, yet powerful reminder…


You Are The Light Of The World


You are the light of the world. It’s not a question: will you be the light of the world? Or a command: Be the light of the world! Or a pious wish: I hope that one day you might become the light of the world. Jesus states it as a fact…that is followed by a couple of equally obvious facts.


The first is: “A town built on a hill cannot be hidden” (14b). If a city is situated on elevated ground, there will be no trees or other topological features to obscure it. And if that city is populated by people, those people will light candles and torches and lamps to illuminate it. If you are in the vicinity and look in the right direction, you will see it. Unless you are under a dense fog advisory, you won’t be able to miss it.


Next Jesus says: “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” (15). Lights give light. That’s what they are meant to do. That’s what we want them to do. To light a lamp and then cover it up right away, that doesn’t make any sense.


But the point Jesus is making with these two comparisons makes perfect sense. He isn’t talking about cities or lamps. He is talking about Christians. He is speaking to you. He says that you are the light of the world, and he wants you to do what comes naturally, to let your light shine!


That reminds me of a song, a song you have probably heard small children sing (or shout) in church. What they lack in perfect pitch, they make up for with their enthusiasm. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Those young voices are so excited, so filled with joy because Jesus loves them, so eager to tell other people about him.


So what happens? How and when does that youthful exuberance turn into adult ambivalence? It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens. As a parish pastor for twenty years I have seen it happen. And I am ashamed to admit how often it has happened in my own life. Instead of seizing the opportunities God has given me, instead of reaching out to the people God put in front of me, instead of letting my light shine, I covered it up.


Did my personal confession strike a nerve? Did those words hit a little too close to home? There is a part of every one of us (we call it our sinful nature), that is selfish and self-centered, that doesn’t want to have anything to do with the light, that is much more comfortable walking around in the dark. Darkness. That’s one way the Bible describes sin. Outer darkness. That’s one way the Bible describes the place we deserve to spend eternity because of our sins.


What we need to be delivered from the darkness is not a divine spark that comes from within. What we need to be liberated from our sins cannot be found in the instructions Jesus gave his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount. In the commonly accepted order of the four gospels Matthew comes before John, but when it comes to our salvation what Jesus said about himself must come before what he says about us. In John 8 Jesus declared: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (12).


Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross for the sins of the world. Jesus has rescued you from the dominion of darkness. Through Jesus you have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…and hope…and peace. And Jesus gives your life a new and noble purpose, to reflect his love, to follow his lead, to let your light shine.


It’s not difficult to come up with examples of what that looks like on a day like today. You are a friend of the seminary because the mission of this institution matches your personal mission as a Christian. You support the work of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary with your prayers and your gifts because you want what God wants. You want every person on this planet to be saved.


And today you will get to hear about the world-wide gospel ministry that is being carried out on your behalf. You will hear about students from different countries and different cultures who were on campus this past week as part of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI). You will hear about WELS world mission efforts in faraway places like Ethiopia and Vietnam. You will get to hear about one student’s unique vicar experience in a congregation that is reaching out to Spanish speakers in the suburbs of Washington DC.


It is my prayer that these stories will encourage you, but I hope they do more than that. I hope that you don’t see your role as supporting the work of pastors and students training to be pastors and nothing more. Jesus doesn’t want them to do all the work. Jesus doesn’t want them to have all the fun either. Jesus says to you and me and every Christian: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (16).


Did you catch the last part of that verse? When you witness to unbelievers the ultimate result is that some of those unbelievers might become believers, and some day you might find them standing next to you singing God’s praises in heaven. Jesus doesn’t get into specifics here. He leaves it up to us to fill in the details. So let’s do that. Let’s spend just a couple minutes imagining how God can work through you to do his soul-saving work.


You have just received some devastating news. Maybe it’s a lay-off notice or a cancer diagnosis. Maybe it’s the news that a loved one has died suddenly and unexpectedly. You feel the need to tell someone what happened, someone you know, someone you trust. It could be a close friend or a neighbor or a co-worker. The individual you choose to confide in will be different for everyone here, but I do want the person we all choose to have one thing in common. They are not a Christian.


At first she doesn’t say much because she doesn’t know what to say, but a couple days later she stops by to check in. This time the difference she sees in you forces her take a closer look at herself. She doesn’t understand how you can be holding up so well. You aren’t angry. You don’t complain. A normal person would be visibly upset, but you seem to be at peace. And she wants to know, she has to know: Why?


That question gives you the opportunity you had been patiently praying for. You tell her about God’s promises to never leave or forsake his children, to hear and answer your prayers, to make everything, even the most difficult things, work out for your good. You paraphrase Paul and explain that your present sufferings can’t compare with the glory that awaits you in heaven (Romans 8:18).


Your friend eventually leaves, but she comes back in a couple days. The conversations continue, and as they do they get deeper. She eventually accepts your invitation to church and enrolls in a Bible Information Class, and a few months later your smile is almost as big as hers on the day of her confirmation.


That’s one story. So what’s your story? Have you ever had an experience like that? Are you praying for an opportunity like that? You don’t know when it will happen. You don’t know where it will happen. But you have God’s promise that he will bless every good work you do in his name. You are the light of the world, so let your light shine! Let your light shine brightly wherever the Lord has placed you! Let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven! Amen.